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Throughout the many years as a mentor for graduate and postdoctoral fellows in preparing them for their dream careers, I am often asked:

  • Do I need more education to be competitive in the job market?
  • How do I apply for so many jobs out there?
  • Do I need to expand my search outside the city where I live?
  • How do I find the best job fit for me?
  • How do I coordinate a job search with a partner who I live with?

All these questions stem from the foundational one of, “What if I could create that dream job based on my interests, values, skills and life situation?” In this essay, I’ll explore how you can do that, providing specific examples and advice.

Before framing your job search as, “I just need something to pay my bills,” reflect on the big picture “why” and “how” you view work. Why did you study your discipline? How are you going to translate the many core competency and technical skills you gained during your training into a career that fulfills you? Some jobs are out there for you to apply to, such as an academic professor or scientist. If those jobs align with your own values and interests, then the application you submit should be an excellent reflection of your accomplishments and intended work with the potential employer.

Another alternative for all postdoctoral fellows and grad students is harnessing the potential to create their job or opportunity based on their research interests and career goals. They all have the potential to seek out stakeholders and connections which already exist in their field of expertise and create opportunities for themselves.

In fact, if you are a recent Ph.D. graduate, you have the potential to propose new ideas to a company or institution which could benefit both of you. You have just finished research that has never been done before. You are on the cutting edge of your research topic. You are the world expert in your field. So reframe your job search from “I need anything to pay the bills” to “How can I help the world with my skills, values and interests?” Imagine you are a consulting firm. How can “Your name, incorporated” help the scientific or social enterprise?

True Stories of Job Creation

It can be helpful to learn how others have created their own jobs. For example, through reflection and skill development while pursuing a doctorate, Henri (name changed for privacy) knew that teaching in a university setting was something he wanted to try. He had built a teaching portfolio and had several informational interviews with professors involved with curriculum development during his Ph.D. Near the end of his training, he applied to some postings on academic job boards. In addition, his partner had a job in a certain city, so he researched all the college and university programs in that location. He found one which had a program in a new discipline related to his studies.

Although they had not posted a job description, Henri read about the curriculum, the courses and the people involved. He found some spots in that curriculum where he could add to the teachings with his newly acquired knowledge and experience. He then wrote a proposal of two new courses he would add and sent them to the chair, someone he had already met briefly through his network. He was asked for a meeting to discuss his ideas. After an hour of discussion, the chair said “I am going on sabbatical this year—want to teach all of my classes?” Henri was offered a part-time teaching position, which ultimately grew into a full-time appointment.

Another case in point: When Aera (name changed for privacy) was finishing up her graduate thesis, she researched companies in her area of expertise. She reviewed publications and websites, as well as identified industry sponsors and attendees at specific conferences that could potentially host her ideas.

She also contacted one of the senior researchers at a company with a well-written proposal on how she could be part of their team in developing their products and services. Aera did not know that the senior researcher was about to go on maternity leave and needed to hire an intern to help her. The senior researcher contacted her for an interview and offer her a job as a junior research associate. The company promoted Aera in the next year, and she eventually rose to a director position.

I also created my own career by being curious, reflecting on my own interests and life situations, aligning myself with mentors and people who intrigued me, keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities, and maintaining positive relationships with my colleagues and career network. My current role did not exist when I graduated with my Ph.D. Yet I was always interested in professional development for graduate students even while pursuing my doctorate, so I initiated student-run events.

I also went back to my alma mater to give career talks when I was in the biotech industry. It was during one of those seminars that a previous professor of mine who was in the audience asked if I wanted to be part of a project for the professional development program for graduate students. Then our pilot course was born. After much positive student feedback, the course has been implemented in other departments. I eventually transitioned into a full-time academic appointment with other teaching and leadership opportunities.

Based on my own experiences and those of others, I’ve learned that you can take some specific steps to create the job opportunity you want.

  1. Start with reflection. Use the Science Career IDP or Imagine PhD to determine your interests, values and skills. What do you see yourself working on in the next two to three years? What topic most piques your curiosity?
  2. Conduct research—via publications, search engines, conference and presentations, and press releases from companies on places and people who are already working on your area of interest.
  3. Request informational interviews with people who are already in that field. After each meeting, ask whom among their network they’d recommend you to reach out to and what new companies or opportunities might exist.
  4. If you are set on a certain location, build a network of people living in that place.
  5. Search for a job that’s already been posted that matches the key interests you identified in your reflections. If you find one, your application of how and why you want to work there should jump out as a perfect match to the selection members.
  6. If a posting for that job does not exist, find places where you would like to contribute—or identify a network of people who may know of opportunities and propose what you could do for them.
  7. Write a cover letter with your résumé with CAR (challenge, action, results) statements that describe what you can contribute to the organization. How can you help it with your ideas and skills?

Answers to the Questions

Finally, here are some specific answers to the questions that I previously noted that grad students and postdocs often ask me.

Do I need more education to be competitive in the job market? If you want to be in a particular technical field that requires you to know a specific skill, then yes. For example, if you want to be a computer programmer, you may need to learn some computer languages. If you want to be a music therapist, you may need to study music or learn an instrument.

That said, however, learning all possible skills to make yourself more marketable is not possible. New technologies will emerge all the time. Every year will bring forth new innovations. You do not need to learn everything before the job. Learning is a life-long process, and you will obtain many skills throughout your career.

How do I apply for so many jobs out there? Limiting your interests to those that most resonate with you is a powerful and effective first step toward applying to jobs that are particularly good fits for you. If you have a preferred geography due to personal reasons, that will assist in limiting the numbers. Besides, if you apply to 100 jobs, you cannot possibly tailor the résumé and cover letter to all those job descriptions. And a generic application will not give you the attention with a potential employer that you deserve.

Do I need to expand my search outside the city where I live? Yes, if you are seeking a specific job when it comes to a certain technology or is located only at a certain location. For example, if you want to work on a certain astronomical tool, and it only exists in a few places on earth, then you will most likely have to relocate. But if you are flexible about the type of work you’d like to do, then you probably won’t have to do so.

How do I find the best job fit for me? Again, the best job is the one that resonates with your skills, interests, values and geographical preference, depending on your life situation. Some things to consider are the work involved, proximity to your loved ones, the company culture, available mentorship, the job benefits, your commuting time, city life outside of work, vacation time, green space availability, intellectual freedom, room for professional growth, salary, and anything else you think is important for your life’s vision and goals.

How do I coordinate a job search with a partner whom I live with? Reframe the challenge as an exciting adventure where you will coordinate both of your work and life views, and seek jobs in a timely manner so you can start your new employment around the same time. For instance, if one of you is graduating from medical school, the other might have to wait for the placement announcement to start the job search. If one of you receives a job offer in one city, it would be beneficial for the other to network and conduct informational interviews in the same location.

To sum up, your future job may not exist right now. And that’s OK. Given the right network, mentors, market need—and, most of all, your curiosity and drive to express to others how you can help them— you just might be able to create it.

Nana Lee is the director of professional development and mentorship and associate professor, teaching stream at the University of Toronto. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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