How To Get A Job In Science, According To Real Scientists
If you're currently coming to the end of a degree in the sciences, you may be wondering: what on earth do I do next? And what steps do I need to take to get an actual job in the sciences, rather than having to work in the underground labs of the next wealthy super-villain who wants to take over the world? (Kidding. Mostly.) Anxiety about the job market for new graduates isn't a fresh phenomenon, but it's one that well-seasoned professionals can help you navigate; and if you don't have any scientific mentors to guide you into your chosen work, the good news is that we've found some for you. Don't say we never give you presents.
The scientific job market is vast, and even with concerns in America about reductions in funding and anti-scientific sentiment from the Trump administration, it's still a wide and exciting world for new graduates to make their way. Bustle asked two young scientists for their perspective on how to get that first job out of college: Dr. Jane Charlesworth, currently a postdoctoral genetic researcher at Cambridge with a doctorate from Oxford, and Sam Thorp, London South Bank University's Research & Development Officer and founder of the charity ratings organization Changepath.
Of course, these are just two scientists; their thoughts and experiences aren't the end-all and be-all of scientific career advice. But if you want to explore a career in the sciences but have no clue where to begin, read on.
Decide If Academia Seems Appealing To You
People with science degrees often have a choice to make fairly early in their careers: is academia the way forward? The two experts Bustle talked to have made divergent choices. Dr. Charlesworth is an academic geneticist, while Thorp has done everything from straight research to managing scientific business projects. The choice about academia, Thorp told Bustle, is "the first step." "This can be a difficult choice to make," he noted, as "academia (especially in the sciences) is a particularly fraught path."
To figure out whether you want to do it or not, both experts advise getting some hands-on experience. "Find out what research is really like," Dr. Charlesworth told Bustle. "Find labs whose work you think is interesting and ask if you can do a project during the holidays. Sometimes you can get funding to do this, which looks great on your CV, and is useful experience for later on." Thorp agreed. "One of the best ways to know whether the academic lifestyle appeals to you," he said, "is to try it — spend some time volunteering for an academic in your field of choice. How easy this is depends on your scientific discipline, particularly whether it is experimental or theoretical."
The usual route to becoming an academic scientist is through the PhD path, but Charlesworth notes that you don't have to dive into this right away. If you can, she says, "work for a few years as a technician before applying to PhDs." Why? "Lab heads love students who already have a solid skill base, so it seems like a really good idea." Once you want to enter the actual PhD experience and beyond, Thorp advises that mentors are a good way forward. Also, he adds, "apply for grants if you can; universities love staff that they don’t need to pay for."
Work Out What Your Skills Are & Refine Them
Non-academic scientists are, Thorp told Bustle, often in "the interesting position of having a lot of skills but no defined career path." If that's you, don't panic. "There are an enormous number of science-adjacent and science-related careers for you to choose from," he explained. "The first difficulty is figuring out which one you actually want to pursue."
"If you’re not sure which of the available paths appeals to you," he suggested, "one idea is to do some skill mapping; lay out what you’re good at and what you actually enjoy doing, and see where they intersect. This sounds basic, but it can reveal useful insights – sure, you’re good at number-crunching, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to do it 24/7."
Skills and how you fine-tune them are pretty vital when it comes to positioning yourself in the scientific job market. Dr. Charlesworth notes that "getting good at quantitative stuff — stats, coding, understanding the math you see in papers" is a massive advantage. "This will put you miles ahead of people who don't," she notes, "and these skills are pretty much essential in the age of Big Data." Beyond that, Thorp explained that the world is kind of your oyster, and you can build on your own scientific assets to get into the career track that appeals to you. If you want to signal your willingness, he recommends online courses. "They aren’t worth much from an academic standpoint," he says, "but they do flag to an employer that you’re aware of a gap in your knowledge and are willing to learn more about it."
Be Warned That Working For Free Is Expected At Entry Level
"Sadly," Thorp told Bustle, "working for free is becoming almost a requirement for getting a job in many fields, and those in science are no exception. Internships, volunteering, and other forms of working for nothing gain you valuable contacts, experience, and references." There are good sides to the problem, he noted: "it’s a good way for you to do a test-run of your chosen career, especially if you’re not certain what you’re looking for." But it can mean that you need to support yourself in some other way, or spend a lot of time applying for grants, while you try to break into your chosen scientific area.
Learn How To Network
Though just hearing the word fills many recent grads with dread, networking remains important in scientific fields, academic or not. "As a young job-seeker, this isn’t easy," Thorp told Bustle. "As someone without a job or experience, you will be perceived to have little value. Persistence, and being unfailingly interested, polite, and enthusiastic, is unfortunately the only way to get anywhere. Remember that networking is about what you can do for other people, not what they can do for you. If you can share some interesting knowledge, or connect them with someone you know, or even just share an experience you had, then do so."
His personal tip? "Especially to people in particular positions of authority, you want to somehow give the impression that you’re a wunderkind that’s going places, without seeming like a jerk. Importantly, don’t abandon your network the moment you get a job! Networking should be part of your career for life. Finally, treat the people you’re networking with like friends — ‘networking’ should be synonymous with ‘making friends and acquaintances in a weird, semi-formal environment’."
Dr. Charlesworth notes that this remains a requirement in academic science, too. "Choose a PhD lab that suits your temperament," she advises; "it's imperative that your PhD supervisor is someone you can work with well. We hear all the time how academia is super-competitive and we should all want to publish in top journals, but you can succeed by publishing quality work in less flashy places, and plenty of people will recognize that." If you want to break into academic science, she recommends a little email-bombing: "Talk to prospective labs. Email and say you think their work is interesting. Read a few of their papers and suggest directions for future work. Scientists generally love talking about science. If you can attend conferences, talk to people." But, she adds, "don't call it networking if that's not your thing."
Charlesworth also notes that social media can help you on your way: "Twitter is a good way to connect with other scientists and find interesting papers in your field." A Twitter conversation is a good way to start a connection with other scientists without the pressure of a conference environment.
Apply To Many, Many, Many Jobs
Thorp's position on this one is qualified pessimism. "The first job out of university is definitely the hardest," he told Bustle. But there are ways you can survive it. "Do everything you can to stand out, keep building your skills while you apply, and try not to let the constant low-grade despair dominate your life. Remember that luck plays a big part of it as well. Don’t settle for a job you don’t want, except as a way to keep yourself fed and clothed while you apply for other things. It can take months (six months is not unheard of) for you to get a role, especially if you’re looking in a relatively niche area. Be persistent, be efficient, be strong. It’s probably the worst job hunt you’ll ever have to do."
Fight Back Against Sexism
We all know the continual issues about women in STEM, and job hunting for the first time doesn't mean you have to ignore the issue totally. Dr. Charlesworth has a few tips on how to survive while you're pushing your way into the field, academic or not. "Ignore the dudes who appear, often very loudly, to know everything and take up all the space in talks and lab meetings. They don't know everything."
And don't believe the hype. "It is not true that to succeed one needs to be a macho robot who works long hours and neglects basic self-care," she told Bustle. Start forming a professional network of support and friendship early on, and it'll help you out on the way.
Dr. Charlesworth's mother, the renowned evolutionary biologist Professor Deborah Charlesworth, also has some words of encouragement. "Prejudice can be subtle," she told Bustle, "but keep challenging it and keep going. We have shown that women are at least as good as men at science, and we can keep showing it." It may seem daunting being a young woman setting out to change the world with science, but there's a strong legacy of women who have your back.