Four Things to Look for in Your First Job

So, you’ve completed your PhD. What next? Do you stay in academia? Do you leave? If you stay do you work as a Post Doc with your supervisor? Or do you try to find another role in a different group, department, school, faculty, university or country?

No matter what your preference, you’ll still be faced with the decision of what to look for in a job.

There are 4 things that I think are important for any job – and particularly your first.

1. The work – For most people this is their main focus. What does the job actually involve? Is the work something I could see myself doing for an extended period of time. I think this is important, but not the most important. However, I’ve listed it first as this is where people place their energy. To know what good work means to you write down all of your preferences relating to undertaking a task. For example – inside or outside? Existing skills or developing new ones? Flexible hours or fixed? In a team or on your own? Managing staff or not? The things you might expect to read in the role section of a position description or job ad. As a first job some of these factors might not be possible. Or might not be realistic to expect. So, ranking their importance will help you determine what kinds of roles you might apply for. For your first job, I think doing work you are comfortable with is most important. It can be tough to get into the rhythm of being a 9-5, Monday to Friday worker if all you have done is study. So, doing work you are comfortable with will make that transition easier.

2. The location – Location has many meanings. You could have a preference for working in a city. Or working in a regional town. Or it could be to work within a particular state or within a particular country or perhaps even a continent. Unlike the work, the location will be a lot more open for your first role. If you want to be an academic, there are universities all over the world that fit into all of the categories I listed above. If you want to work in industry, the choice might be a little more limited, but most will be possible. As with the work I’d encourage you to write down what is important and rank the items. Then, focus on those that are at the top of the list. Having an “I’ll be happy anywhere” attitude is great, but it makes it hard to find something, because there is no “anywhere” location. When deciding on a location, think about the support network you’ll have there, as well as your social preferences. Not to mention the time of life you are in and potential changes to family or personal circumstances. I’m not saying plan your life around other people – but I am saying know yourself. If you need to see your mum/dad every week, working in a different city, state or country might be unreasonable. If you make use of family to help with childcare, moving away might increase your living costs. I don’t think location needs to be a big factor for your first role. Lots of people encourage overseas experience. That’s not necessary for a great (academic) career. Instead, consider location based on future opportunities. Does that place have jobs that could be my second or third role?

Choosing work you are comfortable doing

is a good choice for your first role. It

does not have to be your ideal work.

3. The challenge – This kind of relates to the work, but not exactly. It is about how difficult or easy the task will be. For example, if you’re developing a new research technique. Or if you’re applying the same technique to a new cohort, scenario or situation. What sounds more interesting to you? Both? Neither? Knowing what sort of challenge you are willing to take on will determine the kinds of jobs you should be applying for. Academics can develop a risk averse nature. They’d rather evolutionary innovation over revolutionary innovation. That is, incremental change is preferred over radical change. But you might prefer bigger changes or bigger challenges. So, make sure you explore that with yourself. For some people, they’ll choose to make the location the challenging part. Remember that we find things most interesting when they are at the edge of our comfort zone. So, choosing something easy might mean you get bored quickly. It’s important not to be too narrow in your focus in your first job. If there are ten selection criteria, you’d expect to be able to do five really well. A further two are things you could do but might need to know more to be excellent at. The remaining three would be things you’d learn as you go. The learning would be based on past experience as well as what you pick up in the role.

4. The people – Although listed last, I think this is the most important. However, it is also the thing you’ll have the least control over. But you can still make a list of the kinds of qualities you are looking for in a boss, in your work colleagues and in any staff you might supervise. Does gender balance matter? What about working with a culturally diverse group? Are you expecting mentoring or coaching from your boss? Do you want tight guidance and oversight or to be left alone to get on with stuff? Do you want to be able to ask questions? Or do you want to consult a manual for the steps in a process? These are all things to consider. The biggest factor in job satisfaction is the people we work with. Although it might be hard or impossible to change your work colleagues, you can know what you are looking for. Once you know what you are looking for you can use that as a filter or series of questions for interviews, to design your job search or in general discussions with peers about the work you are after. In my opinion, you want your first boss to be able to direct you whenever possible, while also supporting you to develop your skills.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ( or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).