That's one of the questions I get asked the most after moving from the traditional academic route to the academic fringe (as I like to describe my position). I'm on the academic fringe because I'm technically part of academia, as I serve as a staff scientist for PIs, postdocs and grad students, but my lab is a special sort of core lab that serves the structural biology crowd. It's complicated.
Originally, I hadn't even planned on applying to my position. I was aware of my place of work due to a former labmate, but I wasn't sure they'd ever be interested in me, let alone be advertising for a position like mine.
When I was knee-deep into the job search craze of 2011 I was all over the place looking for resources, from how to prepare for an interview, doing a lot of soul-searching to define what it was that I was looking for and how to get it. I found wonderful resources via some of my awesome tweeps and fellow bloggers (see here, it's excellent, regardless of your position in the TT ladder, seriously). Throughout the years I'd also taken advantage of many career-advancing workshops and seminars, from pimping you CV to getting your thesis written in no time and out the door to non-academic (or post-academic) positions.
During the dreaded job search there was also a lot of confusion. I kept asking myself if I was doing the right thing, if I shouldn't be shutting up and trying to churn out data instead of complaining and quitting. Deep down my inner voice kept saying, keep going, you can do this (also some of my friends, a very supportive boyfriend and my family were behind my decision).
So, how did I get to find a job as a staff scientist?
Well, it's a long answer (as usual, haven't you been reading my blog? I can never give a short answer). First I had to define what was it about academic that didn't sit well with me. Was it that I didn't find it thrilling to become a PI? Nope, I do think that it would be wonderful to be a PI ... I just didn't want to continue on the road of postdoc after postdoc, temp position after temp position for the next decade. Was it that I hated lab work? Kind of, I'm not too thrilled about bench science ... really. I don't mind running gels, or setting up a PCR (that works!) ... but doing it day in and day out for months .... well, that's just bleh to me. I preferred being on the computer than at the bench. Additonally, I wanted at some point (sooner rather than later) to start enjoying the fruits of my labour, maybe get married, start a family ... I was truly yearning for some sort of stability and not have that cloud over my head telling me that the clock was ticking and I only had funding for X many months/years. I determined that I really liked what I'd seen other staff scientists do and be during my years as a student and later a postdoc. I wasn't afraid of having my name as second, or third, or whatever author. I liked helping people and setting up instruments for people to use.
With that decided, I had to start taking steps in the right direction. I first got my CV out took a long hard look and took it to the teaching/writing centre at postdoc school. There I had a professional look it over and give me their impression. They liked how it was structured, and offered some suggestions which I quickly incorporated. Then, I started brainstorming about the types of jobs I could see myself doing (besides being a staff scientist, because I knew those positions were somewhat hard to come by in my field). I'm good at presentations and I love public speaking, I also like consulting and offering solutions. So I looked into jobs that fit the criteria. I also started sending emails to some of my contacts (except my PhD advisor, but only because I learned that the lab would be undergoing some major changes and it wouldn't be a good time to apply for a job there .... I also wasn't as thrilled about going back to grad school city, I mean, I love it, but there's a limit).
Then came the location (would I feel comfortable in the US, in Canada, Europe?). What about climate? I was tired of seeing snow (though to be fair, we did enjoy a wonderful spring and summer during my time there, and there wasn't as much snow as I thought there would be). Which coast would have me closer to my family (East, of course) and what states and cities would I feel comfortable in (sorry, Texas, you're definitely not a runner up; but ooooh Massachusetts and New York, you do look tempting). I also looked at the cost of living, and whether I could survive in any of those states and the major cities. I looked at the benefits I wanted to have access to (a decent health insurance, dental for sure and ooooh, a retirement fund, wow I feel all grown up now).
Then I looked at what would make me happy. I thought about what times in the past I'd felt happy, thrilled to do science and/or accomplished. My favourite times in in school were when I was collecting and processing data, and my fave times during the postdoc (yes, I had good times there too) were when I was working on the computer, doing detective work to design experiments and predict whether, based on the structure and previous work, we could see what the boss though we could see (nope, didn't look that way, but he was still hopeful and I had to do the experiments).
Armed with all that I started applying. There are several listservs out there that cater to your particular taste/discipline of interest. There's the CcpNmr software mailing list and many discussion groups (St Louis NMR discussion group for instance). There's the Amber MD package mailing list., the microscopy listserv, mass spec, crystallography, etc. I firmly believe that the listservs and society pages are great ways to stay in tune with whatever your field of expertise is and to interact with people and get yourself known. I admit that I've only posted a few times on mine, but I do take time to read the messages that call my attention and be on the lookout for new labs and/or facilities. I'd seen a post for a position related to mine in one of those listservs and with the encouragement of a friend I sent in my application.
Google was also a tremendous aid when looking for positions within my field and in my geographical areas of interest. Because of a Google search I became aware of a position in Canada that was a top choice during my search. I also updated my LinkedIn profile (which was checked out by a couple of my interviewers). I polished my profile, added skills, and tried my best to organize it and pimp it out. And Twitter, my beloved Twitter, provided me with great conversations, great contacts and resources and a lot of support during the search.
I also didn't shy of sending emails to PIs or organizations that called my attention. Some of them were answered with negatives, and some asked for a copy of my CV or resume. In my mind it made sense to have different people in different places look at my CV and if something was available, hopefully they'd remember me. A couple of weeks after I started in my lab I got an email from a prof in Asia that was looking for a staff scientist with my skills, and from my group! I had to decline his offer, but that's another pair of eyes that's aware of my existence.
I kept all of my communications professional and courteous, no matter how disappointing the results were. I also kept my mind open for part time positions and maybe even a short postdoc ... but I wasn't as keen on that one. I didn't want another postdoc, because I felt that my interests and goals would not be fulfilled if I took yet another temporary position.
I used sites like Monster or CareerBuilder to check out job postings in areas that I felt I was somewhat qualified, but I didn't get a single reply. And I also checked out the job postings for the companies that make the equipment I use, just in case. I did apply to a couple of positions in one of them (two in the US, one in Europe) ... but that also didn't pan out.
That was my brute force approach. I was very picky (even if it doesn't sound like it) regarding the staff positions I applied to. Almost all of them were advertised in the listserv. I was also very clear with the PIs I talked to that I would not take a postdoc if offered (I know, I was either very bold or very stupid) instead of the staff position. And after a particular rough patch in which some of the offers fell through and I got a postdoc one with the promise to switch to a regular staff position after a year, I politely declined.
Looking for my position without having a safety net was incredibly naive of me, and I can see that now. I don't know if it was that deep down I was still hopeful, but I was sure that something, somehow, somewhere would pan out.
Armed with that experience I now know that I need to prepare, I need to be bold and approach people or companies, I need to follow my instincts and go for something if I'm qualified. I can't be too shy (or extremely modest) if I want to get what I want/need. I know now that I have to fight for what I want and not settle for anything less. I also make contacts (and keep making them) because it was through them that I became aware of my current position.
So, in conclusion, I found my job because I a) stayed connected to my field of training and their postings via a listserv, b) kept my closest tweeps aware of what I was looking for, c) did a lot of soul-searching and organization to find positions that aligned with my goals, d) networked, sent my CV, kept my online persona in shape and updated, e) kept hopeful, even when things were not going so well. I could have had totally different results, even while doing this and more. I guess I was at the right time and place to get me to where I am now.
I hope this answers some of your questions. Feel free to drop me a line if you're curious about anything else.