Science Careers: The Art of Job-Hunting During a Down Economy


Brianna Blaser

If you're a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow anxious about finding a tenure-track or research position at a college or university, you're not alone. The tough economy has tightened budgets at research institutions around the country, forcing many to freeze hiring or reduce their faculty size.

Brianna Blaser, outreach project director at Science Careers, said no matter the economy—but especially in the current tough environment—successful job-seekers know how to do two things well: stand out among the other applicants and explore career options beyond the large research universities.

"The fact of the matter is that while many young scientists want to perform research and join the faculty of large universities, there are not enough of those positions to go around," said Blaser. "And given that there are even fewer positions due to the tough economy, you have a lot of disappointed scientists."

But, Blaser said, there are simple tips and free Science Careers resources to help scientists at all stages make their next career step. Science Careers' mission is to provide scientists at every level of experience and across the full range of disciplines with the training and resources needed to achieve professional advancement.

Instead of only applying to the top large research institutions, Blaser recommends that graduate students and post docs interested in academic careers look for job vacancies at small to mid-sized institutions.

Citing a recent Boston Globe article, Blaser said that while larger research institutions like Harvard University have put many faculty searches on hold, smaller neighboring universities like Tufts and colleges like Emerson, Holy Cross, and Amherst are looking to hire "top scientists discouraged by the stiff competition" at larger institutions.

Blaser said that many smaller institutions are able to finance their increased faculty ranks by cutting back on campus construction and other projects on hold due to the recession.

In addition to looking outside the largest research institutions, Blaser urges young scientists to broaden their career search outside of academia to positions in industry, government, or non-profits.

In Careers Away from the Bench, a booklet published earlier this year by Science Careers, Blaser wrote that job applicants should consider "remaining open-minded and cast [their] net broadly, seeking out professional experiences away from the laboratory."

She cited the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program, which places doctoral-level scientists and engineers with a master's degree on executive and legislative staffs to give them experience in government and insight into how policy decisions are made.

Daniel Poux, associate director for AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, said that the Department of Energy (DOE) is quickly becoming one of the major host agencies for new Fellows, especially in the Office of Science and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Other agencies with increasing AAAS S&T Fellow placements include the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency for International Development, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Poux cited an Associated Press article detailing a 27 April speech to the National Academy of Sciences by U.S. President Barack Obama in which he called for 3% of the national gross domestic product to be directed towards research and development. Poux said that DOE, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Defense are all expecting to receive funding increases, which should lead to more jobs for scientists and engineers.


Ric Weibl

The tight job market for new PhDs has been exacerbated by more senior faculty members delaying their retirement plans. Ric Weibl, director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology, highlighted a report released early May by the TIAA-CREF financial services firm that found about one-third of surveyed participants over the age of 50 had delayed retirement plans. Weibl said that university hiring freezes and the reduced retirement rate affects young scientists looking for jobs as well as universities looking to bring in faculty that may represent new research directions for their department.

Delayed retirements ripple down the academic chain, said Weibl, forcing postdocs to remain in their secure positions, leading to fewer postdocs positions open for newly minted PhDs.

Beyond broadening a career search to positions outside academia including science writing, working for non-profits, and public policy, Blaser said that job seekers must make themselves stand out from other applicants. This can be done by polishing your résumé or curriculum vitae; gaining experience outside the lab; and marketing yourself through a network of friends, former co-workers, classmates, and family.

"Networking is not about 'schmoozing,' but about building relationships," Blaser wrote in Careers Away from the Bench. "Although [every new contact] may not be able to help you, they may refer you to others who can assist in your job search."

Blaser said that while career fairs can be useful while job searching, applicants frequently show up ill-prepared, failing to leave a lasting impression. Blaser said job seekers should get a list of exhibitors before the fair and do research identifying employers that interest them and gathering information about their mission.

"The goal isn't to collect a stack of business cards and drop your résumé off at the most tables," said Blaser. "You should focus on making contacts inside companies and learning about whether those companies are a good fit for your skills and values."

Despite the gloomy economy and its effect on the job market, science and technology will continue to be growth industries for decades ahead, she said.

"Just bunker down and ride out this recession," she advised. "Science and engineering will always be in demand."