You came to grad school seeking knowledge and skills that would prepare you for a meaningful career. Through hard work you’ve developed expertise in your field.
When the time comes to translate what you’ve learned to potential employers, you might feel anxious about the process – analyzing job postings, creating application materials, preparing for interviews. And this probably won’t be a challenge you face only once. Career paths are rarely linear, and the next role you take beyond grad school almost certainly will not be your last.
While you can’t avoid the stress of a job search, you can make a plan to deal with it. We'll start by unpacking three major sources of stress, since being able to identify and name stress is the first step toward managing it. Then we will outline three strategies you can experiment with to manage that stress.
Sources of Stress
There’s a lot of work, and it’s real work. It can take the time, effort, and energy equivalent to that of a job. As a grad student, you may already be juggling multiple part-time (or even full-time) jobs all at once. And, you might be finishing your degree. The pressure of all this work often leads to two responses: avoidance or overcommitment. It’s easy to wait for a better moment to do the work, but avoiding it can end up leaving your future self with the same volume of work in a smaller time frame. Conversely, hunting for every crack and crevice of free time to cram as much job searching as possible into your schedule can speed you towards burnout.
There’s a lot of uncertainty to navigate with many undefined variables and unknowns. At all stages of the process, there’s a ton of things you want to know and can’t know – now or maybe ever.
Am I qualified enough to apply? Am I overqualified? Should I send a CV or resume? Do I really have to cram everything onto one page? Will they ask me about my research? Do they care about my coursework? Teaching?
All of these unknowns, piled on top of the uncertainty you’re already facing as a grad student, can make you start to doubt and second-guess every decision. Putting yourself out there to be assessed and evaluated by strangers with all of these unanswered questions can leave you feeling vulnerable, anxious, and overwhelmed.
There’s a lot of volatility with good days, bad news, and everything in between. The stress of the work and uncertainty in a job search can start out loud. Questions buzzing. Decisions echoing. Keyboards typing. Networking chatting. Yet, in most cases, the response to all that noise is met with silence. Days, weeks, months can go by from an application with no response. The ups and downs are amplified. Excitement and enthusiasm for new opportunities can be exhilarating. Rejection can sting. These swings are a totally normal and expected part of the job search process, but it all feels so unpredictable and so personal.
Strategies for Managing Stress
Set boundaries in your job search to focus on controlling what you can control and feel a greater sense of agency throughout the process. Yes, the job search is work - and you need to do the work - but you
can’t dedicate all your focus to it. Adding more time and effort into the search does not guarantee results equivalent to that investment if it leaves you exhausted.
One way to create boundaries is with the amount of time and effort you’re putting into the job search. Make a schedule. Identify specific blocks of time each week dedicated to your search. Try focusing on separate tasks in your search on different days. You could even use a timer during those blocks to remind you when to stop.
In the same way you create a schedule for your work, create some structure for your emotions. It can be really hard to separate your worth from the outcome of every application, as if hiring committees are judging your whole person while reading your 500-word cover letter. Once your application is submitted, try as best you can to erase it from your mind. Shift your focus onto the next thing you can control, whether it is related to your job search or something entirely different. Remind yourself that any job, even if you get it, is not a reflection of your value as a person. Spend some time thinking about how you want to feel during the process and make a plan to support that goal.
Find your people! You can’t approach all of the questions that come up in this process alone. Neither can one person answer them all for you, so find different people to serve different roles. Seek out a team of allies and align their role helping you navigate job search stress accordingly. You'll need:
People to affirm: With all the uncertainty, how do you know what’s normal? If uncertainty is normal, how do you know what you’re not supposed to know? Someone who can affirm your job search experience is there to reassure you at times of second-guessing, alert you to red flags, and provide camaraderie throughout the process. This might be a friend or colleague who is conducting a search at the same time or a recent graduate whose experience is still fresh in their memory.
People to advise: While there are many unknowns in a job search, some variables may be easier to define with the help of others. Someone who can advise you in your search may have answers to some of those questions, and they can provide sound counsel on what to do when the answer can’t be known. This could be a career advisor in the Grad College, a faculty mentor, or someone who has the kind of job you’re applying for.
People to absorb: Sometimes the stress of a job search is too much to keep inside. You cannot hold it in or disguise it. You need an outlet, a vent, a pressure release valve. Someone who can absorb your job search stress is there to listen at times when you need to release your frustrations navigating the sea of uncertainty. This could be a partner, spouse, family member, or close friend eager to empathize.
Manage your energy. When you’re dealing with a stressful situation, there will be stress that sticks around in your body. Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski have a helpful exploration of this in their book Burnout, differentiating stress from stressors. Stressors are the things that cause stress responses in your body. Stress is the neurological and physiological response to those stressors. Even with systems and support to manage stressors, you need to find ways to attend to the stress that happens in your body.
Recognizing when you’re too high or too low and having a plan for how to react, recalibrate, find some balance is helpful, so when you’re feeling the stress, you don’t have to spend extra energy to figure out how to reset. What’s your stress release activity? Having lunch at your favorite restaurant, watching a movie, taking the dog for a walk, going to the gym, getting a pep talk from career advisor, taking an afternoon coffee/tea break.
Every job search is stressful. Developing a sustainable and productive approach can help. While it won’t completely eliminate the stress, it will set you up with resources and support for navigating the process, now and in the future.
As the Associate Director for Career & Professional Development in the Graduate College, Mike Firmand supports graduate students by advising students, coordinating major events and workshops, and collaborating with career services units across campus. Mike has worked at the Graduate College at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for over five years and is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC) whose members provide career services to graduate students at institutions around the world.
Andrea Bridges is the Wellbeing and Community Coordinator in the Graduate College. Andrea earned degrees from Gordon College and Duke University. You can often find her in the garden or at a youth sporting event.