3 Ways You Can Be Stymied in Your Career

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood answer reader questions about how to avoid or get around some key roadblocks.

March 29, 2018

In previous essays, we’ve talked about how to network effectively as well as use your Ph.D. in jobs outside academe. Since then, we’ve received a number of queries about careers from Inside Higher Ed readers. In this article, we’ll tackle those specifically related to being stymied in your career for one reason or another.

If I’ve applied for (really) more than 100 jobs and received three interviews but still have no job. Am I doing something really wrong?

Yes, probably.

Although it’s possible you’ve hit a snag of really bad luck -- employers canceling job searches or losing your application materials -- it’s more likely that it’s time for you to change your strategy.

We guess that you’re spending most of your time in your job search formally applying for positions and relatively little networking, learning and reflecting on how your skills and experiences -- and longer-term career and lifestyle goals -- align with potential employment situations. You should flip how you spend your time, prioritizing the latter activities.

When you’re getting so few requests for interviews, it tells you a few different things: (1) you’re not targeting your job search to work that suits your interests, skills and experience, (2) your job documents aren’t working well for you, and/or (3) you’re relying too heavily on those documents instead of letting your network help you.

You can always improve your documents, and we encourage you to make sure they accurately portray your relevant skills and experience and why you’re interested in the job. In academe, you have a standard CV and cover letter that you submit, with little modification, to most jobs. In contrast, with a résumé, you should make sure that the one you submit is specifically tailored to the job listing.

That said, it’s also important to remember that a résumé alone will rarely get you a job interview. Without a personal connection at a business or organization, you’ll find it difficult to move straight from the résumé pile to job interview to new hire. In fact, it’s nearly impossible, unless you have directly relevant linear work experience.

This is why networking is such a vital part of the nonfaculty job search. Make sure you’re targeting positions and employers that make sense for your background and skill set. Focus on a particular industry, because you’ll want to build a community of people who can help you, pass along job advertisements and introduce you to potential hiring managers. The scattershot approach -- where you submit a résumé to any job that looks like it might be a good fit -- is not a winning strategy.

Informational interviews can also help you tailor your messaging in written materials and in person. Remember that you have to really understand your strengths and the value you could bring to an organization. Employers want to hire people who are genuinely excited to join their team, who understand the job and industry, and who can help the organization achieve its mission. You can’t be that person unless you know yourself as a professional and where you fit in an industry or organization.

So be focused in your job search, curate your documents to the needs of employers and get out there and meet people who can tell you about the industry and recommend you for positions in their organization.

What if you are stuck in a college town as a trailing spouse, and many other Ph.D.s and other advanced graduates with similar skill sets live in that tiny town? For example, I am in a small town known for its writing program, and my skill set -- copyediting, copywriting, editorial work and the like -- has a lot of competition here.

In a crowded market, you stand out by offering something with distinct value to potential clients or employers. Think of it this way: lots of companies sell white cotton T-shirts. Clever, targeted marketing based on research about different audiences is what differentiates one brand from another. Offering services like copyediting and editorial work is very broad -- you’re just another white cotton T-shirt in the market.

You need to identify specifically what potential employers -- or freelance clients -- in your small town need. Depending on how small a town you’re in, you may have to cast a wide net, speaking with coffee shop owners, the yoga studio, hospital administrators and law firms. Or if there are major employers in your area (outside the university), have conversations with people who work there. As you network in your local community, you’ll gain an understanding of the challenges those organizations and businesses face.

If you’re seeking work as a freelance consultant, prepare questions to ask business owners, directors of nonprofit organizations or start-up companies. Focus on the problem areas in their external and internal communications. Are they having issues with social media and website content, struggling to send error-free reports to clients, or finding it difficult to communicate their value to potential customers? Are they having difficulty communicating expectations to employees, or might they be interested in bringing in an outside consultant to write a new employee handbook?

Listen to what such employers tell you in terms of what they really need. Then, when you apply for jobs or offer freelance services, you can specifically talk about how you can help them overcome obstacles. In addition, from these conversations, you may learn that you would be more marketable with additional skills, like an understanding of social media strategy and content marketing. And you can now learn such new skills with a specific purpose: to help organizations and businesses in your area be successful.

As a job candidate or freelancer, you’ll stand out because your message in résumés, proposals or job interviews will be a match to organizations in your community. You won’t just be another white cotton T-shirt.

I have been unemployed for almost a year. How can I move forward and maintain my motivation?

It can take a long time to land a meaningful job, and it’s not necessarily the fault of the job seeker if it does. It’s tough out there for many folks, for many reasons. It’s not uncommon for a job search to take six to 12 months these days.

To continue moving forward, we recommend reacquainting yourself with what’s important to you. Getting clear about your goals can provide the intrinsic motivation you need to keep doing the hard work of continually learning new skills, gaining relevant experience, networking and applying for positions.

In Jen’s work as a career coach, she sometimes finds that her clients lose motivation when they try to work toward a goal that they are no longer committed to. She most commonly hears this from folks struggling to find a good match for their skills and interests in the world of employment, when what they really want is to work for themselves. (Jen hosts Self-Employed PhD, so it’s no surprise folks who want to work as freelancers wind up connecting with her, even if that goal seems unrealizable to them right now.)

Do your goals still make sense to you? What seemed right a year ago may no longer be what you want. Ask yourself, “What’s important to me now? What does my future look like, ideally?” Make sure you’re being honest with yourself and not letting other people’s opinions lead you astray. You know yourself best.

We find networking -- doing informational interviews -- to be energizing and motivating in and of itself. This may sound counterintuitive, but think about it: having a conversation with someone who enjoys their job and gives you insider information should be an awesome experience! Speaking with someone a few years into a career can give you great perspective. Chances are, that person understands what it’s like to change careers or search for a new job, and they can empathize with your experience. Plus, we’re willing to bet that most of us love learning and being curious; informational interviews let us exercise those strengths.

Do you have a question about your career and how to advance in it? Please submit it to us using the link below in the author identification section.


Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood are co-founders of Beyond the Professoriate, an organization that provides professional development services to individuals and institutions across North America. Have a question about your job search or exploring careers after your Ph.D.? Submit it here.

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