Finding a good job in today’s economy is a challenge, especially when it comes to specialized research.
Many PhDs are forced to take jobs they don’t really want, or ones that don’t benefit their career paths. It doesn’t have to be this way. Your dream job is out there, and there are things you can do to give yourself a better chance of landing it.
In my case, I dreamed of conducting biodefense research in a government lab. In high school, books like The Hot Zone and Cobra Event by Richard Preston peaked my interest in this field. When I entered graduate school, I wasn’t able to do research in a biodefense-related lab, but I made the best of the opportunity by learning how to be a good scientist and hoped that someday I could transition into biodefense research using the skills I acquired.
One skill I didn’t fully develop in graduate school was networking. I felt I didn’t have a lot of time to spend talking to people I’d probably never see again after grad school, especially if I wanted to graduate in a respectable time frame.
Little did I know, the connections you make in grad school become some of the strongest connections for your career. I’m not saying I should have ignored my research and chatted all day, but my advice is to make an effort to connect with as many people as you can, and avoid any hostility between those acquaintances. Be genuine though, because nobody likes someone who’s fake. If you network well in grad school, it is almost guaranteed to pay off in the long run.
When I started looking for jobs, one of the first places I sought was the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). If you have read The Hot Zone, you know a lot about this place. I found an interesting bacteriology lab there, so I emailed a friend of mine from grad school who worked at USAMRIID.
I didn’t realize that he was actually a postdoc in the lab I was interested in until I emailed him. I first met this friend as an undergraduate when he was my Microbiology Lab graduate teaching assistant. Later, I entered his same graduate program, my wife ended up studying in his same lab, and we also played on a softball team together. So we had a strong connection. He told me that his lab at USAMRIID wasn’t currently looking for another postdoc, but suggested other labs.
A few weeks later, he contacted me to say he was leaving for an industry job and now would be a great time to contact his advisor. He also put in a good word for me. This led to an interview, and I was offered the job shortly thereafter. I was extremely lucky because of my connection and fortunate timing, but if I hadn’t become friends with this person, I would’ve never gotten the opportunity.
My wife recently completed her search for a postdoc job. She found a job through a friend of ours who, as you might have guessed, was in our same graduate program. This friend actually worked at USAMRIID with me for a year before leaving for a principal investigator (PI) position at the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC). He passed my wife’s CV along to a fellow PI and that’s how she landed an interview.
If you already have the credentials, you just need an opportunity to get your foot in the door. PIs don’t want to hire complete strangers who email them out of the blue. They prefer to have a recommendation from someone they know.
Networking is the key to obtaining a military research job because it’s extremely difficult to connect with these PIs on your own. This is in large part due to these positions being relatively unknown because of limited advertising. The more time you invest in networking (and don’t just limit yourself to people you meet in grad school—conferences and professional group events are great places to make connections too), the better chance you’ll be able to catch a break and land a job in this exciting arena.