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Having worked in career development for graduate students and postdocs for more than 15 years, I’ve heard both wonderful and terrible career advice. Some of my least favorite quotes included: “Apply to everything” and “You have to go where the jobs are.” I dislike those the most, because they are based on the assumptions that you are at the mercy of the job market and that this career is the most important aspect of your life—that it’s so important that you would live wherever or do whatever to attain that job. Fortunately, folks are much more complex than this.

I’m also not fond of the advice to “follow your passion.” It’s a vague and toxic approach to thinking about your future. Sure, you can be passionate about certain aspects of your work but, in reality, a career is just one aspect of life. Having a passion now assumes that it won’t change over time, but change is something that we all know will occur. Instead, the best way to feel empowered in the job search is to identify what is most important to you and then design a life that includes work but also centers your values. Let’s walk through what a values-forward job search can look like, and how you can take some of your power back.

In a values-forward framework, values act as the parameters for your next work environment, helping you clearly articulate what you need in a job. You would never move to a new city and apply to every apartment building when looking for your next living situation. You would have specific requirements for how much you can pay for rent, what your commute tolerance is, and how many bedrooms you need. Similarly, when applying for jobs, the first step is not to figure out what you are qualified for or what you can do. It’s to figure out what is most important to you and how you can maximize your time and resources.

So, before applying to jobs, take stock of what you need from work and use those needs as filters for the kinds of positions that you decide to invest time in applying to. Several free and trustworthy resources can help you clarify your values, including ImaginePhD, the life values inventory and Stanford’s Meaningful Work Kit. The most important part of this exercise is narrowing down your values to five and ordering those from most to least important. That ordering can also set you up for good conversations in an interview process and clear negotiation levers in terms of needs and wants.

Next, define what those top five values mean to you. For example, location is often something that acts as a clear driver for job searches. But how each person defines what location specifically means varies widely. Where one individual might limit their search to three cities, another might care less about the exact city and instead need mountains or a body of water nearby.

Similarly, if creativity is something you need in a work environment, how do you define that? Is it about having access to creative tools and people, or do you need to have the freedom to pursue creative ideas or projects? What if stability is something you need in a work environment—what is it for you? Are you interested in working at an organization where the workload is relatively routine and evenly paced, or does stability mean that nobody has been laid off or fired in the last 20 years?

Balance is another value that people often list among their top five values, but what does that actually mean? Do you prefer to keep work and personal time separated, with a clear work schedule and no off-hour, work-related communication? Or is balance about being able to work at your own pace, time and location? One aspect that contributes to balance is having a clear understanding of what is expected from you at work. Ambiguity breeds environments where people take on more than they can, and that leads to overwork. It’s rampant in academia and often manifests through the ambiguity of degree progress or the tenure process.

So, when thinking through what is important to you, it’s important to understand the conditions that are necessary in a work environment that creates the culture you want. Because values can have so many different meanings, articulating your own definition will help you sort through and identify the opportunities that meet your conditions.

Now that you have defined your work values, you can set up your job search to align with those values. Location and compensation are some of the easier filter criteria you can set on any job alert. But filtering for more nuanced information such as stability, balance, or autonomy requires a bit more time and planning on the front end of the job search.

Values-forward job searches are most productive when your research on organizations is beyond a quick LinkedIn scan. You can dig into more depth by talking with people who actually work in those organizations about their projects, department, organizational culture, performance expectations and what they value at work. But before meeting with them, you need to identify questions that will provide you with as much information and connection to them as possible. When someone asks a good question, we come to understand who they are and what they are all about in a much more interesting way.

Here are some questions, aligned to values, that you can use in an interview. Good questions are specific, ask for examples, and make people think about their own work in reflective ways.

  • What is important to you in a work environment, and how often do you realize those values at work? What is important to you that is not realized?
  • When was the last time your leadership made a decision that was based on employee input? (collaboration)
  • When was the last time someone was promoted, and how was that celebrated? (recognition, achievement)
  • What does the balance between project work and communication with the team look like, and do either go beyond a typical 40-hour work week? (balance)
  • Based on your experience, what other organizations do you think have similar work cultures? Are there organizations you would love to work with and why?

This last question is important, because it will help you flesh out a targeted list of organizations that may align with your values. The more people you talk to, the more you come to know the ins and outs of how certain entities function and what the range of work cultures looks like. A values-forward approach maximizes relationships, research and insight to navigate the job market.

Use this list to ground your job search with your top five values highlighted. And the next time someone tells you to “apply to everything,” you can feel self-assured you’re applying to everything that aligns with you.

Annie Maxfield is the director of advanced degree career and professional development in Texas Career Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. She previously established graduate career services at Duke University and the University of California, Los Angeles, and is one of the lead creators of ImaginePhD, a career exploration and planning tool for humanities and social science Ph.D.s. She is a member, and former president, of the Graduate Career Consortium, a professional organization dedicated to providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional-development leaders.

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