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From PhD to Life

Tips for surviving the academic job search season

Jennifer Polk lists her favourite coping mechanisms for when you are waiting for the phone to ring about that academic job you applied for.


On Tuesday evening I spoke at an event on imposter syndrome organized by Grad Minds, a student group at the University of Toronto. One audience member asked about how to keep her spirits up at this time of year, when academic hiring is in full swing. Or, should I say, academic rejection is in full swing! The vast majority of applicants for any job won’t be asked for an interview. Rejection is the norm, and it can be very hard to take for so many reasons.

Here are some ideas to help you cope:

  1. Assume you didn’t get the job. This advice come from Alison Green, the woman behind the wonderful Ask a Manager website. If you do get contacted for an interview, it’ll come as a nice surprise. Easier said than done, but it’s a helpful attitude to cultivate in any job application situation.
  2. Surround yourself with supportive, positive people. When you’re feeling vulnerable or low, reach out to trusted friends and colleagues. Tell them how you’re feeling or talk about something completely unrelated that will take your mind off your own situation.
  3. Embrace your hobbies, or try a new one. Doing something that’s meaningful to you and that gives you a sense of accomplishment, connects you to other people, and that draws upon your top character strengths is a great way of boosting your wellbeing and your confidence.
  4. Make new friends and expand your network. You can do this in person or online. Join a meetup group, participate in a Twitter chat, or conduct informational interviews with fellow PhDs who’ve gone on to do something else.
  5. Reflect on your priorities, goals, values, and character strengths. Remember that who you are at the core — your roots — determines who you are, and the outcome of a job competition doesn’t change that. Those roots have many branches growing out of them, only one of which is academia.
  6. Keep a gratitude journal. No, this isn’t a silly self-help exercise; rather, it’s a powerful tool developed by psychologists to improve your wellbeing, build your resilience, cultivate optimism, and counter all the negativity in our heads and all around us. Download this PDF from my website for instructions.
  7. Meditate. There are lots of ways of doing this and there’s lots of evidence of the significant psychological and physiological benefits of meditation. I’ve used Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations (and books) and love this one from Tara Brach.
  8. Exercise. We all know how good and crucial this is. Find something you like doing that fits your lifestyle. For me these days, that means long brisk walks in the late afternoon or evening. It feels great to get moving and I come with renewed energy and determination.
  9. Eat healthy. If you could make one small change to your diet, what would it be? Make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, too.
  10. Ask for help. The academic job search is especially brutal, and not only because of the numbers of applicants for each job. If you’re feeling high levels of stress, suffering from anxiety, or experiencing depression, reach out to a mental health professional.

If you’re on the job market now, I’m sending support out to you! I’m convinced there are great places for us all to work, often in jobs we have no idea exist in workplaces we’ve never heard of. Bon courage and good wishes to you all.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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