The Non-academic Job Hunt: Questions TO Interviewers

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of your non-academic job interview! Well, except for that inevitable last question: “Do you have any questions for us?” After an intense period of answering tough questions from the interviewer, it’s your turn to drive the conversation, and for some of us, it’s the scariest part. It’s very important to ask questions, to show you are as interested in learning about the position and the company as they are in learning about you. Not asking questions cuts the conversation short and can be viewed negatively by the interviewer. But your first interview isn’t the time to ask about salary, benefits, dress code, etc. – these questions will be answered when an actual offer is discussed. Instead, you want to ask questions that continue to demonstrate your qualifications for, interest in, and commitment to the position, while providing you with crucial information about the job. So what kind of questions should you ask? Here are a few examples of general questions to get you started:

 

  • What do you enjoy most about working with this company? Initiating this conversation will connect you to the interviewer on a more personal level. The answer can also give you insight into company values, as well as an idea about how satisfied employees are with their jobs – if the interviewer struggles to come up with an answer, it could be a red flag about the working conditions.

 

  • Can you tell me about the team I will be working with? By asking this question, you are demonstrating your readiness to be a team player. The answer will tell you about the people you will work with on a daily basis and give you an idea about how individuals contribute to accomplishing team goals.

 

  • What constitutes success in this position and at this company? This question shows your desire to be successful in the job, and the answer can provide useful information about whether the position is a good fit for you, as well as how to succeed and get ahead in the company.

 

  • What skills and experiences would make an ideal candidate? The answer to this question will reveal exactly what the employer is looking for, and can give you the chance to affirm how your background meets those criteria or to discuss how you plan to gain or develop the desired skills.

 

  • What is one of the most important challenges currently facing your team, and would I be in a position to help resolve this problem? This question shows you are already thinking about how you can help the company. It also encourages the employer to envision you actually working in the position.

 

  • Do you offer continuing education or professional training? This question shows your interest in expanding your knowledge, developing skills beneficial to the job, and growing with the company. The answer may give you an idea as to how new employees are trained, and the value the company places on supporting the professional development of its employees.

 

  • What is the next step in this process? This is an essential last question. It shows you are interested in moving the process along. You may also gain insight into how many other candidates are being interviewed, and will get an idea about the timeline, giving you a chance to prepare for the next step.

 

If possible, it’s a good idea to talk to contacts that have interviewed for or currently hold similar positions to identify questions you can ask that are specific to the job for which you are interviewing. Also, be sure to thoroughly research the company, as it may stimulate relevant questions. Type out a list of your questions and have it easily accessible when the time comes. Having a physical document shows you have put thought and effort into preparing for your interview. It’s also beneficial to practice asking your questions out loud, to ensure you can readily and clearly ask them.

 

Don’t be afraid of the unavoidable last question! With a little preparation, you can confidently guide the end of the interview to provide useful information about the position, the people, and the company, while simultaneously shining a last bit of light on your stellar qualifications.

The Non-academic Job Hunt: Questions FROM Interviewers

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck

Congratulations! You’ve just been asked to interview for the non-academic job of your dreams! Now it’s time to prepare. But an interview outside of academia can be very different from graduate school, postdoc, and faculty position interviews, and after years spent at the bench, it can be difficult to think of your talents and goals outside of the academic box. For a successful interview, it is crucial to talk about your skills, experiences, qualifications, and goals as applicable to the non-academic environment in which you’ll be working. Preparation of answers to some common questions can help you proceed with confidence through the interview discussion. So what kind of questions can you expect? Here are some frequently asked interview questions, with tips for thinking about your answers:

 

  • Tell us about your scientific/research background. Be able to explain your research in a clear, concise manner at a level appropriate for the audience. Think about your “elevator speech” – if you only had one or two minutes to explain your research, what would you say? Your answer might be very different if you’re in the elevator with another research scientist versus an accountant, an English teacher, a mechanic, or your grandmother (not joking: I was asked how I would explain my postdoc research to my grandma). Someone from the Human Resources department will likely want a different answer than someone working in a position more directly related to science, so make sure you can give answers accessible to multiple audiences.

 

  • Why do you want to leave the bench/academia? For most, the answer to this question is obvious. The challenge is explaining your reasons in a diplomatic manner. “I hate bench research” or “I don’t want to be a PI” may be the simple answers, but what are the deeper reasons for wanting a different career? Perhaps you’re leaving the bench because you feel your strongest scientific talents, like writing or teaching, would be better utilized in a different environment. Maybe you don’t want to be a PI because you want a career that will allow you to spend more time at the bench than many PIs are able. Rather than focus only on what you don’t like about the bench or academia, explain how your strengths and passions are better fit for an alternative career and the position for which you are interviewing.

 

  • Why are you interested in [position]? It’s important to emphasize that you are not applying for this position simply because you can’t get a job in or are desperate to leave academia (even if that is the case). What aspects of this career do you think will be most fulfilling for you? How do your talents and background make this position a good fit for you, and vice versa?

 

  • What are your strengths/what can you bring to this company? The answer to this question may be more difficult for those applying for non-research positions. As graduate students and postdocs, we don’t often think about the skills we are developing other than the technical skills that make us successful at the bench. Reflect on the non-technical aspects of research at which you excel, and relevant experiences away from the bench. Are you a great writer or a stellar presenter? Have you mentored undergraduate and graduate students in the lab that have gone on to be successful in their own research? Did you design a new assay or come up with a novel approach to solve a difficult research question? Think of specific examples of experiences that demonstrate your expertise in qualities essential or beneficial to the position to which you are applying.

 

  • What are you weaknesses? The trick to answering this question is to be honest without being negative. A good suggestion is to frame the negative with a positive on either side. For example, perhaps you have trouble speaking up in large group meetings. You might say something like, “I’m a good listener, which allows me to synthesize the ideas and opinions put forth in a group discussion, but in taking into account everyone else’s comments attentively and in detail, I can forget to or have trouble speaking up and providing my own input. In most cases, however, I am able to find an appropriate time to provide my input to help move the project forward.” But again, be honest – we all have weaknesses, and the interviewers want to see that you can critically evaluate your own performance, so “I don’t have any weaknesses” isn’t an appropriate answer.

 

  • How do you handle multiple projects and deadlines? This question should be one of the easiest. As grad students and postdocs, we balance multiple projects all the time. As a grad student, how did you balance classes, studying, and time in the lab? How do you plan for multiple experiments in a day or week to efficiently utilize your time? How do you keep track of multiple research projects? With a bit of reflection, you should be able to come up with some specific examples that show off your time management skills.

 

  • After working as an individual/alone, how will you adapt to working on a team? Many people outside of research have the misconception that scientists work alone, isolated from others at the bench, mired in their own projects. It’s important to (kindly) dissolve this stereotype. Scientists collaborate within their labs, their departments, their institutions, and with outside institutions. We participate in lab meetings, seminars, and conferences to get feedback on our research and provide insight and ideas to others. Discuss with the interviewers your experiences working with other scientists and how these experiences have prepared you for working in a team-oriented environment.

 

  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years/what are your long-term career goals? Your answer to this question should show your enthusiasm for the position and suggest your commitment to growing and developing your career with the company. Why is this position a good next step for you? What skills are you hoping to develop and what experiences are you hoping to gain? You might express interest in taking on management responsibilities or getting involved in certain areas or projects. Show motivation and realistic ambition in this career path.

 

It’s beneficial to talk to other people who have recently applied or currently work in jobs similar to the position you are applying for to get an idea of potential questions specific to the position. Take some time to really reflect on your answers to come up with specific, concise, and sincere answers. Most importantly, practice answering these questions out loud, perhaps with people from a variety of backgrounds – a coworker, a scientist from a different field, someone who works in the career you are pursuing, your grandmother – to ensure you can quickly and efficiently verbalize your thoughts. With preparation and practice, you can ace your non-academic interview and get the job to put you on your way to a fulfilling career.

How to Choose a Postdoctoral Position (with no regrets)

 

By Knicole Colon, PhD

First of all, I understand that situations are different in different disciplines and that different people have different priorities, so it is possible that not everyone will be able to relate to my specific experiences.  That being said, I hope that some people will be able to learn from my mistakes!

 

My story begins in the Fall of 2011, when I began the process of applying to postdoctoral research positions in astronomy.  I knew I had pretty solid research experience and could count on good letters of recommendation, so I was feeling decently confident that I would be offered at least one postdoc research position.  I also figured I would try to apply for some tenure-track teaching positions at small liberal arts colleges, although I knew my teaching experience was not that strong.  So, over the course of about seven months I routinely checked a few websites where a majority of astronomy-related jobs are posted, and I ended up applying to 14 different positions.  These positions included 9 research positions, 4 teaching positions, and 1 research fellowship (that could be used anywhere in the United States).  This is where I made mistakes #1 and #2 – I only looked at a few websites for jobs, and as a result I only applied to 14 jobs.  I did not comprehensively search for jobs that would interest me, because I was not thinking outside the box.  It did not occur to me that it would be okay to stray from the “traditional path” of going from graduate school to a first postdoc position to a second postdoc position then (eventually) to a tenure-track faculty position.  Now, I have learned my lesson, and I will be sure to do a more extensive search for future positions (and I know there are lots of interesting non-academic jobs out there).  I should say that in my job search, I also limited myself to looking at jobs within the US.  I do not think of this as a mistake though, because I am very close to my family and friends and I know without a doubt I would not be happy living far from them.  In fact, in future job searches I plan to limit my search radius even further (to one specific region of the US), because I know specifically where I am happiest living.  And being happy is very important (more on that later).

 

Despite those mistakes, I ended up getting interviews for 4 research positions.  Not bad, right?  While that boosted my self-esteem, by February 2012 I ultimately ended up being offered just 1 of those positions.  I should have been happy, because one job was all I needed.  The problem was, I had applied to that specific job only because I was qualified, but it did not exactly fit my criteria of wanting to live somewhat close to my family.  Let me put it this way: I was going to be in a time zone that differed by six hours from where my family lived.  Still, since I am not opposed to adventures, I ended up accepting the job.  That was mistake #3.  In my gut I knew it was a big deal for me to move so far away from family and friends.  I also had some obligations during the span of that postdoc position that would require my physical presence (like being maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding), and I knew living so far away would make things very tricky.  But, it was the only job offer I had, so I took it.  Now I know I did not have to accept it.  I could have stayed in graduate school another semester and/or I could have asked my research adviser to hire me as a postdoc until I found a job better-suited for me.  Again, a lesson was learned.  Know that everything is negotiable, and if you are not entirely comfortable accepting a job (even if it is the only one you are offered), then do not feel you have to accept it.

 

Hidden within the previous mistakes I made was another big one.  Mistake #4 involved the two-body problem.  When I was applying for jobs in 2011, I was in what I thought was a serious relationship with someone.  When I learned what my job options were (i.e. that I had just one option), I chose to take the job also because I thought I would be able to force my relationship to progress.  I essentially believed that my significant other would move with me, and we would live happily ever after.  Reality set in when less than one month after I moved and started my new job (in September 2012), the relationship ended.  So, not only was I living far from family and friends (which I already knew would be difficult), but I was truly by myself since my significant other was not going to move with me as expected.  Needless to say, I was not in the best state of mind during the first few months of my first postdoc.  Lesson learned: actions speak louder than words.  Instead of trying to force our relationship to progress, I should have seen the signs that things were not going to happen the way I wanted them to.  When I look back on things, I can easily see that now.  If I did not have the expectation that my significant other would be moving with me, it’s probable that I would not have accepted a job so isolated from any family or friends.

 

Fast forward to February 2013, six months into my first postdoc: I was miserable.  Now, the job itself was fine, but I knew I would not be happy living where I was even for two more years (it was a three year position).  I just felt too isolated from everything.  Therefore, I started searching around for a new job.  I was hesitant to do this, because in my field it is nearly unheard of for someone to leave their first postdoc after just one year.  However, a job popped up that was perfect for me in terms of both my research interests and the location.  I decided I did not want to miss a good opportunity and I applied for the job, but I still felt really guilty for wanting to leave my first job so soon.  This was mistake #5.  I should not have felt so guilty that it almost deterred me from applying to another job.  We have to realize this is what happens in all kinds of jobs in the entire world – people come and go into different positions all the time.  Plus, I was unhappy enough in my position that I knew I was not working to my full ability, and that was not fair to my supervisor.

 

As it happened, I ended up being offered the job I felt guilty applying for. I also felt guilty accepting it, but in the end it was the best decision I ever made.  I began this second postdoc position in October 2013, and I can honestly say I am happier than I have been in years.  I feel like I am now able to work to my full potential because I am in a better state of mind.  I could go on and on about the benefits of this for everyone involved, from my current supervisor to my previous supervisor to even my family and friends, but the main point I want to make is that happiness should be considered when applying for jobs.  How happy will you be in a specific location, working at a specific university, working with a specific PI, working on a specific project?  If possible, do not think about what you should do, but rather what you want to do.  And with that, hopefully you will be able to make some choices that are good for you, with no regrets.

How NOT to Do Your Post Doc Job Search

 

 

by Neeley Remmers, PhD

Recently, I have been going through the phase in every scientific career where you transition from student to post-doctoral research associate. The route I took on this journey is definitely not one I would recommend to anyone. My career goal is to become a physician/scientist and attend medical school in a couple of years. In order to do so, I knew I still needed to complete a post-doctoral position and there would be about a 1-2 year delay between graduating with my PhD and starting medical school. I initially saw this as an opportunity to do a post-doc either over-seas or in a different part of the country that I have not yet lived.

Whoops! My Mistakes

  • Mistake #1: I will admit, the initial thought of actually moving over-seas alone scared me and is why I delayed looking for a host lab. Eventually, I researched fellowships I could apply for and began the process of locating a host lab. By the time I found one, I had exactly 3 weeks to complete my fellowship.
  • Mistake #2: I hadn’t considered the lag time between graduating and potentially starting my new position. It wasn’t until AFTER I defended and graduated in August that I learned I would not receive news about the fellowship until late January and even if I got it, I wouldn’t be moving over-seas until February or March giving me almost 6 months of lag time. My graduate advisor told me I could continue to work in his lab to finish up my work, but he could only pay me for 2 months and the rest of the time I would be a “volunteer.”

As you can imagine, it is nearly impossible to find a scientific job if you only guarantee the employer you would only be there for 6 months after which time you MIGHT leave for a different job. I decided to take my advisor’s offer and worked as a volunteer until my work was completed in December and then used the next 2 months to study for the MCAT. During those 6 months, I half-heartedly looked for alternative post-doctoral positions here in the States.

  • Mistake #3: At first, I limited myself to only looking at labs that did pancreatic cancer research on the West Coast. I quickly learned that by restricting yourself that much extremely limits your opportunities. I began to broaden my search and finally came across a couple of positions that could serve as good back-up plans in the event I didn’t get the fellowship. After a long, stressful 5 months of waiting, I finally found out that I did not receive the fellowship and accepted one of the other post-doctoral positions. Ironically, I ended up being in a lab affiliated with my graduate institution. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to move somewhere new, but as it turns out I managed to secure a much better position for myself in doing so than had I gone elsewhere. Somehow, I managed to convince my new boss that I am a valuable asset to his team and was able to negotiate a salary much higher than a first-time post-doc would normally receive.

Making Some Adjustments

I have been a part of my new lab for one month now, and am still trying to adjust to my new position and my new lab. Though I am technically at the same institution where I did my graduate research, I am actually at a facility about 1 mile down the road at the local VA hospital officially making me a federal employee. There were a few extra headaches at the beginning that go along with being a federal employee – going through 2 new employee physicals and orientations (one at each institution), mounds of paper work to get clearance into the building and very extensive background checks – but the atmosphere at the VA research facility is much more relaxed compared to that at my graduate institution, which is a nice reprieve after getting a bit burned out during my graduate career.

Aside from the slight change in scenery, there are a number of differences between my new and old labs that I am still trying to get accustomed to since, unfortunately, as a post-doc you don’t have the luxury of completing 6-8 week lab rotations prior to joining a new lab. My old lab was big; we had 16 persons in the lab that included a lab manager, a program coordinator, an administrative assistant, post-docs, and students. My new lab has a total of 4 people including myself with me as the lone post-doc, 2 techs and one surgical fellow. My previous lab was also very social, so much so that you sometimes had to leave entirely or work from home in order to get any computer work done. This most definitely is not the case with my new lab. Now, instead of needing some quiet time at the end of my work day, the first poor soul who says hello to me once I have left work is in for conversational storm with me talking their ear off for a solid 30 minutes before they can get a word in edge-wise…even if they are a complete stranger!

My old lab was predominantly a basic research lab with translational projects whereas my new lab is strictly a translational research lab that is not adequately set up for basic research. The project I was brought in to work on is meant to add a basic research component that will lead to more translational research. This new project is high-risk, high-reward, and my new PI told informed me early on that he (nor anyone else in the lab) will not be of much use in terms of troubleshooting since he has no experience with the techniques I will be utilizing and can really only discuss theory with me. Thus, I am staying in touch with all my contacts from my previous lab to create a support network to help brainstorm around potential road-blocks. Essentially, I’m learning now what it is like to set up your lab, be completely in charge of your project, and deal with administrative tasks such as budgeting and writing IACUC protocols. Though my PI understands that there is a high likely-hood this project will fail, there is still a lot of unsaid pressure to succeed as the lab’s ability to get funding to continue running largely depends on my success. This was daunting at first – and still is – but in the end I know I will gain valuable experience on what it is like to be an independent researcher.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda…

Is there anything I wish I would have done differently? Yes, and it all mainly revolves around how I went about handling the international fellowship. I would have started researching international fellowships a solid year or more BEFORE I was planning to graduate to give myself enough time to find a host-lab, write a comprehensive proposal, and create better timing to reduce the lag time between graduating and starting a post-doc to alleviate a lot of unnecessary stress. In the end, I think I will be happy with my new position. So far, he and I seem to work well together, and most importantly he is 100% supportive of my career goals to go to medical school. He has offered to help me get into med school in any way he can AND to keep me on as a paid employee while in med school if I attend our local institution. Even though I didn’t get to move to somewhere new and experience a new culture, I feel like it all worked out in the end and I’m where I’m supposed to be. I suppose I can always move somewhere new for my residency…

5 Tips to Kickstart Your Postdoc Job Search!

 

By Tara Burke

The last few years of your graduate career are both exciting and stressful. If you think you’d like to continue your biomedical training after graduation it’s never too soon to get a jump-start preparing for the next step in your career. As someone who recently went through this transition, I learned a lot about this lengthy process; a transition that can be a little daunting at times. A compounding factor of the postdoctoral job search is the lack of a defined roadmap. While there are numerous graduate school and job fairs, I have yet to come across a postdoc fair.  Below, I offer you 5 tips that will help you make the transition from graduate student to postdoctoral fellow. In my next two follow-up posts, I will provide more tips on the application and interview phases of your search. Together, these tips will help guide you towards your dream postdoc!

 

1) Construct a timeline 

It’s important to consider all the factors of your postdoc search and to assemble a realistic timeline. A general timeline for the entire postdoc job search is about 6 months (from sending the first application to your start date) but you need time before those last 6 months to prepare your materials and decide your direction. You may require less time if you’ve already been networking with a specific lab or if you don’t plan on moving to a new city or university. More than likely however, 6 months may be too conservative if you plan on moving long distance, are unsure about what research you want to explore during your postdoc, or have to coordinate your prospects and location with a significant other’s career. It is also important that you establish a timeline with your advisor. Some advisors may need you to stay in the lab for a bit after your defense to wrap up projects and manuscripts while others may not have the money or space for you to stay.

 

2) Review your current credentials

Your research interests, publications and recommendations will be the main focus of your CV when applying to postdocs. Assessing the quality and quantity of these items a few years before graduation gives you the time to strengthen them. For example, if you feel that you don’t have three strong names to list as a recommendation, now is the time to foster some additional relationships. The more your recommenders interact with you, the more personal your recommendation will be.  If you fear your publication list may be a little thin, you may want to talk to your advisor about helping with another project in the lab or writing a review.

 

3) Seek out career resources 

To prepare for the job application process, find and use all available resources provided to you by your lab, department and university. As career services for graduate students can vary widely depending on the university, you may have to do a little searching to find the right websites and/or offices that can aid you in a number of skills important for securing a position. Career counselors provide helpful services such as proofreading of cover letters and CVs, and help with the interview process (proper etiquette, mock interviews, phone interview guidelines etc.). Additionally, making regular appointments with a career counselor can make you accountable to deadlines you set for preparing your application materials. Don’t forget to seek out help from those around you. Your advisor, postdocs in your lab and fellow graduate students either have experience with this process or are about to go through it themselves.

 

4) Observe your lab environment

Working in close quarters with a spectrum of personalities can lead to a stressful and frustrating environment. As a graduate student you should take note of certain environmental stressors that you don’t want in your next lab. Do you thrive in a highly collaborative lab or would you rather work solely on your own project? You should also assess your relationship with your advisor. Do you enjoy being micro-managed or would you rather be completely autonomous? While most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes, it’s important to know where you fall. Knowing what you need in a mentor and lab environment will help you find a lab and advisor that will allow you to thrive.

 

5) Get out there!

Although it may be a little early for you to start sending out applications there are other things you can do to prepare for your next career step.  Start making a list of interesting papers you have read recently. This list will be a great start to your online search for potential postdoc labs. Attend more seminars outside your direct research interests. You may discover a lab doing really neat research that you may not come across while reading papers.  Volunteer to help host a speaker at your university. This will allow you to directly network with an investigator whose research you admire. Present posters or give short talks at your university. This will make you more comfortable speaking about your research and this skill will come in handy when you have to sell yourself during a postdoc interview.