An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

October 26, 2010

How to Get a Lab Tech Job, Part 2: Applications

Filed under: Education,Uncategorized,Work — Radical Scientist @ 1:31 pm

Welcome to Part 2 of this irregular series. You may remember part one, which covered writing a CV and cover letters in excruciating detail. this time, I want to talk about applying–how to find sciencey job openings, strategies for applying (hint: you’ll need to apply to lots of jobs), and so on. Note that this series is aimed primarily at people with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field who are looking for research jobs. The as-yet-unscheduled Part III will cover interviewing.

First, some bragging: I got a job! Not the one I mentioned interviewing for in the first part of this series, but another one. I haven’t decided yet how much I want to talk about the details of it on this blog, which I like to keep somewhat anonymous, so instead I’ll just brag immodestly about how excited I am: I love the project, the co-workers and PI I’ve met all seem very likable, it’s in a more nomad-science oriented lab (which I was looking for), I can bike to work, and so on. Plus, it’s full time with benefits, I got a slight bump over the base starting salary, and I get a part-time assistant (or rather, my project gets a part time assistant). I won’t start for a couple weeks yet, but so far, I’m very pleased with the whole thing. And this bolsters my advice-giving credentials from ‘Some Dude on the Internet’ to ‘Some Dude on the Internet who Successfully Landed a Good Job in the End.’ So, let’s get to it, shall we?

Part Two: Applications

The first thing you need when setting out to job-hunt is a strategy. You need to figure out what you’re looking for in a job, where to find jobs that offer those things, and then systematically apply to whatever you find. Seems simple enough, right? Yeah, it basically is, but it’s also a lot of work, and can take up a lot of psychological energy. So it’s worth spending some time figuring things out.

First, expect job hunting to take a long-ass time. Prepare accordingly. I took out a few extra grand in loans my last semester, made sure I could stay at my part-time student job after graduation, and applied for foodstamps so that I could stay afloat while hunting for a good lab job. In the end, I spent 6 months job hunting on and off. During that time, I applied for about a dozen jobs, did 4 interviews, and got 2 job offers. I think that’s actually pretty good; I know the job I’m about to start had 50 or 60 applicants.

Second, think over what you want to do, what you can do, and what you can’t do. This is an ongoing process, but it helps if you take a stab at it before you start job hunting. As you put together your master CV (as described in Part One), keep a list of all your skills, even the things you don’t think are especially useful.

Pay attention to what you want most, but don’t limit yourself. Give extra attention to jobs that would be good experience for later, or that sound especially fun. Look for themes there. I found I kept being pulled back to jobs that had a travel/fieldwork component. The one I found doesn’t offer that, but I’m now looking at grad research that will.

Make two budgets for your life–one with just the necessities (but all the necessities) for you to get by, and one that includes everything you’d want for a comfortable, but not especially wealthy, life. Avoid jobs that pay less than your minimum. Use the difference between your ideal and minimum budgets to get a relative feel for salaries–how much difference does an extra 5k a year really make to you?

Think honestly about how willing you are to relocate for a job, how long a commute you’d tolerate, and what work situations you couldn’t deal with. Personally, I found I didn’t want to more or commute to the Nearest Big City (1+ hour each way) unless it was for my absolute dream job. And I realized that although I’m ok with carefully done animal research in the abstract, I don’t have the stomach to kill vertebrates. (I also found I relished the idea of killing mosquito, a little too much)

Third, apply in bulk. Plan to apply to lots of jobs. LOTS. Don’t get too attached to any especially awesome sounding job until they actually hire you. This is what killed me for two or three of those 6 months–I was waiting to hear back from a slow-moving federal agency after what I thought was an especially good interview, for a job I really wanted. I used that as an excuse to take a break from sending out applications, and that was a mistake. It took months to find out I hadn’t gotten the job, and in the meantime my savings were dwindling.

Find ways to reduce the time investment per application. In addition to your Giant Master CV and Mad-Libs Cover Letter, keep a file with the names, titles & contact info of anyone you’d use as a reference.¬† I found it helpful to save text files of all these different CV versions and cover letters, so I could recycle the language later. As discussed below, look for time-saving ways to clump your applications.

Don’t get too hung up on job descriptions. Apply to anything you’re qualified for that doesn’t have a dealbreaker. The interestingness of a job description is not closely tied to the interestingness of a job. I twice had interviews where a very dull sounding job turned out to be way more interesting: one PI had intentionally left off that she works with orchids in the tropics to avoid people who weren’t interested in the lab work component, and one just wasn’t good at writing an interesting job listing. On the other hand, I had one awesome sounding job turn out to involve semi-frequent sampling of pig manure lagoons. Yeah, they just forgot to mention that.

Fourth, Prioritize. There are a lot of ways to decide what to apply to first, each appropriate to it’s own set of circumstances. Make a spreadsheet for the listings you find, and keep tract of just a little info for each–a link to the listing, a two-line description of the job, the salary, a ‘benefits Y/N’ column, the application deadline, etc, and a column to rank jobs by overall desirability. I started out applying to jobs in descending order¬† of desirability (that is, I started off applying to the things I wanted most first.) That was a fine approach, but more time-intensive. As my, er, urgency grew, I switched to a different approach–applying in clusters to similar jobs. I’d perfect a bioinformatics themed CV, for instance, and apply to all the jobs I could use it for. I picked out a couple large employers I liked, and took advantage of their online application structure–most will store all your basic information, so applying to the 2nd+ job there is just a matter or uploading an appropriate CV and letter. This was much more time efficient, it cut my time-per-application from several hours to as little as 10 minutes.

OK, now, where to apply? I admit, this may be the area where I have the least to say. If you’re able to move around, you have a lot more options. The federal government always needs people in remote places. is a hassle, but their search is relatively responsive to keywords (‘mycology,’ for instance, turns up both medical-diagnostic jobs involving fungal diseases, and Forest Service jobs doing plant & fungi diversity surveys). You can expect to start at the GS-5 pay grade straight out of undergrad, or the GS-7 if you meet their honors requirements. Moreover, their centralized application systems make it much easier to apply to multiple federal jobs.

If you’re looking in a particular area, things are a little more sparse. Look at federal jobs. Check your local university. Look for private-sector companies that might hire you. My undergrad institution had a decent career counseling service open to students and alums. They weren’t especially helpful in finding openings (YMMV), but the councilor assigned to my major did help me a lot in putting my CV together. When possible, set up search agents on the websites of big employers–there’s often an option to save certain search criteria, and have the site automatically email you any new postings that match. If you can’t do this, check back at least weekly for anywhere you’re especially eager to work.

Don’t underestimate the value of personal contacts. Many universities and government agencies get so overgrown with bureaucracy that they resort to pseudo-nepotism to find new employees. One friend of mine at the CDC says it’s rare for people to get a job from a straight-up application, it’s more common for PI’s to ask their colleagues if they know of anyone who might be good for the job. That might turn up someone who had interviewed for another job entirely. If you’re hoping to stay in the town where you went to undergrad, ask your former professors if they know anyone who needs a tech. They hate being understaffed and hunting for candidates at least as much as you hate applying for jobs, so don’t feel like you can’t ask politely. Lastly, look at paid internships that accept recent graduates, especially if you’re looking to go to grad school soon. Federal internships often pay quite well, and some can lead to long-term jobs.

Good luck out there. And as always, please chime in with your own advice, critiques, stories and complaints in the comments.



  1. Don’t mind me; I’m just here to leave a generic “YAY!!!!!!!!” type comment. :) Congrats on the new job, hon! From what you’ve told me, it sounds pretty badass and I hope you love it. I know you put a lot of work (and stress) into all of your applications, and you deserve all the awesome. ALL OF IT. I also hope you and I will get to properly catch up soon! I don’t have any tests this week, so expect a poke from me at some point. :) Will be linking this post from my place. So glad to see another entry in these series!

    Comment by Samia — October 26, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

  2. Just happened by. don’t ask me why. Just the magic of google — strangely enough with the key words “syphilis cure penicillin”. You sound like a cool person though.

    Comment by CandaceID — October 29, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

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