National Labs

They’re always looking for physicists, right?

Some anecdotes . . .

Whenever I go to job fairs (these have always been pointless for me) where a national lab has a booth, they always tell me, “oh yes, we’re always looking for physicists!” . . . this is not true.

I applied to multiple positions at national labs on the West Coast + Colorado (28 positions in 2019–2020). I had 7 total interviews at national labs. Not a single offer. In fact, I’m still waiting to hear from one interview in October 2020.

For one interview in May 2020, I interviewed with people who knew my past work and were part of my past project. They said they’d let me know either way in 3 weeks (why were they being so ambitious?). I check back 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 2 months later, and keep being told decisions haven’t been made. IN JULY, FINALLY I AM TOLD, “Oh sorry, I thought all the candidates had been notified already.” It is very dehumanizing and demoralizing to be forgotten to be notified, from someone that knows my work personally and thought I had an excellent interview. How do you forget to tell someone? Why did my application fall through the cracks? I kept checking in so that they wouldn’t forget about me. and yet.

If job searching was a numbers game, I had the numbers for national labs, 7 interviews out of 28 applications! 25%! So in my case, it was never a numbers game, there’s something else going on.

In 2013, I also applied to post-doc programs at national labs. I never received a single interview then, back when I was considered early-career and special programs/positions (Post Doctoral) were supposed to help me transition from a recent PhD to an independant scientist. I never had the option to do a post-doc anywhere. These can sometimes set up a recent PhD on a real long term career path (but there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job after a post-doc either).

A diversity and inclusion officer at one of the national labs ghosted me. I got his email from a Department of Energy representative at a career fair. I sent him an email and told him which positions at the lab I applied to and how I could learn about more positions that I’d be qualified for. I imagined he’d want to find out my background and connect me with hiring managers or recruiters at the lab. Instead, he asked me, verbatim, “Does Amazon, Intel or Google have any opportunities that might be aligned with your skillset? You have a lot of areas that you can apply your skills, but where do you feel the happiest in doing what you love daily?” “What positions did you apply to at Intel and Amazon? I know people there” . . . I sent 3 more emails to check in and he has ghosted me as of July 2020.

His response makes it clear he is not looking inside his organization to help me. He is assuming I don’t know what I like doing and don’t know why I applied to a national lab, that I haven’t already applied to those other companies, and maybe pretending to be some type of mentor, asking probing questions without answering my direct questions about the positions I already applied to there and why I hadn’t heard back. This is very patronizing to someone who got their PhD 10 years ago. And is he signaling that I shouldn’t even be looking at applying to the national lab he works at?

“YOU HAVE A LOT OF AREAS THAT YOU CAN APPLY YOUR SKILLS . . .”

NO, I don’t. I can only apply my skills where someone will hire me. My skills are useless without a lab and without a salary. End of story. This job search wasn’t about me finding out what I like to do with my time, I’m not a new graduate that’s looking to explore how to apply my skills. I know what I can do and where my skills apply, it’s the hiring managers and recruiters that don’t know.

I really don’t understand the point of a diversity and inclusion position if not to help people like me navigate the organization.

Oh, another national lab anecdote. I had an amazing final round interview for pretty much exactly what I did at my previous job. An interviewer emailed me later asking for my slides because they were interesting (my interview talks are great, I’ve done really cool work and am very proud of it). I email him slides and am very gracious. 2 weeks later I am told by the administrative assistant that I was not chosen for an offer. I emailed the interviewer who asked for my slides to ask why I wasn’t chosen thinking he could treat me like a human being. I never received a reply.

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A. Shinde

I’ll be writing about my job search experiences as someone with a PhD in Physics, focusing on my job search in 2019–2020.