As the economy continues to sputter along, sending out hundreds or even thousands of résumés has become the norm for job seekers. So, too, has the dismissive e-mail response from companies essentially saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Feeling frustrated, angry, and confused, many job seekers are no doubt wondering, “What am I doing wrong?”
Nathan, who asked that his last name not be used, has been asking himself this question for the past year and a half. Nathan earned a Ph.D. in chemistry in 2011 and has since applied for hundreds of industry jobs. “There’s no reply most of the time,” he says. “And if there is a reply, nine times out of 10 it’s a robotic e-mail saying, ‘Thank you for your submission; we’ll be in touch.’ The whole process is so discouraging.”
To help provide insight into what companies are looking for, C&EN assembled a diverse group of recruiters, hiring managers, and career consultants in the life sciences and the chemical enterprise to answer questions from job seekers.
We collected these questions by posting queries on LinkedIn, the ACS Network, blogs such as Chemjobber and ChemBark, and the bulletin-board-style website Chemistry Reddit. We edited the questions for brevity and threw in a few of our own.
Our team of experts includes Bruce Roth, vice president of discovery chemistry at Genentech; Kara Allen, a recruiter at forensics science company Aegis Sciences in Nashville; Meredith Dow, a senior partner with Proven, a San Diego-based scientific staffing firm; Mark Frishberg, an American Chemical Society career consultant who has served in a hiring capacity at both large and small companies; David Harwell, assistant director of career management and development at ACS; and Roger E. Brown Jr., manager of ACS career services.
Although their responses cannot be generalized for all situations, their insights may shed some light on companies’ decision-making processes and help job seekers improve their chances of finding the right position—whether in the life sciences or other fields for chemists.
As a third-year Ph.D. student in medicinal chemistry, I’ve been thinking about skipping a postdoc to pursue an M.B.A. with the goal of becoming a chief science officer (CSO) for a small biotech company. Would this increase my stature commensurate with the debt I’d incur?
Roth: If your goal is to be a CSO at a small biotech, I’m not convinced that the M.B.A. really contributes to that. In fact, it could almost be a distraction in some respects. People who are starting up a new biotech company, what they’re looking for is an outstanding scientist as their CSO. If your long-term goal is to be a CSO, the way you get there is by having scientific accomplishments.
Dow: If a company is looking to fill a lab position, the employer may see that you have an M.B.A. and think, “This person wants to go into business development or some kind of project management position and doesn’t necessarily want to be in the lab.” In some instances, it may work to your detriment because employers will think that you’re not going to stay in a lab track for very long.
Frishberg: If you’re interested in being a CSO at a biotech company, use your network and LinkedIn to identify several of these people and find out what their career path was. Track some down at conferences. Most people, if politely approached, would be happy to share their experiences and advice with you.
I have a Ph.D. and have applied for bachelor’s- and master’s-level positions that I think I’m more than qualified for. Why am I not getting the job?
Dow: It’s difficult for employers to hire somebody who’s above what they need because they know that you’re not going to be happy in that role. It’s easy for people to say, ‘No, that’s not the case, I absolutely will be,’ but companies are just not willing to take that chance. They know that once things turn around, you’ll be looking to leave.
Roth: We typically would not look at a Ph.D. for bachelor’s- and master’s-level positions because they often come in with expectations about what their career development should look like, and we worry about creating a two-tiered system for Ph.D.s where we have some who are managers and others who work at the bench. The concern is that you’ll create a lot of unhappy people who are Ph.D.s, but they’re simply working at the bench and have no real opportunity to move up the scientist career ladder. I can’t say we would never hire a Ph.D. for a bachelor’s or master’s position, but at least we’ve not done it up to this point.
Frishberg: The worst result is you get the job you hate as opposed to getting the job that’s a good fit and that you love. Don’t forget to consider what that job will look like on your résumé and the value of any references from it. Your employer has important things to do and needs you to come in with a commitment to help do them, not spend half your time wondering why you’re there, with one foot out the door.
Whom would you rather hire: someone with a bachelor’s degree and five years of relevant experience or someone fresh out of a master’s degree program?
Roth: Frankly, we’ve hired both and have had success with both kinds of people. My preference is probably for people with master’s degrees because they’ll typically have a stronger theoretical underpinning. And my experience is that those people tend to do better. Having said that, we’ve had some outstanding bachelor’s-level people in our department.
Allen: Whom we decide to hire will depend on the position’s desired skill set and education requirement. Some positions do specify a need for “on the job” experience, whereas others are a good match for a new graduate. Also, the fit may depend on the relevance of your experience. A year of directly related lab experience in a specific area may be more competitive than five years of experience that is only partially relevant.
If you see a candidate who has done multiple postdocs, what impression does that give you?
Roth: It’s often a red flag, because nobody wants to do multiple postdocs. The worry is that you’re doing it because you’re unable to get a full-time position. It makes a hiring manager wonder whether you’re not as good as others who are getting those positions. If you stay in a place for a longer period of time, or if you’re able to get a non-tenure-track position as a researcher, in some respects that’s actually better than doing multiple postdocs.
Frishberg: You’re talking to somebody who you know is going to have trouble because for industry, you don’t necessarily need the postdoc. And for academic jobs, you probably do, but not five of them. One or two of them is fine, otherwise it looks like you’re unemployable or do not know what you want to do.
What distinguishes a résumé that warrants follow-up from those tossed into the reject pile?
Allen: Make sure that your résumé fits the job description. If the job posting requires a specific set of skills, highlight those skills on your résumé. You want your résumé to be long enough to include the most important highlights but not too long that the reader gets bored. I always recommend a summary of qualifications, as opposed to an objective, at the beginning of the résumé. This is where you can highlight your greatest accomplishments and grab the reader’s attention. Two quick ways to get rejected: typographical errors and an inappropriate e-mail address.
Dow: The biggest problem I see with résumés is that people don’t include enough detail. If somebody applies for a position I have posted, and I have to look hard to figure out whether or not that person is a fit for the position, I’m going to give up after the first minute. I would worry less about whether the résumé fits on one or two pages and worry more about the content.
Roth: For us, where people have studied is important. And not just the university, but the professors they worked with. We know the literature; we know who’s doing what kind of science out there. We know these people, so we tend to rely on people we’re comfortable with. The other piece is publications. Particularly for Ph.D.-level scientists, publications are important. What journals they published in and how many publications they have is one way of assessing the volume of work that they did.
How can I improve my résumé’s searchability in computer databases?
Harwell: You’ve got to figure out what it is about you that’s special. If you look at the way search engines are working right now, you want to find a three-word phrase that describes yourself. If you don’t know what that is, find 20 or 30 jobs that appeal to you, not a little but a whole lot, then take those job descriptions and copy and paste them into a word cloud generator. These are graphical ways to depict how often a word is used. If you paste in 30 of the job descriptions that appeal to you, you’ll see what words are used most often. Look for the top descriptive words and make sure they’re in your résumé. Those are the keywords that recruiters are using to find people like you.
In the interview process, are there any typical mistakes that interviewees make that result in a negative interview?
Harwell: The biggest mistake you can make is to not be prepared. You need to know who you’re going to be interviewed by. And you need to know as much information as possible about your potential employer, what the company does, and who its competitors are. We call that doing due diligence.
Brown: Sometimes people talk way too fast. It’s okay to pause and think before you answer. Another mistake is talking too much about working independently rather than as part of a team. You want a nice balance of both.
Many chemists are still struggling to find jobs. The American Chemical Society offers special discounts and career assistance to its unemployed members.
National dues: Waiveda
National meeting registration: Free
Regional meeting registration: Reduced fees
ACS Leadership Development System: Reduced rateb
ACS Short Courses: 50% discount
ACS Member Insurance Program: Life insurance premiums deferred
For a full listing of benefits for unemployed members, visit www.acs.org/unemployed.
Free career assistance tools for all ACS members:
◾ Access to the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network)
◾ For more information, visit www.acs.org/careers
a Apply for a waiver by contacting ACS with your name and member number via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (800) 333-9511 or (614) 447-3776. Dues may be waived for up to two years for unemployed members in good standing. b Enroll in one online course for $25, get three online courses free.
Dow: For candidates who have been unemployed for a while, our advice is to not go into an interview sounding bitter. Treat it like it’s your first interview, and go into it with that same amount of enthusiasm and energy for the position. If an employer has two equally matched candidates, it’s going to go with the one who showed more enthusiasm.
How do you ask about interview results if you’ve been turned down? Is it okay to call the hiring manager and ask what you should work on more?
Allen: Not all companies will provide feedback, but it’s okay to ask. I have always tried to provide feedback to candidates when appropriate. Some examples of constructive feedback I have given in the past include dress professionally, do not chew gum, and be on time.
Dow: If you work with a recruiter, we will generally try and get you some feedback as to why a company is passing on you. If the employer is willing to tell you why, you need to be willing to take what potentially could be some bad news and look at it as a nugget of information you could use to improve yourself.
How important is a job candidate’s social media profile? Are job applicants being turned down because of things found in online searches?
Brown: Most recruiters that I know will look at your Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other page you have, and they will factor that into their hiring decision. It’s not illegal for recruiters to look at that. It is illegal to deny someone employment for that, but it’s very hard to prove.
Harwell: Even if you’re not going to have a social media presence, you probably should have something up. You should at least search your name because it could be that somebody else has your same name and employers could easily look at them and say, “This is not who I want.” To avoid confusion, establish yourself on LinkedIn, perhaps, and make it professional. Then you can point people to that.
How much does “who you know” factor into hiring decisions?
Dow: We tend to find the best candidates for the position we have open through referrals rather than through online candidates. But it’s a question of working your network in the right way. Most job seekers that I’ve met at networking events tend to approach people the same way: “Hey, I’m out of a job, what can you do for me?” Whereas the approach needs to be, “What can I do to help you?”
Allen: A referral or recommendation from a current employee or team member can go a long way, but you want to build that relationship long before a position opens up. Network with your ACS local section, regularly reach out and make connections at companies you are interested in, and volunteer. You never know where you might meet the person who will have your dream job available one day.
Roth: For us, who you know means who you’ve worked for. If someone is coming out of Barry Trost’s group or Paul Wender’s group or Justin Du Bois’s group at Stanford, we know those people. If one of them says, “This guy or this gal is great, you need to take a look at them,” we will.
If you’re not from one of the top schools and you don’t have a long publication list, then what do you do?
Roth: That’s the kind of person who should probably consider doing a postdoc; that’s how they will get our attention. If they come from a smaller school and then go to Stanford or Berkeley and do well there, they’ve done well now in two different environments, and now they’re working for someone we know and have confidence in.
Is it possible to do everything right and still not get a job?
Brown: If you’re doing everything right and nothing seems to be happening, you have to do two things: You need to take a step back and look at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, because you could be so close to this process that you’re not willing to take feedback. And second, you need to bring other people into the mix who can help you get through doors. Networking is key to landing a job in this economy.
Frishberg: Unfortunately, you can do everything right in this particular job market and still be unemployed. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of time. Just keep doing everything right, keep getting out there, and try not to get discouraged. If you continue asking for feedback and connecting with people through your network, you’ll be better prepared when an opportunity does come up.
Many resources exist to help job seekers continue this conversation. For example, ACS’s new job club meets online every Tuesday at 2 PM ET. Job seekers can interact with ACS career consultants and with their peers in a small group setting to discuss their job search (sign up at www.acs.org/unemployed). The ACS Network (www.acs.org/network) offers another venue for job seekers to ask questions and get answers from the chemistry community.
By continuing to communicate with their peers, job seekers may discover that they’re not only receiving moral support, but they’re also growing their network.