That’s right. Capital letters. It’s so intimidating, isn’t it? Even just typing this is giving me slight anxiety.
In this post, I’ll be talking a little bit about my post-college first job search and what I learned from it. I start my first job exactly one week from now, so I guess this is as good of a time as any to reflect on things. Plus, hopefully this will help some other people out there still looking for a job, especially those other fresh grads out there. I’ll also separate out some advice I’ve read or gotten on specific topics (like cover letters or interviewing).
Let me start with my general career aspirations. I ultimately want to become a researcher and professor in psychology. That means a PhD. Working backwards from there, I need to go to graduate school, get grants and publish papers on a regular basis, and generally amass research experience. I only started seriously working towards my goal about two years into my college career, because that’s when I decided on my career goals. I worked in two psychology research labs, did my own independent research, took the GRE, worked on my personal statement, and thought I was ready for grad school. Turns out I was not, because I didn’t get into any of the programs I applied to (I did get invited to a couple of interviews though, so it wasn’t too disheartening). From what I hear, it’s actually pretty uncommon to go to PhD programs in psychology straight out of undergrad, so I was at least comforted by that. I decided to keep working at this goal, so that meant getting some sort of paid research position, ideally in the area that I’m interested in. This would also give me some more time to decide on my primary research interests and get some more experience.
I actually started my job search fairly late; I wasn’t quite emotionally ready to start until after I had accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to grad school this fall. So I didn’t really start looking until mid/late April. Research positions are kind of hard to find and even harder to get, because there are a bunch of people wanting the same positions, and they all have qualifications at least on par with mine. I sent out applications all over the country, and I actually got pretty good response from several places. In June, all I did was get interviewed a lot, get passed over for more qualified applicants, and try to keep my motivation up. One of the reasons I started this blog was actually so that I could have something else to do besides be depressed about not having a job yet. So yeah. I actually did get an offer, but it was for a position that was far away from home, didn’t pay very much, and wasn’t helpful enough to my overall career goals to offset those cons. So, even though I didn’t have any other offers, I still turned it down. Luckily, my parents are actually very supportive of my goal to become a researcher, despite that career not being very glamorous or high-earning, and takes a long time to even get started. But still, they allowed me to continue living at home without putting too much pressure on me to just find a paying job. So yeah, I had some more time.
Then, one of the professors at the university semi-close to my home got back in contact with me (I had a phone interview several weeks ago, but hadn’t heard back) for an in-person interview. Of course I went. Even though this job was only part-time, and didn’t pay well, it was still a research position in an area of research I was interested in, plus I wouldn’t have to move all the way across the country for it. Apparently I nailed the interview, because I got an offer and I accepted! So yeah, that’s my first job story. I’m still in the process of getting another part-time job in research at the same university (there’s another professor hiring), so fingers crossed for that one! I haven’t heard back at all yet, so I’m trying not to get my hopes up too much.
Now, for what I learned. I’ll make this into bullet points for easier reading.
- HAVE SOME STRUCTURE. I cannot emphasize this enough. A set routine, schedule, and timeline is the best. For example, on Mondays, I’ll find jobs to apply to and research about the position/company/lab/whatever. On Tuesdays, I’ll work on tailoring my cover letter and/or resume to those positions and apply to them. On Friday, I’ll evaluate my progress and decide whether to proceed or tweak a few things. Or maybe you’ll dedicate certain times of the day to certain parts of the application process. Whatever it is, some sort of set structure kept me from becoming lost in the search and consequently feeling lost in life in general.
- Have something else to do besides searching for jobs all day. For me, it was writing this blog. I also volunteer with some work online (that also gives me a little bit of a resume booster). I have some of my research that I can work on getting published (that’s going very slowly, but it’s going… somewhat). Constantly thinking about the job search is just going to stress you out. Do dedicate a good chunk of time to it, but don’t overdo it.
- Keep up with your existing planning system. If you don’t have one, strongly consider getting one. I have posted before about how I plan and how I now bullet journal. It’s so nice and calming. Plus, making your journaling neat and adding in a little bit of a design element takes a little bit of time that you can then add into your routine and feel like you’re doing something productive without too much effort. It’s super easy to get started too.
- A lot of advice websites will tell you to find a support group. I didn’t do that, but I’m told that local libraries and local churches tend to have job search support groups regularly. I didn’t really feel like it was necessary for me, since I also had my parents to report back to every night at dinner, but if you live alone, maybe consider one. It’s important to have some sort of support during this time, because it’s very stressful and some measure of social interaction is usually pretty good de-stressing, even for introverts like me.
Some tips for cover letters, resumes, and interviews:
- Take advantage of those college career center websites. Many of them have free resources like handouts and stuff that are available to the online public, though they’re more suited for entry-level people like me (like this on resumes and this on interviewing from my alma mater).
- I shouldn’t have to say this, but tailor at least your cover letter to each position. Read it over and over and over. And then read it out loud. Make sure you’re addressing the right organization and the right person.
- You might not need to tailor your resume, depending on what you’re looking for. I didn’t have to, because almost everything on mine was relevant to research positions and those were all I was applying to. If you have a lot of experiences, you should probably cut out some in order to make your resume all fit on one page. For me, I had both a CV and a resume, because my CV extended into a second page (I had my poster presentations on there, plus formatting differences). A lot of research jobs at universities will allow you to upload a CV, which if your CV is more impressive, then do that.
- PRACTICE FOR YOUR INTERVIEWS BEFOREHAND. I’ve always found it helpful to write out exactly how I would answer common interview questions. It’s also a good idea to talk to some people already in the field about what sorts of questions there might be, because some might be more specific to the type of job. For example, I was interviewing for research assistantships and lab manager positions mostly, so I always get asked about my own research interests, how I juggle multiple projects at once, whether I had experience supervising other research assistants, and (since these positions are usually temporary) what I plan on doing in the next few years. You should try to tailor these responses to make it seem like you’re the perfect person for that particular position you’re applying for.
- Because I applied to a bunch of jobs out of state, I mostly had phone and Skype interviews. The advantage of these is that you can have your notes and stuff right in front of you, so you won’t forget points that you want to bring up. Plus, you can reference your own interview questions (for the dreaded “do you have any questions?” part).
- I’ve only had one in-person interview, and that was for the job I eventually got. I’ve also gone through several interviews for graduate programs, which are pretty much like job interviews anyways. For this, I have no idea how helpful I might be, since people in research and professors tend to be pretty casual. I still dressed up professionally, because that makes a good first impression and shows that you are serious. I always brought a notepad to take notes on and an already-made list of questions. During grad school interviews, several other applicants did the same thing. No one said anything against it, and some people even looked at this favorably. However, I’ve heard that for some fields, this is discouraged, so it’s a good idea to look into it on your own.
- Remember your interviewer(s)’s names!!! I was taken by surprise for one interview where there were three people, and I accidentally forgot to write down one of their names. I tried to cover as best I could, but needless to say, I didn’t get a second interview. This is very important. Sometimes you won’t be able to find their name online. However, I always had an email contact (because it was either a professor or someone else in the actual lab/research center that contacted me for an interview), so you have at least one surefire way of contacting someone directly involved in the hiring process.
- Definitely follow up- after every interview or conversation, at least send an email thank you. Some websites say to send a snail mail thank you card, which I find very old-fashioned and which most research labs have no patience for anyways. The hiring process is usually pretty quick for research positions, and there’s no time for mailed cards. But definitely an email thank you.
I think that’s about it. I went through this relatively pain-free, though I did have several late nights stressing about my future and one major breakdown, which, now that I write it out, is actually pretty bad, lol. But hey, finding a job is hard work. Give yourself a pat on the back regularly, even if it’s for small things like applying to five jobs this week, or getting an initial phone interview. Treat yo self.