An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

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.


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 3, 2010

Why Aren’t There More Women in Computer Science? Because They’re Just Not Into Your Bullshit

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Ethan @ 8:23 pm

Female Computer Scientist has a great post up called “Women in CS: It’s not Nature, it’s Culture” in which she points out that the U.S.’s piss-poor recruitment of female students into university computer science programs is far from universal–many countries have gender parity, and in some, computer science is a female-dominated field. She offers up 5 specific suggestions on what US universities can do to fix this, all of which boil down to “So, please – stop mansplaining and start doing.”

I dated a math/CS double major toward the end of her undergrad years. She’s exceptionally good at shooting down sexist dickheads, but even so, she same home with some nerd-douche horror stories.* She’d occasionally refer offhandedly to ‘the other girl’ in her classes. The one. In a school with 30,000+ students. If I’d had to deal with that kind of environment just to get a freaking BS, I’d have gone with a less dudebro heavy program. Like agriculture. Or poultry science.

*Which I’m gonna keep to myself, since I haven’t asked if I could use her college unpleasant experiences as blogfodder.


June 14, 2010

Not just a favor post

Have I mentioned my friend Samia is awesome this week? Yes? Tought shit, I’m doing it again.

She has a new post up about broadening the whole women-in-science ‘debate.’ Moving past single lens approach, especially when that one perspective is white, straight, cis and married. She points out that the problem may not be getting a new generation of girls ‘interested’ in math or science so much as changing the atmosphere of those fields to welcome and respect women. I’m not gonna run the whole thing down, you should just read it.


The Free Market Comes to Academe

Not too long ago, I finished my BS at a Huge Public University. For various reasons (partner working on a master’s, looming student debt, wanting to test-drive some research interests before grad school, needing to get some distance between myself and my GPA), I’ll be staying put and working for a couple of years.

Which should be fine–I worked my way through school doing science-themed drudgery, the Dept of Labor assures me my degree is in high demand, my needs are modest, and there’s an enormous land-grant university right down the street. So landing an entry-level lab tech job should keep me fed, housed and entertained for the foreseeable future, right?

Well, not so much. There are jobs out there for me, which is better than how most of America is doing right now. If and when I get one of those jobs, I will be making much more than I am now, by sheer dent of putting in more hours at a slightly-to-much higher paygrade.

But positions that used to be full time are now hourly. Nearly half the listings are for temps, but they’re not temporary jobs–at an interview recently, the PI told me they have funding and work to do for years to come, but it’s just too hard to get the administration to approve a ‘permanent’ position. They don’t want to pay for benefits. They don’t want to offer job security. And while that PI’s research sounds fascinating, and the people I met there would be great colleagues, I’m not sure I can get by making less than I did last time I was in food service.

Which isn’t a coincidence. Landgrant U is far and away the largest employer in an otherwise poverty-riddled small city. They set the tone for wages in all sectors. It’s easy to see the connection with geeky jobs like mine, but they also hire an army of custodians, cooks, welders, mechanics, office workers and so on. Budget cuts from the statehouse (and oh, how there are budget cuts) don’t just affect those employed by the school, they make sure other employers don’t have to compete. Hell, to the hypercapitalist Republicans running the state, that’s a feature, not a bug.

I’m lucky. I’m an able bodied white guy without any kids or family relying on my paycheck. I’ll be ok. But what the hell will become of my hometown if $10/hr temp work is the best thing out there?


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