When I chat with people who are considering a transition into an industry research career, I’ll often ask, “What do you really want in a job? – What are your “must haves”?” I ask this because given the diversity among research career paths, it is important to articulate what you desire in a job so that you can approach job ads, networking, informational interviews, and job interviews with clarity and focus. There’s no point to customizing your resume or trying to network for a job that you wouldn’t like (or are not qualified for).

And so, if you’re deciding between research in industry or academia or you’ve already decided on a research career in industry, it’s well worth it to take some time to articulate your job criteria. These will serve as a useful guide as you navigate job ads, resume writing, and interviewing, but – more importantly – they will increase the probability of finding a job that is satisfying and fulfilling.

How to Discover your “Must Haves”

If you’re reading this post, you’ve likely worked very hard to get to this point. You’re probably smart (you got into grad school), gritty (you survived the infamous Reviewer 2 and their pages-long requests for additional experiments), and skilled (did you say nine years of post-secondary education?). You might also be very ready to move to the next stage of your career. However, this is a crucial time to take a moment to reflect on your individual strengths and interests, and to use those to be intentional about the career path you pursue.

In industry, there are many possible paths and it’s valuable to define what a meaningful and satisfying career looks like for you. After all, you spend many of your waking hours working – you should feel satisfied and energized by how you spend that time! (How very millennial of me, I know).

Identify your Mid-Term Career Goals

To start, ask yourself: What things do you want to be doing in your job in 5 and 10 years?

This could involve answers like, “I must be studying human retrieval processes”, but ideally you’d answer with statements such as, “I want to work in an interdisciplinary and collaborative environment” and/or “I want to do research that has a direct application to a current problem in society” and/or “I want to educate young minds” and/or “I want to lead a large-scale research effort to solve a novel problem”. These answers provide a framework for the type of work you’d like to target (e.g., industry vs. academia, product work vs. R&D, leadership vs. direct research work).

Articulate What Energizes You

From there, there are a couple of different exercises that can help you articulate your specific job “must haves”.

If you reflect on the work you’ve done to date, you can probably identify periods of work or specific tasks where you felt deeply engaged. What were you doing at these times? I have found it incredibly valuable to list the activities that push me into flow state and/or are difficult to walk away from. There are some activities that have me pushing lunch out to 4pm or working past dark because I just can’t step away. It’s also useful to acknowledge the activities that make you feel like you’re treading through molasses. To understand these, you might check out the book StrengthFinder 2.0 or do a simpler activity of “love it”/“loath it” (where you write down recent activities that left you feeling energized versus depleted). I have found this activity to be the single most useful exercise for developing self-awareness around my most fulfilling work.

Note that the listed activities shouldn’t be things that other people tell you you’re good at. They should be things that are internally motivating, energizing, and intrinsically interesting to you. If you can find a job that maximizes the time spent doing these things, you will likely find that work deeply satisfying rather than fatiguing.

Another activity I found helpful was to identify commonalities across all of the “jobs” I’ve had thus far, academic and otherwise. Start by listing out all of your volunteer jobs, paid jobs (even that Tim Horton’s job!), and academic roles, and write down the things that you enjoyed and disliked about each of these, even if they seem irrelevant to your future career. Then, you can look for commonalities across these. Here, you can focus on environmental factors too, to identify the work culture factors that matter most to you. Maybe you’ve detested roles where you’ve had to work with a Brilliant Jerk, or you’ve loved jobs with daily collaboration.

These insights should form a checklist of what you’re looking for in a job.

Survey your Personal Life Goals

Finally, you might also survey your personal life goals and identify any career “must haves” based on these. Perhaps you want to live in a specific city or part of the world, or you want to have some ease in your career during certain years so that you can have a family. When I was considering the next step in my career, I was certain that I didn’t want to live somewhere with a harsh winter (after surviving 5 years of Waterloo winters) and ideally I hoped to stay on the West Coast. If these things are important to you, they should be factored in.

These can be compiled into a checklist or a “recipe” for an ideal job. You probably won’t be able to determine the presence or absence of all of these things from a job ad. However, the list provides a useful guide as you determine the category of jobs you’d like to pursue (I’ll talk about a process for determining these categories in an upcoming essay), and they’ll help you articulate the questions you’d like to ask during interviews and when considering an offer.

Hopefully, the time taken to think through your goals, your passions, and your life considerations will help you focus your search and find a job that is satisfying and fulfilling.

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