The need to not be alone: a learning experience.

alone for blog

It wasn’t long ago, I can still recall the excitement of knowing I was successfully concluding a period within one of the most important parts of my life: education. I was –again– going through the final stage of writing a thesis, wrapping up some last-minute experiments, having to deal with writing conclusions and discussions, gathering data and justifying how everything made sense. Nothing new to all science grads. However, at the back of my mind I was twice as happier for realizing that a new time in my life had finally come. After almost 8 years in academia and a diploma in each hand I felt –and still feel, with some differences brought about by reality– I was ready to start living out the dream. Once more life has shown me things don’t always go according to plan.

Looking for jobs, doing interviews, reading dozens of books about resume writing and cover letter mastering, learning the thousands tricks they recommend  to be savvy about, etc. I knew it! I knew I’d have to go through all this. Let’s be clear, I was not a complete naive dreamer expecting things to happen magically over completing a degree. I followed the situation very closely, I was aware of the great difficulties in landing a first job after graduation and I had examples of colleagues and friends having to go through such process too. However, it’s hard to realize how serious it is until one is actually experiencing it. How do we cope with the hundreds of applications sent and the almost non-existent responses? How to deal with the embarrassment of saying “none” when a hiring manager asks “how many years of experience do you have in the industry?”? We’re recent grads, we will have very little chance to gain any experience at all if we’re systematical and repeatedly denied the chance to start – from the very deep bottom maybe, but at least take the first step. I am not in possession of national statistics –for Canada– about employment rate among youth, though it would be very interesting for everyone to realize the high percentages of recent grads who struggle so hard to land a position. Sometimes not even in the exact area of their expertise but something close enough to let them at least be in the field.

Not long ago I read two stories which I felt entirely and sadly identified with. One was from a grad student from University of Victoria, BC and also a columnist for the Canadian job hunting engine Workopolis. In her article she described the enormous frustration her friends felt for not being able to land any other jobs that working at bars and restaurants with the majority of them holding Bachelors as well as Masters degrees. She mentioned the embarrassment of these young people when asked what they do for living, and ended her article with a pledge to all employers: “Grad students are out there waiting for you, hire them!” I could not agree more. The second story was from a Spanish student who’s currently living in London. He holds two undergraduate degrees and a Masters and is cleaning toilets in a famous and luxurious coffee shop. The level of disappointment he expressed in his writing was such that the story became viral in a few days spreading to most Spanish-speaking media.

Both are extremely touching testimonies for all those who are in this situation. We know what it feels like to devoting such huge amount of varied resources to a career that seems to only leave us with minimal-wage jobs. I won’t say there are people to be blamed about this, what I know though is that we live this reality and it’s ruining young people’s dreams and life expectations from the get go. I may be an idealist, but I would like to find the way to help people like the ones in these posts have real possibilities of pursuing better and more consistent careers, doing what they’re good at. This is because I believe in the need of not being alone, of counting on colleagues and mentors who boost our will and make us aim high, no matter what the challenge might be. Even when the economy is tough, and even if the system fails to include everyone, I am down for looking beyond and overcome these problems. There is a need to support each other, and it is a need that implies learning. I ask myself, are we ready for this?

So, my final conclusion will be a sort of a question. Do you know of other young professionals in other disciplines who are facing the same problems? Is it just as hard to land an entry-level job as an accountant or a graphic designer or an IT person? From personal experience with acquaintances and friends I don’t think so. It’s far more difficult in the science field. If others are living in the same world and still finding it less hard to get similar things, shouldn’t we learn something from that? What do you think? I would love to hear your opinions and perspectives on the subject. I hope this discussion helps us understand what we need to do from now on in order to change our reality. Not sure up to what extent, but something is better than nothing.

What have we done to deserve this? It was about a good cause after all…

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No need to be redundant about the serious trouble the world’s economy is going through nowadays. We have heard thousands of times how bad things have become, and how much tougher they might turn into if we follow our current path. If we look around, it shows itself: statistics being the cruelest proof of such reality. However, what are we supposed to do? Are we expected to resign to our future arguing this depression responsible for not being successful? Are we encouraged to blame our parents for having been born in the “wrong” time in history? Do we really want to fall that short and condemn ourselves to such a simplistic, conformist and mediocre thought and/or behaviour?  I cannot content myself with such empty attitude. Happily enough though, I can see many others around me who can’t either.

Speaking of bad times and reality, as a recent graduate of a science program I have been faced with the responsibility of managing my life into the direction of a so-called “career”. Let’s just stop right there! What am I talking about? In a traditional way, starting a career means job hunting for a position that suits your education and experience, applying for as many jobs as possible and begging you get lucky enough to get hired. Sounds about easy, doesn’t it? Now here’s where the two biggest problems of a science soon-to-be worker begin. First and foremost, where are all the good positions? Wait, where are actually any positions? I know many of you might be thinking “wha’s this guy talking about?” Well of course I am conscious about the postings that are up in some of Canada’s most famous job hunting engines –you name them- but have you noticed the frequency with which they’re posted? Compare that to ads being uploaded by hundreds asking for marketing/sales related positions, food and beverage industry, general labourers, etc… We must face that the number one problem in landing your dream job in science is the limited abundance of positions offered. That combined with the overcrowded convocation events at Universities and Colleges across the country makes it an aggressive fight of a myriad of applicants over very few available opportunities. But it’s not only that what’s causing recent science grads so much of a painful experience is the workforce market, there is also an intrinsic problem to science itself. I would like to be very clear about this being true particularly for life-related disciplines as well as those which are “research-prone” such as Biology, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Genetics, Ecology… hand raised over here! The intrinsic problem is “specificity and degree of expertise”. Yeah, something as simple as that can rule you out of an application simply because you do not have enough knowledge and/or experience in one technique or such other system. While other fields can be seen as more general and where knowledge acquired during university is enough for working for many different employers and positions. Science comes with a higher degree of exclusivity. It is not our fault as recent former students that our theses focused –logically- on a certain number of techniques and approaches. Should we be supermen and superwomen we could learn it all, but so far that dream has not come true. So I crave a “why?” to all employers out there listing so many and so different requirements as part of the experience… are you seriously looking to find someone who knows it all and is able to carry out all you ask successfully? If your answer is yes, look into my eye and tell me that person can be a recent graduate… I doubt it!

hire me please

Possibilities reduced to the limit, picky employers with strict requirements, tons of competence, lack of enough experience, education underestimated… this all looks like we’re paying the price for a capital sin! So I ask myself everyday: is this what I must suffer for choosing to do what I like to do and what I know how to do? I hold no grudges to those who find passion for research and go from bachelor to masters, masters to PhD, PhD to post-doc, post-doc to next post-doc, next post-doc to next next pos-doc and from there to being a Prof/Researcher for the rest of life. That’s totally fine, and I have so many respected close friends and acquaintances in such situation. I believe in the usefulness of basic research and I am convinced people who are passionate about that and want to dedicate all their energy to such activity must do it! However, I refuse to believe we must all follow such way, because that brings along problems like oversaturated educational institutions which are rejecting post-doc fellowships and faculty applications at an alarming rate. So I must rely in the belief that there’s still a chance for us all who want to contribute to applied research either in the public or private sector, but with the clear objective of having our actions produce a short-term impact on society. Isn’t it thrilling to work on some “life-changing” project and see it working “in vivo” and “in situ”? It thrills me!

All this said then, I am here today writing these words just as the beginning of a widespread message for all recent science graduates who would love to land a job in the industry world and make a change in others’ lives.  After all this has always been my drive when I first ever thought I would be involved in science: being able to help my fellows with my knowledge, my discoveries, my initiatives, my passion, my integrity, my wish to improve this world of ours. Would you like to be part of this project? What if we all get together and stand up for ourselves, whatever situation we are in currently, and help each other spread the word about new opportunities, successful strategies, positive networking connections, webinars and hangouts for sharing experiences and perspectives. Let’s work together to make it happen, I am sure this is possible. I believe in the generosity and willingness of people for a good cause. Nothing will stop us guys! Let’s show the world what young scientists can get!