Your First Job Search: How to Get Started

Mar 28, 2011

By Richard T. Lee, MD
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


April 2011 issue: “Another fellowship? Rich, you really need to stop delaying and start looking for a real job,” my program director responded upon hearing my plan for a third fellowship—and she was right. As many of you know, there is no class in medical school, residency, or fellowship on finding a job. With all my years of training, aren’t offers just supposed to roll in? Unfortunately not. For me, finding a job was more like an internship—learning on the go.


  • When to start. It’s never too early to start thinking about looking for a job. One year before the end of your fellowship is a good time to begin your job search. If you tend to procrastinate, mark that date on your calendar now.
  • List your priorities. This can be a perfect way to begin the process. Consider the type of practice you want—academic, community, industry,
    government, or other—and list other influential factors, including geography, family, salary, protected time, research infrastructure, and cost of living. The type of practice and geography are two of the most important and easiest ways to begin to screen your job opportunities.
  • Timeline. Realize each hiring organization will have its own unique timeline. Some begin their fiscal year in July, others in September or January. This will often indicate when a potential employer can begin planning for new positions. There may be other factors affecting the availability of openings, such as an impending retirement, but in general there are two waves of hiring activity: August to October and December to February.

The search

  • Where to look. The easiest place to start looking for openings is in journals or at the ASCO Annual Meeting. However, the highest yield is probably through personal contacts. Now is a perfect time to call old friends and colleagues who recently graduated. They’ll be able to tell you about unadvertised positions and provide the inside scoop on organizations where they may have applied or interviewed.
  • Post your information. Many websites, including medical journals and physician-related career sites, allow you to post your information or CV online. The usefulness of these sites will vary depending on the type of practice you are looking to find.
  • Recruiters. In general, this type of service should never require you to pay any fees upfront. Large companies like Kaiser Permanente and U.S. Oncology may have specific in-house recruiters that you can contact. As with websites, investigate the recruiter’s focus—community, academic, or industry.
  • Letter of recommendation. Early in the process, start thinking about who you can ask for a letter of recommendation so you can give them plenty of time to write it. The letter should come from someone who knows you well enough to include some personal remarks. You’ll need three to five letters, with at least one from a senior leader within your field. Additionally, a letter from your program director or Chair is strongly encouraged.

CV and cover letter

  • Don’t be bashful. This is one time in your life when tactful boasting is probably helpful. If you were recognized for your teaching or won an award for patient care or research, include it in your CV and cover letter. If you’re academically inclined, add a small glimpse of your future vision. You should also consider balancing the letter with a bit of personal information that shows who you are. These will help distinguish you from the pile of other applicants.
  • Custom fit. Be sure to tailor both your cover letter and your CV to the job position. Emphasize how your skills will be an asset to that institution/practice and help them build a more complete clinical program.
  • Keep doors open. Be cautious about being too specific in your cover letter regarding the kind of job you want, as this may close some opportunities. A job might be absolutely perfect for you, except the job is in lung cancer instead of colorectal cancer. It still might be worth considering—do your research and ask your contacts to understand the needs of your employer.
  • Personal touch. Be sure to address your letter to a specific person and try to mention someone they may know—another way to make your application unique.

Making contact

  • The pre-contact. Before contacting the Chair of the department, consider calling the administrative assistant and telling him/her that you’re interested in a faculty position. Often the assistant will provide insight (on the specific contact or type of positions available). Remember, you can never be too nice. The job interview begins the minute you make contact with any potential employer.
  • To e-mail or mail? Most individuals prefer e-mail. Draft an e-mail just as you would a regular letter and attach your CV and cover letter as a PDF. Some places may still prefer postal mail, so be sure to ask during your pre-contact.

Other pointers

  • Be organized. Create an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of where you are applying, especially if you plan to look at several places.
  • The unbiased advisor. Often your Chair or program director might be trying to recruit you so it’s hard to know how much information to share. Having an unbiased mentor who is not invested in the recruitment process can provide much-needed perspective.
  • Be honest. Although this is obvious, it can’t be overstated. Even before you are contacted, it is highly likely that a potential employer has already called someone at your institution to find out more about you. Keep in mind that oncology is a “small world”: most oncologists know each other and are probably friends. What you mention to one person, positive or negative, can easily be communicated to another potential employer.
  • The right fit...for now. Finally, realize that the goal of your first job search is not a contract for the next 30-plus years. It is to find a job now. You’re likely to change jobs at some point in your career. Don’t feel pressure to find that perfect fit from the start.

Next steps
Soon you’ll be contacted by interested parties to begin the interview process, which will be covered in this column in July 2011. Hopefully, this article will help guide you to landing your first job, the one you’ve been waiting years to find. Best of luck!

Dr. Lee is an Assistant Professor of General Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He is a member of the ASCO Professional Development Committee and the Career Development Subcommittee. In 2008, Dr. Lee received a Young Investigator Award sponsored by the ASCO Clinical Practice Committee.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Dr. Stephen L. Richey for his input on this article.

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