Tech Tools

Joseph Barber reviews websites and databases that can help the Ph.D. or postdoc doing a job search.

December 15, 2014

As a career adviser for graduate students and postdocs across most academic disciplines at the University of Pennsylvania, I have encountered a seemingly endless number of different career-related questions specific to each person’s subject area and unique career goals. I don’t always have answers to these specific questions, and part of the fun from my perspective is working with the student/postdoc to help them find some.

Whatever new career field they state they want to explore, or whatever networking opportunities they are seeking, chances are that at some point I will use one of a handful of resources that have proven to be trusty tools in my work. Since the end of 2014 is nigh (not in an apocalyptic way), now seems like a good time to take a look back at some of the online resources that have made my life easier over the last 12 months.

You’ll definitely use some of these yourselves already, and you may be able to find some of the others through your own institution if you look carefully enough – or at least find someone in your network who doesn’t mind sharing their access to them. So, in no particular order, here they are:

1. LinkedIn as a research tool

I would say that over 95 percent of the students/postdocs I meet  use less than 50 percent of LinkedIn’s functionality (and I am just talking about the functionality of the free account), and so you if you add that up that means that... well, I’m not sure how to add that up, but that sounds like a lot of people not using a lot of what they could use to help themselves!

Part of the challenge is that most people with a LinkedIn account don’t always have a cohesive strategy for how they hope to use it. They don’t have well-defined networking questions. The other challenge is that people don’t realize all of the great research that you can do using LinkedIn. Don’t get me wrong – it can still be a frustrating tool (“All I need is their email!” is something I have often shouted at LinkedIn), and it is pretty creepy how it knows who you have been interacting with in the real world (e.g., when the “you might know this person” is the person you just emailed for the first time in five years), but if you have some specific information-gathering goals in mind, then it can be pretty powerful.

For example, use the “find alumni” tool under the “connections” tab and you can find what people with similar academic backgrounds are doing, and filter your searches by location, field of employment, or even employer. Additionally, if you are ever interested in what people who self-identify as having specific skills like to do, then you can even filter the alumni of any college or university by the specific skills they say they have. You can find some interesting career paths with a quick search for a skill like “ethnography” – try it! Going from 115,000 alumni at Penn down to the 15 most relevant people in three clicks isn’t bad, and makes using LinkedIn for general research and networking much less intimidating.

2. trends

Depending on the student or postdoc I am working with, there is sometimes nothing more helpful than a nice graph to illustrate the point I am trying to make. There are many different sources of data for employment trends, but an easy to access one is the “trends” function on the job search site. Based on the number of postings including a specific keyword, this trends report can offer interesting insight into what has been going on over the last five years. Type in “assistant professor,” for example, and you can definitely see not only the cyclical hiring pattern of faculty jobs (most are posted from August through January), but also the overall number of postings there have been (for all disciplines combined) over the last five years.

Search for “data scientist” and you might be surprised to see how the number of these types of positions has increased dramatically with the current focus on big data. The trends only reflect information that has been posted on, and so the overall validity might be questionable, but they do seem to reflect what you might expect to see.

I have less confidence in the salary tool since this is based on advertised positions where salary is reported, and this is not something one generally sees in the vast majority of job announcements. Still, any salary data can be helpful when it comes to negotiating offers, and so I have suggested this to some of the students/postdocs I have worked with who are finding it difficult to find any information about salary ranges for their specific positions of interest.

3. GoinGlobal H1B database and salary tool

And here is another interesting salary search best practice. One of the online subscriptions we have through Penn’s Career Services is GoinGlobal – a useful tool to explore careers across the globe. It is part career-focused travel guide, part job-search tool. If students want to find employment-related information for some of the major cities in the US and beyond, then the GoinGlobal city guides can be helpful.

One of the common reasons that I use this resource, though, is for the easily searchable H1B database. Through this resource you can find which companies have submitted H1B applications (not all of these applications will be successful), and since part of this application process requires companies to state how much they are paying the person they want to sponsor, it also lists salaries. For a particular company and a particular role (e.g., research scientist at Merck), you can see some real salary numbers – helpful for anyone preparing for interviews or negotiating offers.

4. myIDP and Versatile Ph.D. (VPhD)

I’ll group these last two resources because I often suggest them together – especially when working with students/postdocs in STEM fields. Both tools are helpful for people seeking information on non-faculty positions, and appropriate networks to help them identify well-fitting career paths. With myIDP, the quick, no-fuss skills, interests, and values assessment helps to prioritize a list of 20 common scientific career paths so that the user can search through relevant articles and resources to explore these further.

Students/postdocs who have used this seem to find it helpful, and the discussions I have had with people about the results of their skills/interests/values assessments have usually been quite fruitful. The assessments are simple to interpret – no knowledge of Jungian psychology needed. There is also a tool to help users set professional development goals for the coming year, but to be honest, I have never yet met with anyone who has used this tool. With the NIH strongly encouraging the use of IDPs, I may see people taking advantage of this more in the future.

The VPhD resources are simple, especially when you are just using the free parts of the website (access to premium content requires an institutional subscription), but it can be their simplicity that is most helpful for STEM, social science, and humanities PhDs/postdocs who are hoping to get some simple answers to some of their really complicated questions (What should I do next? What can I do?).

There is a “PhD Career Finder” tool for people looking for a good first step to gather information about career options. If your institution has a subscription, then there is more nuanced information, such as examples of how people successfully transformed their application materials from the standard academic C.V. format to the more appropriate style for non-faculty positions (mostly a résumé or a résumé/C.V. hybrid). All users can take advantage of the online, asynchronous, career panel discussions when these are held, where three to six  people from specific career fields introduce themselves, describe their positions and career paths, and then answer questions from the VPhD community over the course of the week.

Many members of this community have their own career questions and some of their own doubts about their future, but there also seems to be a growing number of community members within the searchable member pages willing to share their experiences and knowledge about the successful career paths they have traveled. These are easy, low-stress networking opportunities within a community open and sympathetic to people exploring their options, and for students/postdocs who are concerned about their networking inexperience, this can be an excellent starting point.

I hope I can add to these tools in 2015, so please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below. Happy New Year!


Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.


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