Setting priorities for your job search

 In jobs: preparation and placement, PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position:
5th year PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering
Program start date: 2012
Institution: Rutgers University

: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


Like Alice, if you have nothing to guide you where to go with your career, it’s going to be very hard to get somewhere. Before diving head first into a job search, it’s important to know your priorities, both professionally and personally, and allow them to guide you down a path. In doing this, you identify aspects of a job that are important to you and allow you to look for opportunities and companies that align with your priorities. It takes time to parse out what you, yourself, truly prioritize versus what priorities have been imposed on your through your work environment and others’ expectations. Taking time to do this before you begin applying and interviewing for jobs will give you a good starting point for what role would be best for you. By finding these roles that fit your needs, you will be able to transition into industry more smoothly.

Personally, I have set my priorities based on my professional desires for my career, as well as my personal life. The process of determining priorities requires self-analysis. The following questions are a few of the things I have been thinking about and trying to notice in my own work. Though this is not an exhaustive list, the answers to these questions can help reveal some priorities for a job search.

  • When do you feel most excited about or engaged in your work? When do you feel most drained?
  • How technical do you want to stay in your career? Stay on the bench? Move into management?
  • What kind of work environment is conducive to your productivity?
  • What are your strengths? What types of jobs align with your strengths?
  • How heavily do you want to weight your personal life when making career decisions?
    • In what ways does your personal life affect your career? (Importance of work-life balance, geographical preferences, benefits for dependents, …)

When answering these questions, it’s important to remove the outside influences and focus on what is important to you. Everyone is different and that’s great. Some people find more fulfillment from their hobbies than from their job, while others find happiness while they completely immersed in their work. Neither of these people are better or worse than the other. This is an important thing to remember as you move forward with this process. I remember someone once commenting that it was a “waste” for a colleague of ours to pursue her chosen career because she didn’t necessarily need her PhD for that role. But that is the career that engaged and excited her. A waste would be her taking a job where she met all the qualifications but felt unhappy and drained.

These questions will reveal what is most important to you, as well as what type of company you should pursue. This is what I have done in order to set my own list of priorities. Below I’ve listed a few of them (in no particular order) and given some insight into why I find them important.

Engaging fast-paced, dynamic work. Through my PhD, I’ve realized that a job in academic research is not for me. Academic research tends to be slow and grinding work. It requires you to chip away at unknowns, trying to answer questions and prove hypotheses true or false. This slower pace of work is something that is not conducive to my productivity. I’ve realized that I am most engaged in my work when it is more fast-paced and deadline driven. I love learning about new topics and then putting that new knowledge to use quickly. This has really been the driving factor that has pushed me to look towards industrial roles that tend to have this faster pace.

A culture of learning. Stagnation is something that frustrates me to the core. If I feel stagnant in my job, with no clear path to improve myself, learn, or meaningfully contribute, I am not happy. Therefore, it’s important to me that a job is putting me on a path that allows me to do these things. I realize that not every company or role within a company will be able to provide a clear career path, but I’m really looking for a culture of learning so that even if I have to leave that company to advance my career, I will grow through that experience.

Time for a full life. When I worked in industry as a chemical process engineer straight out of college, I had a great salary but I was only given 10 vacation days and had no ability to work remotely. Living about 7 hours away from my family, this caused me to miss birthdays, holidays, and events, which are really important to me. Now, with a niece and nephew, it’s even more important to me to be there and see them grow up. Seeing my brother and his wife raise them, I can see the extreme benefit of workplace flexibility for when I start a family of my own. It is very important to me that I am able to maintain a balance between my professional and personal lives.

Geographically in New Jersey, New York, or Eastern Pennsylvania. In the same vein as above, my family and my significant other’s family are located in New Jersey. It is important to me to remain geographically close to them, at least for now. While this does somewhat limit my options, I am lucky enough to have ample opportunity in this area in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

In many conversations with professors or academic mentors, I’ve felt some pressure to stay in academia or obtain a position as a research scientist in industry. To me, it has felt as though those roles are viewed in more prestigious light than less technical roles, likely because that is what we are being trained to do. However, the key to transitioning into a job that is a good fit is to know what is important to you and find an opportunity at a company that aligns with your needs. I encourage you to figure out what your priorities and where you’re willing to compromise with them. Allow this to guide your job search and networking. It will provide a level of focus to your search and save you time from applying for jobs that are not right for you.


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