Managing Your Emotions on the Market

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

October 28, 2010

Jenny: Maybe you're finishing your Ph.D. or wrapping up a postdoctoral appointment. The days are grueling. Writing up results, planning for a dissertation defense, or trying to get work published is not only intellectually exhausting but can also take a physical and emotional toll. Yet in the middle of one of the most challenging periods of your life, you have to go on the job market.

That means putting a smile on your face, tidying yourself up, and talking about your research as though it's the best, most exciting project in the world. It means pretending that you're not absolutely terrified. It's no wonder that going on the job market can feel like an ordeal; it's the equivalent of putting on a suit or a cocktail dress for the last mile of a marathon.

Julie: You are probably feeling nervous about going on the market for the first time, and overwhelmed by all the things you have to do. But you are probably also excited, too. In spite of the tough academic market, there may be a job that looks like a perfect fit, and your advisers may recommend that you get moving on your application. While their attention boosts your confidence a bit, the fact that you're not done with your research and have never written a cover letter for a job may lower it. You are, to pull out a cliché, on an emotional roller coaster. So how do you manage your feelings?

Jenny: An assistant professor at a liberal-arts college who recently spoke on a panel on the academic job market said, "Managing and framing your feelings—including rage—about the job market is important." Her point resonates particularly among people who have been applying for faculty jobs for more than one year. You want to come across as accomplished and confident instead of desperate, which may be how you really feel.

Julie: It's very easy to dwell on our disadvantages relative to other people. In nonacademic job searches, you rarely know who the other candidates are. Most academic fields are fairly small, however, and going on the market often puts graduate students and postdocs in direct competition with friends and colleagues whose work they know.

In this environment, it's easy to make comparisons and get discouraged. But you must learn to focus on the strengths that make you unique. Some of them will be tangible, such as fluency in Arabic. Others will be more difficult to invoke, such as a real pleasure in teaching, or warmth and kindness in dealing with students and colleagues. Your advisers will be able to help you parse the scholarly tools that make you unique; friends and family members might help you think about some of the "soft skills" that can make you a strong candidate.

Jenny: Writing a cover letter, though sometimes an unpleasant task, is the first step in articulating your strengths. It is not a document that you'll simply send away and never think about again—it can be a great help in preparing for your interviews. You must not only explain your strengths but do so in the context of the job, department, and institution to which you are applying.

So rather than start by writing what's special about you, reread the job description and look at the Web site of the institution and the department, so you can incorporate some of the information there into your letter. For some guidance, take a look at "How to Write Appealing Cover Letters" and "Writing a Good Letter."

You may feel frustrated at having to write a new letter for each new position, but it's necessary. Every year we hear faculty members from different institutions express their frustration with candidates who seem to send the same generic letter to every search committee. If you're in the sciences, your research statement (or your research statement and teaching statement) will be very likely more important than your cover letter. Make sure to tailor your statement for each institution.

Julie: If you're a disorganized person by nature, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the logistics of the application process. It always seems as though every institution is asking you to send a different set of materials in addition to your institution-specific cover letter.

Before you begin, find an organizational system that will work for you. Keeping track of application deadlines, and what needs to be sent where, can be a source of anxiety, especially if you are applying for lots of positions. Think ahead as much as you can, so you're not running to FedEx or the post office at 9 p.m. the night before an application is due. That happens on occasion even to the most efficient among us, but if it happens to you all the time, your job search will quickly begin to feel out of control.

Jenny: One of the most difficult times for job candidates is the waiting period after sending out applications. Waiting for the phone to ring or e-mail to arrive contributes to a sense of powerless that many job candidates feel. And "doing well" on the academic market can mean hearing from no more than three to five institutions when you've applied to many, many more than that.

Once you've sent out your applications and made sure that any requested letters of recommendation have been sent, it's time to immerse yourself in your research or your dissertation writing. Don't check your phone or e-mail every few minutes. Take control of your time to wrap up your work and think about your plans. Feeling in control, albeit over only a little territory, will raise your confidence.

Julie: Another way to maintain a feeling of control during the job search is to develop a plan for what you will do if you don't receive an academic job offer. Will you be able to stay on as a postdoc in your lab for an additional year, or teach courses in your current department?

Although it may be hard to have that conversation with your adviser, it might be worth asking what students or postdocs typically do in that scenario. You might also ask friends and colleagues what they did in the years when their searches fell short. It's better to think about this now, at the beginning of your search, rather than panicking next May if you find that no opportunities have come your way. Taking control of your options is another way to keep from feeling desperate.

Jenny: You can also be in control of staying in touch with people. That means keeping your committee members abreast of what's going on with your search. One job candidate we know found it useful to send to her recommenders the list of jobs for which she was applying. When she got an interview, she sent the recommenders the names of everyone on the search committee. Your adviser and other faculty members are often able to "sell" your qualifications in a way that you cannot.

Julie: It's also important to manage your frustration when you don't get a position. View the people who interview you as valuable contacts for the future. That can be challenging to do in the face of disappointment, but one assistant professor remarked recently that even though she'd had a few years in which she didn't get any interviews, her failed applications nonetheless helped her make connections for future speaking and publishing opportunities. Take some time to reconnect with people you've met at meetings and other professional events.

Jenny: If you get an interview, either on the phone, at a conference, or on a campus, it's important to remember that you need to "be yourself, but better," as one job candidate's adviser put it.

That means taking the time to prepare. Practice talking about your research and teaching in the context of the department and the institution, and practice out loud. When you do have an interview, tap into what you know about yourself beforehand, so that you can be relaxed and still at the top of your game. For example, if making sure you get a good night's sleep is what will help keep you emotionally even, do what it takes to get that good sleep. One job candidate said, "Ambien changed the job market for me." (She also recommended trying it well before the actual night-before-the-interview, so that you know what effect it might have on you.)

Julie: Even in the best of times, the academic job market is tough. In the current economic climate, there's even more to be worried about—anxiety over the future of the humanities, government scrutiny of higher-education outcomes, rising costs for students, inadequate preparation of students for college, and, most important, the fact that you lack a job.

Those are real and important concerns. But you must learn to control the things that you can. Make time to take care of yourself. Try to develop a long-term plan, one with some options.

We know it's hard to feel appealing if you're so frazzled and frustrated that you can't see straight. But as one job candidate put it, the "storyline" you have to convey is, "I am an appealing candidate."

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to