Why You Should Job Search Like a Runner

Katharyn L. Stober shows how the same practical tips for performing better as a runner can apply to advancing your career.

July 17, 2017

My husband runs marathons. For fun. Over the years I have picked up various bits of running lingo: taper, refuel, cross-train. I am not a long-distance runner by any means, but I have completed a doctoral dissertation, and the two are oddly similar: you need to train for many dedicated hours per week, you need to manage your time and pace well, you need to take nonrunning rest days, and you need to incorporate strength training and alternate methods of cardio.

There are many books, magazines and apps with running plans and schedules, but where is the final year of your Ph.D. schedule and training plan? The graduate students I see are frequently befuddled during their final year. Trying to finish a dissertation and conduct a job search at the same time can leave students overwhelmed, adrift and desperate. Having a good coach and a solid plan can make a big difference in their performance.

When I first met a student I'll call Jason, he was visibly discouraged in his job search. He was beginning what he hoped was the final year of his Ph.D. in sociology, his dissertation writing was in full swing and he was excited about his research.

But when he started searching for jobs, things became bleak. He told me that every time he did a search, he could only find one or two jobs that might possibly be for him -- and sometimes none! I did not fully understand where he was getting stuck until I asked him to get out his laptop and walk me through his search process. It turns out that when you search for the term “nanometacognitivepseudoscience” (the exact term escapes me, but it was something equally specific and prefix heavy), few results pop up. Shocking, I know.

After pointing out to him that searching specifically for this would be very limiting, he said, “But this is what I’ve done for five years … What else am I qualified to do?” Ah, the dissertation research pigeonhole. Contrary to Jason’s modus operandi, in order to prepare for an effective job search, you should carefully consider transferrable skills and not fear the “or related field” jobs. Proposing, planning and writing a dissertation or thesis is project management. Being a teaching assistant, instructor or tutor is educational consulting.

Every mid-dissertation graduate student I have met is infinitely more qualified than they think they are, but they are so mired in their research that they frequently allow this narrow focus to cloud their job search. Sure enough, when Jason and I searched for “Ph.D. sociology or related field,” we had over 150 available jobs appear. Jason and I put our heads together and agreed to several pieces of homework as a three-month training plan.

Prepare your environment: establish a space and schedule conducive to job searching. To improve his race performance, my husband makes sure to buy shoes that match his stride and instep and the terrain. He also spends an undisclosed amount on gear (running clothes for hot weather, cold weather, wet weather and so on). And he prepares a running schedule so he knows exactly when he is running, for how long and where. Success takes preparation.

The main reason it was difficult for Jason to consider “or related field” jobs was that he was dissertating for several hours and then taking 15-minute breaks to search for jobs whenever he remembered to. He was mentally and emotionally deep within the very specific realm of his dissertation research for many hours every day, so it is no wonder he had trouble pulling back and considering his broader range of skills and interests.

Primarily, Jason needed a solid schedule and more intentional preparation. Point one on Jason’s training plan: create (and stick to) a job search schedule of five hours per week (with a minimum of one hour at each session), and use two different computers and/or two different physical locations for dissertation/research and job search/networking. If you are writing in the lab during the day, then you should job search at home or in the library.

Use two different computers, if possible. Use a different email account (preferably a permanent one that will not get shut down the day after you graduate) for job applications and dissertation/school matters. Physically, mentally and emotionally changing your environment can help you make the shift from student to professional, from researcher to consultant, from specialist to generalist.

Schedule recovery time: get a new hobby or rediscover an old one. If we are to treat job searching as a full-time job, then we must also make a conscious effort to establish work-life balance. Grad students reading this are either laughing or looking up “work-life balance” on their dictionary app. But the job-search period is an excellent opportunity to practice time management before entering the professional world.

Point two on Jason’s training plan: schedule active recovery time by pursuing a new, or recovering an old, hobby. Dissertation guilt is very real. When you are mid-dissertation, it is nearly impossible to do anything (go to the movies, enjoy a holiday with your family, get married) without the ever-nagging “You should be writing” on a loop in your brain.

When I realized that Jason had put several of his hobbies on hold in order to focus on his thesis, I encouraged him to set aside dedicated time each day (even if only 20 to 30 minutes) to rediscover them. His homework also included turning off his phone during that time. The only thing as draining as dissertation guilt is the job seeker’s waiting-by-the-phone anxiety, and Jason had a severe case of both. Jason later told me that dusting off his guitar for a few hours each week improved his mental health and also reminded him that his personality and identity are more than just his dissertation.

So if you are in a job search or dissertation slump, set aside time each day to (re)discover a hobby. It can be anything. The only set rule is that you cannot think, write or read anything dissertation or job related during this recovery time.

Find a running partner: conduct a weekly job-search check-in. When motivation wanes, it can be helpful to find a training buddy: someone to cheer you on and, more important, to hold you accountable when you do not follow your training plan. As mentioned earlier, I am not a runner, but I was able to serve as my husband’s “training partner” when he trained for his first marathon. That meant kicking him out of bed at 5 a.m. three times a week, setting a time on Sunday nights to go over his schedule for the next week and being there at the finish line with a big embarrassing sign.

With that model in mind, I challenged Jason to reach out to someone outside his department who could keep him accountable and to check in with that person by email or phone once a week. Oddly enough, what I thought would be the easiest step was the one part of the training plan Jason balked at. He was excited at the prospect of having a “running partner” for his job search until I recommended that it be someone outside his department and potentially outside the university. He informed me that he could not think of anyone (seriously? Nobody?), but after I let the awkward silence between us grow uncomfortably prolonged, he guessed he maybe could perhaps call his brother every Saturday morning.

As it turned out, his brother was glad to hear from him, and although he knew nothing about Ph.D. programs or sociology, he was more than glad to hold Jason accountable to his job-search training plan.

When you have a bad interview or get stuck in your research, you should definitely seek some support within your cohort of peers, but you must also keep in mind that they are enduring the same job-search stresses you are, may not be able to offer a fresh outside perspective and in fact may be competing with you for the same jobs. (Awkward!) Reaching out to someone outside your department forces you to resist the insular, antisocial world that is dissertation writing and helps you build those social muscles that will come in handy for small talk during interviews.

Cross-train: start learning at least one new job skill now. I thought people training for a marathon just run far one day, then a little farther the next, and so on and so on until they can run 26.2 miles without keeling over. Imagine my surprise when my husband asked to join me at the gym so he could lift weights. That was my first introduction to the concept of cross-training. Some days he does long runs, but on others, he may climb stairs, cycle or lift weights. Somehow, someway, that kind of variety works.

So when those 150-plus jobs appeared, and Jason suddenly had many potential career paths, I asked him to select 20 to 30 jobs that fit his interests and keep two running lists of their requirements: 1) the skills/qualifications that he currently has, and 2) the skills/qualifications that he is missing.

Sure enough, Jason began seeing trends emerge. It turned out, after reviewing his list, that Jason needed more experience communicating to nonexpert audiences and collaborating/interacting with people outside his field. He had presented papers at sociology conferences but had little experience presenting to a lay audience.

With that in mind, Jason made an action plan to practice and participate in our university’s three-minute thesis competition and begin attending Toastmasters meetings in our community.

In sum, as the graduation cliff looms ever closer, the job search may feel like a sprint, but remember that your total career arc is a marathon. Each job builds upon the last, and you should never stop learning new skills and building your professional tool kit. Nobody is safe from layoffs or personnel restructuring. Landing that first postgraduation job is only the beginning of your job search arc, not the end.

Postscript: Eight months and three appointments after we first met, Jason emailed in May with an update. He has accepted a job with a prominent dot-com/website company in the Pacific Northwest as a user support researcher. Jason, if you are reading this, mazel tov! (And I told you so!)

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Katharyn L. Stober is the associate director for graduate student services at the Texas A&M University Career Center and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Katharyn L. Stober

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