This post comes from outside the Baran Lab, from our collaborator Dr. Jesse Sabatini. He was recently asked to comment on his experience looking for jobs during the last big economic downturn. That publication did not use the entirety of his comments but we believe there is a lot of interesting wisdom here that will hopefully be useful to the community. Thanks Jesse for letting us post this on OpenFlask!
My Job Search Experience During the Great Recession
Jesse J. Sabatini
Let’s be honest with one another and acknowledge that it is a bad time economically out there for many people. As scientists, we need to understand that this is not a great time to be looking for a job right now. Although I am currently employed despite the wide-ranging economic shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I empathize with those that are currently looking for employment during this time. It was just a decade ago, during the Great Recession, when I was also navigating my own job search. I still have vivid memories of my job search, the emotional highs and lows, and the lessons learned as a result of this experience. Therefore, I wanted to share my experiences with you. I think that folks looking to be gainfully employed need to be aware that the job hunt is not always a smooth process. Even in good economic times, it can be a struggle. Certainly, during economic downturns, we know that it is. I want whomever reads this to know that my purpose in sharing my experience is not to make you feel good or bad, and it is not to scare or comfort you. It is just my view of how the real world works, from somebody that had to endure many heartbreaks before finding a job. After sharing my story with you, I will provide some pointers at the end of this post that I STRONGLY recommend those looking for employment will take to heart and seriously consider. You’ll notice that I focus on financial aspects quite a bit. Many grad students and postdocs, quite frankly, don’t have a handle on these important aspects. Yet they should, and they need to be very aware of this during their job search.
My story begins during the late winter, spring and summer of 2007. At that time, I was nearing the end of my PhD graduate studies in natural products total synthesis at the University of Virginia. During this time, the economy was on solid footing and the unemployment rate was low. I had published my third manuscript of my graduate studies in February, during which time I was told to begin writing my dissertation. In March, I had committed to doing a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh to continue my education. I had a passion and a love for teaching, and was told that if I aspired to go into academia, then a postdoc was a necessity. I do believe that this is sound advice, even today. In June 2007, I attended the National Organic Symposium (NOS), which was held at Duke University. I was riding a pretty high wave of success, and I believed that continued at the NOS. The highlight of the conference for me was actually not listening to the wonderful lineup of speakers, but was the evening that I presented a poster. There appeared to be a number of folks from the industry and academia that took an interest in my poster. I handed out many business cards and got many in return. By sheer luck, my poster was in a good strategic location, where people had to pass by it. I felt that many people were interested in hearing about my research. I remember the excitement that I felt. This was one of the biggest opportunities of my life, I thought at the time. I spoke so much that I was a bit hoarse when the night ended. Several employers from various pharmaceutical companies informed me that they would be looking to hire in the future, and that I should keep them in mind when I finished my postdoc. This was the news that I wanted to hear.
I can remember going back into my hotel room that night, and I was ecstatic. At that time, I was just 25 years old...trying to figure out my life like most people in graduate school. Looking back on it, I realize now that there were likely many others who felt the same way that I did. Many of those employers that liked my research and that told me they were hiring had likely told dozens of others that same story. In the job search, you benefit most by worrying about yourself, and not what is happening around you.
As soon as the conference ended, I made sure that I touched base with all of those prospective employers that gave me business cards, and that told me to keep in touch with them. I defended my dissertation the following month in July. Come August 2007, I was done at UVA, and moved on to my postdoc at Pitt. During this time, the economy was still doing well with respect to the stock market. I had heard negative news about the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and that the federal government was intervening to prevent the issue from spinning out of control. Despite this, the stock market continued to rise at the time. But the stock market is typically a lagging economic indicator. When one sees it fall dramatically, then bad times usually have already started. I was mindful of all of this, as I had enjoyed matters concerning economics, stocks, bonds and equities for a number of years. With the exception of my family (of which nothing is more important), much of my attention and focus was, and remained, on my chemistry. Yet I have always believed that folks should have a good knowledge about finances, saving for retirement, college savings accounts for their (future) kids, etc. It is never too early to learn about these aspects, because future generations, including our children and grandchildren, will also need to know about these matters if they are to be set up to succeed in the future.
My postdoctoral research, I felt, went decently from the chemistry perspective. I continued working hard towards an additional total synthesis paper, and gave it everything that I had. Yet I did notice that as the winter of 2007 turned into the spring of 2008, the economy was heading downhill. This only accelerated during the summer months, and it had me concerned because I was ramping up my job search during this time. I knew that landing a job in times of economic prosperity were not easy. In 2005 and 2006, I saw several at UVA apply to countless positions during the good economic times before they landed something. Finding a job during tough economic times was going to be even more of a challenge. I made the decision in the summer of 2008 that I could not afford the luxury of restricting myself to a specific geographic location. Doing so was just going to make the job hunt even worse. I would apply to jobs across all 50 states. Furthermore, I also decided at this time to cast a wide net as to the type of job that I wanted. As a graduate student, I loved teaching and saw myself going into academia, with going into the pharmaceutical industry as a close second option. Now as a postdoc, I did not really have a preference. I would consider either option equally. My aspirations of becoming a professor were dashed during my postdoc tenure, however. Many of the positions that I was eyeing were no longer available, due to the worsening downturn. I did apply to a half-dozen academic positions. Two of these resulted in a phone interview, but I never made it past this stage. The honest reason as to why these phone interviews didn’t materialize further had nothing to do with the economic downturn. It had everything to do with the fact that there were better candidates out there that applied, and these candidates gave better interviews than me. In the job search, as disappointing as it may be, you must be honest with yourself. No matter how good you think you are, there is likely to be someone out there that is equally or more qualified for a position than you are. It's a hard lesson that I had learned years before on the wrestling mat. That lesson being that you can be as talented and as prepared to the best of your ability, and it may not be good enough to win. It's a lesson that reared its ugly head again and again during my job search. One thing is for sure, however. If you just give up, then losing out is an absolute certainty.
Through all of this, there was also a dark horse that emerged in the job search; the prospect of federal employment. Since my graduate studies, I heard about how government jobs offered less starting pay than the private sector, but offered excellent job security, benefits, and a stable retirement package. Due to the financial crisis, I had decided to look more into this field during my postdoc, which was a bit more non-traditional. Once again, the approaches of imposing no geographical restrictions and casting a wide net for employment became necessary in landing a job.
During the summer of 2008, Pitt was hosting the National Medicinal Chemistry Symposium (NMCS), and I attended. Taking a page out of my experience at the NOS the previous year, I presented a poster there and made efforts to get some face time with people. Unfortunately, I kept hearing about how many companies (mostly small companies) were implementing hiring freezes. Needless to say, this was unfortunate news. Not only did a hiring freeze mean that there would be no hiring, but this can also be the first step toward layoffs at a company. Fortunately, larger pharmaceutical companies were still hiring at that time. Hiring or not, I remained in touch with every one of those that I had met at the NOS and the NMCS during the job search process. First, I figured that it would not hurt to keep in touch with these folks, for if a position opened up, perhaps they would still consider me for an interview. Second, I have never believed in being a "fair-weather friend." I genuinely cared about these folks, and wanted to hear about how they were doing. The fact that they could not help me get a job was not their fault. I wanted to continue building my network, because you never know when or how someone that you met several years ago can help you. I have always detested folks that simply use others to get what they want, and then proceed without any further care for the person that helped them. Understand that these people exist, and you may see them come out in droves during the job search process. My best advice is to ignore them and let them continue on with their self-destructing ways. Do not become one of these people. To be honest with you, I will never consider helping or hiring someone that acts this way. I don't care how skilled or gifted they are in a scientific discipline. If someone lacks the trait of common decency, I'll inform others, and will put their CV into a shredder.
After the NMCS, which was a wonderful venue, but a personal disappointment, I attended the 2008 Summer ACS meeting in Philadelphia, which was held in August. I presented a poster at this venue on my postdoctoral work. I can remember how disappointed I was when I saw that my poster space was in one of the worst locations. Hidden from most of the foot traffic, it was temporarily a deflating feeling knowing that most wouldn’t bother going out of their way to see my work. I tried to make the best out of a situation where I was handed a lemon out of sheer bad luck. It happens sometimes. I had a prime location at the NOS, and there were others at this venue that had gotten the short end of the stick. The truth is that we cannot change the cards that we are dealt in situations like this.
But we can change how we play the hand. So if nobody was going to come to me, I was going to go to them. It may be a futile effort, I remembered thinking at the time, but I was not going to be complacent. Complacency, or waiting for a job to come to you, is just a wasted opportunity. I, at that time, was not a very sociable person. But I needed to have the self-courage to overcome this, and get people over to see my poster so that I could show them my skill set. I had been rejected many times in the job search up to this point. So if someone wasn’t interested in seeing my poster, what did I care? I had nothing to lose. My efforts, to be honest, only had limited success. Most really didn’t care one way or the other about seeing my poster. But I could go to bed that night knowing that I was doing everything I possibly could to better myself. I am sure there are others that would have fared better than me in this situation. Admittedly, many out there are much better at selling and advertising their work than me. This is a skill that I strongly recommend you work to perfect. I have gotten a lot better over the years at this, but wish that I was better at it back then.
I was fortunate enough to have several interviews at the ACS meeting with pharmaceutical companies that were still hiring. I felt good after these brief interviews concluded, which I was told could then lead to an on-site interview at the company. But as the unemployment numbers continued increasing and as the days passed without hearing anything, I became resigned to the fact that either these positions were no longer open, or the companies had decided to go in a different direction, thus hiring someone else. That latter option is certainly possible. Just because you feel that you crushed an interview does not mean that the people on the other side of the table felt the same way. You need to be prepared for the fact that you could give a very good interview, and still not get a position for any number of reasons. It does not mean you are a bad scientist. It just means that your background was not the right fit, or that someone else interviewed better than you did. Perhaps it is a combination of both.
After the ACS meeting concluded, with academia out of the question for me, I turned my attention solely toward a job in the pharmaceutical industry and the federal government. I sent out a flurry of applications to both, but I did not hear anything back in most cases. Some of those that I had met at the NOS that I’d kept in touch regularly with had either told me that there were no positions available, or they had unfortunately been laid off themselves. One of the few replies that I did hear back from was Picatinny Arsenal, an Army installation located in Northern, NJ just 30 miles west of New York City. Their response to me via snail mail was simple; that they thanked me for my application, but that they had no positions available at this time for my skill set. More on this letter later.
In September of 2008, with the stock market collapsing, there were some pharmaceutical companies that visited Pitt to conduct some interviews. Naturally, I signed up for these interviews, 4 in total. During these interviews, I was informed by two of the companies that they were proceeding with the interviews, but that they no longer had positions open. I remained respectful, professional, and gave the interview my best. These ended up serving as practice interviews for the other two that were to my knowledge at the time, my only legit shots at a job. I felt that I interviewed very well with these latter two companies. I had become an experienced interviewer through sheer repetition, and that is important sometimes in landing a position. Experience really is the best teacher, pardon the cliché. I was delighted that I'd finally had a hit, as two weeks after this interview, I was invited to an on-site interview from one of the companies. This on-site interview went so well, that I was told to expect an offer within the next couple of weeks. But unfortunately, with the job market continuing to decline and with unemployment rising, I was abruptly told that the position was closed and was no longer being advertised. The number of rejections and/or not hearing one way or the other was now in the 40's. That number seemed to tick up on a daily basis. That was a lot of rejection to take. I don't think that I was ever at a lower point in my job search than when the position that I was so excited to accept was taken away. In instances like this, it is important to have a strong support system. For me, it was my fiancé (now wife of 11 years) and some research associates of mine. My backup plan was to stay at Pitt another year for my postdoc. In August 2008, I had signed another 1 year extension, which I was very thankful to receive. I had another year to figure everything out, but was growing more and more concerned by the day as to what I was going to do.
Then in late September 2008, I received a phone call that changed the course of my life. It was from a former graduate student at UVA named Ronald Hann. At the time, Ron was an officer in the US Army, and had joined the Marshall lab in the summer of 2005. I had been there for about one year, and I was asked to mentor Ron, who had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Ron and I worked closely together, and become very good friends. While I was in the midst of a job search that was not going so well in 2008, Ron had completed his PhD at UVA, and relocated to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was calling to inform me of a position that existed at Picatinny Arsenal...the very place that had informed me a few weeks prior to his call that there were no positions available. When I told Ron about this occurrence, he told me that the key to getting a federal job was knowing somebody on the inside. I happen to believe that this advice is helpful to landing a job outside of the government as well. Ron advised me to send him my CV so that he could put it in the right hands. He explained to me that the job would not be in synthesis, but instead would be in the formulation of pyrotechnic materials. I was ecstatic, because as a kid, I remember playing with pyrotechnics all of the time. It was like I had the opportunity to be a kid again. Although I knew that I would miss synthesis, Ron explained to me that in the government, the key is to "get your foot in the door, and then you can move around." Well, that certainly turned out to be some excellent advice, as I found out years later.
I passed my CV along to Ron, and on the final day of September, I received a call from a branch chief at Picatinny Arsenal's Pyrotechnics & Prototyping Division. We had a very pleasant conversation, and after they received other positive letters of support, I was invited to come out for an interview in the middle of October 2008. I prepared feverishly for that interview, as I believed that it may have been my last chance at getting a job. In addition, Ron had stuck his neck out for me. I did not want to disappoint him. The interview at Picatinny Arsenal went very well. It was on a Friday, and I was told that I would be made a formal offer the following Monday or Tuesday. I had heard this before, and so I kept my guard up. Yet Picatinny was true to its word. I did receive my offer that following Tuesday, which I signed immediately, because benefits, salary, retirement plans, etc. were all discussed during the interview. It took a couple of months to get all of the paperwork and forms filled out, but I had done it. I had found a job during the Great Recession, with a starting date of February 2, 2009!
After all of the flash columns, hours of hard work, publications, job rejections and unsuccessful job interviews, it was my network that saved me when I needed it most. In my case, a connection that I made in the summer of 2005 came back to help me 2 and a half years later because this person (Ron) was familiar with how hard I worked, and appreciated the fact that I kept in touch with him. Ron will probably never admit it, but it was his phone call that opened the door for my interview. Otherwise, I would have been cast aside as another employee to inform in a generic letter that there were no openings. My network helped me open the door to a job, but I had to interview well to get the position. Fortunately, I knew how to do that from all of the previous unsuccessful interviews that I’d given before. I had learned from my interviewing mistakes and filled in many of the gaps. I have remained loyal to Ron ever since, as we continue to have a wonderful personal friendship and professional relationship, even though we have both since relocated to other positions within the government.
As for me, I enjoyed my time researching pyrotechnics immensely. It gave me a deep understanding of how stupid I really was as a kid when I used to reverse engineer various fireworks and make my own devices. But it also allowed me to expand my network into a new field that I had not previously known. After 5 successful years in pyrotechnics, I had a desire to get back into synthesis, which I missed greatly. I found that opportunity, once again, through networking, when I was informed by someone that I knew within the government that a position was open at the Army Research Laboratory to lead the energetic materials synthesis team. I took that job without much hesitation. Synthesis is where I wanted to get back to, the cost of living in Maryland was significantly lower than in New Jersey, and my wife and I were interested in buying a house for ourselves and our two young daughters. We relocated to Maryland in 2014, and are very happy here. I will admit that it is nice to get paid to blow things up and light stuff on fire, but we are very safe about it (and yes, that is possible to do). I can talk about my experiences in energetics forever, but that’s another conversation for another day!
So my story had a happy ending. But it did take a while to get there, and there were many uncertainties and a range of emotions along the way. My pointers to those looking for jobs (both now and in the future, and in no order of importance):
1. Work hard, study hard, and complain as little as possible. The more people see these traits in you, the more apt they will be to help you out.
2. Do not restrict yourself by geographic location, or by the kind of job you think you want to do. This is especially true during tough economic times. I wanted to go into academia, and that did not happen. I wanted to go into pharma, and that did not happen either. I did not think about federal employment until later in the job hunting process. I should have thought about it in the beginning, but never really knew that doing this kind of stuff and getting paid for it was a career option. With the baby boomer generation retiring by the masses, there will be plenty of federal jobs within many agencies that need to be filled in the next few years. Consider it as a source of employment, in addition to these other aforementioned job options.
3. Network, network, network. It is never too early to begin this process, and even after you land a job, you should continue it throughout your career. You never know when somebody that you meet years prior can help you. Those who say that getting a job is all about how good of a researcher you either ignorant or are not telling the truth. Those who say that getting a job is all about who know are also ignorant or are not telling the truth. It is a hybrid, for sure. You need to be skilled in what you do, and you have to build a good network to maximize your chances of landing a job.
4. Rejection happens to everybody, including those that many see as being incredibly successful. Rejection is a part of being a scientist and it is part of the job hunting process. Do not go to Twitter and begin shaming people or an organization because your job prospects did not turn out the way you wanted. This will alienate you from future employers (and justifiably so). Please take personal responsibility, ask yourself what you could have done better, and be honest with yourself. Sometimes, getting a job is outside of your control, but usually, someone else that applied did a better job than you did in the interview, or was more qualified to start with. Recognize these gaps, and use this to improve yourself in the future.
5. Please, have an understanding of how the economy works. Understand how to negotiate a salary, how to save money, how to grow your savings, and have a knowledge of how much you should save. As Tennessee Williams once said, “you can be young without money, but you cannot be old without money.” Have a financial plan in place. When you get a job, start saving for your retirement in the form of a 401(k) right away, and make the necessary contributions possible so that you can maximize the company match.
6. When thinking about what job you want to do, you need to evaluate your risk tolerance of making money vs. job security. It is different for each person. For me, job security was of paramount importance, and that's especially true during these times. I am fortunate that I have a job that carries with a high degree of job security, as well as a job that I enjoy very much. I was willing to take lower pay to start, with the understanding that there was a chance to see my salary rise significantly, provided that I churned out good research and did good science for the benefit of the country.
7. If you plan on having children, is never too early to think about college savings funds for them, even before they are born. This should be evaluated when you negotiate your salary, and with respect to how long you'd like to remain with a company or organization.
8. You want to make sure that you amass 6 months of living expenses in the form of savings, once you have a job out of grad school and/or your postdoc. You will thank yourself for a rainy day fund in the unfortunate event that you need it.
9. Economic downturns happen. They can be shallow, moderate or severe. So-called experts will try and predict the markets, but nobody really knows how long an economic downturn will last. If you are investing, keep stocking money away. You need to take a long approach in order to maximize your retirement. Investing is a marathon, not a race. Downturns will reach a bottom and begin an upward trend again.
10. Have fun with your job search. I encountered a lot of stress during my job search, but I still had fun. I still watched football, got into cooking, watching birds, and continued to exercise regularly when I was applying for jobs. You will need something else to think about besides the fact that rejection happened again. Understand something: Folks that work hard, are well-networked and that have published high-quality work will land a job. Remember that experience is a wonderful thing. As the late Professor Randy Pausch once said, “experience is defined as the thing you get when you did not get what you wanted.” You can pass these experiences on to others, like I am to you.
11. Please be kind to others when you do make it, and remember that you likely needed help along the way from someone else that helped you get to where you are. When you get the job that you want, and are in a position to help others, please do it. I assure you that you will get more out of helping others than they get out of being helped. There are few things that charge me up more than seeing someone that I helped out grow in their careers. After all, I was in their shoes a little over a decade ago.
Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can provide any more pointers, help, advice, etc. Best of luck to you all, as you navigate your job search.
Jesse J. Sabatini, Ph. D.
Team Leader-Energetic Materials Synthesis
US Army Research Laboratory
Energetics Synthesis & Formulation Branch
Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD 21005