Every job search is different, but there are certain tactics that you can apply to most situations. I have often been told about the importance of networking, and that’s exactly how I found my new job at a national institute: I practiced my elevator talk and seized every opportunity to speak to experienced researchers in my field.

During a symposium I attended, a speaker mentioned an available position in a national institute where I have always wanted to work. After his talk, I approached him and asked him about the opening. It turned out that this position had opened only a few days before, so I was able to get in the door early. Fortunately for me, we had already become acquainted during other conferences and he knew my work pretty well. This worked to my advantage, and I got the job two weeks later without going through the normal interview process.

Through personal contacts, I was also able to learn about unadvertised positions. For example, I started chatting informally with a professor about his research during a poster session at a conference.  He mentioned that he had a postdoc position opening up, but that he was looking to find potential applicants from friends and colleagues rather than by advertising externally. By the end of our conversation, he had invited me to apply. Had I not approached him to talk about something else entirely, I never would have known that the opportunity even existed! Building personal relationships with colleagues is extremely valuable.

Even in instances when I didn’t land a job as a direct result of networking, I gained some very valuable advice. I talked to newly hired assistant professors to get a sense of what their lives and work were like. I asked them what they wished they had done differently in their own careers, and whether they have been able to benefit from their experience. Based on this input, I have discovered that running a lab is actually a lot like managing a startup company. As a result, I have started to pay attention to lab management resources and attended workshops to learn about how to handle conflicts among my team.

My colleagues also helped me to discover other helpful resources for job searching. I thought I knew many of the online job sites, such as workinoptics.com, monster.com, etc. However, a friend who recently moved to a faculty position used sites that I hadn’t even heard of:  academickeys.com and indeed.com.

In addition to making the most of your network, you must also plan for your future and be prepared for the opportunities that arise. I knew that I was ultimately interested in biomedical imaging, so I made an effort to branch out into that area of research over the past few years. I always have a few recommendation letters ready to go, along with an up-to-date CV that I have revised many times. Because I had thought ahead, I was able to submit an application within a week of finding the right job opening. 

Miaochan Zhi (mczhi@tamu.edu) is a research physicist at NIST. She received her Ph.D. in ultrafast optics from Texas A&M University.