I often encounter two types of graduate students and postdocs who are on the job market.
The first type is looking for the perfect job. Students in this category want their first job to meet all of their career requirements such as responsibilities, salary, location, growth opportunities, and company culture. Students in the second category only have one requirement for their next job: anything but a postdoc.
Unfortunately, both types of students are misguided and can make preventable career mistakes.
In reality, it is rare that graduate and postdocs in the first category will find a first job that meets all of their career criteria. Moreover, just because people in the second category are unhappy with their current position, does not mean that they should take any job.
If you are in the first or second category, you should spend the most time focusing on whether a potential position will:
• Diversify your skill set
• Expand your professional network
After graduate school and/or a postdoc, the hardest job to find will be your first. Employers often view PhDs with a healthy skepticism. While they recognize the innate abilities of PhDs to problem solve and think quantitatively, they often mistrust their ability to work in teams, communicate with non-scientists, meet deadlines, etc. However, once PhDs demonstrate themselves in the “real world,” they are significantly more competitive for future positions.
If you find yourself only looking for the perfect job, understand that by accepting and working in a job that allows you to develop new skills and meet new professionals, you will be in a better position to land your ideal job in the near future.
If you are in the second category and are just looking for any job, note that if you fail to develop new skills and build a new network in the first job that you accept, it may be just as difficult to transition away from this job, as it was from your current academic position.
In my first position away from the bench, I worked as the Director of Science Alliance at the New York Academy of Sciences, a progressive nonprofit scientific membership organization. During my time at the Academy, I enhanced my communication, project management, and strategic thinking skills. I also learned to negotiate contracts, manage difficult professional situations, and draft and manage my own budget. Finally, I expanded my professional network more within 16 months at the Academy, than during my seven years at the bench.
My time at the Academy coupled with my research experience, has prepared me for a variety of career opportunities that would not have been available to me when I first left my postdoc.
I understand that many postdocs and graduate students may not be in a position to wait for a job that meets these criteria. If your fellowship is ending or your lab cannot afford to pay you, you obviously need to find a job in the interim to pay the bills. Moreover, there are obvious reasons for declining jobs that will allow you diversify your skill set and expand your network. For instance, you probably should not take a position if you do not care for the work or future colleagues.
However, focusing on these two job criteria will remind you to think not only about how your first job will change your immediate professional situation, but also how a new job will influence your long term career trajectory.