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.

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