I felt stuck in my job search. But networking, conducting informational interviews and revamping my CV helped me not only find a great job, but get it.
The year was 2017 and I had just defended my PhD thesis. I was ready to be a responsible adult and join the workforce. There was just one catch: I had no idea what I wanted to do. During my graduate studies I had created a list of jobs I knew I didn’t want (professor, science salesperson, science writer, etc.), but I really had no idea what career path was right for me. So I applied for every other kind of job I could find, had a few interviews (the good, the bad and the downright ugly), and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to convince an employer that I was the right fit for a job when I didn’t even know what job I wanted.
So began my journey to “find myself.” I moved to Denver, Colorado to start fresh as a postdoctoral fellow. I changed how I worked; instead of keeping my head down at the bench, I got heavily involved with local organizations and used the resources at the career development office. About a year into my postdoc, I realized that I did not want to do bench research anymore. While I still loved science, I was finding much more pleasure and satisfaction in my volunteer roles. I realized that although I had always felt uncomfortable networking at scientific conferences, I actually loved networking when I wasn’t talking about my own research. So I made a plan. I was going to gain more leadership and management experience as well as build my network in my volunteer roles so I could get a job outside of research.
By early 2020 I had acquired new skills and built a new CV; I had been the president of the postdoctoral association, chaired events on campus and participated in outreach and communications for several organizations. I met so many people in these roles, listened to their stories, struggles and dreams; and I knew I was making the right decision for myself. I started applying for administrative jobs at universities and non-profits in Canada but had no luck. Then the pandemic hit and there were fewer job postings and more people out of work.
By the fall of 2020, I began to panic. My network was all U.S.-based, there were no conferences to attend and I had not received a single interview request. I met (virtually) with my mentor at the career development office and he told me I needed to build a Canadian network (outside of research and with people who held the type of job I wanted). The best way to do that, he said, was to conduct informational interviews.
I was terrified to call up strangers and ask them for advice during a pandemic, but I bit the bullet and reached out to my mentor’s Canadian friend at the University of Toronto: Nana Lee. It was the turning point in my job hunt. Dr. Lee described the professional development networks she was a part of and what steps in her career path played the biggest role in her success, and, most importantly, she introduced me to more contacts.
Through her contacts, I made more contacts, and through them even more. Along the way, I learned job titles I had never heard of, courses I could take online, the lingo being used in the field and what keywords/search engines to use in my job search. Through the chain of contacts, I met Dinuka Gunaratne, who became the most important person in my job search. He introduced me to other grad students and postdocs who were looking for jobs and students who had recently found work. He also helped me to create an unofficial job search support group. Learning that I wasn’t alone and meeting people who had recently succeeded gave me the energy to keep going. But I still wasn’t getting interviews, despite the fact that I was smart, capable and qualified.
When Dinuka asked to see my resume in January 2021 I showed it to him assuming he would tell me to make a few tweaks. Instead, he bluntly said it was “crap” and there was no way I would get a job with it. More importantly, he told me how to tailor it for an academic position in administration, which was incredibly different from the industry type CV I was working with. Without this insider information (from someone who was hiring in the field) I never would have made the appropriate changes and would have definitely continued to struggle.
I ended up having seven interviews and two offers over the next four months. When I wasn’t sure what to do, I used my new support network, met more people in the areas that I had offers at and asked to meet more of my potential colleagues at the prospective positions. The dreaded informational interviews continued to help me even after getting job offers!
After talking to people from Memorial University, I knew the university in St. John’s was the right fit for me and am now working there as a grants facilitation officer. I couldn’t be happier or more excited about my job, and I know that the networking skills I learned will continue to help me as I advance in my career journey.
The bottom line
- To get a job you need to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and put yourself out there!
- Networking may seem scary, but when you are networking with the right people and in the right field it can be fun and enlightening.
- Networking can occur in places beyond conferences – friends, colleagues, committee members, your career development office, your alumni office can all introduce you to people you can learn from.
- Create a job search support group with newly hired grads and other job seekers.
- If someone accepts an informational interview it means they want to help you!
This article was first published in University Affairs.
About the Author:
Jennifer Major, PhD, recently completed her CIHR postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus and is now a grants facilitation officer for the faculty of science at Memorial University.