Sharing and caring: The importance of a personal support network

 In Jobs: Preparation and Placement (blog), Mental Health (blog), Networking (blog), PhD/Postdoc Blog

This is a story about the importance of personal support networks, and learning how to look after yourself during the emotionally and physically draining experience that the job application process can be.

A friend of mine has set her defense date and is planning to go on the academic jobs market soon. To help her prepare, she contacted several alumni from her program and invited them back to campus to speak with her and other graduate students from a range of departments about their experiences on the academic job market.

Some of the alumni had landed tenure-track positions, some were starting a post-doctoral fellowship, and a few of them were visiting or adjunct professors. They all had varied backgrounds and experiences but all agreed that going on the academic job market is a long, grueling process that requires a lot of resilience and determination. Each of them had applied to over 100 jobs, some even more than 300!

They each had tough choices to make: one had to decide whether to keep a low paying adjunct position in the same city as their partner and young child or move halfway across the country without them for a tenure-track job at a university with a student population that was radically different from what they were used to teaching. Another had to decide between a very well-paid job at a think tank in DC or a research fellowship at a prestigious institution that paid significantly less. I anxiously listened with rapt attention as they told these stories, their voices intermittently catching with emotion. Is this what I have ahead of me?

Over the past year, I’ve embarked on an exploration of my skills, values, and interests that has slowly but surely shown me that while I might not be a good fit for academia, I’m actually a good fit for several other awesome jobs. More on this in later posts.

Today I want to share with you my biggest takeaway from that panel of alumni: Your personal support network is one of the most important resources for you during the job search (and I suspect this is true whether you’re on the academic or non-academic market). It’s just solid life advice! You’re going to face a lot of rejection and a lot of hard decisions; you’re going to have to reimagine your talents and interests in new ways. Your friends and family can offer valuable perspective and input on all that. Because they know you well, they can offer relevant advice in a way you’re likely to be receptive to. On the other hand, their outside perspective can help pull you back from the brink of a self-defeating spiral. For example, one of the alumni told us that they use to read an online forum where recent grads posted about which jobs they had accepted. As time went by, the alumnus felt more and more despondent each time they read that someone else had been hired. When their partner noticed this, they suggested that the alumnus simply stop reading that forum. At first the alumnus was indignant; of course, they needed to read the forum to know who obtained which job, how their application stacked up, and how to improve future applications. But the partner knew better, it took the partner’s distance from the situation to see that reading those forums was doing more harm than good. In the next round of applications, the alumnus never looked at those forums, and they were much happier and more confident, eventually landing a teaching position at an R1 institution.

In addition, your friends and family can also help connect you with professional networks and resources. It might feel like nepotism or favoritism, but it’s a fact that most people discover and land jobs through personal connections. They can also just offer you moral support in the form of a Job Buddy (thanks to my colleague Erin Gallagher’s BEST post for this catchy title!). Friends and family can also just help distract you for an hour or two when you need a break from it all.

So, take care of yourself and surround yourself with empathetic supportive people who can get you through difficult times! And remember to take breaks, no matter what you’re doing.

In closing, I would like to solicit some information and perspective from you all, my new personal support network! One of the shared beliefs among both the current grad students and alumni at this panel was that once you leave academia, you can’t come back. I’d like to know what you think, or better yet if you have evidence against this belief? [Note: the panelists were all from non-STEM fields]

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back next month with more!

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