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Careers Café

Cautiously contracted

Liz Koblyk explores the pitfalls of short-term contract work.


Last month, I wrote about why short-term contracts can be more career-building than they appear. But there’s cause for caution, for reasons beyond the obvious underwhelming pay and lack of job security.

Some the reasons have more to do with your job search than with the nature of contracts themselves. If, like many job seekers, you’ve limited your search to posted jobs, you could be inadvertently missing out on a hidden job market of longer-term opportunities. If you’ve been applying to short-term contracts because that’s all you see in job ads, consider setting job ads aside, or at least limiting their role in your job search. Test out a few strategies to uncover the jobs that never get posted – like networking (just look at all the networking articles right here on the UA site!), and applying directly to organizations that you’d like to work for.

In addition to considering hidden opportunities with organizations you’d actually want to work for, think about the quality of the work itself and its potential to help you secure jobs that are currently out of reach. Short-term contracts may be a great way to get involved with a project that will lead to some nice, new accomplishments, which will in turn add to your skills and let you highlight your professional growth on your resumé. Other contracts might be real workhorse contracts that offer you lots of the kind of experience you already have, and little in the way of professional growth. If you have significant experience in your field already, a workhorse contract might not offer you much. If you need to take it for financial reasons, that’s fine. Just make sure to keep track of the volume of work you do on the contract, so you can quantify it on your resumé – or note whatever else will distinguish that contract from other similar roles you’ve had. That way, even if the contract doesn’t provide the professional growth you’re most hoping for, at least your resumé still tells that story of progress.

Similarly, if the contract won’t give you exposure to organizations of interest, or put you in touch with people you can learn from, consider giving it a miss in favour of roles with more to offer.

Of course, for every piece of advice, there’s a flipside, and it seems to me that there’s more to say on the topic of ruling particular opportunities in or out. My next post will be on things to consider when applying to jobs that feel like they’re beneath you.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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