By Derek Attig
Inside Higher Ed, March 25, 2019 —
As anyone who has set foot in my office can attest, I am not a terrifically organized person. My desk is covered with drifts of paper, and I’ve never managed to use a planner for longer than a week.
So when I started my first job search in grad school, I knew that I would need to work hard to impose order on myself and my search. And as a result of that work, I was able to avoid a lot of unnecessary frustration and mistakes. In my work advising grad students during their job searches, as well, I’ve seen over and over again how practically and psychologically important it can be to stay organized.
The job search is a distinct organizational challenge. Looking for a job is a wildly stressful, complicated affair — especially when you’re also doing all of the stuff that can make grad school overwhelming on its own. All of a sudden, you have what amounts to a whole other complex, time-sucking job on top of wrapping up experiments, finishing your dissertation, grading your students’ work, serving on departmental committees and everything else you signed on for this semester.
Staying organized during a job search can help you keep all of these priorities and responsibilities in balance. It can allow you to more easily keep in mind what the hiring organization cares about as you write applications and prep for interviews. It can help you waste less time on the fiddly administrative parts of looking for a job. And, most important, it can prevent you from taking yourself out of the running for a job through missed deadlines, weird typos or sending a cover letter to Etsy about how much you would love to work at Instagram.
The main things you will need to organize during a job search are information and your time.
In the rest of this post, I will offer some things to think about when developing an organizational approach in these areas. I’ll also offer some tips and examples based on my own experience and my work with thousands of grad students.
Organizing information. For many people (including me), it’s hard to want to take the time to set up an organizational system. It can seem like a lot of effort to put in without anything tangible to show for it. But when you think about it, a job search involves a pretty absurd amount of information. You’ll need to keep track of job postings, deadlines, networking contacts, application methods, organizations’ missions and hiring priorities, application documents, interview requests, your own interview prep, postinterview notes, offer letters, and more. Putting time in at the beginning can actually end up saving you time later on.
So how should you invest your time? Here are some goals for organizing information during your job search and tips on how to meet them:
- Keep track of deadlines and application requirements in one central, accessible place. What is the first thing you do when you find a job posting you’re excited about? If the answer is “bookmark it” or “commit it to memory so I remember to come back to it later,” that might be a recipe for disaster. Instead, consider using a centralized repository for all the jobs you are considering. I had good luck with a spreadsheet (ordered vertically by deadline, with columns for organization name, requirements, application methods and initial notes about fit). Other people I have worked with have used project-management software to great effect. Whatever you use, this should be the place that you immediately move information about positions you are interested in, so nothing slips through the cracks.
- Make sure the right documents get to the right organizations. Avoid the dreaded cover letter mix-up by keeping documents rigorously labeled and separated by position. Within whatever cloud application you’re using (because you are backing up all your job-search data, right?), create a new folder for each position and save a new version of your résumé and cover letter there for editing. Make sure to follow good file-naming conventions, so you know immediately that you’re uploading the right document when it comes time to submit.
- Know your contacts. Most successful job searches involve networking to build and nurture relationships with people who can help when you ned it. Use some method (a spreadsheet can be handy here, too) to track who you’ve been in touch with, what you talked about and when you want to follow up.
- Remember what you’ve done and learned during the search. As I’ve explained before, taking notes after an interview can be a valuable habit to get into. Expand on that approach by keeping a running job-search journal — a document where you can organize your reflections, reactions and plans in one place, so you can learn from mistakes and build on successes.
Organizing time. A job search is a time-management nightmare under any circumstances, and this is only more so when you’re also in grad school. The time demands of the job search are often more immediate (upcoming deadlines!) and also more unpredictable (surprise interview!) than, say, working on a dissertation.
Given that mismatch, doing both at the same time can be especially stressful and hard to manage. Finding balance and momentum is important for making progress in grad school and the search simultaneously. Here are some strategies to consider to help make that happen:
- Block and batch your time. Block off chunks of time on your calendar to devote to your job search each week. That will help you plan your schedule, stay accountable and make solid progress. Depending on where you are in the search, you may want to find anywhere from five to 20 or more hours per week. I also recommend “batching” your time by keeping similar tasks together, so you look for job postings in one block of time, prepare application documents in another, identify networking contacts in another and so on. This will keep you focused and avoid mistakes that can come from switching gears too often.
- Track your time. In my experience with graduate students, the job search can tend to either take over your life or be something you avoid like the plague. And, since humans aren’t very reliable narrators about how they spend their time, you may not even know for sure if you’re headed down either of these paths. So keep track of how much time you’re spending on your job search, ideally down to the different kind of task. (If you’re spending hours and hours looking for job postings but not much time actually working on materials, for example, that might be a sign your search needs a revamp.)
- Be flexible. Be open and willing to change your approach based on reflection and what you learn when tracking your time. What seems to be paying off? What feels like a time sink? If some part of the job search is especially frustrating or enervating for you, is there a way you can make it more efficient? Or, if some aspect is a little more energizing than the others, how could you maximize that effect (maybe by spreading that task out more through the week, so you get a constant boost)?
If you’ve already been hard at work finding a job without a dedicated organizational system, don’t worry! You probably didn’t finish your dissertation using the exact same approach you entered grad school with. You learned along the way, and you can in your job search, too. Consider pressing the pause button to consider what has been working and what hasn’t, and then figure out a structure you could use going forward.
I can’t promise these strategies will turn you into someone who loves organization, but they may make your job search a bit easier and a lot more efficient. And once you land a great job, explore whether any of your new organizational strategies can help you thrive and succeed in your new workplace, too.
Derek Attig is director of career development at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium — an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.