Applying for a faculty job is a full-time job – the emotional cost

My last few posts have described my experiences with the time required and financial cost of applying for faculty positions as a postdoctoral fellow. The amount of time it takes to submit X number of applications and how much it costs to interview for X number of positions is something that can be quantified – it can be tracked and tallied, although your personal mileage will vary. Today’s post, however, is not going to be that straight forward. Today I’m going to describe the emotional destruction that makes applying for faculty jobs so incredibly hard. Few people talk about how it feels to apply for jobs beyond “it’s stressful,” and even I, with my commitment to transparency, am more than a little afraid to post this piece.

First, the constant feelings of anxiety, stress, and paralysis – People mention these feelings a lot when asked about applying for jobs, but what does that actually look like while you’re in the trenches? Mostly what I hear from friends is, “I blocked that period out,” so for posterity, I’m documenting these feelings here before I blissfully forget.

For me, it looked like trying to limit obsessively checking job boards to only once a week but often failing miserably because the only thing that felt in my control was the act of checking the job boards. For me, it was days of paralyzing anxiety because so much of this process is out of your hands. Will there be jobs posted this year that I want? Am I the right fit for these jobs? Have I published enough? Will application deadlines coincide with major grant deadlines or conferences? If you let yourself, you can so easily get stuck in the maelstrom of these feelings and lose all productivity for hours or days or weeks.

Once you’ve applied, you’ll check your spam email and the community-maintained google sheets/job wikis over and over and over and over and over again (you’ll also answer a LOT of robo-call just in case, because a lot of interview invites or offers come first as a phone call). The reason you’ll do this is hopefully you and fellow job hunters will update these pages as a search proceeds. Thus, you’ll be able to find out if you didn’t make the long list (had your reference letters requested or were invited for a skype interview) or didn’t make the short list (got an on-campus interview) much sooner than the ‘official notification’ from the University (which may or may not ever come). As the job season progressed, I transitioned from checking the posted jobs to checking these sites obsessively. It’s not healthy, but not doing it required a force of will I just didn’t have.

The unknowns will sink you, especially if it is the last year of your postdoctoral or PhD funding. It helped me to have a plan – If I didn’t get an offer by the end of March, I planned to have 5 months to look for a different type of job, likely in industry, or even a different career path altogether. But even with a ‘plan,’ I spent a lot of time quite frankly just freaking out about the idea of not having a paycheck in September. Here’s a place where not having a safety net can absolutely sink you, both logistically and emotionally. For single people without a partner’s income, for first-generation or people from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, the day of your last definite paycheck looms astonishingly large. If I didn’t get a faculty job this year, I was going to ‘leak’ out of the STEM pipeline, never to return. There would be no second chances.

I can’t even describe to you how enormous that pressure felt. Not only because I had spent nearly 15 years trying to make this dream a reality only to fail. Not only because even if I moved back into my parents’ basement, graduate & postdoc salaries do not leave much room for the accumulation of a safety net. But because I’m a white Lady Scientist who is all too aware of the ‘leaky pipeline.’ How could I let down all of those behind me and those who I mentored by failing to succeed? What about my mentors and collaborators? How could I let them down after all of the effort and work they did on my behalf? Very little of this pressure is based on reality (i.e., none of these people would send me recriminations if I didn’t get a job), but that didn’t stop these thoughts from being constantly on my mind.

The first time I found out I didn’t make the long list for a job I applied for, I needed to take the day off to recover from the disappointment and stress. After the first one, it was easier to handle the rejections (or even the wins!) unless it was a on-campus interview or offer I really wanted. For those, I needed at least 1-2 days to recover. In my experience, a positive or negative outcome did not make much difference, both were really difficult. They produced “big emotions” as my parent-friends say (FYI ‘big emotions’ is such a great way to describe it – look it up if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

Additionally, the combined jealously and guilt will eat you alive. I hadn’t realized how jealous I would be of friends who got interviews I wanted, or how guilty I’d feel when I got an interview someone else really wanted. The day a good friend got an interview and I hadn’t had a single invite yet, I was both incredibly proud of them and so jealous/upset that I had to go home early. Imposter syndrome consumed me, telling me not only was I not a good job candidate, but I was ALSO a horrible friend because why couldn’t I just be happy for them? These are all completely normal feelings, but they don’t feel good when it is your turn.

Managing the expectations of those around you is also so emotionally taxing. Advisors want work done, mentees need help with tasks, collaborators ask for updates on projects, parents want to know when you’ll know where you’re moving, friends want to ask for updates but don’t want to stress you out, etc. You want to ask fellow job-hunting friends how they’re doing but you also don’t want to stress them out and you kind of don’t want to know if they’re doing better than you. Nothing is moving except your job search and your failure to accomplish anything productive feels hard to justify. In fact, this series started as a way to publicly document how much time it takes to apply for faculty jobs so that applicants can just point advisors/collaborators/parents to that post when explaining why X or Y isn’t done, or why you’re going to miss family dinner/date night/etc. An informal twitter poll suggested that 52 of 68 respondents spent relatively similar or more time applying for faculty jobs than I did. In fairness, most of us did a lot of this work on the weekends and evenings, but the lack of work-life balance required to put in that many hours is absolutely exhausting to experience, much less explain. I’m afraid to ask how well this post resonates, I don’t think any of us want to admit how miserable we are/were.

Finally, getting the offer was…not what I expected. I expected to be ELATED/ ECSTATIC/ OVERJOYED!! Instead, I was…a mess. I felt terrible. Anecdotal reports from friends suggest this reaction is normal. I was all of these wonderful feelings later. But not that first hour. That first hour I was so overwhelmed that all of the above feelings were over that I felt awful. Of course, the stress wasn’t over, there were still negotiations, decisions, etc. But if you manage to get a golden ticket, take the day off. You did it and you deserve it. Even now, it doesn’t really feel real but the future is getting more concrete every day.

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