Cover Story

Landing a job in a tough market

Note to you advanced grad students and new psychologists navigating the job market: Pursue as many leads as possible. Underapplying is costly, and overapplying yields more choice.

That's the No. 1 piece of advice for psychology graduates seeking jobs in today's tight economic climate from Scott Plous, PhD, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University and executive director of the Social Psychology Network.

Psychology is relatively recession-proof, compared with such fields as law and finance, says Morgan Sammons, PhD, dean of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. Still, with an economy in recovery and the unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent, it's a daunting time for anyone to enter the job market. Adding a few critical job-search skills to your repertoire can give psychology graduate students the edge they need, he says.

To give you that edge, we asked recent grads, psychology department heads and career counselors what you need to do to land the perfect position, whether you're gunning for a postdoc or professorship, joining a group practice or seeking a position in private industry.

  1. Tap your university's resources, says Asia Eaton, PhD, a University of Chicago psychology graduate, who found the perfect postdoc thanks, in part, to her university's career center. That center can be a goldmine for books and articles on interviewing, writing your curriculum vitae and using other job search tools. Many universities also have a teaching and learning center where students pursuing an academic path can get help shaping their teaching philosophy, designing their teaching portfolios and practicing job talks. These centers also have lists of places to look for job postings, such as APA's PsycCareers.

  2. Network. In tough economic times, "the more networking one can do, the better," says Julie Miller Vick, senior associate director at University of Pennsylvania's career services center. Grad students, she adds, are better connected than they realize. They know people in subspecialties, they've worked with postdocs, and they've met people at conferences and workshops. Keep track of these professional contacts and reach out to them as you begin your job search, she says. Social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, are an increasingly common way for students to let others know they are searching for jobs, adds Shannon Kelly, also of the University of Pennsylvania's career services center. "Social media is a path that all job seekers should consider, because the area is growing at an astronomically fast rate," she says. "It's another way to network and connect with individuals and companies that one may not have been able to [reach] before."

  3. Be persistent. Check your favorite job sites every single day, maybe even several times a day, says Eaton. When a job comes up, apply immediately. "There were times I'd missed an opportunity to apply to something by a narrow margin," Eaton says. "The key is to search early and keep going at it every day."

  4. Broaden your search. Even if you've always dreamed of an academic job, consider expanding your search to government or private industry, says Vick. "It's a tough market, and it's smart to think of something else you might also want to do," she says. Other options include extending your time to finish your doctorate, working on research or getting an adjunct teaching job. "There's no shame in getting a PhD and adjuncting for a year, or staying on for an additional year to do more research," Eaton says. "You build experience, you build your resume and it may help you become more marketable."

  5. Don't take shortcuts. When you're applying to so many different positions, it may be tempting to send the same cover letter and CV to them all. But you're more likely to get a call if you take the time to research the organization and the position you're applying for and tailor your application to their needs, says Vick. "The job market is so competitive now that there's not any room for anybody to be—I hate to use the word—lazy," she says. If you do get an interview, that research will also serve you well when you demonstrate your knowledge and ask intelligent questions about the organization, Plous says.

    In fact, rather than having a single CV or statement of purpose, Plous suggests having a folder of them. Applicants for a teaching position, for example, might consider moving their teaching experience higher up the page, whereas applicants for a research position might highlight research talks or publications, he says.

  6. Look good on paper. Even graduate students who aren't going into research fields benefit from having publications on their CVs, so get involved in research and collaborate with productive professors, Sammons says. Employers are also impressed by students' involvement in advocacy and professional activities, such as APAGS or a state psychological association. If you helped pass a bill or served on a task force, say it—it shows leadership ability and teamwork, he says.

  7. Be tough. To land a good job in psychology, "you don't need to be brilliant, you need to be resilient," Plous says. "If you fail at something or meet with rejection, it's fine to go home and take a break from work, but after ... pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on."

Jenny Marder is a writer in Washington, D.C.