Written by Rogelio Cuevas, Ph.D.
I still remember when I learned I was coming to Canada; I could barely contain my excitement to arrive and start working on what I was coming to do. I had always wanted to do a PhD in a field in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) area and I was coming to Canada to finally accomplish that. I knew it was going to be five years of hard work, but I also knew it was going to be worth it, after all, a PhD from a North American institution opens a lot of doors!
After those five years, I finally completed my degree, and I am sure I did a very good job. Under my belt I had over 10 articles published in international journals, two book chapters and I had presented results in almost 15 national and international conferences; I was sure I was going to land the job of my dreams in no time!
Little did I know that it was going to take me two postdoctoral positions (temporary highly qualified academic positions), a short-term professorship and a highly reputed Canadian postdoctoral scholarship (awarded to only 5% of the over 500 applicants nationwide) – almost three more years – to start getting noticed by and active in the Canadian job market. What did I miss? Why did it take me this long?
Now I look back and is clear to me: it is not a matter of what I did wrong but rather what I did not do; it is evident to me what I should have done from day one. This being said, I am here to share with you what worked for me. Let me be frank: I will not tell you what you should do; but what I did. I am sharing my experience and what worked for me.
1. Network, network, network. Regardless of the field you are in or the new career you are pursuing, it is crucial to build a solid network of professionals in your field. Sending LinkedIn requests with the automated template does not count; that does not work. That is just the beginning of a long path. You would like to follow-up with them, explain why you want them to be part of your network, invite them for a coffee and meet them in person to learn from their experience, the job they do, where they do it, how they do it and ask them for hints of how to break into their (your future) field. And then follow-up with them again, politely ask them to introduce you to other professionals in the field and start all over again with those new contacts. Of course, it is impossible to do this with every single one of your contacts; this is why is essential to identify who is going to be part of your core network.
2. Seek opportunities to volunteer. I do not know what your situation is, but I am aware that if you are coming to Canada for the first time, you first concern is to find a roof to live under and put food on the table; obviously that comes with a job. So volunteering might not be in the top five of your to-do list. If you have the chance, however, look for volunteering opportunities that are as aligned as possible with the field you are after. By doing this you will get exposure, people will start to know you by name and next thing you know they might be considering to refer you to jobs in their fields.
3. Online training. Now more than ever, online education and training have become more and more accessible (Coursera, edX). Enrol in courses that are relevant to your field of interest (a good number of them are still free or offer financial aid) and complete them. These certificates will not get you a job, but they will get you familiar with terminology and trends in the field. What is more important, it will show you actually care about the field and that you are taking it seriously.
4. Bridging programs. Again, I understand you might have other things to worry about but, if possible, try to get this type of experience. These types of programs are as close as it gets to the actual real world experience. None of them are long enough to resemble the actual job experience or make you an expert in the field you are pursuing. They are, however, a very good indication you are getting closer and that you are taking solid steps to get there.
5. The luck factor. This comment creates a lot of controversy every time I bring it up. But then again, I am speaking about my personal experience. I always believed in the luck factor but now more than ever I am convinced that not only it is out there, but it can make a big difference. Think about it, recruiters and employers receive hundreds of resumes for a single position, do you really think they review each and single one of them in detail? Would you? Do you have any idea how long would it take you to do a thorough review of each and single one of them? This is another reason why building a solid network is very important: there is a hidden job market out there, one that you will access only if you constantly network with professionals in your field.
Let me wrap it up. Getting a job in the field was not easy for me; it took a lot of work, countless interviews, tons of resumes sent and many days of wanting to give up. Some people think that now that I have this job I have finally made it, I can finally “take it easy” and relax for years to come. I totally disagree, the actual tough work just started. I have to deliver, and I need to keep that network that took me so long to build active. I still go to meetings, I still e-mail people, still meet them, still volunteer when I have the opportunity to do so. To some extent it has become harder; at least harder than I thought it was going to be. Was it worth it? One hundred percent! Do I enjoy what I do? Every single part of it! Is it going to be as hard for you as it was for me? I certainly hope not! And I really hope that what I shared with you here helps you somehow make your path smoother and at least a bit easier than it was for me.