Less is more… Job Applications

Jobs. Graduate jobs. The job market. We’re handed horror stories on a daily basis about how tough it is out there. Ever the optimist, once I’d handed in my thesis in September 2014, I began my job hunt adamant that it was a load of fuss and nonsense.

How wrong I was. I am so sorry to break it to you. It’s true. It’s tough. I think I have now applied to >20 jobs, all based around scientific and university outreach, and only now, am I getting somewhere (fingers crossed I will have an announcement very soon…!). So I’d like to share an experience with you, and let you know what I think has (hopefully) helped me get somewhere.

Many colleagues, family and friends were happy to console me from the lows of being constantly knocked back. ‘The right job is just around the corner, just you wait’, ‘Just be patient and keep going, you will get there in the end’, ‘Good things come to those who wait’…

Whilst it was comforting to hear that loved ones were sure I would get there in the end, I was frustrated and bored. I had become desperate… sending multiple applications a week, tweaking CV and cover letters left, right and centre to make them fit the job description.

Just before Christmas I received an email from a kind employee of Kings College London which has completely changed my approach to job applications. It was the most lengthly and detailed ‘feedback’ email from any of the jobs I had applied for, and one which I am wholeheartedly grateful for. As a summary, this person made the following suggestions…

1) Needs more detail with regards to the activities and events that you have organised and delivered. 
Whilst I had meticulously listed all the activities I had been involved in, I didn’t necessarily explain what exactly they were, why I did them or what skill set they afforded me.

2) Requires more in relation to your interest in the position, including personal reflections.
The email pointed out that other candidates were able to demonstrate their thoughts about the position, including their particular interests, aspirations and viewpoints. I think this could be particularly effective if demonstrated within a professional capacity.

3) Add how your experience would help you in different aspects of the role.
Whilst I was keen to explain my experiences with matched the essential and desired criteria of the job specifications, I think I was lacking context. I hadn’t taken the time to consider different aspects of the role and directly relate my experience to this.

So thank you, KCL employee, for restoring my faith in the application system, and opening my eyes to what employers seek in a good application. Less is more, when you are able to articulate yourself competently. I hope following this formula has/will win me that interview!

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The Viva

It was the 4th November 2014. I woke up very early, with a lot of butterflies. Today was the day. The concluding day of my PhD. Or so it felt.

My mouth was so dry I could feel my lips sticking to my teeth. But really, I am pleased to tell you, there wasn’t too much to be nervous about.

My examiners made clear with their body language and the nature of their questions that they weren’t there to grill me, or to be just plain mean. They just needed to check I understood my project. Even though the experience was over a month ago, here is a list of questions that have stuck in my mind:

1) What were the most important conclusions from your project? (pretty straightforward)
2) Draw a graph of the PCR reaction (wow, this took me back to first year undergrad! But it is not the first time I have heard of a ‘basic’ question be asked in a viva…)
3) If you wanted to find (this) out, how would you do it?
(this came up ALOT. Think about some future experiments and research a broader range of techniques in advance)
4) Have you considered looking at (x)? (again, think of the wider context of your actual experiments in advance)

I have to say it was not one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had. At no point did I relax, contrary to the experience many PhD graduates before me had proclaimed. I also did not leave my viva with a huge sense of relief. But perhaps that is because of the large amount of minor corrections I wanted to complete in the short amount of time before the graduation deadline.

Needless to say my examiners were thorough. Judging on what advice I was given from websites, PhD graduates and academic colleagues, coupled with my own experience. I can almost guarantee no viva is the same. But if you have read enough, and you really did do all your own experiments, you’ll be ok :) 

 

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Viva Prep Part 2

Firstly, a huge apology for the delay! Secondly, I am *actually finished* – properly finished(!) with a robe hired for January and everything…! Needless the say the reason this post is so late is because I have just had the busiest 4 weeks of my life!

The Mock
Was OK! My preparation was reading my thesis thoroughly, but little else, because I wanted it to become a steep learning exercise. As my supervisor proclaimed afterwards: I ‘winged it’😉 HOWEVER, it did really highlight the gaps in my knowledge and gave me direction as to what to brush up on for the real thing.

Preparing for the REAL VIVA
Because of job applications (definitely not enough space to explain all those here…!), I allocated myself a week for ‘viva preparation’. Many people might say this is not long enough… most people I spoke to gave themselves at least 2 weeks. I felt comfortable with this amount of time following my mock viva, and I think the best advice I could give would be to leave yourself enough time that you are able to do enough that makes you feel confident.

Based on how my viva went (definately a separate blog post!), I’ve come up with a Dos and Don’ts list to preparing for your viva.

DO
1) Read your thesis carefully. Never underestimate the value of spotting the typos your examiners are keen to point out.
2) Have a mock viva with a supervisor, post-doc, advisory panel, course co-ordinator… anyone who can spare you the time.
3) Re-read those key papers
4) Read around the research areas of your examiners, can you pre-empt any questions about how your research links to theirs?
5) Prepare some answers to genereal questions. i.e. What is the most important outcome of your research? How does your research impact this subject area? Please summarise your main findings in a timeline of events… etc. (I posted some resources on my last blog post)

DON’T
1) PANIC! Your examiners are there to find out more about how or why you did experiments, not to catch you out (I wish I had followed my own advice on this one!)
2) Not prepare. “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” – Alexander Graham Bell
3
) Forget. This is YOUR project, YOUR hard work, and YOUR ideas. Noone knows YOUR PhD as well as you.

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Viva Prep Part 1

So… less than 2 weeks until my viva voce. The perfect opportunity to discuss how strange it feels, the preparations I am making, and how I’m oddly looking forward to it!

I think the word that can best describe the period of time between thesis hand in and viva is ‘limbo’. In one sense, I have finished, I wrote up my project! But in another, far from it, I still have the scariest exam of my life to go!

Tomorrow I have a mock viva with my supervisor. I have done very little prep for this because I really want to use it as a learning exercise. However, I have been reading advice on the internet. Some excellent links I found were PORT (postgraduate online research training) and Vitae. They provide some great ideas on what to take with you into your viva, advise you to look into your institutional guidelines and give some practice questions you actually CAN prepare an answer for.

I have almost finished going through my thesis (there is an ABUNDANCE of post-it notes marking papers to re-read before the big day), and am most certainly starting to feel jittery. But I think it is a mixture of anxiety and excitement. I am looking forward to exiting this ‘limbo’ period and being able to finally conclude my project of work. What an achievement this will be.

Hopefully tomorrow’s mock will tell me more, and I will, of course, document the result here! fingers crossed!

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Writing THE thesis

Ok, I admit it, for this post, I was provided inspiration. I have recently discovered Sarah Shailes’ blog. She is also a plant scientist, has recently finished her PhD and is now working in scientific writing.

I kind’ve skipped stages 1 and 2 she describes; denial and acceptance. I gave myself 4 months and was pretty tough on myself to achieve this. WARNING: 4 months is doable but TIGHT! Leave yourself longer if you know you are a slow writer. I was also looking forward to seeing all my results and accomplishments compiled in one place and finally making sense of the bigger picture! 

Starting out
The tough bit was starting… There is a blank page on your screen and it is tempting to start with your ‘title’. My advice is before you write, get the story straight. I put all my figures together first, arranged them in order, and into their ‘designated chapters’.

Can I ACTUALLY write the thing already?!
So my figures took a while… (2 weeks, and I did actually have some already made…). But after this I went through and drafted my figure legends; time consuming and a little boring but this enabled me to work out precisely what my data meant.

OhOhOH NOW I am actually going to write my THESIS
Don’t panic, break it down. I allocated myself 2 weeks per chapter and 1 week for the final tying together and also a buffer period for any mishaps. This meant that I refrained from being (too) overwhelmed, focusing on it piece by piece.

This is going swimmingly!
I got into the flow, and suddenly it all became a lot easier…

Until, writer’s block
There will come a point where you just cannot push yourself any further. You’ve exhausted your ideas and have almost lost your way. At this point, draft in your supervisor to check it over. I cannot stress enough how vital my supervisor was in this process.

It’s done! (Almost)
The revisions are back, the editing is underway, so just the simple task of formatting to go then…

Formatting
Advice: set your margins, font size etc AT THE START. This makes formatting a whole lot easier. Most people tend to write each chapter in a separate document because the files just get so big! I am also an organisational perfectionist. I did my references by hand, my contents tables by hand, and added page numbers to each chapter file separately. This meant a significant decrease in the chances of my figures jumping around when converting to PDF. It worked! I converted each chapter to PDF and merged them using this tool.

I have also heard that LaTex overcomes a lot of these issues.

Submission
Printing, binding, hand in. The easiest part of the process. I had nightmares the night after hand in that I had missed something out. But only the viva will tell… and so the wait begins.

A good scientist will never take credit for another’s idea, and so I would like to Sarah Shailes’ ’10 stages of PhD thesis writing’ post and thank her for letting me use it🙂

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New to the game…

I’m Charlotte. I just handed in my PhD thesis. I am looking for a job in scientific education and communication.

To achieve this, blogging seemed like the way forward. And it seems some others had the same idea…
http://postphd.wordpress.com
http://lifeafterphd.wordpress.com
http://postphdblog.wordpress.com
http://afterphd.wordpress.com
and so on….

So why bother I hear you ask? All job applications I have *meticulously* studied, ask for experience. In wordpress, in communication, in writing… And moreover, they want proof. I’ve guest blogged before (http://www.plantcellbiology.com/2013/10/biotechnology-yes-an-entrepreneurial-adventure/
http://www.plantcellbiology.com/2012/01/5-questions-for-charlotte-carroll/
http://aobblog.com/2013/04/understanding-the-toxicity-of-cassava/
http://aobblog.com/2011/12/the-vacuole-not-just-an-empty-hole/)
But it is time for me to go it alone.

I feel like I have so much to say. About science. About my PhD. About my experiences. And about the post-PhD journey I am about to embark upon… In the words of Dr Pepper: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

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