When the Job Search Seems Hopeless

Ways to build and maintain your confidence in a miserable job market

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

February 22, 2016

It’s that time of year when the stresses of a highly competitive academic job market are taking their toll. Perhaps your applications didn’t result in any first-round interviews. Or you landed conference interviews, but they didn’t lead to any campus visits. You may be a longtime adjunct who didn’t get invited to interview for a tenure-track position on your campus. Or maybe you were a finalist for a job that went to someone else.

There are so many possible moments for disappointment in the academic job search. And the academic job wikis — while useful — allow candidates to mark those moments with precision.

As career advisers to graduate students and postdocs, we will be the first to acknowledge that building and maintaining confidence in a bad job market — indeed, one so challenging it’s often referred to as a lottery — is very difficult. In fact, for most doctoral students, the loss of confidence begins early on in their training. Most start out feeling poised and positive about their intellectual abilities, and maintain that through their graduate coursework (although a difficult stint as a TA can undermine your confidence). The relief of passing qualifying exams can give way to desperation as you flounder through numerous rewrites of your dissertation proposal, and begin to question yourself and your worth as a scholar.

Your confidence level may be especially low if you’ve had disagreements with your advisers, if journals have rejected your manuscripts, or if you are having trouble finishing. It can feel as if you’ve done all this work (and wasted a lot of time) for nothing.

What can you do on your own behalf?

  • If you had an interview, remind yourself that being asked to interview indicates that you are a strong candidate. It is frustrating to not receive an offer, but having interviewed shows that you were able to demonstrate to a search committee that you could be a good fit for the job.
  • Review your application materials: How do you write about your work? Is your prose clear and concise? When you apply, do you highlight recent accomplishments? Is it easy for readers to understand what’s important about your work?
  • Have you checked in with your references recently? Some search committees read letters of recommendation before holding conference or other preliminary interviews, while others don’t read them till after. Are your references aware of your most recent accomplishments — a grant, a publication, an invitation to speak, a teaching award? Are they referring to them in the letters they write on your behalf? Those letters need to be strong.
  • Try to not be discouraged. Many people do not get an interview the first (or second) time on the market. Start thinking about what you can do to strengthen your CV for the next go-round. Your strategy should involve publication and developing a mature research agenda. Talk with your advisers.
  • Right about now you may not feel like chatting with friends who got job offers, but talk to them anyway. See if you can get some ideas from their experience.

Job searching is not a pleasant process. And when you are finishing a Ph.D. or a postdoc, life is usually stressful -- no matter how well you've planned or how certain you are about your next move.
What doesn’t help? Many of the following behaviors are natural reactions to a bad market, but they certainly won’t help you move your career forward.

  • Avoidance. The disappointment of not getting a job offer may lead you to avoid advisers, committee members, and others who might be able to help. Painful though it may be to think about going back on the market, if you want to improve your odds, you will need their advice and support.
  • Slowing the pace of your research. It’s sometimes hard to return to your research after an unsuccessful job search. It can feel as though all your hard work has failed to yield results. But if you plan to go on the market again, you will need to be more productive from a research perspective. If you can’t recapture the enthusiasm you once had for your project, try to remember that sometimes the only way out is through.
  • Taking it personally. We regularly meet students who know in their heads that the job market is bad, even abysmal. But when they don’t succeed in finding tenure-track employment, they feel in their hearts that they’ve failed. This situation is sometimes made worse by departmental attitudes toward students who are struggling on the market. If you find that feeling like a failure is affecting your approach to your work and your life, we encourage you to take advantage of the counseling resources on your campus.
  • Holding on too long. Sometimes the perfect academic job seems to be just around the corner — who knows, maybe next year is your year. And, indeed, we’ve known candidates who got tenure-track jobs after several years of searching. Is waiting several years realistic for you? Either way, you must start to look forward and sketch out some career possibilities that will work for you. A column we wrote last summer, "Knowing When to Say When," may help you in thinking about all of this. At any rate, consider looking at some of the excellent resources on career options for Ph.D.s such as Science Careers, The Versatile Ph.D., the Modern Language Association’s Connected Academics program, or the American Historical Association’s Career Diversity for Historians program. Or play around with Twitter hashtags like #postac, #altac, #withaPhD, #phdjobs, #VersatilePhD, #careerdiversity, and #STEM.
  • Angry outbursts. If you decide to get involved in political movements on faculty career issues, do so in a productive manner. We are dismayed by the shrinking number of tenure-track lines and the "adjunctification" of higher education, and saddened when we see postdocs lose their jobs over a loss of funding in their labs. We are not Pollyannaish, and we are often not optimistic. But working for meaningful change is still possible. There are many forums for doing this — student government, faculty unions, or groups like the National Postdoctoral Association. Find one that allows you to make a difference.

Job searching is not a pleasant process. And when you are finishing a Ph.D. or a postdoc, life is usually stressful — no matter how well you’ve planned or how certain you are about your next move. Newly hired tenure-track faculty members have the added stress of a constrained market, the possibility of a national or even international relocation, and the challenge of getting tenure. Those who chose (or are forced to choose) other career paths may have to, as Margaret Newhouse put in way back in 1999, "deprogram from the academic cult."

So be extra good to yourself. In a 2013 column we wrote, "7 Resolutions to Advance Your Career," Resolution No. 6 says: "Get emotionally healthy. Find something that sustains your happiness, something you really look forward to doing." We described three graduate students who, while writing their dissertations, each had an outside activity that required some significant time commitment and helped them take a break from their research. Something similar may at least help you relieve the pressures of the job search.

Julie Miller Vick has retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania and now works there part time as a senior career adviser. Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press).