Finding research jobs in renewable energy and/or circular economy

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When to apply

Not sure about when to start applying, I sifted through online forums. While there were no definitive answers, many people had indicated that it was better to apply immediately after submitting PhD. Because the entire employment process usually takes months, some even suggested searching or contacting people/professors 5–6 months before the expected date of PhD submission, let alone the final defense. I had been expecting to submit my PhD in June 2020, which meant an ideal time would have been Dec 2019 or early 2020. So, my journey began.

Resources

The following is a list of resources that I gradually became aware of and where people frequently posted research (mostly PhDs and postdoctoral) vacancies related to circular economy. The list is not comprehensive and only serves a good starting point. Please remember that many of these websites also require you to search jobs with desired keywords, such as (postdoc/phd) in sustainability, circular economy, renewable energy, etc.

  1. Jobs board of International Society of Industrial Ecology
  2. For Norway, most, if not all, postings are listed on its national website
  3. Jobs page of International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
  4. Academic Gates website
  5. Life cycle assessment (LCA) community website; you may have to register first, but this is the most accurate and resourceful place to find potential all openings on LCA related work.
  6. Many positions within European region are posted on a centralized portal called Euraxess.
  7. The positions in the UK are available on a central jobs portal.
  8. Academic Transfer is another good website that contains numerous job openings.
  9. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) website has many job openings on renewable energy.
  10. Nature publishing has its own career portal.

Seeking clarifications

Some positions specifically mentioned who qualified for applying: some allowed applicants with submitted dissertation while others required an awarded PhD, i.e., after the public defense. However, except for a few, none clearly indicated what ‘counted’ as PhD. Also, a handful of job descriptions indicated that proficiency in the local language was mandatory or that local candidates would be preferred. For some positions no deadline was indicated and it was hard to tell whether they were still accepting applications. Also, my background has been quite interdisciplinary — core engineering for bachelors, inter-disciplinary engineering for masters, and multi-disciplinary for PhD. Further, after a few years into the PhD program, I converted it into a part-time PhD and started working full-time in a renewable energy industry — almost entire different from my PhD work — which made me interested in renewable energy field for further research. It seemed that so many jobs correlated with my passion, but I only partially met the requirements of most, if not all jobs, thereby creating even more confusion relating to whether I should apply. So, I started with positions that did not require a completed PhD as a prerequisite and had no mandatory local language (except English) expectations. Whenever I had any confusion, I asked for more information.

Bumpy road

Even though there were many positions, I chose to go for only those positions for which I felt confident about meeting or even exceeding the eligibility criteria. In fact, for many positions, my profile seemed perfect match. As a good practice, I customized my application according to each job description. While resume/CV did not require much changes, writing cover letter and explaining why I was a good (or the best) fit was an exhaustive process. But it also improved my own understanding of my strengths and weakness and helped me refine my research interests.

A brief timeline of all job applications, with 75–80% of being postdoc (read left to right for chronological order). The most dates show the deadline of the job application, and in some cases, the date on which I submitted my profile.

Reasons for rejections

Competitiveness: It is definitely the prime reason for rejections. While most did not revealed the number of applications, some recruiters voluntarily disclosed when sending the rejection letter. For example, for two positions in a lab, there were 100 applications, out which they called 10 people for the first round (I was one of them, but was rejected). Another professor wrote that they received over 500 applications for one position. For one vacancy, there were only 16 applications because the research work was methodologically specific, rather than generic/multi-disciplinary. The position I eventually got had probably 20 applicants.

Response time

The time to receive the negative update varied substantially — from a few weeks after the deadline to a few months. In face, for a position in the USA, I got the rejection update nearly a year after the initial application. However, I heard back within 2–14 days following the deadline for each of the cases I was interviewed, except for the cases when the deadline fell around the summer or winter vacation period. In those cases, the interview call, as happened at two occasion, was received within two weeks of the reopening after vacation. However, there was one case when I received the formal rejection after resume screening step, but after a couple of months, the committee reached out again and asked if I would be interested in the interview. Since I had already accepted my current position, I had to decline the offer.

Best and bad experiences

Best: of course, this section covers only the unsuccessful ones and excludes the experience of job I finally got, which was naturally the best experience. A position in a Nordic country— exchanged 10 emails and the professor was extremely polite and professional. It is the same position for which they went ahead with the internal candidate.

Seeking feedback

It is often said that asking never hurts and the worst could happen is you never get any response. So, I implemented the strategy and asked for many positions for which I thought I was really qualified. I learned that only no one gives the feedback after on the applications rejected based only on the cover letter/resume, some are willing to share the evaluation of your profile. I got only a few responses (10%) — mostly from Europe and no one from the North American responded to my feedback request. This might be because the European countries — as I heard or read somewhere — are required by law to share the evaluation report (or its key points) if the applicants ask. Nonetheless, in my case the feedback was mostly generic (you are good but the other guy is better) and did not help much. No one responded to my request of suggesting how I could improve my profile, understandable because of saving time and staying out of trouble.

Final thoughts and a few takeaways

First, keep trying. To be honest, this is the only thing you can do other than keep publishing more. Customizing the resume and cover letter for each position is repetitive, time consuming and frustrating, but it is essential to ensuring that you are presenting the best version of yourself to the evaluation committee. Many applicants have all the skills necessary for the position, yet it may not be obvious from your resume and publication records. I cannot honestly say whether this works in real life, but you cannot be lazy and take any chances when your future could be on the line.

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Sourabh Jain

Sourabh Jain

Postdoctoral scholar who applies systems thinking to model circular economy running on 100% renewable energy systems and zero waste.