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4 Steps To Defining Your Core Career Values For A Job Search

Define your care career values before starting a job search
Written by: Amy Heffernan, Ph.D.

I was unhappy.

On paper I was very successful — moving smoothly from one enviable position to another since finishing my PhD.

But I was unfulfilled.



I would attain one goal but immediately feel like it was not enough.

I would be in the middle of sipping my celebratory champagne and already thinking about what was next on my list.

My friends often asked me if I could ever be happy.

I began to wonder if I was wired up to never be able to feel satisfied and soak up victory.

Satisfaction wasn’t the problem.

The problem was I was stuck in short-term thinking.

I was stuck chasing one short-term goal at a time, without any real plan.

I was achieving some goals, sure, but I wasn’t achieving goals that were in line with my core values.

As a result, I wasn’t satisfied.

I wasn’t satisfied because I was living a reactive life, not a proactive one.

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, lists proactivity as the number one most important habit for people to develop:

“If you’re proactive, you don’t have to wait for circumstances or other people to create perspective expanding experiences. You can consciously create your own.”

I had gotten lucky in reacting to circumstances that worked out in my favor, but I hadn’t taken the time to identify my core values, let alone create a strategy around them.

Eventually, I realized I wouldn’t achieve satisfaction and feel a sense of fulfillment in my career until I aligned my core values with my goals and put together a plan to reach them.

Once I did, I was able to see my career trajectory a lot more clearly.

I was also able to create a job search strategy that left me feeling motivated, engaged, and fulfilled.

I started to see how each career accomplishment fit with my overall career trajectory.

Instead of a stand alone victory, each achievement was a step forward toward something bigger that gained momentum in both energy and focus.

I became more confident at industry interviews because I only applied to companies whose values were in line with own.

My motivation was clear and defined.

I felt more in control and less subject to chance, and as a result I was able to enjoy each success along the way.

Stay focused and motivated for maximum job satisfaction

Why PhDs Need To Identify Their Core Career Values

Values are principles or standards of behavior: one’s judgement of what is important in life.

But more than that, values form the system by which we make decisions and act in every aspect of life.

Values can be divided into three categories:

Intrinsic values — intangible rewards related to satisfaction and motivation, such as helping others.

Extrinsic values — tangible rewards, such as job title (prestige), salary or benefits (wealth).

Lifestyle values — these govern how you live your life, such as when and where you holiday and how you spend your leisure time.

These values are not independent of one another.

While intrinsic and extrinsic values can easily be linked to an employment setting, ultimately, these values fuel your overall life direction, or lifestyle values, so we must take a holistic approach and consider all three.

Leaving academia is a decision that many PhDs struggle with.

It’s easy to question your choices and feel confused about what your next career steps should be.

It’s easy to second guess yourself, especially when moving into the unknown.

By identifying and connecting with your values, this choice will become clear, you’ll be more focused and motivated about it, and you will have greater job satisfaction.

You’ll find your “flow” state.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first described the concept of ‘flow’, a highly focused mental state of complete absorption in the task at hand, leading to feelings of complete satisfaction and fulfillment.

Finding a position that aligns with your core career values creates greater flow and means you feel happy and fulfilled.

According to a study out of Warwick University, happy employees are 12% more productive and take 10 times fewer sick days, and employers of happy employees see 37% greater sales and increased stock prices.

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology associated flow with positive mood, and with work that was varied and autonomous.

Additionally, Professor Marty Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology, noted that the conditions for experiencing flow are optimal when individuals are offered the opportunity to leverage their own core career values.

The secret to getting everything you want out of your career and being happy with it requires developing and defining your core values.

It also requires aligning your core values with activities that put you in a flow state and move you forwards and upwards in your career.

You must find a job that is both rewarding and fulfilling

4 Steps To Developing And Defining Your Core Career Values

Every successful company has a core career value statement.

For example, tech giant Google lists empowerment, productivity, and communication as some of its core career values.

As job seekers, PhDs should also have a core career value statement.

Your value statement is simply a list and description of your core career values.

The truth is, you have worked too hard for too long to settle for a job that you do not find fulfilling.

Take the time to discover what industry positions and companies will be the best fit for you, both professionally and personally, based on your core career values, not the other way around.

Here’s how to define your core career values and how to align them with your career trajectory…

1. Create a list of core career values.

This step may require some intensive self-reflection, so give yourself the time and space you need to think uninterrupted.

Identify and describe a time when you were happiest, “in the zone”, or had the greatest feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment.

What were you doing, who was there, and what other factors were involved?

Now do the opposite.

Identify and describe a time when you were the most unhappy, inefficient, dissatisfied or unmotivated.

What were you doing, who was there, and what other factors were involved?

Repeat these two steps until you have a couple of examples for each scenario.

Now, can you identify any central themes in these situations?

Mindtools has a wonderful list of 100+ common personal and professional values to get you started.

Read through the list and write down any that resonate with you.

Make a list of your core career values before scheduling a job interview

2. Refine your list of core career values.

From step 1, you may be faced with a list of 30-40 values.

Write them all down, and break out the highlighters.

To refine your list, look at ways that you can group similar values together.

For example, you can combine accuracy, correctness, quality-orientation, and thoroughness under the heading of “perfection”.

Remember that your value is defined by you.

One person’s definition of perfection will be different than someone else’s, and does not have to match the official definition.

You may wish to write one or two sentences describing what each value means to you.

Next, look for any values that are secondary to another.

Does one value result in another?

For example, “perfection” may lead into a core value of “excellence”.

To be effective, aim for 5-10 core values that you can relate with your everyday thinking.

If this exercise doesn’t work for you, you may wish to use a more structured tool, such as the VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire (a free version is available here) by Seligman, or Gallup’s Strengths Finder 2.0, or try one of these alternatives.

3. Test your core career values.

The best way to know if you have correctly identified your values is to put them to the test.

You have probably already done this without realizing it.

Have you been in a situation that made you distinctly uncomfortable?

Made you squirm in your seat, or feel a little nauseous?

This may have been because you were being asked to behave contrary to your values.

Your gut reaction is trying to alert you to a value clash.

A quick way to test your values is to look back at your examples in Step 1.

Are you engaging your core values in these situations?

Are any of your values being violated?

A more thorough approach is to test your values in your everyday decision-making over several weeks.

Do you feel as though your decisions and actions are aligned with your values?

If not, why?

You may need to revisit steps 1 and 2 to get this right.

To be reminded of your values on a regular basis, create a screensaver or wallpaper for your favorite device, or stick a post-it note to your mirror or computer monitor.

4. Apply your core career values to your career.

Honestly assess your current position — how well does it align with your core values?

Now that you have identified your core values, you can use them to influence your job search in a proactive way.

You can filter out those organizations whose core values don’t match your own, by asking yourself some key questions:

What tasks do you most enjoy, or get the greatest sense of achievement from? Are you taking advantage of your strengths?

What kind of work schedule do you want? Traditional 9 to 5? Freelancing or the flexibility to work from home? Opportunities for travel?

What kind of benefits are you looking for? This might be a minimum dollar figure, working for commission, bonuses, or the ability to leave an hour early to pick up your kids. Does this benefits package support your lifestyle?

What industries or companies most interest you? (it is OK if the answer is not ‘science’!) What are their company values? How do they align with your own?

What type of workplace relationships do you value? Working face-to-face with clients, or behind the scenes? Do you like a manager with regular oversight and structure, or do you prefer flexibility and autonomy?

From here, you can find industry positions that match these answers.

When you don’t take the time to define your core career values or align them with your career trajectory, you will feel less authentic and less motivated. Values give you purpose. A lack of purpose leads to apathy or an inability to appreciate your achievements. When you take time to identify your values you can plan and act for a fulfilling career and personal life. As a PhD, after suffering through low-paying academic positions with tyrannical academic advisors and no support system, it’s time for a change.

To learn more about the 4 steps to defining your core career values for a job search, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Amy Heffernan Ph.D.

Amy Heffernan Ph.D.

Amy has a Ph.D. in Analytical and Environmental Chemistry, and currently works as a Research Scientist at the Florey Institute in Australia where she uses mass spectrometry to investigate Alzheimer’s disease. Amy is motivated to integrate advanced analytical technology into applied health research by building interdisciplinary networks across industry and academia.
Amy Heffernan Ph.D.
  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Hi, Amy. Great article! I haven’t given much thought to these matters for quite awhile, but I realize that these very fundamental questions need to be reviewed from time to time. Life has a much different perspective after you’ve been in the industry for a number of years. Thanks very much for your insights.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    This is really good food for thought, and adds some dimension behind all the activity that we do while networking and looking for a position. I appreciate the chance to stand back and ask, “What is it all for?” I have a feeling this is going to help me quite a bit. 🙂

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I agree with Matthew. You have to have a sense of who you are as you transition to more and more responsibility and expertise. Otherwise, it can seem like a grindstone. Taking that time to review is really important to the soul (and will probably prevent ulcers, LOL!).

  • Shawn Lyons, PhD

    This makes a lot of sense, and it’s the one thing I haven’t done. :/

  • Kathy Azalea

    I appreciate that you not only shared your personal story, but gave us some concrete ideas on how to approach the process of identifying core values. I think that most of us think we already know our core values, but I can see how values change over time and get refined. 🙂

  • Julian Holst

    Hi, Amy. As I went through these exercises, I found it very easy to identify my likes and dislikes when it comes to career-related tasks. Transparency and a positive work environment are very important to me, as is the opportunity to help patients and make a contribution through the work. Thanks for helping me sit down with this.

  • Sonja Luther

    I think it’s very wise to have an understanding of one’s own values. Without it, you’re like a rudderless ship with no direction, and it’s easy to get off the course. The most successful people I know have a very clear focus and use their core values to make decisions about which ventures to get into and which ones aren’t a good fit.

  • Theo

    Well, this gives me a much better idea of the type of job I should be shopping for. I can see that I love to work independently and dive deep into material without a bunch of distractions from other people.

  • Harvey Delano

    It’s an interesting question about whether or not your core values are being violated on the job. For sure, people should look for positions that concur with and support their core values. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I believe that quite a few employees in the States are asked to do work that doesn’t align with their values, at least at times. Over the long haul, if you don’t find a workplace that helps you feel that you’re supporting your own values in the work you do, you’ll get ulcers or something worse.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    You’ve hit on a key, Amy. It’s absolutely the best way to rule out companies when you’re overwhelmed with leads and short on time. As you do your research on company values, perks, and goals, don’t be afraid to discard a firm that truly doesn’t meet your needs, whether it’s lacking in shared values, the perks or schedule you need, or opportunity for advancement. When you allow yourself to do this, you’ll find that your approaches to companies you truly admire are much more authentic, and recruiters and managers can sense this about you. It’s a win/win to have alignment of purpose.