Stress Management During Application Season

(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)

It is no secret that both the academic job search and the process of submitting grant proposals are grueling and challenging to manage emotionally. At this point in my career, I am no expert in getting jobs or securing grants. But the number of applications I’ve submitted is in the hundreds, and I have navigated the stress they produce recently and frequently. I’ve developed a few strategies for making the process a bit more bearable and outlined them below.

No. 1. Ride the wave. This piece of advice stems from a particularly productive therapy session, where the topic of conversation was academic job searches and grant writing. After I told my therapist that I was trying not to get excited about any of the positions I was applying to, she asked why. I explained that I was statistically unlikely to get any of them and, inevitably, if I allowed myself to feel excitement, that feeling would be followed by disappointment. My sense is that many of you may recognize this train of thought.

She replied, “So, what I’m hearing is, you would prefer not to feel.” After a long pause, I realized she was probing something brand-new to me. With the simple sentence, she had pointed out that it’s impossible me for to feel anything related to my prospects without also experiencing the other end of the spectrum. She had intuited something profound about me related to the complex self-preservation in which I was engaging.

I thought about it for a few days and then decided to give in to whatever these applications caused for me emotionally. I now let myself feel scared, excited, disappointed, elated and angry. While it isn’t always fun, not trying to control the waves of emotion that come with this process can be liberating. We can control little about the selection process, and my emotional responses were just another thing on the long list of things I wanted to control but couldn’t.

Now, I try to reframe and look at my emotional responses as valuable information. The disappointment that might have previously consumed me is now “OK, you must have really wanted that. You should pursue opportunities like that one again soon.” The optimist in me also hopes that I’m creating space to feel truly elated about reaching a goal or securing a grant — something I was inadvertently protecting myself from before.

No. 2. Communicate clearly with your support system. This seems obvious at first glance, but it’s tougher than it sounds. I have learned it can be helpful to develop a communication plan with people I care about. (You’ll notice my use of the word “plan,” which is intended to convey that I develop strategies for dealing with problems before they become problems.)

In general, my support system doesn’t really understand job application cycles, the level to which I am invested in my academic work or how one goes about grant writing. These people often mean well and believe in us more than we believe in ourselves, but they will say things like, “Well, if you write to the search committee chair and tell him that you really want the job because it’s close to your family, that would help, right?”

For the people in your life who require consistent updates:

  • Explain that a year might pass before you get an automated rejection from HR departments at institutions you forgot you applied to — updates aren’t always immediate.
  • Tell them that you appreciate their investment, which is reflected in their inquiries as to “whether or not you’ve heard anything,” but that answering those questions is taxing.
  • Schedule an update phone call on a date that works for you so that the people you love know you aren’t intentionally leaving them in the dark.
  • Promise to report any significant updates immediately, and tell these people that no news means you don’t have updates.

Some people will say, “You’re applying to 25 jobs! You’re the smartest person I know … what are you going to do when you get 25 offers?” They best way I’ve figured out to describe why that is so uncomfortable is that it stems from a well-meaning misconception that academic job searches and grant cycles are meritocracies — which they are not. I’ve explained to my support system that my response to sentiments such as this one is shame.

If this resonates with you, I recommend explaining, “Well, truth be told, I won’t get 25 offers. In fact, I’ll be thrilled if I get one. So, that’s not really a concern. I appreciate that you believe in me and support me. But when people say things like that, it makes me feel less comfortable sharing in my successes and failures, because I feel ashamed that I didn’t get the 25 offers you think I deserve. It’s more helpful for me if you listen and tell me you’re keeping your fingers crossed for me.”

Finally, let everyone in your support systems know that it can be more valuable to ask how you are instead of how the process is going. I’ve explained to people I care about that if they want to check in, inquiries are most welcome in vague terms. In other words, “How are you doing these days?” is more welcome than “Have you heard about A job in B city yet?” The latter of those two options is more like to produce a bummer response, while the former is flexible enough to accommodate something great that’s going on, like the drinks I shared with friends last week or the teaching high point I experienced today in class.

No. 3. Stay empowered in your outlook. If I could have access to a time machine, I’d use it to go back and give my former job-seeking self this piece of advice: tell yourself you have options. I’m fairly certain that former version of me would scoff at the idea of feeling empowered in the face of constant rejection and the bottomless serving of impostor syndrome produced by the search. Nonetheless, I now recognize the value of telling yourself you have options over and over again, to override the sensation that you don’t.

I’m now convinced that the candidate who stays empowered conveys that sentiment in selection interviews. But staying empowered is much harder for some of us than it is for others. The candidate who gets 12 first-round interviews because their research is hot or on trend that year is unlikely to struggle to feel empowered. Women and members of minority communities may struggle to internalize they have options more than their counterparts for reasons that are far too complex to get into in a short-form article. Caveats aside, I would encourage you to look in the mirror, tell yourself it’s going work out, do some power poses and figure out what you need to do to stay empowered. The truth is, if you manage to pull this off, you might just have increased your odds of actually figuring it out.

No. 4. Don’t create a narrative that isn’t there. When submitting your applications, the weight of the unknown is a lot to manage. The temptation is to close-read whatever details you do have and spin them into a story or narrative that simply cannot be confirmed.

For example, you may be applying for a job and look at the faculty page to find that the department currently has a visiting scholar. You might conclude that the job listing is for that individual, but that train of thought is flawed on several levels. The visiting scholar may not wish to stay in the department. The department may have renewed the scholar’s contract and require yet another person. The individual may have proven that they are not right for the department and may need to be replaced. The point is, we don’t know what the backstory is, so there’s no point in making it up. If it’s a job you’d consider taking, just apply.

Another example: candidates can be tempted to rationalize why they didn’t get selected for something. After a job interview, it’s comforting to think back on the questions we were asked and tell ourselves, “Well, if I had answered that differently, then I probably would have gotten the offer.” But again, the conclusions we try to draw about why something didn’t work out are often baseless and futile. It’s a reasonable coping mechanism, but buried deep in the coping mechanism is the idea that if we, as candidates, were better, could work on something or control some element of our self-presentation, then we’d land jobs. In other words, the notion of meritocracy is imbedded in there somewhere, but we’ve established that this process is not a meritocracy.

The more likely explanation is that it didn’t work out and there’s nothing you could have done about it. That lack of control can be uncomfortable, or you can choose to let it be liberating. A friend of mine recently said that the academic job search is just like show business. What he meant is that it’s not personal and that (to extend the metaphor) it simply could be that the casting director has a nephew who got the gig. In sum, sit with what you don’t know and try to let it be OK that you don’t know why you didn’t get an offer instead of working to “fix” something we’ve identified that may not have been a problem to begin with.

No. 5. Take ownership of the reference and recommendation process. This last piece of advice is more technical than the others. I’ve found that my stress is greatly reduced if I stay in the driver’s seat for the reference and recommendation letter process. I tell people I need letters a solid three to four months in advance. I ask them what materials they’d like to see. (Usually the response is standard: CV, dissertation abstract, those kinds of things.) Then, six to eight weeks before a deadline, I make sure to follow up with the requested materials and any specific instructions about how someone could tailor their materials.

What do I mean by that? I make sure at least one person will address my presence in the classroom. So I might include something in the email like, “I also still have the observation report you prepared when you visited my class last spring, and I’m attaching that document in hopes that you might include some of your thoughts on my teaching in the recommendation letter.”

Or I might have strategically asked someone to write a letter because they can speak to a specific portion of my research profile, in which case I’ll mention that: “I enjoyed working with you on [insert project here]. I think it would round out my letters of recommendation nicely if you would be willing to mention your impressions of that collaboration.”

Last, I ask references to submit letters a few days before those letters have to be in. “The final submission date for materials is Nov. 15, but I’m sending you a letter request with a deadline of Nov. 12 to allow room for error.” Creating that margin for myself and my recommenders often gives me the peace of mind that I will have time to troubleshoot issues and won’t disqualify myself on the basis of a technical glitch.

In conclusion, I know it’s the height of job application and grant-writing season, and I wish you all the best. If it helps at all, know that you aren’t alone in your existential thoughts or in your desire to light a match, throw it over your shoulder and walk away. The stress of this process is a lot, but we can make small changes to ease the burden. My hope is that you can learn from my lessons and get there faster than I did.

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