Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Leaving No Stone Unturned

Interview by Annie Sugar

Rhea Williams earned a BS with a double major in Chemistry and Mathematics at Salem College in 2009. CU-Boulder's Chemical and Biological Engineering Department's broad, contemporary energy related research opportunities and its connection to the Colorado Center for Biorefining and Biofuels (C2B2) drew Rhea to Boulder for her doctoral studies. She plans (hopes!) to defend her dissertation and graduate this summer.
What are your plans when you finish your degree? How are you preparing for your new career and job hunt after graduation?

My plan post-grad school is to head down an "alternative" PhD career path. By alternative, I mean that I am seeking roles where my scientific knowledge and organizational skills will be a key asset in furthering a company or organization's goals, including scientific program management, scientific publishing, or the coordination and administration of research and development team projects.

I realize these are niche positions to find, so my job hunt is already underway. While attempting to leave no stone unturned, I have availed myself of the help offered by the graduate counselor, Annie Piatt, in CU Career Services. Her critique and advice for my CV and cover letter was timely as I prepared to submit online applications this spring. Another great suggestion Annie gave me was to use LinkedIn's various search mechanisms (by company or within alumni, for example) to find first and second degree connections I could reach out to. My follow up visits to Career Services have been reassuring as I continue the job hunt process and I've appreciated getting an objective person's perspective as I prepare to interview professionally.  

What role does networking play in your career preparation and what skills are you developing to that end?
I believe networking will play a key role in my job hunt. To date, my time in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, undergraduate January internships, and professional meeting/conference contacts have already served me well as mentors, with whom I check in periodically for feedback and to ask relevant questions. Their insight and experience helps me explore the possibilities and shape the vision I have for a fulfilling career. Building relationships, demonstrating a professional communication style, and just having the courage to reach out and ask questions are useful skills I'm developing.

What is your networking strategy and how has networking helped you?
My networking strategy is multifaceted and includes emails, periodic check-ins and updates, and getting coffee at conferences over the years. I would encourage other students to find out what works best for them. I have had good success by sending "blind emails" of interest and inquiry to root out opportunities. As an undergrad, I relied on the power of suggestion to open a door at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and they created an internship for me based on my offer to spend my January Term at their Washington DC headquarters. It worked out so well, that the agency now hosts two students every year in the particular program office I worked in. My not-so-secret love for film took me to the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. A straight-to-the-point email to a few folks saying, "Anybody need help?" received a good response and resulted in a volunteer spot in the Theatre Operations office. It's worth mentioning that working the Sundance Film Fest was a goal I'd set for myself a full year prior. I believe sufficient forethought is important so you can "connect the dots" throughout the year and when the time comes, your circumstances are such that you can seize the day.
Where have you discovered are good places to network (online and offline)?

Conferences have been fruitful for me, but you need an "in" to help you start conversations. It's hard for anyone to walk up to a stranger! Non-conference aspects of the meeting provide good inroads. Just show some interest and nine times out of ten, the person will be happy and willing to answer your questions and have a discussion with you. Follow up on professional networks such as LinkedIn every time to connect, and be sure to personalize the invitation message rather than rely on the automatic one provided by the site. You can and should follow up fairly soon after the event, being sure to mention an idea or point from their presentation or related to your recent conversation, etc.

Do you have any networking success stories to share?        
A couple recent efforts resulted in multiple beneficial informational phone interviews and invitations to send my resume for personal referral to hiring managers for positions that interested me. The first connection came through a friend I met at my REU, now working in the industry, was linked to a chemist post-doc at Pfizer who then connected me with a chemical engineer in research and manufacturing, which led me to a CU-Boulder chemical engineering undergraduate alum working in the same R&D group. My second connection came via my mother's former employer where an executive business consultant spoke on my behalf to a friend who is working in the oil industry supply chain, Conveniently, this contact's father is a Ph.D. chemical engineer working at LyondellBasell, a large international chemical company.
What advice do you have for other graduate students seeking to establish or improve their networking skills or strategies? How should they get started?

Get started by checking out the Career Services website and maybe set up an appointment with Career Services to discuss your personal approach to what can be an overwhelming task. Next, think about a person you can reach out to. This person will feel like a "stretch," someone you haven't spoken to in a long time but you think they might know something that could help you. Reconnect. Send them an update on your accomplishments and current project. Have a goal in mind before you hit the send button. For example, I was seeking an answer to the question "What does an industrial chemical engineer really do?" when I conducted my info interviews.

Basically, you have to put yourself out there on the limb. Don't take it personally if only one out of five attempts nets an offer of help. It's cheesy, but just keep turning over stones until you find a gem. I want to emphasize how important it is to follow through when the contact offers to introduce you to someone or sends you some helpful information or asks you to send your CV. Now is not the time to procrastinate! Promptly read what was sent, reply and ask another relevant question to help move the dialogue forward, eventually building a relationship.