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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July 16, 2010

Libertarians: Overt Douchbags

Today’s post is brought to you, belatedly, by this lovely post over (link should work now) at Gin and Tacos and my thoughts thereon. Long story short: the post is an, er, scathing critique of James Sherk’s (of the Heritage Foundation*) recent appearance on Hardball. (note: much of the audio on the latter half of the video is ruined by Matthews laughing his ass off the soundstage) Sherk asserts that, basically, the Science of Economics Proves having unemployment insurance discourages people from sucking it up and getting a job, any job, ASAP–even if that means moving to where the jobs are, or taking something out of your field and way below your former pay grade. Or all three. And, we are to believe, that’s a Bad Thing, because unemployed people are using Your Tax Dollars to hold out for jobs like their old ones, rather than accepting that the invisible hand of the marketplace has booger-flicked them out of the middle class.

One thing I’ve always wondered: Isn’t it maybe better, long term national economic policy-wise, for the abruptly unemployed to have a chance to hold out for whatever their definition of a ‘good job’ is? Having someone who’s highly trained–whether they have a Ph.D or 20 years experience as an underwater welder–take work way out of their field puts their skills to waste. I’m guessing Sherk would say they’re welcome to keep looking for another teaching or welding job while they flip burgers, but taking that minimum wage job is bound to slow down their job search waaaay down–it’s not like their new boss has any incentive to let a newly-trained employee leave, and they’re not under any mandate to give employees time off to go to interviews. I’m not just speculating, this was been a problem for me when I was in food service and looking to get out. The longer you’re out of a profession, the harder it gets to get back in. At 6 months, you’re an unemployed welder. At 2 years, you’re a former welder.

And for people who don’t have the education or experience to get out of shitty jobs, a sudden influx of formerly-white collar workers is bad, bad news. To take this to a bit of an extreme, consider this: when the last 5 people a McDonald’s hired have a BA or an MBA, there’s a good chance HR will start skipping over applicants sporting a GED. You can see this in places with chronic over education and high employment–isolated college towns and Portland, OR come to mind.

The percentage of Americans with college degrees has meandered ever-upward over the last few decades, and with it, the minimum qualifications for many jobs have gone up incrementally too. Office drone & secretarial type listings often demand a bachelor’s degree rather than a HS or associate’s degree, unskilled workers are expected to have graduated high school, and skilled labor has slowly swung from on-the-job training toward a tech school first, employment later model. I think this downturn will push that trend a little further, as the unemployed people with MBAs settle into office jobs a tier or two below their last position, the people with undergrad degrees go down another notch or two, and so on. People who are highly educated aren’t going to be unemployed forever, they’ll just wind up pushing everyone below them down a notch.

Human-interest stories about the crappy economy always focus on the former banker who now works as a gas station attendant. But what about the guy who can’t get a job as a gas station attendant because all those jobs are now going to college graduates?

I’m guessing Sherk hasn’t had much experience being unemployed without good prospects. So he sat down and thought real hard about it, read some intro economics texts that say things will all work out so long as everyone makes ‘rational’ choices and people have perfect information. And using his Rational Power, he deducted people should go where there are jobs.

But he obviously didn’t talk to anyone in the ‘real world,’ (or even in the rural poverty hot zones of Real America (TM)) or he’d have noticed that he’s full of shit. For starters, there’s no where in the US right now where business is booming and jobs are plentiful. And if he’d talked to anyone actually dealing with unemployment,* he’d know that the whole ‘rational decision’ model isn’t what’s actually sensible for people to do. In a model, moving for a crappy job is better than staying put with no job. But in practice, there are all kinds of costs–the cost of moving, of giving up your friends, family, professional network, etc. If only one person in a couple is unemployed, moving just to see if a state with 7% unemployment is better than one with 10% unemployment is especially stupid. I could go on, but I’m sure everyone gets the point.

*Yeah, I know, the Heritage Foundation fancies itself more conservative than libertarian, but in this case, the economic argument is pure free-market freebasing, which both teams support but libertarians do so with less social finesse. Sherk’s fuck-you-and-your-kids attitude is a stellar example of that kind of malicious social cluelessness. So there.

**At one point he cites his well-off unemployed friends, who he doesn’t seem to have talked to at all, and who are exempt from his admonitions to take jobs they currently consider beneath them.

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July 15, 2010

Trans Job Discrimination: Now With Numbers!

Two trans members of Make the Road/New York’s LGBTQ Justice Program were turned down for fast-food jobs in 2008, six years after the city banned gender identity based job discrimination. Which is hardly news, in and of itself–job discrimination against transgender, transsexual and gender-nonconforming people is tremendously common, and looking at the statistics for POC or women, it’s not hard to figure out that simply outlawing employment discrimination doesn’t end it.

But anything resembling hard facts about anti-trans discrimination are hard to come by. When their members got passed over for jobs, Make the Road decided to work on that. The end result is this recent 22 page report, aptly titled Transgender Need Not Apply, which details their DIY trial of a sociological technique–matched pair studies–to get some numbers to show the rational-fetishist crowd. You can guess how that turned out.

How it Worked

They picked two pairs of their members who were similar in as many ways as they could control for–one team was composed of Asian-American women in their late 20′s, the other of white men in their mid 20′s. The experimental difference was that one member of each pair was cis and the other was trans, and the the trans applicants disclosed their status on applications and in interviews.  They were outfitted with made-up resumes that gave them similar backgrounds and experience, with a slight advantage to the trans team members. And they underwent serious training to match their demeanors and interview behavior as much as possible.

The pairs then set out to apply for jobs at high-end retail stores–J. Crew, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Brookstone, etc. 24 different stores in all, for a total of 42 applications for each experimental group.* The cis testers got 14 job offers. The trans testers got 2. The way the numbers shake out, that totals to a discrimination rate of 42% against trans applicants, which is, well, pretty freaking high as discrimination stats go. How does 14:2 equal only 42%? The employers were saved some by that fact that many stores didn’t offer anyone a job, and a single store (the Virgin Megastore) picked the trans applicant over their cis counterpart. Once.

What Does it All Mean?

In their report, MtR were careful to point out that their study is too small to tease out intersectional discriminations, which they assure us they’ d like to do in a larger study that could measure the degree to which race and class factors interact with transphobic discrimination (I’d put my money on ‘multiplicatively’ or ‘exponentially,’ if anyone at the Radical Scientist Gambling Parlor were dumb enough to take the other side of that bet)

Personally, I’d be curious to see how trans men fare vs trans women, as there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that transmisogyny (that is, the particular cocktail of misogyny and transphobia aimed at trans women & other male-assigned trans people) is a huge, huge magnet for job discrimination, even compared to the transphobia-served-neat (and often with a chaser of male passing privilege)** faced by trans men. Unfortunately, with only 2 freaking job offers going to the trans testers, this particular study isn’t going to help there. You can’t study intra-community differences in hiring until someone hires some more freaking trans people. Like, a statistically significant number of trans people. Sheesh. We may be waiting a while for that one.

Thanks to Questioning Transphobia for picking up this story before me.

*Note that an experimental group is made up of the all subjects sharing a variable. So, the two cis testers are one experimental group and the trans testers are the other. Meanwhile, we also have two teams, one of a trans woman and a cis woman, and another with a trans guy and a cis guy. I know it’s a mess, but obviously, it matters how you divvy up the data.

**No more liquor metaphors, I promise. Not till we get farther into the weekend, at least.

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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.

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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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