Finding Your First Oncology Job: A Mini-Workbook for Career Success

Jul 19, 2019

By Mina S. Sedrak, MD, MS

When I began the search for my first job after fellowship, I was geographically tied to one city because of my wife’s career and family. Needless to say, this critical constraint made the search very challenging right from the start. I had to be strategic and thoughtful about my approach. I sought the advice of mentors and peers, and noted the absence of a formal, structured guide to this daunting and potentially chaotic process. Recognizing this gap, I began to assemble my experiences and recollections into a talk that I hoped would provide guidance to fellows engaging in their first job search. After giving the talk locally, I was invited to share it with a larger audience of trainees at the 2019 ASCO Annual Meeting. This mini-workbook is a version of my talk transformed into a practical tool for senior oncology fellows. The emphasis reflects my own priority of finding an academic job. I hope that others, including those seeking a job in a medical practice, will find this a useful guide in their own search.


Before you start applying and interviewing for jobs, reflect critically on what you want to do with your career and your life. Think about who you are, your values, your priorities, and your goals. This period of self-reflection is an investment in your future career fulfillment and satisfaction. This is often the most difficult part of the entire process. The analogy to crafting the Specific Aims page of a grant application is not far-fetched.

As you reflect, seek the perspectives of your mentors, program directors, and department chair. Ask them what they look for in a job, what aspects of their job are most important to them, and if there is anything they would have done differently as they looked for their first position. If you have a spouse or partner, you will want to have an open conversation about your priorities and values as a family. Family members and friends, even those in other fields, will have useful experiences to share about their must-haves and deal-breakers at work.

Identify: What matters to you the most? Rank the priorities in order of importance to you.

Disease site (e.g., breast, thoracic, GI, etc.), type of patients you might like to focus on (e.g., triple-negative breast)

Intellectual environment

Balance of clinical time vs. protected time

Teaching opportunities that are highly regarded and rewarded

Presence of potential mentors in your area of interest and a strong culture of mentorship

Geographic location

Job availability for your spouse/partner

Family-friendly culture and policies, including parental leave

Vacation time, flexibility, and other lifestyle considerations

Opportunities for collaboration

Clinical aspects: type of practice, diversity (staff, patients, focus, day-to-day work), clinical trial access, etc.

NCI designation

Office culture (team-based vs. independent environment—and no one wants to work in a snake pit)

Other: ________________________________________________________________

As you think about what matters the most to you, consider what you might have to give up or be less stringent about finding in your first job (i.e., what is the relative weight of each of your identified priorities). For example, my clinical focus in fellowship was in the treatment of thoracic and head and neck malignancies. Although I really enjoyed both the science and patient care aspects specific to these disease sites, I also recognized that it was a little early for me to make a lifetime commitment to a particular disease site, and since I was geographically tied to one city, I decided to be flexible about my disease area of focus. I made it clear in my cover letter and interviews that I was willing to adjust my clinical practice to meet the needs of the institution. Having some mental flexibility is often critical in the job search.

Communicate: Look at the three characteristics you ranked most highly and use the space below to declare what matters most to you. This will serve as a personal mission statement to guide your job search and help you evaluate the suitability of open positions and opportunities.

Example: I am looking for a job at a practice with a well-established community clinical research program, a friendly and collegial environment, and located in or near a major city.

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