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I graduated this May from a bachelors degree program at a reputable university with honors in physics and mathematics. I have four years of experience conducting research in high energy physics (resulting in two impending publications and several pieces of open-source software), 1 1/2 years of experience conducting research in applied condensed matter physics (resulting in one significant piece of open source software), and two years of experience working as a teaching assistant. I've also participated in three summer-term NSF REU programs, and presented at four undergraduate research symposia.

I had hoped to pursue a doctoral degree starting in the fall, but was rejected by all of the 25 programs to which I applied (all of which had groups conducting research in the high energy subfield with which I have been involved). For ten of those programs, I met via Zoom with faculty of interest to discuss my experience and to confirm that they expected to take graduate students. For three of those programs, I was explicitly encouraged to apply by faculty interested in my background, or with whom I had previously worked. I didn't expect to get in everywhere, or even most places, but was banking on getting in somewhere. Having failed to do so derailed my life a bit, and means impending student loan repayment.

I plan to try again in the next admissions cycle, and in the meantime I am attempting to find work so that I can keep up with my expenses and student loan bills. I've encountered an unanticipated problem, however: I keep being told that I am under-qualified for the sorts of positions I'm most interested in (research support jobs or adjacent positions (e.g. data science) in industry), but over-qualified for "everyday" jobs (e.g. retail and fast food).


I have applied to just over 2,500 positions since last October, and have been offered only one interview. I've received rejection emails for the vast majority of them (>90%). The breakdown is roughly as follows:

  • ~30% are entry-level data science/data analyst/quantitative analyst positions within a variety of industries (e.g. consulting, investment banking, pharmaceuticals).
  • ~25% are academic positions (e.g. research assistantship, research technician, laboratory technician)
  • ~25% are entry-level retail or fast food jobs (e.g. cashier, shoe shiner, cook)
  • ~10% are entry-level software development positions (e.g. scientific software developer)
  • ~5% are "desk jobs", typically not requiring a bachelor's degree (e.g. data entry)
  • ~5% are "other" academic positions (e.g. IT support, positions within college libraries, administrative support positions)

I've also tried "cold-emailing" a few physics departments in the area to ask whether they may have or be aware of research support positions available.

I've put a significant amount of time and effort into crafting a resume and CV, as well as carefully researched cover letters for the vast majority of positions. I've run these materials by professors and the career center at my university, and have received mostly positive feedback (and have implemented all changes suggested). When I reach out to request feedback after a rejection (or when I receive unsolicited feedback), in the event I receive a response it typically falls into one of two categories:

  1. You're under-qualified for this research support/data analysis/software development/etc. position. Despite your transferrable experience, and despite you meeting our requirements on paper, we prefer someone with more direct experience in economics/data analysis/software development.
  2. You're "over-qualified" for this position. We're looking for someone with a demonstrated passion for customer service/fast food/etc.

I seem to be stuck in a tough spot where I'm not really sufficiently qualified for anything, and I'm starting to really struggle to get by on my savings. I've reached out to a variety of professors and mentors, and none have been able to offer advice beyond "you're doing all the right things, keep trying". It is clear to me that the issue is with me, not with the job market, for it isn't that I'm simply not hearing back, I'm being explicitly rejected. All of the "fall back" jobs that I expected would be worst-case-scenario options (e.g. entry-level fast food work) aren't as easy to get into as I had hoped, and I'm starting to feel the pressure. I spend the majority of the day every day searching for and applying to jobs, making an effort to ensure that I meet all of the stated requirements and desired skills, and doing my best to carefully craft application materials that emphasize my relevant capabilities.

What sorts of jobs are available to someone with someone such as myself, whose experience is largely academic but insufficient for academia, but whom hopes to eventually pursue an academic career? What can I do when I'm evidently both "too qualified" and under-qualified?

I need cash flow in the short-term, and hope for an academic or academic-adjacent career path in the long term.


Update. I'm not sure whether or not this will be of use to others who have found themselves in my predicament, however I was finally offered a (senior!) research support software engineering position. Interestingly, I was rejected several months ago after having applied for the corresponding entry-level role. A recruiter reached out recently (some months later) and, after a series of (somewhat brutal) technical interviews, I was offered the senior position.

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    How are you applying to 2,500 jobs? Commented Jun 4 at 21:55
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    @DanielR.Collins I started around last October (it may have been a bit earlier), and have used LinkedIn, Indeed, and the like (and occasionally just check company websites for job postings). I have designated most evenings during the week to job searching, and can generally find and apply to two or three a day Monday-Friday. I had no classes Thursdays or on weekends, so I could find and apply to quite a few more on those days. Commented Jun 4 at 22:12
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    I'll confess I really don't see how these numbers add up. Commented Jun 4 at 23:50
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    Related, relevant reading on tailoring resumes: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/2159/…
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Jun 5 at 21:36
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    Did you notice that the bachelor requirements say computer science? Being a data scientist is not a trivial job, even at entry level. You should expect being educated on the topic for years before starting, which is why the pool is mostly requiring computer science, or in rare cases statistics.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented Jun 5 at 23:17

8 Answers 8

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I have applied to just over 2,500 positions since last October, and have been offered only one interview.

That works out at about one every 30 working minutes for 8 months - that's far too many for you to be properly researching and then honing your CV for the specific job you are after. As @TheDemonLord said your CV needs to be specific to the role you are applying to - you need to call out how your experiences align with what they are looking for, the suggestion of having "tailored" CVs for specific roles is a good one and a technique I use.

The entry level jobs you have applied for likely think you're not going to stick around once you get a better offer (and they're right!). That's frustrating when you just need to earn some money - these ones may be worth a visit to talk to the local Manager, generally having some backup / emergency people they can call on is valuable and may be a way in.

For the rest you need to figure out what you really want to do and hone in on those jobs, if you're doing it properly you won't have the mental capacity for more than 2 applications a day.

Less quantity, more quality and more targeted approaches.

Good luck!

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    Yes, two solid applications takes time and brainpower! Make haste slowly Commented Jun 11 at 17:17
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Sometimes it is better to leave stuff off of a CV

When you are young and perhaps not much work experience - you try to add everything you can to your CV to make it sound as impressive as possible.

  • Science prize in 4th grade - Check.
  • Best dog-walker for 2 weeks running - Check.
  • Had a letter to the editor published in a newspaper - Check.

You get my point. You have one Generic CV, that you are spamming out to everyone and not getting much luck.

Less, is sometimes more

When I last applied for a Job, I had my base CV, then depending on which company I was applying to, I would tweak it. If it was a more Systems Engineering role - I would emphasize certain projects. If it was a Cloud Engineering role, I would emphasize different projects.

If you just need a job right now for a Fast food place - then have a Fast food restaurant CV. Do they need to know or care about your Academic credentials - probably not. Emphasize your work ethic etc. Talk about your complimentary skills (Good with Maths, pattern identification, understanding complex systems etc.) and then phrase it in such a way that is appealing to a Restaurant manager:

They dont care if you know about high-energy particle physics, but they will care that you can help them with cashing up at the end of the night.

Also - think about it from their point of view, if you are in a University town, the Managers have probably seen multiple times - 20 something workers get a job, get trained up, visibly hate their lives and then when the opening that they really wanted comes up - disappear after about 4 months, by which time they have to go through the process all again. Now, whether or not you do this is up to you (all is fair in Love, Work and War) - but the less you can feed into that preconception, the more likely you are to succeed.

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  • When I was a kid I wondered why unions were always clamoring to improve the lot of people with auto assembly line jobs. Why don't people just get better jobs? Yeah, it's complicated. Someone recently made a blunder by saying that a U-Haul doesn't cost that much, so move away from crummy towns. I used to think that too. It's... Complicated. When I was first looking for a job after college I wasn't really limited by location. What limited me was there wasn't an Internet yet, so job searching was tough. Dating was impossible. Commented Jun 13 at 0:13
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Quite frankly, I find it hard to believe. But okay, lets take it at face value.

It is hard to get the job you want. But getting any job to pay bills is possible, assuming you are a young-ish person with enough time to do the job and no special needs. Places like logistics centers (for example Amazon) take students by the thousands, teach them simple jobs in a day or two and employ them. Not a great job, but it pays money. They expect you to work there a few weeks or months and then leave, a short term is not a problem.

So rejections for the job you want are probably normal, multiple rejections for "a McJob" are not.

Your feedback loop is broken

You have received feedback that what you are doing is not working. And you still did it for months. After 100 applications it should have been clear something is wrong, after 1000 it should be blindingly obvious that something is seriously wrong. And yet you keep doing it. Like someone touching a hot stove, not once, not twice but on repeat. You need to work on your perception or learning. Because feedback is coming in you are not learning.

Something is seriously wrong

As I said, there are enough places that are constantly looking for warm bodies, able to climb a ladder, pick a tshirt out of box #5 in cabinet #103, bring it to desk #8 and maybe grunt once in a while over the course of 8 hours. If you get rejected even from those jobs, directly on paper without even having the chance to make a mistake on the job, this is not on you, your resume, or anything. This is about something serious. Maybe you got onto a list of people to not employ? Whatever your state or country has? Maybe a sex offenders list? Lists of people who are constantly suing their employers fraudulently? Violent felons? Terrorist watchlist? I am not saying you did anything like that, but it only takes a small typo or clerical error, to get onto a list and law enforcement back office is only human, too.

There is no point in sending out another 2500 applications that are slightly better. If it were the quality of the application, you would have gotten a job by now, just by sheer volume and randomness. You should have a job now, simply because at some point, somewhere, someone would have pressed the wrong button and accidentially employed you, even if they did not mean to.

Get serious about it

If what you say is true, then you need to hire an attorney or private investigator to find out what the problem is.

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    Put those data science skills to work and find out what's going on! Commented Jun 11 at 17:28
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All the advice given so far is great, but I wanted to answer one point they've not addressed:

I have four years of experience conducting research in high energy physics (resulting in two impending publications and several pieces of open-source software), 1 1/2 years of experience conducting research in applied condensed matter physics (resulting in one significant piece of open source software), and two years of experience working as a teaching assistant. I've also participated in three summer-term NSF REU programs, and presented at four undergraduate research symposia.

I had hoped to pursue a doctoral degree starting in the fall, but was rejected by all of the 25 programs to which I applied

That is also an indication to me that something is seriously wrong here. With that kind of an undergraduate experience, you may or may not get into MIT, but I'd certainly expect you to get into the 25th ranked physics program in the country. Either you have a) an abysmal GPA, b) an abysmal GRE score, c) one of your references wrote you a very poor letter of recommendation, or d) the quality of your application was extremely poor.

Based solely on the fact that you applied to 25 schools, I'm guessing it might be d. I don't know anything about high energy physics, but in my field (engineering) the graduate school application needs to be very tailored to each individual school. If you just spammed a bunch of graduate schools with more or less the same application, the admissions committee will know that you are just sending out generic applications and will quickly pass on yours.

The next time around you should probably apply to one-third the number of schools (i.e. 8), but spend three times the amount of time on each application. Really dig into the exact research going on at that school, and make your application sound like you are the perfect student to fit right in there.

In other words: Focus on quality not quantity, exactly as the other answers about job seeking have suggested.

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    Thanks for the advice. A bit more detail: I chose not to take the GRE (none of the schools to which I applied required it, and I regrettably did not have the money), but have nearly a 4.0 GPA and can’t imagine that any of my recs. would have said anything less than positive. I applied to 25 schools on the advice of my advisor, as I understand that acceptance rates have been abysmal recently. I have done research at or worked with faculty at 4 of the schools to which I applied, and was a bit surprised that I got into none of those (a faculty member at one institution implored me to apply). Commented Jun 11 at 0:58
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    ok, your advisor knows your field better than I do. Physics may be more competitive than engineering. If that is the case, you may want to send a few applications for MS programs, rather than directly to Ph.D. programs. It will add an extra year or two to your studies, but it should be much easier to get into a good doctoral program if you already have an MS.
    – Daniel K
    Commented Jun 11 at 1:49
  • "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, 'faster hiring'." Commented Jun 13 at 0:30
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have applied to just over 2,500 positions since last October,

The only way I can see you applying to that many positions since last October, while graduating with honors with a BS in Physics and Mathematics, while doing research. Is if you somehow automated the process of applying.

That is a bad idea. This is a bad idea for several reasons.

  1. Each job type needs a different resume. Fast-food worker you want a resume that emphasizes that you are a hard worker, easy to get along with... but don't have employable life skills. Data analyst you need a resume that shows strong math skills, and a familiarity with the problem set.

  2. It isn't hard to tell the difference between a resume written by someone who wants the job. vs a resume written by someone who wants a job. Its about what is missing/included. What skills are emphasized etc. In other words how much time/effort the applicant spent tailoring their resume to the job on offer.

  3. Your resume is bad. My first time applying for real jobs (fast-food, grocery store, janitorial etc.. don't count, and in fact badly written resumes can help with those jobs). my first real sets of resume weren't very good. After my first attempt at getting jobs failed, I got good advice from people in the field. Simplified my resume. And then tried it again.

  4. You are applying online for the warm body jobs that allow in-person applications. If you want to work at fast-food, grocery stores, front desks etc... best way is to apply in person. It shows that you live in the area, and can get there. Both of which are huge plusses to those jobs. This doesn't apply to the data analysist/ computer programmer/research assistant roles. As applying online (if you did it thru their website instead of Ziply or Indeed) shows that you know how to use the internet, which are required by those jobs.

    • Yes I know this is the advise that your grandpa would give... But its advise that I have followed for warm-body jobs, and it has worked for me.
  5. You are applying on line with a website other then the companies website. Yes, they have their job listed on indeed/zipply/linked-in. And yes you can apply that way. But I personally like researching companies before applying to them, so I can tailor my resume towards their field. (Stick most relevant skills/positions at the top of the resume) And if you spend the 5 minutes it takes to find their website and apply directly to them instead of a job website, that will make you stand out against the horde of people who use those websites.

  6. Due to your spam your name has already been rejected for 2500 different positions... You now have 2500 less options then you did before you started spamming your resume everywhere.

On my second attempt at getting a job (2nd month of actively looking) I applied to work at 8 places in one month. Which is a lot less than the 500/month you are managing.

And had interviews with 6 of them. 2nd round interviews with 6. 3rd round interviews with 5. Was rejected by 2 (wrong type of experience) rejected 1 (saw their offer and ran away in horror) and was accepted by 2. (The 7th was google and I doubted I would get an interview there) and the 8th I declined to interview with because I already had a job I loved by the time they contacted me.

I researched each of the positions/companies I applied for. And emphasized certain parts of me in my cover letter/resume for each position. I spent more than 4 hours on each potential job. Made sure that every i was dotted and every t was crossed.

What am I saying? Quality over quantity. Decide on a handful of jobs that you would like (or groups of jobs with similar requirements). read/re-read their job requirements. And then re-write your resume so that it emphasizes how you fulfill their requirements. (don't lie/make things up). But doesn't include too much extraneous information. I definitely wouldn't include anything in your resume that would suggest you are planning on leaving them in a year.

I'm not saying to lie.... But don't volunteer information that tells your employer that you don't view that job as an entry to a long career with them.

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    “to work at fast-food, grocery stores, front desks etc... best way is to apply in person” — Is that still true these days?  (See e.g. these stories from Not Always Right, which indicate otherwise.)
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 7 at 18:44
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    Did you read the stories you linked? Only one of them is slightly relevant... And its not for a fast-food, grocery, front desk etc... position. If you have gone shopping recently you probably have seen the signs on your nearby store that read "Hiring, apply inside" which all grocery stores seem to be sporting now a days. Or Love shopping here? apply now.
    – Questor
    Commented Jun 7 at 19:18
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    All four stories seem pretty relevant to me, which is why I linked them: the first two have potential employers explicitly requesting applications online, and not in person (contrary to the beliefs of older relatives); the first is in fast food.  The others also mention applications being online now, in the quoted fields (retail and fast food again).  — Of course, I also linked them because they're amusing in themselves (it's a good site), but they do show that, at least in some regions/businesses, online applications seem to be the norm now even in the fields you list.
    – gidds
    Commented Jun 7 at 23:48
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    @gidds It wasn't 4 years ago, last time worked in a warmbody job just after graduating while looking for a long term job. And looking around my town, I see a lot of warm body jobs advertised with "Hiring, apply inside" seems like applying in person would work perfectly well for those. This also applies to every town I've driven thru for the past 2 years. (covid years were weird)
    – Questor
    Commented Jun 8 at 0:29
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    Yes, tailoring applications by researching is important. I got more bites in a job search I did a few years back than longer ago. Companies make a lot more info available, and, if you find you don't want to apply there after all, it saves everyone some lifespan. Another thing is that offers can take a while: I applied to one that didn't hire me until 5 months later (Christmas didn't help, there). You can be ready to quit by the time the wheels all turn in to position, unfortunately. Commented Jun 11 at 17:23
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The job market has changed in the last few years. These days you have to tailor your resume to the position you applying to. And when I say tailor, I really mean it.

IMHO, because it is so easy to apply these days - 1 click and your resume is their problem, employers became overwhelmed with lots of candidates and cherry picking the ones that actually fit. Like fast food known for high turnover, so they are looking to minimize that. The person that states/implies "I am coming for one year, maybe" will lose to the one that plans to work while studying, etc

In IT, before someone even look at your resume, it has to pass on or more automatic filters that look for key words, analyze size and structure of your resume

So, in short, send resume and cover letter tailored to the position you apply.

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  • Maybe we could outsource all this matching people up for jobs to AI or something? Like, both sides of the process. You want a job, a job finds you. We could try it for finding a home, dating, locating good restaurants... Commented Jun 11 at 17:30
  • @HappyIdiot as far as i know it is already done :) by both sides, this is why every measly position get hundreds of applications
    – Strader
    Commented Jun 12 at 19:34
  • So the computer picks the best one and that's it, they get hired. Dated. Bought. Eaten. Whatever. Why are we talking about it? Commented Jun 13 at 0:08
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For certain positions, you're going to need to swallow your pride, and "dumb it down". For retail, restaurant, and labor jobs, managers are not interested in employees with extended education:

  • They may not have as much education as you do. Potentially, you become competition for them. No manager in the world is going to willingly hire their own replacement.
  • They'll know right away that if you find a job that's more suited to match your education or the money that you want to earn, you're going to leave.

It's okay to mention that you were pursuing some educational goals, IF you are questioned about gaps in employment. But get off the subject as quickly as you can. Do not list anything past high school on an application for the types of jobs I mentioned above. If your education comes up in conversation, be vague about it and turn the conversation back on your suitability for the job. It's not illegal, and you're not defrauding anyone by downplaying your experience. You have to do what you have to do.

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  • "When all else fails, lower your expectations." Be sure to also lower the appearance of what you are looking for, and why and with and for what. Beggars can't be choosers. Commented Jun 13 at 0:33
  • "No manager in the world is going to willingly hire their own replacement." The best advice I ever got was to make sure you had a replacement ready to go so when an opportunity arose you weren't blocked from taking it for lack of someone to step up.
    – deep64blue
    Commented Jun 13 at 15:32
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People have suggested to make a specific resume' for various positions.

One way to tailor a resume' for a specific position is to do the following:

Copy & paste all of the job requirements into a section in your resume' (e.g. Qualifications):

Then just delete out what isn't true about you.

Example:

C#, JAVA, SQL, HTML

If you didn't know JAVA,

then just do:

C#, SQL, HTML

This method has enabled me to go to many interviews.

My own resume' is much longer than most people would recommend, but it's got me many a job.

Every situation is different, but this is a practical example for you.

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    "This resume is long, but I didn't have time to make it shorter." Commented Jun 13 at 0:27
  • It worked for me, your results may vary. Commented Jun 13 at 13:06

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