Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Jan. 31, 2019
What I wish I knew: Three former graduate students reflect on job searching
Planning ahead is a key to managing stress in the transition to a career
If you’re a grad student, you might think what I’m about to say is a cliché: Grad students experience high levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Tell me something I don’t know, right?
Many factors impact grad student mental health. Let’s take a closer look at one of them: the coming transition from grad school to a career. My GradSkills caught up with three former grad students to find out how they’ve handled that change, and what they wish they knew and did differently to make the job search more manageable and less stressful.
Kavan Motazedi and Luis Virla both completed PhDs in chemical and petroleum engineering, while Sabine Scandola completed her PhD in biological sciences. All three are working in fields related to their research.
Spoiler alert: All three have one thing in common – they all wish they had started their job search sooner!
My GradSkills: Describe the path that led to your current role. What challenges did you face, and how did the reality of your job search differ from your expectations?
Kavan Motazedi: In the second year of my PhD I started working with the GSA and career services on my resume and cover letter. I learned about career paths and steered my research toward topics relevant to those paths. It was important to talk to people in the industry to figure out a suitable starting point for my career. It's crucial to keep yourself motivated as you job search. Being hopeless shows itself in interviews and can result in negative outcomes. I expected networking to help me find a job, but it was sending out resumes that eventually helped.
Luis Virla: I thought finding a job would be easier. I worked my network very hard, but sometimes the right opportunities are just not available, or you are not picked for the job. All my life I’ve been very lucky; this was the first time I had no control over my career and was without a clear plan. What led to my job was thinking about my future aspirations, how all the pieces fit and what kind of life was best for me and my family. I had lots of support. People gave me great advice and helped me deal with the anxiety of not having control.
I tried different strategies (online applications, networking, writing proposals), but the key was getting strong referrals from friends, mentors and colleagues, and actively showing why I was interested and why I was the best candidate. You need help, support and confidence to understand that sometimes the path you think is best is not for you, and there are other amazing paths to discover.
Sabine Scandola: I used LinkedIn to contact the CEO of a company that interested me. We had a phone interview a week later and he offered me an opportunity to start a Mitacs project.
During my search, I spent a great deal of time editing my resume. It took me almost 10 drafts before I was satisfied. I reviewed my resume with a lot of different people and it was hard to hear that everything needed to change. It’s disappointing spending time on a cover letter and never hearing back about your application. Also, I really thought I would find a job within two to three months. It took me nine months, and I had to take a retail job for the summer. Now I am realizing that a postdoc can be a nice transition.
My GradSkills: What surprised you most about your job search?
Motazedi: I got several interviews without having a strong network, and only by sending out my resume and cover letter. I was also surprised how unprepared I was for interviews. Once I prepared I got two job offers.
Virla: It takes time and energy to find the right fit. It’s an intense process that takes a lot of self-motivation. Also, you need clarity about your desired future: either be open to opportunities, or be so sure about what you want that you will wait to find the right fit.
Scandola: Most big companies use software to read your resume and select only those containing certain words. I had only three interviews in nine months. Eventually, I started researching potential companies, and found the appropriate person to contact directly.
My GradSkills: What do you wish you had known or done differently in preparing for the transition to a career?
Motazedi: Being an international student facing work permit issues made my job search difficult and stressful. I wish I had taken advantage of internship programs like Mitacs and Transformative Talent Internships. Networking sooner could have increased my chances of getting an internship.
Virla: Be more confident, be up front about job searching. I started early with networking, coaching and mentorship, but it wasn’t until I finished my thesis that I started asking what I really wanted, what was going to take me to my desired future and how I should prioritize my values when job searching.
Scandola: I wish I had started my search at least one year before graduating. I wish I had met with more recruiters and career specialists and attended connection events. During my job search I took every opportunity to meet people and visit companies, but I wish I had connected with more people during my PhD.
My GradSkills: If you could go back in time to when you started grad school, what is one piece of advice that you would give yourself?
Motazedi: Don’t be afraid of exploring different paths, majors, conferences, volunteer opportunities, and so on, even though it’s difficult or it might push back your defence date.
Virla: Don’t assume the things you want will be given to you by your supervisor or program. Grad school requires clarity about the path you want to follow. It may change along the way, but once your objective is clear many other things are easier: finding the right project or program, or finding a good fit with your supervisor. It helps to reach your maximum potential.
Scandola: I would tell myself not to be shy. I’m from France and I was always afraid that my English wasn’t good enough. I would also try to meet more people outside the university world.
My GradSkills: How have you managed the stress of finishing a degree and finding work?
Motazedi: Getting interviews kept me motivated, but I had a hard time coping with the stress of job searching. If I could go back in time, I'd plan a lengthy job search where I'd enjoy my life and look for jobs for a few months. That would mean saving money to allow me to effectively network and find my ideal job.
Virla: I had to be realistic. At the peak of the pressure of finishing my thesis I realized I couldn’t continue with my job search. I dedicated myself to finishing and once I was done I started searching again.
Scandola: I was very happy to be finished with my university life. It can take a very long time to complete a PhD, and I was enthusiastic to move on. My enthusiasm for the next phase of my life helped me deal with the stress. Meeting with people from Career Services always helped decrease stress. They give really good advice. I also swam two to three times a week.
Support is available!
All three of these former students share their persistence, positivity and their ability to ask for help when they needed it. Job searching can be daunting and it can take longer than you expect, so getting support along the way is a great way to make sure you’re on track.
Through one-on-one appointments, Career Services can help you explore what you actually want out of a career, identify and evaluate options, create the ideal format to showcase your skills in a resume and cover letter, and help you build the confidence and language to rock that next interview. Their team is here to support you no matter where you are in the process, or which direction you would like to go after you graduate.
You can book an appointment with Career Services through CareerLink. Career Development Specialists for PhD students (Stephanie Warner), Master’s students (Matthew Geddes), and international students (Liliana Gonzalez) are ready to help.
About the contributors:
- Kavan Motazedi: After finishing his PhD in chemical and petroleum engineering in December 2018, Motazedi started work in the Calgary office of Internat Energy Solutions Canada in a role that closely matches his academic background.
- Sabine Scandola: A Mitacs postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta and G2V Optics, Scandola completed her PhD in biological sciences at the University of Calgary in December 2017. Scandola’s current role studying the use of G2V Optics’ proprietary programmable-spectra microLED technology on plant genomics relates to her previous research in plant biology.
- Luis Virla: Virla is preparing to start a Mitacs postdoctoral fellowship researching carbon capture and storage with partners at the University of Calgary and Industrial Climate Solutions, Inc. His postdoctoral role is closely related to his PhD research in chemical and petroleum engineering, which he completed in the spring of 2018.