When you're trying to find your first job as a health care professional, it may seem the cards are stacked against you. After all, employers prefer job candidates with health care experience, and you can't get that requisite experience unless someone hires you, right? It's a vicious circle, but you can escape it. With some patience and persistence, you should be able to work in your chosen health care profession. New health care professionals talked about how they landed their first jobs — and how you can, too.
Build your network
If your health care education included an internship or clinical rotations, you made valuable contacts that can probably help you in your job search. "Don't be afraid to talk to people and ask for help," said Christine McElroy, who lined up a job while still in graduate school for her master's of science degree and began working as a genetic counselor at Children's Hospital Oakland in June 2000. Your school adviser or internship supervisor can inform you of health care job openings, expand your pool of acquaintances and be a valuable reference.
McElroy interviewed with just two employers before accepting her current position. She learned about the first opening from a former classmate who called to tell her about a position in her workplace. She learned about the other opening through the National Society of Genetic Counselors Listserv, which periodically posts job listings. While a student, she also attended the society's meetings, and she said the events were "hot spots" for meeting others in the field. "Don't be shy about networking," she said.
Besides networking through professional health care associations, you can demonstrate your dedication to potential health care employers by getting out into the field and volunteering. "There's no better way to find a job than to volunteer first," said occupational therapist Julie Henderson, director of restorative services at the Human Rights Initiative in Dallas. "You're looking for a job anyway, so why not go volunteer a couple of hours a day at different places within your field?"
As a student, Henderson worked with classmates to develop a new occupational therapy program geared toward the homeless population, and she knew she wanted to continue with community work. Although she took some part-time home-health contracts to pay the bills right after she graduated, she knew she didn't want to do that full time. "I didn't think I'd be effective as a health care professional if I didn't like my job," she said.
Holding out for the right fit was a good strategy for Henderson. She ended up taking the place of another occupational therapist at the Human Rights Initiative who remembered hearing about Henderson's program for the homeless. Henderson now works with political refugees and people who have been granted asylum by the U.S. government.
Henderson sees clients in the community most days. When she is in the office, she's surrounded by attorneys. "I'm the only medical professional in a law office. It's unique," she said. Henderson advised other health care professionals to consider such alternative paths. "Just find the nontraditional stuff and sell yourself," she said. "It's the easiest way to get a job. You're not fighting anyone else for a job, rather creating one."
Weigh your options
If you're lucky enough to have a health care degree currently in high demand, such as pharmacy or nursing, you're likely to receive multiple health care job offers. Be sure to weigh the decision carefully, and don't be blinded by big money, said Michael Dietrich, assistant professor for pharmacy practice at Midwestern University College of Pharmacy in Glendale, Ariz.
"My advice to students is to keep an open mind," Dietrich said. Unless the offer is significantly below market level for other such health care jobs, "I tell students that they need to remove money from the equation and figure out what is going to make them happy as a professional," he said.
To ensure you're choosing a good fit for your health care career, Dietrich suggests you ask yourself "Will I be happy here?" and "Can I do what I want in this system and succeed?" before "How much will I be making?" and "Will I be able to buy that car and house now?"
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