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Job Market Myths: Fact or Fiction?

Since my transition to a postdoctoral fellowship earlier this year, I’ve begun to investigate the non-academic job market. Careers outside academia were shrouded in mystery during my graduate career.  Here, and in future articles, I aim to debunk or verify rumors that are whispered among graduate students in the hallways of many universities across the country.  Since areas of focus within STEM are drastically different, I would like to state that the below observations are from my perspective as an organic chemist looking for a career in a pharmaceutical company.  Furthermore, the sentiments paraphrased below come from professionals who are familiar with non-academic careers and may not easily translate to those seeking tenure-track positions at a university.


Myth #1 – When applying for a job, you must be ready to start immediately.

False.  It is actually quite common for large employers to be flexible on an exact start date.  Companies may have several reasons to be willing to slightly delay a start date (budgeting, urgency of demand for the position, allowing you to finish a key experiment for your Ph.D.).  To secure the talent they want, employers are usually willing to postpone a start date several weeks to months after the offer letter is sent. This is an important myth to debunk because many graduate students might wait too long into their graduate career to start applying and find themselves in a stressful situation.  There does exist one exception though; small biotech startups.  Given the size, speed, and urgency with which many small biotech start-ups work, they often are not able to accommodate delayed start dates for new hires.


Myth #2 – You must take the first job offer you receive.

False, but be mindful.  Ph.D. programs and postdoctoral fellowships can be grueling, and even for those with impressive publication records the reality is having these qualifications still only prepares a student for an entry level position at many companies.  After the time spent in academia, some might be eager to accept any opportunity that comes their way and take on job searching with impatience and haste.  A prepared student will likely have several interviews (phone call, in-person, site visit, etc.) lined up, but be unaware that some employers request decisions within 2-4 weeks of their offer.   If you are fortunate enough to receive an offer but are still looking at other opportunities, do not feel pressured to accept immediately and forego your future interviews. If a company has already extended an offer it means they are excited to hire you and clearly communicating you would like another 1-2 weeks to finish out your interviews should not be an issue.


Myth #3 – It is a bad idea to drastically change fields for your post-doc.

False.  While still less common than staying in a closely related field, it appears that more students are entering different fields for their postdocs now than previously.  I spoke to a student about a striking transition from a mechanical engineering M.S. to immunology post-doc at a major pharmaceutical company.  While she made clear that the learning curve was steep, she also made a point of mentioning how helpful and patient her supervisors are.  Because of the supportive team she is embedded in the experience has been easier than expected and she will finish with a very unique set of skills. If a postdoctoral fellowship is something that you are considering to round out the skills gained in your Ph.D, it is important to consider just what kind of research you could be doing to best prepare yourself for a career afterwards.  Also consider if you would prefer your postdoctoral experience to be in an academic lab or in an industry lab.  Currently many – if not most – major pharmaceutical companies are hiring postdoctoral fellows for a vast amount of scientific needs.  This information is readily available on a company’s available position listings.


Editor’s note: Keep an eye out for more myth-busting about the job market! Tweet at us @PLOSECR or comment below if you have specific questions in mind and we’ll do our best to seek out answers.



Featured image by Tumisu from Pixabay. Pixabay License, Free for commercial use.

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