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From PhD to Life

Why job hunting is like an election campaign


It’s election season here in Ontario. Where I live, the lawn signs went up a few days ago, and the campaign offices are up and running, their outsides and insides plastered with oange (NDP) and red (Liberal). On my walk home from the library just now, I noticed one home sporting two election signs, one for each of the top two contenders. I was struck by the duelling loyalties expressed on this neighbour’s lawn, and my thoughts turned to my own work.

When finishing PhD candidates and new grads think about what comes next, they often do so in terms of a binary: academic or non-academic employment. Choosing to focus your energies on one seems to preclude paying much attention to the other. But of course, like an election campaign, you need not decide until it comes time to cast your vote / sign your employment contract. And even then, election results, like most jobs, are only good until the next campaign / opportunity.

People who find themselves in transition can engage in the job search process without limiting their options. Why? Figuring out what to do and then setting out to do it requires a significant amount of inner work, often before you get networking and applying for jobs in earnest. Knowing what’s important to you and where your greatest potential lies will help ground you and show the way forward, both for your own benefit and that of a potential employer.

Any job seeker is better off knowing who she is in the world. Knowing your values and strengths, favourite skills, top priorities, and main interests helps no matter where you wind up being employed. Let’s use me as an example. I consider myself to be a community builder. What that means is that I’m happiest — I experience high well-being — when I can be part of and help create a positive, supportive, collaborative community. If I were going on the academic job market in the fall I’d know to prioritize opportunities where that value would be honoured and embraced. If I were searching out other sorts of work, I’d do the same. No matter the other details of the job, I know that an absence of community would seriously undermine my well-being.

If you’re considering your options, know that you don’t have to cast your vote just yet. In the meantime, do as much research / inner work as you can so that when the time comes, you’ll be in a good position to make an informed choice.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Amy Elder / September 30, 2015 at 13:42

    Great advice. And don’t forget that graduate students can get help with self assessment at their university career centre!