Managing Job Market Anxiety

The Fall Term has ended; I’ve graded all of my students’ final portfolios and examinations, posted their grades, and sent them well-wishes as they head into their vacation period; and now, there’s nothing left for me to do for the next four weeks but obsess over the dissertation job market dissertation job market dissertation AND job market.

Well okay, technically there are at least a hundred other things I could be doing; it’s just that these are the two that take up all of my time and energy. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, of the two I am spending far more time and energy on the job market than on the dissertation right now, as I’m sure are many of my fellow candidates on the market this year.

It’s only natural, really. We started amassing our application dossiers in August, and had most of them submitted by November 1. The search committees have finally begun wading through their seas of applications; some schools have managed to request further materials; and now, over the next several weeks, those of us in the humanities, and especially in English, literatures and languages, will be hearing back on whether or not we are lucky enough to have secured an interview. Needless to say, the endless waiting for the phone to ring/ the email notification to go off/ the Wiki to update is all kinds of anxiety-provoking, and coming off of one of the most stressful terms of a doctoral candidate’s career, we’re all pretty fragile by now.

I can’t make the search committees pick me, choose me, love me. In fact, I have no control at all over how this will play out. All I can do is to control how I manage my anxiety, and try to stay positive and productive. That’s a tall order, and I struggle with it some days–but I also have found a couple of things that help a lot, and I’m going to share those in hopes that others currently on the job market can find something to help take the edge off as well. I don’t have all of the answers–heck, I don’t even know if I have any of the answers. But what follows has worked for me in terms of staving off the worst of the stress while I try to figure it all out.

 Tips for managing job market stress:

  1. Give yourself permission to be stressed out. A lot of us have been conditioned to keep soldiering forward, to not dwell on things we have no control over, to keep a stiff upper lip and just deal with it. But if you don’t acknowledge your feelings of insecurity, helplessness, and yes, even anger, then they’re going to come out sideways at someone who doesn’t deserve it. You’re a human being, you’re allowed to have human emotions, and this is the most stressful period of your doctoral (or post-doctoral) career. Take the time to let those emotions play out–journal, draw/paint your feelings, cry, talk with a friend, family member, counselor/psychologist, or mentor, sit quietly and just let it wash over you–whatever it takes to let the emotions you are feeling manifest. Sometimes, all you need is a good cry, and then you can just get on with the day.
  2. But don’t wallow in your stress. You know those people who are always completely unhappy and stressed out, and every single time you run into them they regale you with tales of their myriad woes until you actively seek out ways to avoid them in order not to be inundated with the negativity? Don’t be that person. If you are slipping into unhealthy, unhappy negativity and pessimism that you can’t manage or control and that goes on for more than a week or so, then you would benefit from counseling or therapy and possibly anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. Don’t be a stoic. This is, as I’ve said before, the most stressful point in your career to date. There is a reason that counselors and therapists and psychologists exist. If you’re so stressed out that you are no longer able to function as a human being–you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t interact in a positive way with someone, you can’t talk about anything other than the job market and how upset you are and how awful everything is, and you can’t get your work done, then you need to ask for help. It is completely okay to need help.
  3. Move your body! Go for a walk, go for a ride, go for a run, lift weights, do Pilates, do yoga, take a dance class, get on an elliptical machine, get on a treadmill, get in a pool, take a Zumba class, do P360, do ANYTHING that gets your body moving, preferably about 30 minutes to an hour, at least 4-5 days a week. You can’t control the job market, but you can control whether you are taking care of your physical needs. It is amazing how much better the world looks when you feel good about yourself, and it is amazing how good you can feel about yourself when you are exercising.
  4. And also, eat something healthy once in a while. I confess, I have not been taking my own advice on this one. When I get stressed out, I reach for the nachos Every Time, and I shan’t bore you with how many plates of nachos it has taken me so far to get through this job market season. But I definitely do feel better when I at least slip some avocado, black olives, corn, and cucumber in along with the cheese and salsa. My goal is to balance one unhealthy craving with one healthy snack. Most days, I do okay. I am 100% certain this commitment to trying to eat healthfully is what keeps me from a.) succumbing to all the illnesses floating around right now and b.) from packing on the stress-eating pounds. Again, I can’t control the job market, butI can control how I care for my physical needs. And although I did in a fit of petulance one night demand of my husband, “Well, who cares if I eat the whole pizza and gain twenty pounds and get all bloated and puffy? It’s not like anyone’s banging down the phone lines trying to get hold of me for an interview!” His response: “But you’re going to hate yourself more if they do call you in a week or two and your interview clothes don’t fit anymore” was spot-on. Some nights are bleaker than others, but in the end I do care about my physical health and I don’t want to pack on unnecessary pounds borne merely of comfort-eating. No matter what happens on the job market, I still have to live in this body, so I need to care for it as though it matters (and it does matter!)
  5. But give yourself permission to indulge, too! Sometimes you just need the cookies, y’all. Every once in a while, eat something you hardly ever let yourself have because it is soooooo not-good for you. You can’t eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s every night, but if you’ve had a particularly crap day–the school you most wanted sends you that polite-but-firm rejection, or you see the Wiki populating away and you haven’t been tapped for an interview yet, or you realize you sent the wrong recommendation letter to the wrong school–then buy the pint and eat it without feeling the slightest bit guilty, preferably accompanied with your favorite movie and someone who understands that right now, you are not going to share ANY of the Ben and Jerry’s. You can get back on the health wagon after a good night’s sleep.
  6. Speaking of…… let yourself sleep. Oh, my gosh. What is wrong with us? As graduate students, we deny ourselves pretty much every creature comfort there is–we don’t eat well, we don’t exercise regularly, and we are just about always sleep-deprived. This is not the time to deny yourself that basic need, though. Now that you are on Winter break, give yourself permission to take naps as needed, and to go to bed earlier or wake up later. You are under an inordinate amount of stress, a constant, low-level anxiety that is periodically ramped up by email, telephone ring, or Wiki update. It’s like being under constant threat of some unknown enemy, and your body is exhausted. If you feel tired, take a nap or go to bed. Don’t soldier on being splendid and stoic. Your body needs sleep to deal with the stress you are under. I can tell you for a fact that I am a raving bitch when I’m too tired, and besides that, I don’t handle stress or setbacks well when I’m tired, either. If I have had a nap, I can totes handle the rejection email, because I can reason that it is not a personal attack and I simply did not meet their needs at this time. If I’m on day 3 of 3-4 hour nights of sleep, I’m a pathetic, sobbing, blubbering fetal-position puddled mess lying on the floor questioning my sanity and wondering why don’t they like me? Getting enough sleep truly makes all the difference in my ability to handle the inevitable and uncontrollable setbacks of being on the academic job market. I’m also much more productive when I’m well-rested. Sleep is probably the most important thing you can provide yourself with right now, because it gives your body time to repair itself, which in turn will help keep your immune system functioning through the winter cold and flu season.
  7. Work on your dissertation. There are days when working on your dissertation is the last thing you feel like doing. But in the end, the dissertation has to be completed in order to earn the PhD, and the PhD has to be completed in order to have or hold the job you’re after. The best way to combat job market blues is to do something that makes you more marketable, and the most marketable asset you’ve got is a completed dissertation. If you have completed yours, work on peeling an article off of it, or turning it into your monograph–but don’t stall on your scholarly productivity. That’s what you have signed on for, and that’s what you will be judged on. When you are feeling most helpless and least in control of your own destiny, this is one thing you do have a great deal of control over (at least, until you send it off for peer review). I always end up feeling better about everything when I’ve managed to write or revise a few pages, even when it is a real chore just to get myself to sit down in front of the computer. Also, writing is generative–a productive activity. If, like me, you are inspired and fueled and energized by ideas, then there is no better panacea for the job market blues than writing.
  8. Alternately, do something completely unrelated to your degree. If you feel completely worn down and fresh-out of ideas or the ability to string five words together to make a sentence, much less a paragraph or chapter, then you may benefit from some real down time. Go to a movie, go for a hike, go out with friends, have a potluck dinner party, host a games night–do something that has absolutely nothing to do with your dissertation, the job market, or anything related to your degree or career. The other night, our pre-modern literature cohort gathered together for a potluck and play reading. It was blissful to just sit in a room together, eating great food, sipping wine, and reading a play aloud just for the fun of reading it. The following day, I busted out a thousand new words in the chapter I’d been stuck on. Getting out and changing up my routine made a huge difference in my productivity for the week. When I’ve completed my fourth chapter draft, which I expect to do by the end of this week, I’m going to reward myself with a bingefest of something on Netflix.
  9. Remember to celebrate your successes. As graduate students, we are used to dwelling on our failures and overlooking when we have done something well, because we have our critical blinders on. Don’t just wallow when things go badly on the job market, remember also to celebrate when something goes well! Did you get a request for more materials? A preliminary phone interview? A Skype request? An MLA interview request? CELEBRATE, you rock star! A nice dinner, a bottle of wine, a new shirt or sweater or outfit or electronic gadget you’ve been wanting–it doesn’t have to be something big, but you should definitely take the time to acknowledge that you did this wonderful thing that you did.
  10. Reach out to others. Do you know other people on the job market, or maybe someone a few years ahead of you who has already been through this? Reach out to them, have coffee or lunch if you can, and talk about it together. It might seem awkward, especially when you are applying for the same jobs, but in the end it’s honestly not a competition. You’re not “beating” someone else if you get the interview, and they’re not “beating” you if they get the job–the job search committee is going to choose whomever they deem most suitable for the position, and you have no control over that choice. But chances are good that if you do genre studies, and your friend does linguistics, and they choose your friend, it’s because they needed/wanted a linguist on faculty. Your friend did not “beat” you, s/he just had skills that were more important to the committee/ department/ hiring dean. This last stretch before you defend your project is an exceptionally difficult and isolated period in your degree–you’re working on your dissertation, you hardly see anyone else, and your family can only understand so much of what you are going through. And then, on top of all of that, you’re dealing with the ups-and-downs of the job market, which really can only be understood by others who have been there, done that, or are currently suffering through it alongside you. Reach out to these people who know exactly what you’re dealing with for support, and be supportive of them in return. If you really feel weird about it, then make friends with people outside of your own discipline, but have some support in place. You need it. We all do.

What other tips can you offer for getting through the job market? Post in the comments below!





About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in General Graduate Student Advice, Job Market and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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