As the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has ground economies around the world to a sudden halt, job seekers are facing the impact of lab shutdowns, university hiring freezes, and the stress of making their next career move amid sudden economic shocks. Although uncertainty reigns, individuals can still position themselves to be successful when looking for a job in industry or academia by taking advantage of resources and advice from those who have been in their position before. ACS is hosting a series of Virtual Classrooms that can help students in finding their path and preparing for roles in academia and industry.
Especially for those searching for careers in academia, the path to finding their first position can be difficult. It’s important to know what kind of position you’re interested in earlier in your studies, explained Bioconjugate Chemistry Editor-in-Chief Vince Rotello. “If some [career] paths don’t start the right way, it’s hard to go back. If you want an academic job at a research university, you don’t want to get yourself into a temporary [teaching] position. It’s difficult to get out of that short-term teaching job and back into research.”
Although being sure about your path from the beginning can help, not all career trajectories are set in stone. Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry Editor-in-Chief Joseph Loo explained that he started his career in industry before returning to academia. He now works as a professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry and in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at UCLA. “Students shouldn’t expect to find a job that meets their needs for the next 30 or 40 years. They have to be very open to finding a job that satisfies their current needs but eventually, your life is going to detour and go in a different direction. You need to be flexible about that.”
Those embarking on their careers right now have even more reasons to be flexible, as the sudden economic downturn has forced many people to rethink their plans. The difficult environment, however, doesn’t mean that there are no smart career moves to make right now. Many chemistry jobs are essential, with companies continuing to hire throughout the crisis. C&EN’s jobs board is constantly updated with new positions in industry and academia, and checking for new listings frequently will ensure that you see positions that could be a good fit.
“If you’re looking for an industry job, go out and apply. There are positions available and there are companies that are looking to make sure they can get good talent when they open up,” said Rotello.
Students who had planned to start their postdocs in a few months and are now in limbo, because of travel restrictions, lab closures, or both, can still use this time effectively. “If you ask around, there will be people who need a researcher for a few months,” advised Organic Letters Editor-in-Chief Erick Carreira. “It’s not business as usual, and you have to work a little harder to find the opportunities, but they’re out there.”
ACS Applied Polymer Materials Deputy Editor Jodie Lutkenhaus also advised perseverance in the job search. “The most important thing is to persist and do not give up. Keep applying, because if you don’t apply to jobs, your success rate is guaranteed to be 0%.”
No one knows completely what the coming months will bring, making now a more crucial time than ever to ensure you’re ready to apply to jobs and postdoc positions when they become available, and bringing a renewed importance to maintaining and growing your professional network.
For those looking for postdocs and positions in academia, Loo advises. “Right now, the most important thing is to make contacts, network, and put your face out there so that universities know you’re available.” Researching others in your field is essential to making your networking efforts successful. “Write specifically to people with knowledge about them. It’s got to be targeted to show you’re the sort of person they want to go the extra mile for,” said Crystal Growth & Design Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Steed,
Lutkenhaus recalled that networking gave her the advantage when making early career moves. “Even as a student, I found that most professors are so open and happy to talk to you about science, so there’s really nothing to be intimidated about. Once you realize that, networking becomes so much easier.”
As interviewing and networking calls will likely be occurring over Zoom or other videoconferencing software for the foreseeable future, it’s essential that job seekers practice communicating virtually. Ask a friend to have some practice interviews so you can prepare to speak about yourself and your research. Find a quiet, well-lit space in your home with a professional-looking background to hold your conversation and take steps to improve your connection. Closing programs and asking family or roommates to refrain from streaming or downloading large files on your network are good ways to improve your video and audio connection.
The job market is certain to be more competitive in the coming months, meaning a well-written resume and cover letter and excellent interview skills are of extra importance. ACS offers assistance with resumes, cover letters, interview prep, and individual career counseling to give members the resources necessary to succeed.
Although these are challenging times, the principles that guide many scientists through the field continue to be relevant to those finding their place in the community today. For a scientist, the most important thing is to continue to innovate. “Think of a hundred questions you could try to answer, force yourself to think creatively. Out of that hundred, probably only one is worth doing, and that’s what you carry over. Ask yourself, if I attain this, will anyone care other than me? If no one else does, come up with a new idea. You need to be your most creative constantly, and be your own worst critic,” said Carreira.
Now more than ever, the challenges to beginning one’s career may seem insurmountable, but it’s important to remember that your career goals are still achievable. “It’s a question of small steps rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture,” said Steed. “It seems monumental when you’re young and it seems like there are so many hurdles to go through. Just keep doing what you can do.”
During this unprecedented time, knowing that the pandemic will eventually end may be the best way to stay focused on the possible. “Try to limit the amount of time you worry about things,” advised Rotello. “There are things you can do with your time that are useful. Think about what your first experiment will be when you get back. There is a future, and we will get through this.”