Job market blues

I want to quit my field. I want to quit my job right now and go home. This feeling comes and goes. Mostly, it’s gone and I do just fine. Actually, more than fine. From the outside, I know I am considered to be one of the up and coming young scholars of my field, even though from the inside I feel like anything but. Objectively, I’ve been doing as well as could be expected so far this year on the job market, getting the right interview invites and expected rejections from jobs I probably had no business applying to in the first place. But sometimes I have a bad day and I just don’t know why I’m doing all of this. Today is a bad day. Sometimes bad days correlate with bad news brought to me courtesy of the rumor mill and jobs wiki, and sometimes simply by a wave of anxiety caused by the prolonged waiting and the unknown. Today is a “fear of the unknown” day.

I wonder if search committees are unaware of the jobs wiki or how fast the rumor mill really is, or if they’ve just forgotten the existential angst of being on the job market, of not knowing if you’ll have a job next year and where, of not being able to make any plans more than a few months into the future, of depending on a combination of luck, skill, and politics going one’s way. Whatever it is, I really wish that they would take the rumor mill into account. Nothing is a secret anymore.

I find the job market angst to be particularly hard to talk about with others. It doesn’t seem appropriate to talk about with anyone who is a potential letter writer, because I worry that they will not think as highly of me, or they will stop being as supportive because I am being very negative. My family and non-academic friends are as supportive as could be, but they don’t really get it. I used to talk to my academic friends about feeling insecure, but then one day not too long ago my old PhD advisor reached out and told to stop, because, they say “if she can’t make it, what kind of chance do we have?” So, he says, put on a happy face and pretend all is well. I promise, you’ll do fine. But, as I am now tired of saying, you don’t know that I’ll be fine. I would agree with you that I should be fine, but that’s no guarantee that I in fact will be fine. That’s not how life works.

Even when I admit to insecurities, so few others ever also come out and admit them. It’s like we all put on a brave front and pretend we’re immune from the anxiety. Maybe others really are, but I find that hard to believe. So, as a first step, I’ll say it: I’m not sure I’ll make it. I worry a lot. I don’t have anyone to talk to about this, and that’s not helping either. But here I can say it anonymously, and maybe you’ll admit it anonymously, too. I am not trying to make it any prettier or uglier than it is. This is my reality: It sucks, and it’s wearing thin. I know I will be excellent at the job, but I don’t know that I will ever get one. And that is really hard to live with.


22 thoughts on “Job market blues

  1. Being on the job market does suck – there is no other way to put it. And you know what? Even once you’ve secured a TT job, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the search is over. I’m searching for better positions after a few years in my TT position. I’m applying to only a few places each year, as a new position would need to be a major improvement in order for my family to consider a move. As I wonder if I’ve made the next step in the interview process, it is reminding me of just how stressful this process is. It’s hard to talk with anyone about it, so maybe an anonymous online vent is the best thing to do, as you’ve done. Even if you can stay positive most of the time, I think it’s okay (and healthy) to have a bad day now and again. Because the whole process is no fun, and makes you feel almost powerless over your future. I wish you the best of luck in your search. Hang in there.

  2. I believe most of us can relate to your angst. I know early in my career I had piles of rejection letters on my desk. It was so very frustrating. The market is that much more competitive nowadays. But when I advise people in your shoes, I tell them essentially the same things over and again. They are as follows:

    1) If you’ve been invited to an interview, you have the credentials they are looking for.
    2) Yes, it is true, hiring committees usually form ideas about “who they really want” for the position before the interviews.
    3) The people they “really want” are in demand, and likely to turn them down.
    4) The interview IS everything, and more.
    5) Departments are looking for “good fits” not only professionally, but more so personally- they do not want trouble.
    6) The manner of how you conduct yourself during interviews is absolutely key to getting offers.

    Early in my career- I was on edge & anxious during interviews. People pick up on that, and it does not sit well with them. Then, I swung the pendulum the other way- and was over-confident. They do not like that either. Eventually, I became comfortable “in my own skin.”

    Since then I have been relaxed, collegial and very open- about everything. I hide nothing. When they inquire about flaws and short-comings, I respond honestly. When they ask about strengths, I do the same. When I discuss my research- I do so with enthusiasm, but I don’t oversell myself.

    My attitude is now one of “no big whoop” if I do not receive an offer. Best they turn me down if perceptions are less than ideal. Since adopting this approach, I have averaged about 70% offers from my interviews. Previously, it was pathetic. So I would say do the best you can to set aside the anxiety and just be your relaxed self.

  3. I feel for you! I really do!
    Everything about the academic job search sucks. And I think it’s not just because we’re all on temporary contracts for years and years and constantly have to wonder whether we’ll be able to pay rent and support our families, and whether we’ll have to move across the country (or another continent altogether) in order to do so. I think that for a lot of us, a large part of our self-confidence and self-esteem is tangled up with how good we are (or think we are) as scientists, and the job search is one of the very few metrics to measure that.

    I must admit I don’t agree with your advisor. At all. I think the worst that we can do as academia is just smile away our problems and all pretend to be happy and content. We are not robots. We have hopes and doubts and fears, and that should be acknowledged. There is real psychological stress
    and a lot of pressure in the job search, which affects our mental health, and sharing that stress with others is one of the few ways to alleviate it. I actually think it’s much worse for everybody *not* to talk about it. It’s worse for you, because you have to deal with all of that on your own. Unlike your advisor, I also think it’s worse for everyone else. I can say from at least my own experience (and talking to fellow students and postdocs) that the very atmosphere where everyone pretends to be happy puts even more stress on me, because it makes me think “oh well, everyone else is doing so well. I’m the only one with these doubts, so I’m probably not cut out for this.”

    During my last academic job search (for my first postdoc), having a network of academic friends around me was absolutely essential to my sanity. I don’t know how I would have survived the stress and doubts and sometimes desperation without having people around me who’d let me rant or cry or distract me from time to time. Many of these were PhD students or postdocs as well, so were either in the same situation or had been in a similar situation recently.
    If you have academic friends you feel you can be open with, who might support you and be open about their own experiences as well, don’t give that up.

    Or maybe, in the time of the internet, we could create a safe space online for PhD students and postdocs to chat, to share doubts and hopes, to get advice and sometimes also just a bit of encouragement. Does that exist already? If not, I’d love to help create it. I think there are more of us out there who go through this mental process than you think, we just need a common space where we can share our stories. I’m very grateful that you made a start!

    Good luck with your search!

    • I must admit I don’t agree with your advisor.

      Completely agree with you. You put into words exactly what I was feeling when I read what Sciencella’s advisor had said. Pretending not to have insecurities would be so isolating.

  4. One thing I was really struck by, in reading this post, is that you know you would be excellent at the job if you got one. That, to me, says a lot about whether you will be “fine” ultimately or not. If you have that faith in your abilities and your suitedness to that life, these external things will be bumps in the road.

  5. Yup. One of the hardest things is that most people don’t get it. Pretty much the only people you can talk to are your job market cohort and people who’ve gotten jobs in the last ~3 years. So it is nice to hear someone being honest about how it feels.

    And now, I will go put on my happy face. 🙂

  6. I am a lucky one who made it through to the other side of having a job. It took my 5 years as a post-doc and I felt EXACTLY the way you do many times along the way, especially in years 4 and 5. No, the search committees don’t know or care about the wikis, and yes, they’ve forgotten about the angst. People block out the bad things and remember the good old days of being a post-doc. I also think that the people telling you it will be fine are telling you that because it turned out for them, and yeah, it is possible that it won’t be fine. I DO think that the ability to persist and hang in there and tolerate uncertainty is the best predictor of whether you will get a job (given that you are getting interviews and doing well in science otherwise). My consolations are (a) YOU ARE NOT ALONE! and (b) unexpected short-term solutions come along for good people to help tide you over until you get a permanent position. If you can handle the mental stressors of uncertainty, chances are, you really will likely be ok. Hang in there! 🙂

  7. Ive gotten to the point where the angst just isnt worth it any more. I love science with all my heart… but the thought of another exploitative postdoc is beyond disheartening, the idea of being “stuck” in TT…. urgh.. I just cant.

  8. Tell you what, Academia seems to share the hardships of the market most everyone has to deal with. Any line of work, yours included, is much sought after and underpaid or the conditions suck. Just think of the countries, where nowadays young people have no chance to get any employment (Spain, Greece), no matter what they have learned. And even here, in well-to-do Germany, young, well educated folks are stuck in underpaid, temporal contracts or have to volunteer forever.

  9. I very recently faced the same dilemma. Im working towards my graduate degree in Engineering and the branch I chose doesn’t seem to have many job opportunities for Freshers.

    For months on end it was all about going from aptitude to aptitude, interview room to interview room wondering when or even if I would be recruited. At that point of time I got told the same thing that you did. If you can’t make it then nobody else stands a chance. So put on a brave face. It was killing me inside.

    It’s not being rejected from a bad interview that actually sucks. Its being rejected despite giving a too one. It makes me want to tear out my hair and ask the interviewer about what I did wrong?

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  11. I understand your pain and I hope it gets better. I to have recently created a blog using a pseudo name so I can express myself as I wish. My family just does not understand my perspective on some things.

  12. I completely understand this. Even worse, I’m getting my Ph.D., and somewhere in my Ph.D. process, I limited myself to a specific region by marrying into a blended family. Do I regret it? No. Do I regret continuing with my Ph.D. when what I want to do and what I can do with it in this specific region is limited? All of the time. I’m afraid the “job after grad school” hunt is an all too common fear…

    • It seems like you don’t understand academia by this comment, which is totally off base. In academia, the job markets are cyclical and typically on a yearly basis. Job ads are posted in late summer early fall, applications due in fall, interviews in late fall and early winter. . . so if you don’t have any bites now (or in January) you likely won’t be getting a tenure-track job this year. Postdocs are a different ball game.

  13. Thank you for this post. Nobody understands how awful this is except for your fellow adjuncts/postdocs. It isn’t you. Even the most insanely qualified people aren’t getting TT jobs in this market. It really isn’t you.

    I’ve comforted myself by exploring non-academic career options and setting a deadline for a TT position to come through before I move on to something else. For me, knowing that I WILL be okay meant finding some specific alternative scenarios to hope for, even if they’re not the TT jobs that I know I’d excel in if only someone would give me the chance.

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