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.


August 20, 2010

Searching for A Grad Program: There’s More Than One Right Answer

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , — Radical Scientist @ 1:02 am

I am at the verrrry wee beginning of thinking about maybe next year applying to graduate school. Which means I’m at the stage of looking at different programs, thinking about where I want to apply. It’s an exciting and daunting task–there are dozens, if not hundreds of schools I could potentially apply to, just in the US. And as someone who’s research interests and experience-thus-far are at on the border between a couple of different disciplines, there are a number of departments I’ll be looking at, opening the field even more.

But when I look for advice on how to pick a school, I keep finding the same single suggestion: Find the current top names in your field, or people whose research sounds interesting to you. Find out where they teach, and start by looking at those schools. It’s fine advice, especially to the Ideal Grad Student–someone who is free to move anywhere (at least within their country), who has flexible but strong research interests, and so on. And, apparently, is somehow also completely clueless as to where they want to go.

But when I talk to friends and co-workers about how they settled on the school they eventually attended, I’ve never once heard ‘Well, I looked at the top working scientists in [subdiscipline]…’  I don’t think that’s all sample bias; there are a couple well-know researchers around these parts.

Instead, most people seem to work from a variety of more, er, practical questions, including:

Where can I get admitted?

Where will I get enough funding?

Is the campus near my family?

Will my partner be able to find work/go to school/etc there?

Will I like or hate the city?

Do the courses sound interesting?

Did the department have a nice website (admit it, folks. You notice)

Will there be a good community for me there?

What kind of vibe did I get when I visited the department?

And so on. I’d love to get some advice on how to get the gossip on a schools’ funding options, department’s labor expectations (everyone wants you to work more than they say they do, but by how much?), how to find a queer-friendly campus and town, how to navigate choosing schools with a not-infinitely-patient-and-portable partner, and so on. In particular, how do you do those things if you’re looking at schools far away from where you live now, that you can’t afford to visit before applying (and can only do a prospective student weekend or somesuch before accepting). I’m sure this info is out there, and I don’t expect my dear readers to hand deliver it to me (unless you want to. In which case, go ahead!). I’d just like to move beyond a single piece of advice. Especially when there’s no guarantee you’ll get to work with the Dream PI anyway.


August 18, 2010

Grad School Applications, Recommendations, and Mentoring

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Radical Scientist @ 4:38 pm

This post is part of 49 Percent’s zomg grad school!!!1 carnival. Go check out all the other lovely posts over there.

There is one part of the grad school application process that scares me shitless. I’ll stare down the GRE with gritty determination, and I can swallow my pride and lay claim to my lackluster GPA. But even thinking about having to ask for letters of recommendation makes me consider food service related career options instead.

I got my BS on the installment plan, over 8 years. Along the way, I worked more than I studied (out of necessity), and had a couple mental health flare ups, eventually culminating in a hella-awkward-at-the-time gender transition. I didn’t handle any of those issues as well as I should have. None of which is my professor’s fault (ok, maybe that one asshole who taught intro to calc), but let’s just say my best work was spread out across the years. Add in one mentor who retired and decided to move to a remote island with no phone, and a lot of giant lecture hall classes where the professors struggle to recognize more than a few of their students on sight, and, well, it’s a less than ideal situation.

I get that LOR’s serve a specific purpose in graduate admissions. Grad programs want students who work well with faculty, who have made a positive impression on at least a couple of their instructors, and they need some perspective other than the numbers on a transcript and the student’s own self-praise. And now that I’ve spent a couple years working in labs, I understand that any worthwhile professor or PI considers handing out recommendations for their protégées to be a standard part of the job. But no one told me that, at least not until I was…oh, 25 or so.

Some students can feel comfortable asking their professors or mentors to take the time to send out a half dozen recommendations for grad programs or internships. There are some academic environment factors–smaller classes and smaller departments breed familiarity. And some students will be outgoing no matter what barriers are thrown up in front of them, and some will always be shy.But at the broad generalities level, asking for recommendations is even more fucking terrifying for students who have grown up being told that the old guard of professors–white, male, straight, cis, and middle to upper-middle class–are their social betters.

Sometimes those fears are founded, often they’re not. But so long as they exist, they are one hurdle to the sciences (or any other discipline) becoming more welcoming and diverse. I know I, for one, am not looking forward to tracking down professors from several years ago, trying to get them to remember me, coming out to them (lest I get the wrong name on my rec letter), and then asking them to take the time to write letters to a number of schools and federal programs.

Meanwhile, my frat boy classmates have nothing to fear. They’re unafraid to ask, to send deadline reminders, to specify which of their most charming attributes they’d like highlighted. Even those who are, shall we say, on close terms with the gentleman’s C. They’ve spent their lives learning to navigate Old boy’s Networks; they seem to know what’s expected, and feel that they deserve to succeed.

I had a small honors class once where the professor did a wonderful job of pulling everyone in, and driving us to excel. Before handing out the final exams, he gave us a short speech about how lovely a class we’d been, that it had been a pleasure to  teach us, etc etc, but he ended by saying he’d be glad to write a recommendation or be a reference for any of us whenever we began applying to jobs or graduate programs. It was a revelation to me.

I understand that it’s unusual to have an entire class full of students you’d be willing to vouch for. But in my brief time in the science blogosphere thus far, I’ve seen a lot of great discussions on the value of mentoring, the importance of making science more ‘diverse’ in various ways, how to mentor, and so on. One thing that I haven’t heard (and I freely admit I may have just missed), is the value of offering recommendations. To student workers and interns, to students who excel in your classes, and to advisees. Look at each one, and think ‘would I be comfortable writing this student a warm recommendation, if they asked me to?’ If the answer is yes, for god’s sakes, tell them. Make sure they know you are willing to help them advance, and that that is part of what you do.

Sure, assertiveness and self confidence are good characteristics to develop. Ideally, students would have the self-confidence to a gruff senior professor for professional help based on their performance, rather than the professor’s friendliness or whether they feel inferior to their instructor.  But being unapproachable doesn’t weed out people who are bad at science, it weeds out people who are afraid to ask old white guys for favors. And that’s one more little thing that gives us a new generation of scientists no less homogeneous than the last.


August 2, 2010

Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown by Dinosaurs

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , — Ethan @ 11:00 am

A new study concludes that Triceratops weren’t a genus at all. They were young members of the genus Torosaurus, previously thought to be a related, larger, but less awesome genus. The confusion came about, they say, because Torosaurus species had different shaped head frills from Triceratops. John Scannella and Jack Horner, the authors of the study, put together a series of skulls (illustrated here) showing ‘Triceratops’ morphing toward a Torosaurid skull shape as they get larger and older. They say the bone in that frill stayed immature, and was thus exceptionally able to change shape much more than previous paleontologists thought possible.

The good news is Torosaurus have long been known to be totally badass-looking. Check out this 1905 rendition.

h/t to Boing Boing.


July 27, 2010

Shove Your Teachable Moments

For, what, the second or third time in as many months, I’ve found myself jumping into a commenting fit of such epic proportions over at Gin and Tacos that I couldn’t resist dragging it out into it’s own full post.

Long story short: Jennifer Keeton,  student in Augusta State University’s counseling program is suing the school, because she both wants to become a school councilor and insists that homosexuality is a disease in need of curing (by her, I guess). And because the school has pointed out that, professionally, that’s not acceptable. It’s a little hard to tell what’s going on at all, because the Augusta Chronicle report is both muddled and leans heavily toward Keeton’s perspective, avoiding any discussion of exactly how she managed to annoy her professors into suggesting a ‘remediation plan’ to dissuade her from, er, “voice[ing] her Christian beliefs inside and outside the classroom on homosexuality and other biblical teachings.”

I am honestly a little impressed that Keaton managed to make such a nuisance of herself that the school got up the guts to tell her she can’t just rant at the children she councils about how Jesus hates them. It’s not easy to get a Georgia university official to tell students to keep their insane brand of Christianity a little more to themselves.

Now, for starters, I am dubious of the idea that extra training will help here. And honestly, I’m a little skeptical of the implied approach here–they seem to be hoping to actually change her mind, by ordering* her into diversity training and telling her to go to Augusta’s Pride last month. First, I don’t think they’ll be able to make her change her opinion so easily. Bigotry doesn’t just melt the first time someone tells the bigot they’re not very nice. Secondly, I think she has a right to hold her fucked up beliefs, even while graduating from a public university. She just needs to understand that she can never, ever let them enter her professional life, because doing so would be a serious ethical breech. Or she could find another line of work.

Also, on behalf of all queer people everywhere, I have one thing to say to the professors who suggested Keeton head to the nearest Gay Pride Parade to learn some tolerance: What the hell are you thinking?! Pride parades aren’t there to show insane homophobes that we’re Just Like Everyone Else. That’s what PFLAG pamphlets and the more risqué Lifetime made for TV movies are for. Pride parades are a chance to wear ridiculous outfits, get drunk in the middle of the day, and enjoy some strength in numbers for once. Sort of like St Patrick’s Day was, back when Irish immigrants faced some actual hostility in the US (but also wanted to get drunk and party). I can’t imagine being heckled by drag queens or browsing the lube selection of local sex toy shop is going to help Keeton warm to treating some poor gay high school student with respect or human dignity. Don’t get me wrong, I love drag queens and sex toy stores, but this is just not the way to go.

And more importantly, I doubt any of the actual participants would want her there. It’s a public event and Keeton can come if she wants to, but I’m a little disappointed that her professors thought it was more important to blow her little mind than to let the entire LGBT community of Augusta enjoy their biggest event of the year without one more hater sneering at them. Not everything queer people do together is about helping sheltered, bigoted assholes realize the error of their ways. Actually, most of the fun of something like pride comes from taking a break from worrying what people who hate you think. The ASU faculty shouldn’t ruin that in a misguided attempt to change Keeton’s mind, they should tell her to go home and think very hard about whether she’d rather keep her homophobia private or pick a new line of work.

While I was an undergrad, there was a controversy that started when a student made some hyperbolic but genuinely mean death threats to a gay professor on his student evaluation. The professor complained to the administration, who shrugged. The evaluations are supposed to be anonymous (though they were done online in a traceable way) (Correction: He recognized the student’s handwriting), and the administration didn’t think the threats were serious enough to bother with. When the professor got the same threats at the end of the next semester (he’s in a small department, and is the only instructor for several mandatory classes), he called the campus paper and the LGBT life office. Long story short, the administration threw up a flurry of ass-covering, it turned out the school’s only route for filing bias complaints was to call the cops (which inspires another rant unto itself), and eventually, the school ponied up the offending fratboy, who they ordered to do sensitivity training. Which he also got out of by suing.

The point of that story, and I do have one, is that they school also ordered him to volunteer at the campus LGBT student center, thinking a little exposure Real Life Gays would teach him a valuable lesson of tolerance. (FYI, the LGBT center’s director flat-out refused, and eventually won) Now, remember kids, this guy was in trouble for repeatedly making homophobic death threats to a professor. The LGBT center is the only set-aside safe space for queer students on a large, very hostile campus. So…the administration thought it would be a good idea to order him in there. Because making empty gestures toward teaching a mean straight kid a lesson is more important than the comfort and safety of every queer student on campus. Because they can’t imagine a use for a queer space other than as a teaching tool for the straight majority. This is why we can’t have nice things, folks.

I’m sure this doesn’t just happen to queer folks. I’d be pretty surprised if these same administrations don’t deal with other -isms the same way–send the privileged offender to hang out with the people they oppress, and hope they learn their lesson. Do it without any visible concern for the people they’re supposed to be learning from. This is tokenism at it’s worst–treating the organizations de-privileged people have built for themselves as nothing more than an educational diorama, there to demonstrate our mysterious ways to the baffled majority.

*Hypothetically, the ‘remediation plan’ is mandatory, but the news article implies that she’s not going along with it (and is suing instead) and states that the school hasn’t taken any action to expel her anyway. So, she’s not exactly being persecuted out of the building, as she suggests.


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