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.


September 24, 2010

How to Get a Lab Tech Job After College and Before Grad School

Filed under: Uncategorized,Work — Tags: , , , , — Radical Scientist @ 1:53 pm

I’m a couple of months into post-graduation job hunting. I just had a pretty good interview, so I’m feeling optimistic. So I’m filling the anxiety-time while I wait to hear back by taking a break from complaining about job hunting to try and write out some advice for people in a similar situation–in possession of a freshly-minted BS, looking for work in a research lab or something similar. This may be part one of a short series.

There’s a lot of advice floating around the internet about how to apply for jobs in general–resume-writing, networking, etc. Problem is, 99% of it is aimed at people looking for a generic office job. Academe and government operate pretty differently from the corporate world, and job hunting is different when you have some specific, narrow skills. Looking for a tech job is in some ways more akin to being in the trades; you have some set of specialized skills that may or may not be implied by your formal education, and if you can find someone who needs those skills, then you’re in. Forget buzzwords about leadership and communication, employers want to know what you can do, and how long they’re going to have to spend training you.

Similarly, there’s tons of info out there about getting into grad school, but very little about job-seeking in an academic environment before you start looking for faculty jobs. But for those of us who don’t head straight to grad school, spending some time as a research professional can be really helpful. You get to test-drive some research methods/subjects/projects, beef up your CV (and, er, get some space between yourself and your undergrad GPA), and on a good day, it pays better than food service.

So, where to start?

Your CV & Cover Letters

The most useful thing I figured out was this: Make a huge master resume/CV, with everything you’ve ever done on it. List your classes, your jobs, internships, any certifications and trainings, the contact info for former employers, everything. Take some time with it–develop a layout you like, proofread the hell out of it, and save it as a text document. Then, every time you need to apply for a new job, open the master file and do a ‘save as.’ Name it for the job you’re applying for, and delete everything that’s not relevant. You may not need to totally customize your CV for every single application–I found most of the jobs I was qualified for fell into a few major categories–but you do want to sound like you are specifically qualified for whatever you’re applying for, so don’t leave the relevant experience buried under a pile of retail and foodservice.

Similarly, make a mad-libs cover letter or two. Something like

‘Dear Sir or Madam,

I’m writing to inquire about the (job title) position in/at (place name). I have X years experience with a couple things from the job description…

And so on. I hate writing cover letters, but they really do need to be specific to the job. Don’t hesitate to start from scratch for a job you really want, but the important thing is to be able to put minimal effort into each individual application, and still have it look like you were paying lots of attention to that job in particular. This is one part of the process where a lot of the standard business etiquette advice does apply here. If you can get the name of the person doing the hiring, address it directly to them. However, my Local University and the handful of other schools I looked at tend to be cagey about which lab the job is actually for, presumably to make people go through the official HR channels rather than pester the PI personally. If you heard about the job from a professor or somesuch, go ahead and name-drop. If not, there’s no need to mention you found it while trolling the HR website.

Write up a generic 3 paragraph letter. Use the first, short paragraph to introduce yourself & refer to whichever job you’re applying to. In the second, longer go into some specifics of why you’re qualified–what of the skills or techniques that they’ve mentioned do you know? Where have you worked as a student worker? I tend to put the fancy stuff first, then toss in the basics at the end. So, I might start off going on about how I can do PCR backward & forward, and then toss in that I can stay organized, use Excel, and work in a team, and order chemicals. In the last paragraph, thank them for their time, tell them they can contact you at your email or phone number (put them in the letter as well as in the upper-right hand corner), and sign off.

Formatting your CV This is where the corporate-world advice starts to break down. Conventional wisdom is that a resume should never ever ever exceed 1 page. A curriculum vitae, however, is the standard in academe, and can be longer. Mine’s generally 3 pages. If you don’t have much to put on there yet, though, 1 page is fine. I prefer a ‘functional’ approach–instead of listing places I’ve worked, I put a list of skills toward the top. So it goes like this (length estimations are from my CV):

Header: with my full name, address, phone number and email address. (2 lines)

Education: Where I got my degree, in what, when. You could make the Education and Honors, and include Dean’s list, honor societies, and such below your degree.  (1-3 lines)

Skills: I have a couple categories–molecular bio skills, microbio skills, computer skills, language, and a miscellaneous section with a couple dubiously useful but hopefully impressive knickknacks–basic mechanical skills, that lab glassblowing course I took, etc. These are all in bulleted lists. If you have any certifications (radiation safety, etc) or have been through specialized training for some past job, make a subsection for that at the top of the skills section. This is the section I edit most to customize my CV each time. I take out skills or whole sections that aren’t relevant, and tweak the wording & order of skills to match the job discretion.  (Rest of Page 1)

Research Experience: a reverse-chronological list of lab jobs, independent study research projects & internships I’ve had. Each one gets my title, the place I was working, and the rough dates on the first line, and then a short (3-10 lines) description of what I did or learned. I generally don’t edit this section from version to version. (This takes up 1.25 pages or so, with line breaks between each list. It ought to be shorter, really)

Relevant Coursework: a list of the upper-level science courses I’ve taken. Just the course names, separated by commas. I don’t edit this much, since it’s not too long. But I have the whole list on my Huge Master CV(tm), and delete things that aren’t relevant, or bump especially pertinent courses up to the top. If you have more course experience than research experience, bump this section up above the research section and give a short description of each course–1 line each. (5 lines)

Publications and Presentations: Ever been 15th author out of 25 on a paper? Given credit on your boss’s poster presentation? Presented at an undergrad research conference? List that shit, in reverse-chronological order (newest first), in a proper bibliographical format (whatever you would use if you were citing it in a paper for class). (Make this section as long as you need. Mine’s just 2 entries, but list everything you’ve got)

Volunteer Experience: In the same format as my research experience, I list places I’ve volunteered for, and what I did. Mostly because I’ve got a couple things that sounds leadershippy, and to show that I have a life and care about things and stuff. None of mine is especially science-y, though, so I keep it short. (0.25-0.5 page)

Lastly, make sure that you fill however many pages you wind up using; try to avoid having a half page at the end. Save everything (CV’s and cover letters) as PDF’s, if you’re submitting them electronically. Whenever possible, give specifics–how many months/years experience you have in technique X, how many different samples you managed, etc–in your write-ups. If you don’t have any research experience, focus on your coursework and just list off the dates, places & titles from research jobs, maybe throw in a few key responsibilities (as a dishwasher, weren’t you ‘responsible for maintaining a sanitary kitchen?’ or ‘maintaining compliance with food safety regulations?’ Sure you were).

Be patient. Apply to lots of things, and don’t get too wedded to anything that sounds good until you get an offer. In the next post, I’ll cover how to find jobs to apply to, and offer some tips for the actual application process. After that, maybe a post on interviewing.

Good luck. I hope this was useful. And by all means, chime in with more advice in the comments.


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