Job (Re)Search: Part 1 – Operational Definitions

If you’ve ever taken a course on research methods, you’ll be familiar with the term “operational definition.” Simply put, an operational definition explains a concept according to the exact way its presence is being measured in a given scenario. Something simple, such as weight, might have an operational definition like “the quantity of kilograms as measured by the numbers that appear when a subject is placed on a scale.” In research, clear operational definitions are essential for proof of validity, reliability and replication of results.

Things get a bit murkier, however, when there’s no clear or objective way to measure that which is being studied. Stress, for instance, could be operationally defined in dozens of ways, depending on the method being used by a researcher. It could be a quantification of your skin’s electro-conductivity. It could be the frequency of your heart rate. It could be the presence or absence of certain behaviours, like pacing or stammering. It could be your performance on a written test. The list goes on.

In explaining many job search ideas and practices to students, I find myself attempting to change the operational definitions of many concepts that they seem to take for granted. Being stuck in a certain mindset or pattern of thinking can be a very frustrating experience, but often times it just means that you’re looking at a situation through the wrong lens. Try thinking of your situation as if you were a researcher struggling to come up with a satisfactory research design. This can make all the difference in the world to revisit how you’re defining whatever it is you’re measuring (the “dependent variable” in this case being whether or not you get a job).

I’d like to share a few of my own “job search operational definitions” with you here. I hope you find them helpful!

Resume: A document, written or otherwise, highlighting select “strengths,” “experience” and “fit” to a potential employer. The resume is fundamentally future-based, and attempts to answer the question “Where do I want to be?” as opposed to the often assumed “Where have I been?” Because there is no way to determine how all employers will view a resume, its only objective measure of quality is the request for a job interview following its submission.

Strengths: Those skills/aptitudes/qualities/activities that a person enjoys using/doing, would like to use/do more of, and allow said person to grow. As such, a strength doesn’t have to be something you’re already great at; it can be something you’re putting effort into developing, that allows you to grow as a result of that development. Weaknesses, on the other hand, do not effectively facilitate growth, no matter how much time and effort we spend on them.

Experience: Anything that allows you to highlight your strengths within a specific context—or put another way, anything that contextualizes your skills. This goes beyond your work history (which is how many students I talk to operationally define experience). The concept includes paid work experience, internships, co-op jobs, practicum placements, volunteer work, school projects, coursework, personal projects or contracts, student clubs, or anything else that allows you to discuss a skill or strength you have. Without strengths, experience is just a collection of things you’ve done. Without experience, strengths are an unproven claim you’re making about yourself. When paired, experience lends evidence to and validates your strengths, while showing that you’ve had a positive impact on your surroundings.

Fit: The area of overlap between what an employer needs and what a job seeker has to offer. The larger this overlap, the more likely a job seeker is to get the job. Like experience, fit encompasses more variables than most people give it credit for. Fit goes beyond skills, experience and credentials, and includes less tangible variables such as personality, workplace culture, values, supervisory preferences, and virtually anything else that might connect a job seeker and an employer. It’s about as convoluted as the fit between romantic partners—while we know that some basic things are important, we just don’t know what, when or how something seemingly random might click.

These are non-traditional definitions. The beauty of them is that they allow job seekers a great deal of flexibility, while simultaneously providing a rationale for choices they might make in their next job search.

This is part one of what I hope to be a few articles drawing comparisons between the research process and the job search process. Writing what I know? Yep. Preserving mental energy so I can finish my own research? Likely. Will I actually follow up on this idea next week? Time will tell…

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