How to get a head start on the job market
The chemistry graduate school experience
As I was settling into my seat on a recent flight, I noticed a large group of young professionals boarding the plane. They were carrying poster tubes, and I wondered which scientific conference they were coming from. It turns out that they were education researchers, and the person sitting across the aisle from me was a graduate student who had already begun his search for a tenure-track position.
For the next two hours, we talked about the similarities and differences between the job market for education faculty and the job market for chemistry faculty. One obvious difference is that there are far fewer schools of education than departments of chemistry at major research universities. Also, postdoctoral positions are less common in education. Another distinct difference is that in education, students apply for tenure-track positions twice, with the first application taking place two years before they plan to graduate. They call this a “soft test” of the job market, and the practice offers insights into how search committees view your strengths and weaknesses and allows you to adjust your application for when you actually graduate and need a job.
Since that conversation, I have been thinking a lot about how chemistry graduate students and postdocs could apply the soft-test concept to their job searches. Job applications can take a long time to put together, and getting an early start gives you more time to gather your thoughts and materials. Not thinking about academia? You should still start thinking about applying for your dream job, whatever it is, sooner rather than later, and this process will work a lot of the same muscles.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Know people who have successfully applied to positions similar to the one you want, whether it’s in industry, academia, or elsewhere? Talk to them about that process, and politely ask to see their application materials. For nonacademic positions, cover letters and résumés, as well as high-impact and well-written research summaries, are going to take the bulk of the effort.
For those applying to faculty positions, the document that will require the most refinement and is newest to you will be the research proposal. Ranging between five and 10 pages, this is a document that proposes the research that you will be doing as a new faculty member. You will want to talk to as many candidates and faculty members who are actively seeking grants as you can to understand what approaches they take when writing these crucial documents. As someone who is thinking about becoming a faculty member, you will no doubt have scientific ideas and concepts you’d like to explore, and refining them in a cohesive, fundable proposal will be a challenge.
Once you have all those documents and you think they are ready for another pair of eyes to see, it’s time to get some feedback. Talk to people with experience, especially newly hired faculty members who are willing to offer you their frank advice. In addition, you may want to target a few institutions that you’d like to work for and talk to potential search committee chairs. Get their constructive criticism on your application package and how well they think you stack up against your peers.
For those who are interested in industrial chemistry positions, I suggest you start the conversation with industrial recruiters early. If your school has annual visits from industrial employers, get to know them and put the soft-test concept to work by asking them to look at your materials well before you are planning to apply for a position. If your school doesn’t have routine visits, talk to your principal investigator or other professors in the department. They will likely know alumni who are currently hiring managers. Your connections might also offer you advice on the best way to present yourself on paper.
Applying to any position is hard, and the process is rigorous enough that extra preparation will be required. Along the way, you will have opportunities to question why you are applying to certain positions (academic, industrial, or beyond) and what your strengths and weaknesses may be. This introspection is natural and is a helpful part of refining your application materials.
I don’t know how far you want to take the “test” aspect of the soft test. I don’t think that people should go through the process of pressing “submit” on any positions, because search committees or hiring managers likely don’t want to field applications from people who are not actually looking to be hired. Still, it’s the preparation that matters, and a soft test will prepare you for the actual applications to come.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.