How is researching and job hunting similar, especially when things get rocky?

We have all been there one way or another. Finding the “perfect” job opportunity, tailoring our CV and writing a bespoke cover letter, applying and getting accepted for an interview. The majority of us have been asked to prepare a task prior to the interview, where we put our heart and soul into it, hoping it will be the key to open the doors and get us hired. And the interview day comes. And we have researched everything around the company and the role, almost knowing what our interviewers had for dinner last night. And the interview process begins, we answer all the questions with more than decent answers, using the STAR approach or whatever other techniques we have been taught, ask very clever and interesting questions –according to the interviewers- and leave with a big smile, sending a “thank you” email on our way home. And then we wait. Forever. Until after a week or two, someone from HR lets us know that unfortunately, on this occasion, we were not successful for this role, we should, however, keep checking the company’s vacancies for future opportunities. Great, another job application, which took a while to prepare and was not fruitful. Sounds similar to a failed experiment? Well, it is.

Many researchers (not only at PhD level), myself definitely included, have been through the same aforementioned scenario. In this case, the “perfect job” is a new and exciting experiment, the company is the background theory and relevant research, the interview task is the preparation for the experiment and the interview is the day/period of the experiment. The “thank you” email is our crossed fingers, hoping that this time it will be OK, we will get meaningful results and figure everything out. And then we realise that the experiment did not work. And our hopes for a straightforward answer (or just an answer to be honest) to our scientific questions vanish in the same way our hopes for securing a job, a salary and a bright future temporarily vanish after a rejection email. See what I have done here?

Cuvette box full of cuvettes corresponding to successful and failed experiments. – Photo taken by me.

Not yet? Alright, let’s break the analogy down and see how doing research towards obtaining a PhD is actually very similar to searching for and securing a job.

Searching for a suitable role/company is like deciding on what experiments to do next.

When starting a PhD, or a research project in general, the ideas are flowing, there are many directions the project can go towards and we need to decide what we think it is best, we need to review the literature and see what has been done and where are the gaps we can fit our research into. Similarly, when looking for a job, even if we have a set role in mind, there are many different options and opportunities out there, many companies that might offer suitable roles. We need to identify the correct opportunities, check the specifications and see if we would fit the “ideal candidate” model, in a way similar to listing which methods can be used for an experiment.

Applying for a job is like deciding on the methods and setting up an experiment.

So we got the job specification, now we need to tailor the application. We might have applied for a similar job already, so we might have a suitable CV and cover letter, that requires slight modifications. Otherwise, we need to start from scratch, put all the relevant experience down, make it look appealing for the recruiter, point out all those attributes that make us unique and extremely suitable for this role. And of course, write the cover letter. Explain why we found this job opportunity interesting, how we are the ideal candidates, show our experience and relevant skills and let our personality shine through an A4 page. Following the analogy, planning for a new experiment is very similar to preparing a shiny new CV and cover letter, hoping to discover scientific advancements the same way we hope to secure a job. When we are designing new experiments, we take our time reading about background theory, deciding the conditions and reagents, preparing buffers, standard materials or any other “starting material” for the magic to happen. There have been periods where I was deciding on what conditions to use for my experiments and every day I would find a paper proposing a different strategy, driving me insane with all the uncertainty. Long story short, regardless of which conditions we use, what really matters is to plan ahead and be aware of the details of our particular system. Similar to a CV and cover letter, it might not be very important which experience we decide to use as our strong point, but the way we present it can make all the difference.

Preparing a tailored pre-interview task is like preparing for the experiment.

Have you ever had to prepare a pre-interview task? Either as part of the job specification (“please send us your CV, cover letter and a short document of exciting scientific discoveries”) or as a task after you have been invited for an interview. This, in my opinion, is equally important to the CV and cover letter, as it acts as a taster for the actual job. You get an idea of some of the tasks you will be given and the recruiters/interviewers can grasp whether you are the ideal candidate, based on your ideas and approach to the task. Back to our research analogy, having all the reagents ready, protocols and procedures mapped down and mindset of “I will solve all the mysteries”, usually you test the waters before diving all in, don’t you? At least that is what I did with my experiments. I had a blank run or a half run to see how I cope with the protocol if there are any tricky parts that might cause problems later on. This is also an excellent way to identify culprits without engaging with the whole experiment at once and running the risk of having to discard everything. Of course, in some cases, this is not applicable, but thankfully in many of my experiments it was. And in all honesty, in many cases, I caught small mistakes and protocol tangles that could have caused problems further down the line.

Walking around London after an interview (I did not get this job). – Photo taken by me.

Attending an interview is like running an experiment.

Finally, the day has come. After all the stress for the application and preparation, it is showtime! An opportunity to exchange information, learn and evaluate. These go for both sides, you as an interviewee and the people from the company as interviewers. For all the interviews I have attended in the past few months, I was quite stressed at the beginning, but soon after the first few questions, I relaxed and actually started enjoying the process. You get a chance to talk about yourself and your experience, getting questions on it and how it helped you develop your skills. This is a great chance for self-reflection (ideally done after the interview though) and realization of how far you have come. Also, this is a chance to ask questions about the company and the role and see if they meet your expectations. Back to the analogy, the day we run an experiment can be seen as equivalent to the day of an interview. After all this preparation, we get to run the protocol, observe as we go along, test our knowledge of knowing the protocol/procedures and deal with the unexpected, that tests our knowledge, innovation, and determination to get this experiment working. Once the samples are set, collected or whatever verb applies for different disciplines, or while we have some downtime, we are allowed to relax, make sure our lab book is up to date and maybe review the procedure and all the rocky points.

Walking aorund Cambridge after an interview (I did not get this job either).
Walking around Cambridge after an interview (I did not get this job either).Photo taken by me.

Getting rejected is like having an experiment fail on us.

Well, let’s be honest. Getting rejected or having an experiment fail on us is like a slap on the face. Nobody likes that, at least, I hate it. In both cases, I used to take failure very personally, thinking that I am not good enough for this job, I cannot make the experiment work, it is all because I am useless. However, this is almost never the case. Not necessarily because I am a superstar and everyone else is wrong, but because a) the world does not revolve around one person, b) there are so many things we do not understand and c) it is all a matter of perspective. From every failure (or rejection), there is so much to learn, besides mourning for the lost time and resources. With regards to a failed experiment, every time I got negative or mixed results (both cases I considered failed experiments), I wanted to change the subject, give up research altogether or quit my PhD. It is never a nice feeling to invest time and resources to something promising that ends up being a hole in the water. Especially at the beginning of my PhD, I took every not-positive result very personally and very heavily, thinking that it is definitely because I did something wrong. This feeling was reinforced from the existence of all those publications showing that very similar systems examining similar applications could be highly successful. This is similar to all these cases of people in our circle who were able to get a job after their first application. Without disregarding their success, we need to keep in mind that every case (of an experiment or a job application) is completely different and not necessarily related to our personal abilities.

Recovering from failure can always be rewarding upon reflection and evaluation. When getting rejected from a job, after the phase where we think it happened because genuinely we do not deserve to get employed, ever, a phase of evaluation and reflection should follow. Sometimes recruiters provide feedback, which can be useful for further development. If we are interested in the specified area of work, we should take this opportunity as a stepping stone to something better, more suitable for us. Even without feedback though, our experience should be enough to provide us with material for further reflection, as in what we could improve to our answers for future interviews, what type of company we would like to work for, be more aware of questions we might get asked and become familiar with the uncertainty and the unexpected, as much as this is possible. Similarly, after surviving a failed experiment, we can re-evaluate the end goal and how achievable it is, as the starting point might have been wrong this whole time. We can reflect on our technique, which could have been more refined, we can assess the steps and the route we designed the experiment towards and decide on whether it is worth repeating a tweaked protocol. We can assess the results and see if we can extract some useful information from them. Or, let it rest in peace with every other experiment that did not work at that point of our research journey (personally I have a big R.I.P. folder with all those “small and fun” experiments that did not lead anywhere…).

The same way a poppy stands out in an otherwise standard meadow, success can stand out in a “meadow” of failure much more than in a “meadow” of success. – Photo taken by me.

Shall we talk about what is like to secure a job, or having a successful experiment?

Speaking from my limited experience of getting hired or of successful experiments, I have to tell you that it feels great! Highly rewarding, our personal qualities being recognized, our efforts being fruitful, our need for stability (or results) being satisfied, our thirst for success being quenched. Although getting hired or running successful experiments is so much better than not, in the latter case there is so much to be learned and appreciated. Not achieving our set goals (obviously after trying) can shed so much information on how we handle failure, our perseverance, how we can improve ourselves, which aspects we need to focus on for the next time. Having been in a research environment for the past few years, I believe I have developed a much thicker skin on failure and I can put it past me much easier than when I started my PhD. Simultaneously, I can appreciate success when it comes and not take it for granted. At the end of the day, if we were always successful, either in research or in getting hired, then we would not be able to fully enjoy and celebrate our success, right?