Career Coach: When Should New Grads Begin Applying for Jobs?

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Welcome to Career Coach, a column for job seekers and employees navigating the ins and outs of finding, landing and succeeding in jobs in the biotech industry. This month, Carina Clingman, founder of The Collaboratory Career Hub, answers questions from the community about job search timing, asking a current boss for a reference, using outplacements and more. Email your questions to: hello@collaboratorycareerhub.com

Question: I’m finishing my PhD soon. When should I start applying for a job, and how flexible are companies with start dates?

CC: First, congratulations on nearing the completion of your PhD. That’s an exciting milestone! Regarding your job search, I always advise students that it’s never too early to start growing your LinkedIn network. No matter when you plan to graduate, whether it’s this year or in three years, start following companies that interest you and connecting with employees from those companies so you have a warm network when you are ready to start applying. 

I recommend beginning your job hunt in earnest about six months before your expected defense date. This time frame allows you to learn about the job market, attend interviews and manage any unexpected delays in the recruitment process. Unless you are receiving help from a great career center or career coach, there will be some trial and error as you navigate the process. The current market is also challenging, and we are seeing longer search timelines, with current estimates at about five months on average.

As for the flexibility in start dates, it largely depends on the company and the specific role. Biotech employers understand the nature of academic schedules, including the challenges of assembling your committee for your defense. We’ve often worked with candidates to accommodate start dates that shift slightly due to a rescheduled or delayed defense date. We’ve also allowed candidates to start working while finishing revisions or edits to a pending publication as long as no further lab work was required. It's essential to be transparent about your unique situation during the interview so the hiring team can make accommodations. 

Most companies are looking to hire “ASAP” but are willing to wait a month or so for an ideal candidate to join. The most common scenario is that the first four months of your job search will be spent building your network and learning how to be a good job candidate. Most first-time job seekers start to get traction in months four to six, so planning ahead is key.

Question: I’m in the final stages of the hiring process, and I’ve been asked to provide references. I’m currently employed, and my boss doesn’t know I’m looking for jobs. The company has asked for a reference from my current supervisor if possible. What should I do?

CC: This is a common scenario and a delicate one, but a great opportunity to showcase your professionalism during the interview process. First, know that it is perfectly acceptable and quite common to keep your job search confidential, especially from your current employer. Recruiters, HR and most hiring managers understand this and won't insist on a reference from your current supervisor if it could jeopardize your present position. 

Here's what you can do: Politely explain to the prospective employer that your current employer is not aware of your job search, and providing a reference from your current supervisor could negatively impact your current work situation. Most companies will respect this and won't press the issue.

Instead, offer alternative references who can vouch for your skills and work ethic. These could be former supervisors, colleagues from other departments, external vendors you manage, or even clients, depending on your role. Make sure these references are people who know your work well. You’ll want to reach out to them to ask if they can and will provide a substantive and positive recommendation. It’s a good idea to prep your references with context about the position and any specific skills or traits you’d like them to highlight on your behalf. 

Question: For the past 18 months I’ve been working as a scientist in a very large company, and I enjoy my job. I have aspirations of managing a team and don’t want to be complacent and miss opportunities. When should I assume I’m not being promoted here, and how long do I need to be here before I look for another job?

CC: It's great to hear that you're enjoying your role and thinking ahead about your career growth! Ambition is a key driver in professional development, and in large companies, you’ll find that sometimes it is up to you to make strides forward, or risk being overlooked for promotions and opportunities. There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer, but here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Reflect on your current role: Have you taken on additional responsibilities since you started? Are you continuously challenging yourself and expanding your skill set? If you’ve been growing within your current role, it’s a positive sign that you’re on the right track. Either way, schedule regular goal meetings with your manager to ensure that you are progressing and your achievements are being noted.

  • Understand your company’s timeline: In large companies, the standard timeline for promotions is often around the 2-year mark, and significant jumps like moving into management will likely take longer. However, this can vary widely depending on the company culture and structure. Again, regular conversations with your manager will help you to understand this timeline better. My column last month laid out a strategy for asking for promotions, and it’s worth a look if you’re struggling to understand how to progress your career without moving to a new company.

  • Evaluate the environment: If after two years you haven’t seen progress or clear pathways to advancement, it might be time to consider looking externally. Remember, while loyalty is valuable, your career growth is paramount.

  • Build your network: Regardless of whether you stay or leave, build your network daily. If you spend a few minutes on LinkedIn connecting with people at interesting companies, commenting, sharing and being visible, opportunities will start to present themselves. This does not happen overnight, but the time investment is well worth it.

Finally, keep in mind that career paths are rarely linear. Being open to different kinds of opportunities, which might sometimes include lateral moves to gain broader experience, might feed your ambitions while also giving you new paths forward.

Question: I’ve just been laid off, and my company is offering outplacement. What is outplacement, and why are they offering it to me?

CC: I’m so sorry to hear about your layoff. It’s been a tough stretch for our industry, and you are not alone. This is an incredibly challenging time, but might also open doors to new opportunities. It’s great that your company is providing outplacement, which is a general term to describe a service to assist displaced employees in finding new jobs. Here’s what you need to know about it:

Outplacement services are sometimes offered as part of a severance package. They are designed to help you transition more smoothly to your next job. It’s a gesture of goodwill from the company, acknowledging that while they can’t continue your employment, they still want to support your next career move. Companies provide outplacement services to maintain a positive relationship with former employees and to uphold their reputation as responsible employers. It also helps reduce the stress and impact of the layoff on employees.

Outplacement services can vary, but they typically include career coaching, resume and cover letter assistance, interview preparation, and sometimes even help with networking and job search strategies. Some programs also provide access to job listings and career fairs, although that is uncommon in our industry.

I’m biased because my firm provides outplacement services, but I highly recommend taking full advantage of coaching and support during this tumultuous time. These services can provide valuable guidance and resources that can shorten and simplify your job search. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your career goals and possibly explore new directions or industries.

Another unexpected benefit of outplacement is emotional support during what can be a stressful and scary time. Some outplacement services offer a community for networking and mutual support. In his book Before Happiness, Shawn Achor cites studies in which individuals tend to perceive the incline of a hill to be up to 20% steeper when they are alone compared to when they are accompanied by someone who intends to climb it with them. If we extrapolate this to your job search, finding support and community, rather than “climbing” alone, will make the task feel easier.

While being laid off feels terrible, it can be a catalyst for growth and new opportunities. Outplacement services are there to help you navigate this change more effectively and confidently, so take full advantage if you’re lucky enough to get this as part of your severance package.

Carina Clingman, PhD, is the founder of The Collaboratory Career Hub, an online community for people interested in working in biotech. She is also the founder and CEO of Recruitomics Consulting, which specializes in talent acquisition and talent strategy for startup biotechs. Learn about joining the career hub here, or send questions to hello@collaboratorycareerhub.com.

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