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A small outburst of voices suddenly fills the room. “I didn’t know that was a thing,” one student announces above the swell of noise. We’re discussing a difficult topic: perceptions of gender and its influence on applicants in the interview process. “Should I ask about maternity leave benefits?” “My professor told me not to wear a wedding ring.”

The group grapples with mixed feelings as they talk through their views on whether to conceal aspects of identity as a strategy for succeeding in a job interview. This was a complicated but candid conversation on navigating uncertainty that took place in a job search support group for graduate students.

Piloting a Job Search Support Group

In my role at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I regularly lead group programs focused on career exploration for graduate students, I am constantly struck by how much students benefit from spontaneous group discussion. Seeing how the dynamic, unexpected element of open dialogue can reveal new insights, I grew eager to develop a program for students to engage with peers about the job search in this sustained and collaborative way.

So this spring, I started the first-ever job search support group for graduate students at the University of Illinois. Over four weeks, around 12 master's and Ph.D. students from across disciplines came together for weekly, 90-minute meetings focused on one component of the job search: assessing fit from a job ad, crafting application materials, interviewing strategies, networking and so forth. I planned for the sessions to be highly interactive, with most of the time designated for participants to tell stories, ask questions and reflect on their job search experiences together.

During those four weeks, I observed that most of the students felt a loss of control in the search. I came to realize that the main benefit of the support group model was that students could confront that feeling and take steps to overcome it. In this article, I will describe that loss of control, explain how the support group helped and outline strategies for creating your own job search support group.

Key Finding: A Loss of Control

As the students gathered for each weekly discussion, I noticed an abundance of they-centered language. Concerns about what skills and experiences they care about most in a résumé. Not knowing what exactly they mean in one particular sentence in a job ad. Questions about how they assess interview answers.

They are employers, broadly, and a source of great concern for job seekers with limited mind-reading abilities. Not knowing employers’ expectations and wants with perfect precision at each step in the search seemed to be students’ most significant source of stress.

This lack of certainty manifested itself in students’ decisions about whether or not to apply for a job as they searched for the elusive perfect match. Participants would talk themselves out of applying after seeing just a single qualification they didn’t have. At the same time, students felt apprehensive about applying to jobs in which they met or exceeded every requirement for fear of being overqualified. At both ends of the spectrum, the students held perceptions of being the wrong fit based on what they say they are looking for. And in all cases, the stress was experienced as a deficiency on their part, as if their lack of assuredness was a result or an indication of their inadequacy as a job candidate.

Certainly, you should consider employers’ needs in how you present yourself as a job candidate. But being overly they focused can transform any external factor, many of which are beyond your control, into a source of anxiety. The lack of certainty can be overwhelming, and some students in the support group postponed their job search altogether as a result. Focusing on factors outside of their control led to feelings that they had no control.

Sharing the same room to explain these experiences of uncertainty revealed to participants that they were not alone in feeling powerless. Additionally, it helped them realize that most of their doubts stemmed from guesswork about employers and allowed them to recognize its demoralizing effects. Hearing their concerns being expressed by others made it possible for students to get out of their own heads where they could evaluate and reconsider their reservations. The lessons derived from the job search support group offer ways to take back control, which can be done through building confidence and fostering community.

Taking Control Through Confidence

Given that total certainty is impossible in the job search, you can get quickly discouraged if you focus entirely on them. To break that pattern, the group sessions focused on reclaiming confidence by applying a more positive, self-directed and action-oriented mind-set. Here are three tactics discussed in our meetings that helped participants combat they­-dominated thinking:

  • When reading job ads: Retrain your brain to first assess job ads from a positive mind-set before considering whether you match the qualifications. Instead of “Would they ever hire me for this,” ask, “Would I like to do this? Can I visualize myself doing this type of work for this organization? What about the work is exciting?”
  • When crafting application materials: I often tell the students that cover letters need to make a compelling argument. And your mind-set when making that argument should be: it was me all along. This employer may have decided on a prescribed list of knowledge, skills and experiences needed for this role, but in fact, what I have is the ideal, distinct mix of things it takes to succeed -- and here’s why.
  • In the interview: You may not have control over what questions are asked, but that doesn’t mean you lack agency. Your preparations should focus on what you want them to know about you. What stories do you want to tell? How have your experiences prepared you to contribute to the organization? Don’t wait for the perfect setup to tell your best stories, because it may never come.

Providing concrete strategies to build confidence broadened the impact of the support group beyond granting a space to share frustrations. After participating, students reported feelings of increased confidence regarding their ability to assess fit for a job, create effective application materials and manage the stress of the search.

How to Organize Your Own Group

As our support group made clear, another way to take control is through developing community with others. Consider creating your own support group, either informally with peers or by advocating for a formal program through your grad student association or career services office. If you want to start a group, here are some approaches that helped make our program successful:

  • Meet regularly: Our group met at the same day and time each week. Students confirmed that having an established time devoted to collaboration helped them stay on track with individual aspects of their search. This consistency made it easier for those who attended all sessions to build rapport with one another, leading to more meaningful conversations in later weeks.
  • Have themes: Organizing each week around a specific theme of the job search helped focus the conversation and discourage drastic pivots into unrelated topics. Because students knew the theme in advance, they prepared questions and stories around specific stress points, enabling deeper exploration of the topic, such as the dialogue on gender bias, without the pressure to move on to other issues.
  • Let participants steer the discourse: At the outset, I decided that facilitators would only initiate and complement the conversation, providing just a brief (five to 10 minutes) introduction and occasional prompts to stimulate discussion. This structure helped participants get accustomed to the flow of the sessions, but it was even more important for facilitators to remain flexible -- reading the room to decide when to abandon predetermined talking points. Granting authority to students empowered them to probe and hash out what mattered most to them. It also gave them the self-reliance to reach their own understanding in dealing with uncertainty without the expectation of an expert to provide a one-size-fits-all solution.
  • Include a variety of voices: Our group benefited from being open to graduate students of all fields and degree levels. Students were surprised and reassured that peers from different backgrounds shared sources of stress and uncertainty about the job search. Finding this common ground helped individuals validate their experience and presented an opportunity to find new members of their network of support, a key component for building resilience.

It takes courage to search for a job. It also takes courage to disclose your worries to a room full of strangers. Support groups offer graduate students a communal and collaborative space to activate their confidence, combat they-centered doubt and regain control amid the uncertainty of the job search.

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