How Do Postgrads Find Jobs?

Most postgrads are very internet-savvy, so when anyone asks me about finding jobs, the normal request is “which websites should I look at for jobs in X?”.

They look a bit nonplussed when I start talking about using their contacts, developing their networks, making a list of who you know – isn’t that all just for business men on the golf course, or “meejah luvvies”, and completely irrelevant for academia or specialist postgraduate roles?

Well, put away your prejudices, ‘cos here’s the proof.

Postgraduate and graduate jobs, 3-4 years on
A survey published last summer analysed how doctoral researchers, masters and undergrads who were employed in the UK found their current job, 3-4 years after graduating. The survey date was 2008, so all the participants had graduated around 2004/5. This is what it showed:

(if you click on the image, you’ll get a slightly clearer version).

This is from the excellent Vitae/IES/RCUK/CRAC report, “What do researchers do? Doctoral graduate destinations and impact three years on, 2010. I’m still poring over the full report (the link takes you to the pdf online) but thought you’d like to see some of these highlights.

You can see that undergrads are most likely to have found out about their job from an employer’s website. Maybe it’s the experience of looking for jobs as an undergrad, or knowing friends who have found jobs this way, which perpetuates the belief that this is the most effective strategy.

In practice however, both masters and PhDs had most success in using their “professional, work or educational contacts or networks” to find out about jobs.

But what about academia?
There’s more detail for PhDs in the report, which reinforces the view that it’s all about who you know and who knows you when it comes to getting jobs in academia (again, click on the image for a clearer view):

The most striking use of contacts came for those working in research jobs in HE, ie mainly post-doc jobs, followed by teaching jobs in HE. Although jobs in universities are generally advertised (as shown by the numbers in HE who found out about the jobs from an “employer’s website”), those doctoral graduates who had been successful in getting jobs in HE more often mentioned their networks than the ads.

Jobs outside academia
Using your networks was still very important, especially for research jobs outside HE. Personal networks also started to come into play here.

Only when it came to finding jobs which weren’t normally seen as doctoral jobs, were networks less effective.

For teaching outside HE, ads were crucial (as any school teacher poring over the TES knows), and for “other common doctoral occupations”, ads and agencies were useful, alongside professional contacts. This latter group includes a high proportion of qualified health professionals (eg. clinical psychologists and medics) and significant numbers of “function managers” and engineering professionals, all of whom are attractive to agencies and advertisers:

(from a separate “Methodology” companion report to the main “What do researchers do?” survey.)

Speculative approaches
I’ll be honest, the one which surprises me most is the low number of doctoral grads saying they found out about their jobs through speculative approaches, particularly for research jobs outside HE. When I was recruiting techies in industry, we kept suitable speculative CVs on file, and whenever a vacancy arose, that was the first place we looked (before even thinking about an ad).

Either that’s no longer an effective approach, or my hunch is that so few people try targeted speculative approaches that even if they’re all successful, they will show up as  much smaller numbers. Anyone with some good data on this, I’d love to see it!

Multi-pronged approach
The most effective strategy is probably to cover a number of bases (the survey above allowed multiple choices answers to the question, acknowledging that realistically most people use a range of approaches).

I’d put particular emphasis on approaches which have proven to work for most people (get those networks going), but also tapping into some of the less well used sources, just in case you’re the only one who happens to spot that obscure ad, or whose speculative application hits the desk of a recruiting manager at just the right time.


7 comments on “How Do Postgrads Find Jobs?

  1. I think this is an excellent post that captures the importance of personal networks as a PG jobseeker.

    For me the importance of network cannot be overstated. Every job that I have every had, from my warehouse job during A-levels to my postdoc at the University of Cambridge, I had some sort of connection with the decision maker through a mutual contact.

    Based on my experiences, recently I’ve started using LinkedIn a lot more as part of my career and I’m finding it very effective at constructing a network. To be honest, I had been sceptical about it before creating an account, thinking it would just be a corporate Facebook. However, I’ve found that the vast majority of people using LinkedIn do so responsibly, making connections with people they have genuinely met or done work with in the past and that keeps the value of the network very high. I wrote a post about setting up a LinkedIn profile here if anyone is interested in my thoughts:

    I believe that many employers looking at applications will try and find you on Facebook and LinkedIn when considering you.

    I would recommend using LinkedIn as part of the multipronged approach outlined above, but only if you are going to commit to using it. Setting up half a profile and linking to 2 or 3 people will probably make a worse impression by a potential employer looking you up on LinkedIn than having no profile at all.

    • Hi Dan

      Thanks for that – I agree that LinkedIn has real potential for postgrads developing their careers. I blogged about it here – “What’s the point of LinkedIn?” – and I’m sure I’ll come back to it in future.


  2. Jobs for the boys, in other words. If you’ve got friends in the right places, you’re sorted. Otherwise, good luck. Your lot is to fight it out with the other chumps applying to advertised positions.

    • I don’t think there’s any getting away from it, George – using contacts to find out about jobs does still seem to be critical for postgrads.

      However, now you know that, you can either choose to keep on replying to ads, or do something about building your networks.

      For academic jobs, the value of your research is measured by how other academics view it. Therefore, your reputation is a key part of your work. Having academic contacts isn’t just about schmoozing. It’s about building your academic reputation through conferences, seminar etc – a core part of an academic job, not an add-on.

      For non-academic jobs, I agree it’s harder to develop a supportive network. However, LinkedIn has gone some way to broadening your potential network without you having to have the right parents. Most universities have alumni groups on LinkedIn and that can add thousands to your potential network. If you’re aiming at a type of work with a professional body (such as the IMechE or the RSC), again, you’ve got a potential network of people in your field – if you bother to join and to attend events.

      Networking is hard (not something I’m personally good at) but a lot of people choose not to try, even when they know the (unwritten) rules of the game.

      I hope that by pointing out evidence that shows how critical it is, I can persuade a few more people to choose to do something about it. Good luck – if you choose to try.

      (And once you’re in your ideal job, you can change the system!)

  3. The thing about having contacts is that an academic looking to hire someone for an advanced role on a short contract is that they’d rather take on someone they know. It’s a big risk to take on the person who looks best on paper, even if they have glowing references, when you or someone you trust doesn’t know them personally. It’s not like hiring bar staff or casual workers!

    For example, I have a strong suspicion that part of the reason my PhD supervisor took me on is that he favourably remembered my summer project supervisor from a job application she herself had made a few years previously. Likewise, watching a new PI hiring his first post-doc revealed that he already had a candidate (a soon-to-be viva’d PhD student) in mind! Just because the rules say you have to advertise the position to externals, there’s nothing to say that you can’t have a strong preference prior to the interviews. Which is so unfair, but there you go.

    • Thanks NessM – you’re right, it’s the reality of academic life (whether we like it or not), and often the same for jobs outside academia.

      We recently ran a panel of former PhDs in life sciences, working in academic, post-doc and non-academic roles. When we asked how they had found their jobs, every single member of the panel admitted that it had come about through making or using a contact, rather than just responding to an advert (even if the job was eventually advertised).

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