Two months away from research, and it looks like it’s been geological ages. Not that many things have happened (for a start: I still don’t have a job, as you may imagine) but a huge learning experience it is. And it’s fun, even if in a bit of frightening way.
In the meantime the Infamous Blog Post made me sort of famous. So far practically everyone I know in science has read of it, and there is still an irregular flux of comments. I know of friends who tell me “my friends read your post and then asked me if I know you”. Also, thanks to all of this (and to Luca Sofri), I’ve been asked to tell my story for the Italian online magazine Il Post – for which I’ve also become now an (unpaid) popular science contributor. A non-Italian newspaper is also arranging today for an interview (!).
I’m also finishing my old academic project, which paradoxically seems to be turning out right just now.
Now, learning how to apply for Real Jobs, especially if you’ve always been in the uncomfortable but protective womb of academia, is a job in itself. I spent endless hours in things that perhaps many take for granted: looking at how to properly write a cover letter, how to properly adapt a CV, finding where to look for jobs, getting to know how to market yourself, etc. I sent dozens of applications and I got two interviews so far -in one I was ultimately turned down, I’m still waiting for the outcome of the other one.
A few first things I have learned in these two months in case someone wants to take my path:
Everything you’ve done counts, not only your scientific project. So far, my main Ph.D./postdoc projects have been the one things that count less. Ok, they show that you’re somehow smart and you can get things done, and people are always happy to know you’ve actually won a fellowship to go to Cambridge, but that’s it. What they want is skills, and single-molecule force spectroscopy of unfolded proteins or coarse-grained modeling is not exactly hot on the job market.
So you have to push a lot of side-skills. That I wrote a couple open source softwares for example, that I have managed people, that I have skills in science communication. Literally everything you’ve done/you know could be the thing that will make the difference, and in unexpected ways. So, if you’re a young fellow struggling for something to do in the future: learn as much as possible away from your own current occupation, and do stuff to prove you’ve learned it and mastered it. I didn’t know how important it was, and I guarantee I regret it.
Interviews are a nice thing, no matter how they go. I thought that a Real Job Interview would have scared me -after years in the informal academic environment, I wasn’t really prepared. However you can find lots of advice on the Net, which really helps. The main thing is to look smart and confident but at the same time nice and relaxed, which is pretty easy to do if you look at the interview for what it is: an opportunity, not a test. It’s already great that you’re there and if you’re there it means they’re interested in you -so much that several people is spending two or three hours for you. They really want you to succeed, because it’s in their interest too.
Interviews -with technical personnel, not HR people,at least- are cool because not only you get to know a lot of people, but you learn a huge amount of information about jobs, about what people look for in you, about how different companies/organizations work and think. It’s a huge and unique learning experience, condensated in one morning.
Don’t get it right: get it smart. The story of the interview I’ve done and been rejected so far has been instructive. It was for a huge bioinformatics institute here in Cambridge, and I’ve been asked a short but not trivial programming test related to the job. Honestly I thought I completely sucked at the test, despite the subsequent interview having been really nice and positive. I didn’t have much experience with the subject of the test (sequence data files) and I took too much time.
When a week later I asked about the outcome (they were going to send it to me, but I was wondering what was going on), he sent me a detailed feedback mail saying that they thought my test was excellent and that they really liked the way I thought on it. I lost the job because I was a bit underqualified on certain strictly technical skills they needed (couple of programming languages) and they found another smart guy, but with those skills.
So, don’t try to get your answers just right: try to get them smart. A brilliantly thought wrong answer could be worth many memory-rote, dull right answers (even if of course a brilliant and right one is much better).
Look for unexpected avenues. This is something where I am still learning, but it seems that there are more types of jobs than I possibly thought. Your skills can be useful in a lot of places where you couldn’t even imagine. And that’s also why it’s the combination the point: never be a one-trick pony, show you’ve a rich and interesting mix, and you could find really unexpected treasures. However you have to know where to look, and that’s not trivial. University career services can help a lot (the Cambridge one is quite good); networking is also essential.
Just try. Even if you feel you could be underqualified or overqualified, even if you don’t know if it’s the right thing for you, just try. You never know.
Tailor everything for the job. Lots of people say that but it’s worth repeating: sending the same cover letter and CV to everyone is the surest way to get in the waste bin. Writing a cover letter is painful, slow (it takes me hours to do it and I still suck probably at it) but necessary. It’s not a formal icing on your cv, it’s what will convince people to read your CV. So research the job in full detail, show that you know the company/group, tell them why you’ll love it and point the finger on why you’re the right guy for the job. Tell them practical examples: it’s worthless to say “I have Perl experience”, tell them “I coded this project in Perl to do this and that, and you can find it there”.
And this is it with the practical, useful-but-boring blog posts for now. I’d really have to get with something more mind bending, but well, I thought just an update was in order.