Networking My Way to a New Job

6. June 2013

Miaochan Zhi

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.

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National Labs 101: What They Are, What They Offer

23. March 2012

Tyler S. Ralston 

So you are finishing your degree, and you need to decide what to do with your life. Some science grads simplify this into a decision between academia or industry. However, there is a third option—a national laboratory.

 In the United States, many national labs are federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) that are operated and staffed by private corporations or academic universities under contract to the government. In several ways, these labs straddle the gap between academia and industry.

Broadening your professional pursuits
When Ph.D.s finish their degrees, they often feel they are so specialized that they have few options. Fortunately, in a national lab, there is room to expand and diversify. National labs generally have several thousand people with several groups working on projects. They have seminars that allow you to see what other projects are being developed around the lab. This is a great way to survey many projects and find new opportunities to apply your specialty.

Publish or patent?
While a national lab doesn't necessarily subscribe to the “publish or perish” adage from academia, there is value ascribed to publishing research articles (albeit sometimes classified ones). Similarly, patent writing skills are a valuable skill to have in a national lab. The onus is on you to complete the paper or patent while pushing forward your project's objectives.

Research and development
National labs differ from industry in that there are generally few projects with manufactured deliverable systems. The deliverables tend to be technical analysis, system research and development, and proof-of-concept prototypes.

The types of funding agencies can vary, but it's safe to say that a majority of the financial support comes from defense- and energy-related grants. In academia, on the other hand, funding derives from a variety of sources, both government and private. Having grant ideas to push forward the lab’s mission areas are important. For ideas that need preliminary investigation, there are generally opportunities within the labs to apply for internal funding.

For each funding cycle, the labs have a budget for laboratory-directed R&D, which is used to promote highly innovative and exploratory research that supports the lab’s mission. Generally, an advanced concepts committee reviews proposals and funds research that supports the strategic initiatives of the lab. Beyond this, other opportunities for funding include funds set aside for collaboration with associated campus laboratories.

Reputation-building
Many FFRDCs operate by way of a technical meritocracy. That is, employees advance on the basis of their talent and achievements. For that reason, the first several months can be very critical in your career development; it's the time when you'll set the course for your career at the institution.

The more you can hit the ground running, the more opportunities you’ll have to demonstrate your skills and build achievements. It's important to find a mentor and a project so that you can see your contributions flower.

I was once given excellent advice that I will now pass on to you: Select the people and projects that best suit your vision of your career direction. National labs give you a unique opportunity to get a lay of the land entering a job. Don't be afraid to survey your appointment after a trial period and apply yourself within the groups that best suit your abilities.

Career roles
There are four main career roles at a national lab:

Technical Guru: a field expert who may be well renowned for publications, leadership, and participation in professional societies. He or she may bridge gaps between universities and the lab for collaborative research.

Capability Leader: This person is involved in lab review committees and programmatic strategic planning opportunities, which build the lab capabilities.

Program Developer: Someone who often responds to proposal calls. He or she has broad knowledge of the lab’s programs and the sponsors’ needs.

Project Manager: A specialist at organizing tasks and projects. This role involves managing finances, scheduling, and subject matter experts.

Any member of the lab staff may take on multiple roles throughout their career. A technical staff position is often thought of as secure and stable employment. In my opinion, a national lab is the best place to grow and learn skills rapidly.

Tyler Ralston (tralston@gmail.com) has worked at Battelle Memorial institute, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, MIT/LL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is currently partnered with an advanced technology startup.

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