So you want to get a job in science? Part 2

Last time, I talked about some of the pitfalls of going into science, including a lack of entry level jobs and the dangers of endless grad school. It’s tough navigating a job market that wants experience when there is such an emphasis on theory and grades during post-secondary. It’s also unfortunate that so many bright and engaged young minds get roped into a thankless field like science. But all is not lost – there are always ways of getting a good job, as I did myself way back when. And since some of you may still be persuaded to go into science, this post is about how you can accomplish that.

 

High school

If you’re in high school, GREAT. You have years and years to get lots of good experience. When you’re a junior, your focus should be on getting good grades, understanding the basics, and getting to know your teachers a bit more. If you have the opportunity, participate in science outreach events which let you connect with real scientists. Then, when you’re in your senior years, you need to ACT. Some suggestions:

  • For everyone you know who has a connection to science – teachers and mentors – ask them if they know of any labs who would accept a volunteer to do glassware washing and odd jobs. Chances are, if a teacher or mentor went to university in science, he or she will have made some friends who have gone on in the field of research.
  • If you have no luck there, expand your search field. Do you have family friends or family members who work in science? Spread the word that you are looking to volunteer in a lab. Someone out there will have a lead or a tip or a suggestion. Be persistent!

You’re going to get turned down, many many times. You’re going to work up the nerve to talk to someone higher up – a teacher, a principal, a little-seen family member… and they’re going to say no. This is normal and you know what? You better get used to it. If you’re going to work in science, you’re going to be knocking on a whole lot of doors and most of them will shut in your face.

But at some point, you’ll get your chance! And then? You’ll get the lowest of jobs possible – glassware washing, tip jar filling, perhaps inventory and box packing. And it’s all GREAT. Any experience you can get will reflect positively on you. Never ever turn your nose at the chance to gain real world experience.

 

University

If you’re in university, damn, you better get on it! Time is ticking.

 

First Year

During your first year, my advice is the same as if you were a high school student – get good grades, get to know your professors and find a lab to volunteer in. I’ll be blunt – no one is going to pay a first year science student to do anything. You know nothing and there are hundreds of overqualified seniors and graduates all itching to wash glassware too. Instead, find a good lab that you are genuinely interested in and ASK for a volunteer position. This is important! You cannot simply wait for a job to appear – you must ASK.

Why is this? Well, most professors are busy people. They are not going to go to the trouble of posting for volunteer positions unless they really really need one. But, most professors also love keeners. So be a keener. Be enthusiastic, genuine and ask for a spot in their lab. Keep in mind – most lab positions are secured BEFORE the start of a term. So if you want something for the summer, ask around in February or March. If you want a spot for September, ask in August.

I did this in my second year and my professor invited me to her office to discuss possible summer placements. But when the time came – I chickened out. I was too intimidated to go talk to her. It was an unfortunate missed opportunity – don’t let it happen to you!

 

Second Year

During your second year, you have a little bit more credibility. You’ve survived a year of schooling and you’re still around. Hopefully you have good grades and hopefully you have a bit of volunteer experience under your belt. If you’re lucky, your university might have had first year labs – this counts as experience too, though less so than actual work.

If you did not get any experience during high school or first year, you need to start looking for positions now. Pretty soon, it’ll be too late.

If you did get some experience, now is the time to start branching out. Perhaps you have an ongoing volunteer position. Now that you have proven yourself, you should ask for more work. Show some interest in what the lab manager does – you could take tasks off their hands. For example, simple skills such as learning how to aliquot antibodies or prepare dilutions for gels teaches you important lab techniques and will enable you to provide a valuable service to potential employers. The important thing is – you need to be proactive.

For me, I volunteered as a fish husbandry technician at the Vancouver Aquarium. I gained a lot of applied skills in taking care of animals while I was there. I also found a work study position which paid me for 10 hours of work per week. I filled tip boxes and prepared aliquots. Dull, dull work. However, the lab did some really cool stuff! But since I did not show an interest in it – I was not asked to participate. In contrast, the other girl who was hired at the same time as me was constantly enthusiastic, questioning and curious. As a result, she was offered a summer position doing actual simple experiments. Don’t make the same mistake!

 

Third and Fourth Year

By third and fourth year, you should have at the minimum, gotten some lab experience due to classes. Hopefully you can perform basic dilutions and handle lab equipment like pipettes and balances. Combined with volunteer experience, you should be ready to find yourself a paid, part time position.

Again, I would advocate finding a job you are interested in and asking for a position. Be able to explain to the professor what you can do for them and WHY you want to work for them. At the same time, you need to be realistic – there are still hundreds of people who are probably more qualified than you. If the only job you can get is a job washing glassware – take it and smile.

During my senior year, I found a job at a local pharmaceutical company. I was hired to wash glassware for 10 hours a week. They told me that they received over 100 applicants. :S For 6 months, I did nothing but wash glassware. I got to know my co-workers and I tried to be helpful. Soon, I was asked to do inventory and dilutions. This is great experience to have, especially from a pharmaceutical company, because the regulations that pharmaceuticals have to adhere to are quite strict. Then, I started asking for more work – I got bumped up to 20 hours a week and I learned how to take care of lab mice – this is another important skill to have in biomedical research, and one that is not generally taught during undergraduate courses. Finally, I heard that the company was planning to hire a full time staff member to do minor animal experiments. So I worked up my nerve asked the manager for the job. I explained how it would help the company – I was partially trained already, they would save time and money because they would not have to post and ad and interview candidates – and I emphasized that I could do the job and that I wanted to do the job. Needless to say, I got the job and worked there until I graduated and was hired by a large research institution.

Some schools have internship or co-op work programs. If you don’t mind extending your degree and need some help finding a job, these are often great opportunities to gain experience and make some money. The downside of doing a school work program is that you usually have to pay a fee to your school. I did not do the biology co-op program and was still successful at finding employment, but some people may find it easier to search for a job within the structured co-op program.

After Post-Secondary

I hope you see that the key to success is simply taking ownership of your own future. Jobs require experience and no one is going to help you find that experience unless you ASK. This might mean reaching out to teachers and family members, it might mean embarrassing yourself once in a while, and it will most definitely mean being rejected constantly. But if you keep trying, you will find success.

But suppose you have already graduated with your Bachelor of Science and you HAVEN’T done any of these things. It’s definitely harder to get volunteer experience or to take advantage of co-op programs when you are no longer a student. Is your only option grad school?

Not at all!

If you are in this situation there a a few things you could try:

  1. Seek out a low-skill job in your field. This could be washing glassware or changing animal cages or water plants, for example. The important part is being able to get your foot in the door – you can work your way up from there! After a year or two of solid work experience, you are in a great position.
  2. Try industry. Just because you graduated in science doesn’t mean you have to do research. There are lots of industries which required employees with a knowledge of applied science. For example, aquariums require hands-on biologists to take care of their displays and many companies require chemical technologists to tests compounds. I worked with a biologist while I was a volunteer at the Vancouver Aquarium. It’s not the greatest paying job in the world, but it’s pretty cool to feed the fish! And again, you can work your way up from there.
  3. Get an applied skill. While I would not recommend grad school, there are lots of post-bachelor programs which are 6 months or 1-2 years in length which offer students training and certification in a specific skill. For example, you might train to be an autoclave technician, a medical technician or a medical geneticist! Designations such as these offer untrained science graduates a way to specialize and gain industry specific fields quickly. As well, these certifications are usually offered by technical schools who have an intimate knowledge of local requirements. In other words, they will only train as many graduates as they think they can place into jobs. As a result, you have a high chance of finding employment immediately after the program ends. For example, I considered doing a medical genetics program after my undergrad. They guaranteed a placement at a hospital (somewhere) and limited the program to about a dozen trainees a year. These types of jobs offer secure employment usually ranging from $45000 to $50000 a year. I’m looking at job postings right now, and there is a full time lab support technician job paying $22.49 per hour, there are 10 positions at a local hospital for medical technicians, and several for histology technicians. These are good jobs with good pay and excellent benefits. There is life outside of research!
  4. Use science in a related field. Just because you trained as a scientist doesn’t mean you need to do lab work. Perhaps you have other interests? You can work as a museum interpreter ($19.96/hr), a journalist (~$0.40 per word), a newsletter writer/scientific communicator ($32,000/year) or a teacher (varies according to state/province). Brian used his scientific background to score a business/management position in the field of life sciences. I scored numerous blogging positions in different areas of science and conservation. Some of these jobs might require training, but others just require showing passion and initiative. I did not get my blogging jobs through formal training – I just blogged! Brian did not get a management position by having an MBA – he volunteered to get experience as a manager! Be creative – your degree is valuable.

So that’s my spiel. Getting a job in science is not an easy task. Many people resort to endless years and decades of education and advanced degrees when a lot of time, you just need to be focused, determined, and a little bit bold. My hope is that readers see that there are lots of career options for would-be scientists. Many of them pay better than being an actual scientist! The key is to keep an open mind and be able to apply what you have (a degree, problem solving skills and passion) to a wide variety of fields and situations. I hope these two articles have helped and I wish everyone good luck in his or her job search.

Posted in: Career and Work

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