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What does being healthy and well look like during a job search, and why does that matter? Based on my work with graduate students and postdocs, along with my own experiences, preparing for and conducting a job search can feel exhausting. When we consider the many parts of just one search, let alone multiple searches across different institutions, the act of finding a job can begin to look like at least a part-time position itself, if not more. Just as we as students, scholars and employees are being asked to consider our own health and wellness as part of being a healthy person and employee in our full-time responsibilities, shouldn’t we also look at our health and wellness as part of a job search?

In 2012, my life was very different. I had completed my fifth year of my Ph.D. program, my funding was exhausted and I was divorcing my now ex-spouse. My mental health was poor, and my physical health wasn’t much better. I did not have any wellness practices to improve this situation, and I isolated myself from friends and professionals who could help me.

The realities of my life demanded that I find a full-time position immediately, while working on my dissertation and starting a new life on my own. I was invited to two finalist interviews at a nearby university, but I did not do well. I responded to questions about my wellness practices in a cagey way, trying to hide the fact that I felt like my life was falling apart. I believe I didn’t succeed in those interviews because my lack of health was evident in my face-to-face interactions.

During my most recent job search, my health was much better, I was living as myself and I felt loved and accepted by friends and coworkers despite financial troubles and a dissertation project that was still looming. I had practices and people in place to help me through my challenges: daily walks outside, regular work with a therapist and good friends I could talk with. When I interviewed for my current position, I was able to share that, although parts of my life needed improvement, I had practices in place to help me. My life then was not perfect, and nor were the things I did to keep myself well as a whole person. But I demonstrated that 1) I had a sense of my relative health or lack of health and 2) I was making efforts relative to what my needs were in the moment.

What we do to maintain wellness during a job search may involve the same things we use to keep ourselves healthy in the other parts of our life: spending time with friends and family, sitting in solitude, hiking, meditating and engaging in vigorous activity or intentional stillness. But a job search is an activity all of its own and should be treated that way. Our activities often dictate what we need to do to give our bodies and minds what they need to be at their best. I know I must take a different type of break after I’ve stared at a screen for 10 hours than after I’ve been in eight hours of back-to-back meetings.

In the same way, the work of a job search will be different from what you do the rest of the time, and you’ll need to adapt what you do to relax or feel healthy. That also means it may take time for you to develop your own awareness of your physical, mental, emotional or social health when you are working on your job search as opposed to when you are studying, working or doing research. Some other recommendations include:

Avoid comparing your wellness practices to others'. I mentioned before that in my most recent job search, I demonstrated that I had a sense of my relative health and was making efforts to meet my needs in the moment. The key phrases in that statement are “my relative health” and “in the moment.” Just because one person’s wellness practice works for them does not mean that it will work for another person. We must be aware of our needs in each given situation and not necessarily adopt what others might do. Yes, we can learn techniques via a mental health professional, a physical trainer, a mindfulness practitioner, a friend or a spiritual guide. But whatever we do to become or remain healthy and whole should be specific to us, the task and this particular point in our life.

That applies to a job search as much as it does to our jobs. And that means that while we can listen to the advice of how to be healthy during a job search, we should only implement if it fits our needs in our specific situations.

Acknowledge your privileges when sharing your wellness practices. Additionally, I encourage us to be careful when we want to recommend a particular wellness practice to others -- and not just because our needs vary per person and per situation. The activities or practices that we use are informed by our experiences, resources and the elements of our lives. Some of us have access to practices and tools that others cannot afford (e.g. memberships for fitness classes), have difficulty accessing (e.g. discrimination at facilities based on who one is) or have not had prior exposure to (e.g. expecting someone from a different culture to know of a specific practice). While well meaning, we can unconsciously bring our privileges into a discussion in a way that causes someone else to feel inadequate, ignorant or excluded.

I never considered that anyone would feel uncomfortable about answering questions about wellness practices until a conversation I had with one of our former students a few years ago. That student told me she felt that what she did to stay healthy was a private matter and not the business of her employers. I understood her concern. We can keep the details of our wellness programs private, such as work with a therapist, spiritual practices, family matters or medical care. During a job search, the details matter less than demonstrating awareness and intentionality around our well-being.

Moving Forward Into Wellness

When employers ask questions about wellness or health in interviews, I advise students and postdocs to be ready to share one or two examples of what they do to destress or improve their health that shows evidence of the two elements of having a wellness mind-set that I mentioned before. It is not the exact wellness practices that matter, but that we care about our well-being. Employers want to hire people who are whole, who are actively working to become or remain healthy employees that can give their best to their work. What matters in an interview when questions about wellness come up is that we honestly demonstrate that we monitor of our own health and take actions to maintain or improve it.

When I started my Ph.D. program 12 years ago, few people around me discussed the need for personal health and wellness practices in the way that I hear and observe today. I have felt encouraged as I see research institutions begin to talk about how Ph.D. students and postdocs should create, maintain and foster their own health. Some of this has been through intentional wellness programs like the good work my colleagues at my institution do to support healthy practices, even when hours in the lab may be long and the demands of research are frequent. Other efforts include the #ScientistsTakeCare movement, promoted by National Institutes of Health leaders and other scientists. Also, public attention in general has focused more on the need to live healthy lives, even during a demanding period like graduate school. I hope this spirit of personal wellness will continue and we can bring it into all aspects of our lives, including a job search.

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