The Joy of Negative Job Searching

Posted by: James on: Thursday, 23rd June, 2011

As an arts graduate I have learned to be creative with my skillset.

The problem – and the advantage – with ‘soft’ skills like ‘communications’ or ‘relationship management’ is that you’re not tied to a particular career; there’s no nice easy job path in front of you, but at the same time you could do anything – in theory.

For the arts graduate, going to a job website is like an audition for a one-handed play with a dozen different characters. Really, there are only a few jobs in that ‘arts, advertising, media, marketing, communications, editorial’ mix that we couldn’t turn a hand to and wouldn’t be tempted by – anything is possible once you look at your cv, draw out the relevant patterns of experience and get into character. Through sheer protean effort, you could be a project manager, an administrator, a content writer; you could put together a report on the psychological balance of the office; you could research dog handling techniques for Pedigree Chum’s newsletter; you could stuff envelopes quickly and with attention to detail.

The problem is – it takes a bloody long time to go through all of these jobs, filtering out the possibilities from the impossibilities – given that there are so many possibilities and in the current market you need to be open to them all – whether they be posted under ‘administration’ or ‘IT’ or ‘arts management’.

My suggestion is that you use an almost entirely negative search. My current search with is this:

project OR marketing OR theatre NOT (doctor OR nurse OR largest OR consultant or logistics OR .NET OR migration OR tester OR accountant OR analyst OR multinational OR consultant OR insurance OR senior OR construction OR engineer OR technician)


  • ‘project’ and ‘marketing’ are loose enough to act as useful positive searches – the general idea being not to close doors.
  • I would love to be involved in theatre. Unfortunately, however, when a job site sees the word ‘theatre’ it thinks ‘operating theatre’, so omit medical professions!
  • I’ve omitted ‘largest’ from my searches – purely because I don’t want to work in a big company – my generalist skillset and variety of interests is best suited to a small company position where you’ll most likely have a range of things to do as opposed to a single area of resposibility. The risk is that I cut out “largest pocket watch retailer in South-East Auckland”. Maybe I need to put ‘largest’ back in…
  • The rest of these negatives simply describe things I’m not or just can’t do. There’s always a risk that you’ll miss a good role that happens to include “answering to our senior manager” or “full insurance offered for loss of life and limb”, but I reckon it’s worth taking the chance.
  • Including the same negative term twice shouldn’t make a difference, but somehow on it actually raises the returned results by one. Go figure.

That’s the long and short of it. Always check how the website works before doing a search like this – some use ‘-word’ negatives rather than ‘NOT word’ – some probably won’t let you put in the (parentheses).

Oh, and one further note – as I found out to my dismay as I was writing this post, the negative search method often doesn’t work. I was trying to omit ‘sports’ from my search yesterday and those sports retail jobs just wouldn’t disappear. If this is happening to you, try only using one positive term e.g. ‘sales NOT(data OR retail)’ – I think the engine gets confused with (x OR y NOT(z OR j).

The long and short is: this method can open up a wide range of options in industries you might not have thought of, but the results you return will still need filtering – but less so than just looking through the whole site. It’s also a good idea to also do a positive search in a couple of areas you’re explicitly interested in.

Cover all bases – especially if you’re a ‘creative’. Good luck!

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A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

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