Christine Kelly, Director of Career Develoment Claremont Graduate University

Inside Higher Education, September 24, 2018 —

Lessons to help you process negativity and come through as a confident candidate.

One of the many things we aren’t fully prepared for when it comes to job searching is how long it takes and how demoralizing it can be, especially the first search out of graduate school or your postdoc. Rejection is awful, and it’s hard not to take it personally. Sometimes the rejection really isn’t about you; sometimes it is about them. But here’s the good part: once you get a job, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you forget how bad the process was.

Being depressed while job searching is a surefire way not to get hired. I know that from personal experience. When I was making my first attempt to leave adjuncting behind, I had just moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone. My partner had a full-time job, so I spent a lot of time alone during my job search. At the time, I thought I was doing a good job masking my feelings. In hindsight, if potential employers who met me didn’t know I was depressed, they certainly knew I was desperate — and no one likes desperation.

But how do you process the negativity and come through as a confident candidate in your letters and interviews if you are feeling rejected by the system? The key is to cultivate resiliency. Even if you are not aware of it, you developed skills in this area during your work toward your Ph.D. As a first step, reflect back on those rough times when you felt like you would never earn your Ph.D. and remember what you did to pull yourself through them.


Here are some lessons I learned that can help you become more resilient while job searching.

Lesson One: Manage Your Expectations

Two things you need to understand about your first post-Ph.D. or postdoc search are that it will take longer than you expect and your first position may be more entry level than you expect. A typical search for a career-level position takes about six months, and that’s when you know exactly what you are targeting and are not changing industry or functional area.

Your first search after gaining your Ph.D. or postdoc, however, involves a transition to a new industry and a new functional area. That is the most challenging type of career transition, because you need to learn about the new industry. Also, to change functional areas, you will probably need to broaden your skill set.

That is why it is important to begin your job search well in advance of completing your degree or postdoctoral appointment. You need the time to develop into a competitive candidate for your chosen career. I have worked with Ph.D.s who are less than six months from completing, and the stress of knowing their last paycheck is coming soon and they don’t have anything lined up makes the search that much more stressful.

If you want a smooth transition between graduate school and your career, you need to start at least one year before you need the position. You can always negotiate a later start date, but you can’t negotiate with the university to keep you on until you have a job lined up.

You also need to manage expectations about the type of position you can get. If your only experience is in academe, or it’s been a few years since you’ve held an industry position, you may have to start at the bottom and work up. The good news is that people with advanced degrees often move up the ladder faster than those without. One thing Ph.D. holders have in common is a tendency to go above and beyond expectations. We also bring fresh ways of looking at problems and an ability to learn new things quickly. Thus, it’s easier to demonstrate your value added faster, which often results in quicker promotions.

Lesson Two: Keep Trying

Ironically, navigating a career search is one of those activities that we all must do, yet no one ever really teaches us how. Remember when you tried to do anything for the first time — it was probably not your best performance. And even if you had a career before earning your Ph.D., your first job search with the Ph.D. will be different.

When I look back at my first nonfaculty job search, I can identify some mistakes I made because I lacked the right knowledge. I read What Color Is Your Parachute, met with a career counselor and attended networking events. But my résumé was still too academic, I used the same one for all my applications, I was so desperate for a job that I applied for positions for which I was very unqualified and I thought the strangers I met networking would help me land a job — all rookie mistakes.

Because the search was so disastrous, I retreated back to adjunct life for a while before trying again. In other words, I gave up. I don’t recommend that strategy. The first time I tried changing both industry and functional area. The second time I tried an easier transition: same industry, different functional area. I was also prepared for it to take longer than I expected. I avoided the mistakes I made the first time and launched a successful search. It took me six months to land the position, but I had a much better outlook.

Lesson Three: Redefine Yourself

During my first search, I remember employers dismissing me because I had a Ph.D. They didn’t know what to make of it, and I had a tough time explaining the transferable skills I had in a way that resonated with them. I had to learn how to reframe the Ph.D. process in a way that communicates the value added to employers. And I had to determine which skills would be valuable to which employers. In conversations with the Ph.D.s I work with, I often find they have a hard time articulating the skills they developed, and even when they do, they tend to undervalue those skills.

And the process is more complicated when the field you studied is not related to the one you want to enter. The skills you need to highlight will depend on the industry and positions for which you apply. If you are having a hard time parsing out your skills, talking to someone who has made the transition can be really helpful. And go to your career development office to get some expert advice from someone who has coached others through the process.

Lesson Four: Build Your Support System

Another difference between my first and second search was having a support system. For search two, I had moved back to a city where I had family and friends, so I was not isolated and was able to talk about things other than my job search. Sometimes it is easier to be resilient when you can change the focus of your attention for a while. Being around people who supported me helped me keep my spirits up and feel more confident.

While it’s helpful to have such socioemotional support, it’s also good to connect with other people going through the same process. Build a support community by creating a job club — a group of other individuals who are also on the job search. You can share frustrations and successes, and when others know what you are seeking, they may be aware of relevant jobs or have helpful connections. If you check with your career development office, you might find some existing clubs. And if there aren’t any, speak to the counselor for graduate students to see if they can help you form one.

Lesson Five: Take Care of Yourself

No one likes getting rejected. But that is the reality of the process for any search, including the ones you’ll launch when you change careers or positions in the future. The challenge is to find ways to redefine the rejection so as not to internalize it, especially since sometimes it is them and not you.

It really helps when you can engage in self-affirming activities. Spend time with family and friends, exercise, and do whatever it takes to focus on the positives. If you haven’t learned self-care strategies yet, I’d encourage you to explore the resources on your campus to find help. Many Ph.D. and postdoctoral scholars face burnout and depression, so university campuses are prepared to offer support in that area. Remember, if you are stressed and burned out, your search probably won’t be successful, so take care of yourself before you launch your search and throughout it.

Approach finding your new career as a new research project. Apply the lessons learned here, add your own insights and don’t forget that you don’t have to do it alone.