Diary of a Job Seeker
The past year of my life has probably been the most tumultuous one ever thanks to a challenging job market. I alternate between feelings of optimism and pessimism about my progress; Currently I am hovering in the neutral range after a period of optimism. I have certainly made progress in my application quality, marketability, and networking potential, but the reality is those improvements haven't yet translated into a career-caliber job offer. It's certainly a game of persistence, but in the meantime I've analyzed what I've done wrong so far, what I've done right so far, and what has been beyond my control.
Wrong: I should not have went straight into a master's degree.
Leaving the realm of post-secondary education to break into the working world is daunting, and the prospect of pushing back that transition an additional year or two was definitely a factor in my decision to start a master's degree. There's nothing wrong with continuing your education, but if you don't take a break to at least try to get a job then you aren't going to know how to maximize your further education from a career perspective. My master's degree is certainly an asset, but I think that I could've made more strategic investments with my time and money through certifications and/or college programs.
Right: I chose to do a one year, course based master's degree as opposed to a thesis.
I was actually aware from the beginning that a master's degree was a risk that wasn't guaranteed to pay off. As a result, I was very wary of long-term thesis commitments. Had I gone the thesis route, I would only be beginning my job search now. It's possible that I would have got a job offer out of a more intensive master's program, but I stand by my decision and consider it to have been a wise one.
Beyond My Control: Competition for 'entry-level' jobs is fierce.
The term entry-level is a bit ambiguous. If you're in an ultra-high demand field then it could actually mean a job that only requires a relevant degree, but in most cases I think it means a relevant degree and 1-2 years of experience. I say this because usually there will be hundreds of candidates applying to a job, and the one that gets hired will probably have directly relevant co-op and/or summer job experience. I don't have evidence to confirm this, but I'm pretty sure that's how it goes. I guess this could also be considered something I did wrong since I didn't participate in co-op. Regardless, there's nothing easy about getting an entry-level job.
Wrong: I spent the last few months before graduating outside Canada, and did not do my master's research project in Canada.
Everybody knows that a well-connected candidate will often beat out a well-qualified candidate. One of the benefits of completing a master's program is it should help build your network, but to be useful that network needs to be maintained and also in the same region you will be looking for work. Any connections I gained through my research in Germany are not particularly useful for careers in Canada, and the distance was an obstacle to maintaining existing connections. A tangential problem that arose was that I was less selective about the subject of my research due to the difficulty of arranging a project abroad (settling for forest science instead of aquatic science). As much as living and working abroad is a great life experience, if I could go back this is a decision I almost certainly would have approached differently.
Right: I accepted jobs I was overqualified for in order to be self-sufficient while I continued to look for something better.
It's better to be underemployed than unemployed. The decision to accept a call center job, then a landscaping job, and then a grocery store job in order to regain and maintain my independence has actually turned out very well for me. The call center job led to my first ever promotion and it actually looks quite good on my resume, especially relative to blank space. The landscaping job led to an archaeology field technician job offer with a huge environmental employer (unfortunately I couldn't accept it for various reasons). As for the grocery store, it keeps me busy if nothing else. I can't imagine where I'd be if I hadn't regained my independence through these positions.
Beyond My Control: You can't necessarily choose your connections.
I've invested in networking, but the truth is only a small fraction of connections actually lead to anything meaningful. The timing has to be right and I just haven't had great luck. I heard a story where a man who was about to graduate from an environmental degree found out that a neighbor at his parents cottage was the president of a large environmental consulting company. Not surprisingly, thanks to this chance encounter he got his first career break very quickly. I've heard plenty other versions of this type of story and I always wonder if these people realize just how lucky they are.
Wrong: I allowed myself to be a generalist.
I found many subjects in environmental science to be interesting, and therefore took many courses in each. I would say my undergraduate degree was an equal split between environmental chemistry & toxicology, forest science, and aquatic science. Today it's clear that the subject which I am most interested in pursuing a career in is aquatic science, but I am competing for those jobs with people who have specialized in it from day one. And when I decide to apply to jobs in the other subjects I face the same problem. It's nice to be somewhat qualified for a wide variety of jobs, but I think I'm getting beat by people who are very qualified for a small number of jobs.
Right: I started participating in online networking and marketing activities.
The idea of starting this blog was planted in my mind by a mentor, and I'm extremely pleased with the outcome. I've recently expanded my online writing activities to Quora, and I'm always tinkering with my LinkedIn profile. These activities give me a refreshingly creative way to exercise and showcase numerous skills and attributes such as communication, critical thinking, and ambition.
Beyond My Control: Most application systems are awful.
August 9, 2017 Update: The application systems I had in mind here aren't actually so bad once you get accustomed to them. A better way to phrase this is that organizations all have unique application systems and evaluation methods, so it takes awhile to establish effective strategies and formats for each. And since there isn't direct feedback the process of figuring these things out can be frustrating.
There are several very large companies in the environmental services industry (who shall remain unnamed) that have awful job application systems. For those unfamiliar, it will probably take numerous applications worth of practice to produce an acceptable result and even then it will remain frustrating. Say goodbye to all that meticulous resume formatting you've completed because they only accept plain text, and you'll never quite be sure how it's coming out on their end. Do those line breaks register or is your cover letter converted into an unintelligible jumble of paragraphs and bullet points? I am also of the opinion that the resume and cover letter standard is not an ideal method of communication to begin with. Applicants hate writing them and hiring managers hate sifting through them. No wonder people resort to connections! The best application system I have taken part in was through the federal government, where they expanded significantly beyond the generic application mold.
That's my year as a job seeker summarized. I think I was successful in keeping it from becoming a rant. Although I admit these mistakes, I don't have any major regrets. We all have to follow a path, and some paths end up winding a little more than others. That's just how life goes!