Job searches can be stressful under the best of circumstances. In the current moment — when we are experiencing the intersection of a global health pandemic, economic downturn, continuing decline of available tenure-track openings and large-scale hiring freezes across multiple economic sectors — searching for a new position can be especially daunting. A recent study by Nature, for example, shows that postdocs may be facing the worst career crisis yet.
Developing practices to manage your job search strategically, building a job-search support network, planning for how you’ll respond to requests for information about your job search and drawing on effective self-care strategies can help job seekers flourish even in today’s challenging job market.
Strategically Managing Your Job Search
Strategic management is a vital component of a successful job search. Without such an approach, the search process can quickly become a full-time job — taking up time, labor and energy that you could otherwise use for research, teaching, professional pursuits and rest. By strategically managing your job search, you can prevent it from taking over your life and impeding your progress on other goals, minimize job-search stress, avoid burnout and make the most effective use of your search-related time, energy and labor.
One of the most important parts of strategically managing a job search is to set boundaries around when you will engage in search labor. That means not only the work on identifying possible positions, writing applications and preparing for and participating in interviews, but also the emotional labor of thinking about and mentally managing your search. Setting regular times to engage in such search-related labor and honoring boundaries around when you’re “off the clock” for working on and thinking about your job search are some of the most effective ways of preventing your search from interfering with everything else you’re involved in and from eating away at your mental health.
For example, you might schedule time to read job ads and identify positions you want to apply for on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 9 to 10 a.m. and set aside three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to work on applications and prepare for interviews. While it’s sometimes difficult to not fall down mental rabbit holes related to a job search, taking breaks from thinking — and worrying — about finding a job is crucial to flourishing during a job search.
While it can be tempting to seek information through job wikis, discussion boards and job market gossip sites, the time that it can take, and emotional roller coaster it can put you on, can be more harmful than helpful. If you do decide to participate, consider setting boundaries around how often you check in. In my own first job search, I kept the job wiki in my discipline open on my phone and reviewed it dozens of times a day, even waking up in the middle of the night to check it. Never stepping away from being actively engaged, mentally and emotionally, in my first job search left me constantly anxious and exhausted — and, worse, took away time I could have spent actually working on job applications.
Approaching a job search strategically also requires resisting the urge to apply wildly. It’s useful to apply widely, but letting anxiety and fear about the lack of availability of positions drive you to apply to every position for which you’re qualified — regardless of how interested you are in a given one or how strong a candidate you are — is not the most effective use of your time. Rather than attempting to apply to every position for which you are potentially qualified, strategize your search to prioritize spending time on positions you are most interested in and where your application is most likely to be successful.
Developing Your Support Network
It’s useful to create a support network with different, though sometimes overlapping, pools of people whom you can draw on for support. Your network might include: people from whom you can get advice and feedback; people with whom you want to share successes; people with whom you can share challenges, fears and setbacks; and people who can be available at pressure points in the search process (for instance, who can field messages or calls from you immediately before or after interviews).
While you might already have a strong general support network, ask people in it for specific kinds of assistance during your search. And if some are willing to field calls or messages before or after interviews or during campus visits, don’t forget to share the times you’d like them to be available in advance. As you’re developing and drawing on your network, it’s also important to consider how you will acknowledge, value and — ideally — reciprocate or pay forward the support you are receiving.
Managing Search Information
Many job seekers, especially grad students and postdocs, feel obligated to tell others about their job searches. But whatever stage of training or a career you are in, it’s important to remember that you get to choose what information to share and how, when and with whom to share it. That includes whether you’re on the market, which job market(s) you’re on, what positions you’re applying to or the status of your applications for specific positions. Indeed, managing when, how and with whom you share updates is an important part of managing your job search.
Be prepared for questions about your job search from your adviser or principal investigator, your mentors, other faculty members in your department, fellow grad students and postdocs, and friends and family. If you’re considering or have decided on a career path outside the academy but aren’t sure how to tell your adviser, Karin Hunt offers excellent advice.
Consider if and how you want to use social media related to your job search. Social media networking can be especially useful in a job search, but constant attention to job search-related social media can be distracting and draining.
Caring for Yourself While Searching
If you haven’t yet developed strong self-care practices, now is the time. Building self-care into your regular routine is an important part of managing stress and flourishing. If you’re not sure how to start identifying what self-care practices are most effective for you, this assessment can help.
In addition to your routine self-care practices, it’s useful to have specific self-care practices for pressure points in your job search. What practices will help you most effectively prepare for and decompress after interviews? What practices will you draw on when you receive disappointing news about a position you’re interested in?
Regardless of how accomplished you are, your job search will almost inevitably include disappointments and rejections. Balance those moments with celebrations of each success, and define success generously. Getting a first-round interview is a significant accomplishment. Getting an in-person interview is, too. Honor small achievements and advancements rather than only celebrating the position you accept.
Cultivating Flourishing During Searches
Remember that in your job search, you have the first and final decision about which career paths and positions are a good fit for you, which you’ll apply for, and which you’ll eventually end up taking. Consider strategically lowering the bar on your expectations for yourself during your search. Don’t set unreasonable expectations about how many positions you’ll apply to or how much time you’ll invest in each application. Lowering the bar strategically means thinking seriously about where and how you choose to invest your limited intellectual and emotional labor in your search.
Similarly, consider lowering the bar for how positive or upbeat an outlook you’re demanding of yourself. While a buoyant attitude can be useful, the pressure to bright-side challenging situations can actually undermine well-being. It’s OK to recognize that job searches can be anxiety provoking and exhausting.
Finally, remember that your first job is almost certainly not going to be your only or last one. If your current search doesn’t end up yielding a position that feels like a fantastic fit, remember that it’s unlikely you’ll be stuck in that position forever. Particularly in the present context, where the job market both in and beyond the academy is challenging, consider the strategic reframe offered by Design Your Life founders Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They suggest that rather than focusing on the unrealistic goal of finding the one perfect job, you can more productively concentrate on seeking a position that is “good enough for now.”