Navigating the Surprising Stress of a Job Offer

It can prompt as much panic as delight, writes Derek Attig, who offers advice on how best to deal with it all.

February 3, 2020
 
 
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Looking for a job can be pretty terrible, and it’s often a long slog. Amid that stretched-out stress, it’s easy to start thinking of a job offer as a kind of holy grail, a singular solution to all your problems. But what I see over and over again, among the hundreds of graduate students I advise each year, is that the job offer is often its own source of emotional turmoil. A sudden offer, or the sense that one might be incoming, can prompt as much panic as delight.

Why? As I’ve watched this play out repeatedly over the past few months, I realized that while the job search is often frustrating, it’s also kind of hopeful. As you apply for job after job, you get excited about so many possible future yous. You foster so many different fantasies about so many different lives doing so many different things. So while the concrete reality of an offer can offer a lot of relief, it also represents a sort of loss. This one actual path forward comes at the cost of a bunch of potential others.

As doors close, the possible future yous hiding behind them disappear. It can feel as if your options are narrowing rather than opening up. I’ve seen this happen when an offer from a research-focused university meant rethinking a professional identity grounded primarily in teaching. Or when a student submitted 40 applications and the first one turned into an offer before the others even started interviewing.

It’s worth being prepared for the turmoil of a job offer, both by understanding why it might be stressful and by preparing to navigate it as smoothly as possible. Below, I’ve identified two big drivers of postoffer stress -- unsynchronized timelines and lack of knowledge -- and then proposed several approaches to help you make it through.

Trouble with timelines. The job offer can be particularly stressful for many graduate students because it works so differently than their last big application process: getting into grad school. The April 15 resolution governs graduate admissions, which means that most Ph.D. students get to hear back from every program they applied to and carefully weigh a whole menu of options before deciding. In the case of the job search, by contrast, timelines are rarely synchronized, and candidates rarely feel like they get to make a full comparison.

In a job search, you almost inevitably have to decide whether to accept a job offer before every other search you’re involved in plays out. You’ll have to close doors before you know what’s behind them. And it’s entirely possible that you’ll be fielding new interview requests while you are considering or negotiating an offer. Add to that the complication that the amount of time you may have to consider an offer can vary widely (and chatter among career services folks suggests that the average time is shrinking), and it’s basically a recipe for stressed-out candidates and magical thinking -- “if I can only delay this offer, some of those other maybe mes might turn into actual mes and then I can make a decision.”

You can’t know it all. Have you ever put off starting to write something in favor of reading just one more article or collecting just a little bit more data? Well, that impulse, incredibly common among graduate students, doesn’t do you any favors when it comes to a job offer. You won’t have every bit of information that might be useful about every option that might be possible. You won’t know for sure that a particular job will be satisfying, or be certain that your long-term career would benefit more from Job A or Job B. You won’t know, most fundamentally, what’s behind every door and how all those possible future yous will turn out. That can be a real source of stress when you’re already fatigued by uncertainty and when the stakes feel (and in many ways are) pretty huge. “But one of those maybe mes would be happier than the future me who takes this offer!”

So what do you do? For each of these challenges, below you’ll find some questions to ask and things to consider, based on my experience coaching graduate students and postdoctoral scholars through the surprising stress of a job offer. None of this will make the end of your job search go off without a hitch, but it might help you reorient your thinking and approach the offer with an open (and calmer) mind.

Understand the Timeline

When does the organization that extended an offer want to hear back? Before immediately pushing for more time, consider whether and what you might gain. If you decide you would concretely benefit from more time, you can always ask for an extension (which doesn’t mean the answer will always be yes). These are potential future colleagues, so consider things from their perspective, too, and make sure not to string an employer along with multiple extensions. At a certain point, you’ll need to make a final call.

What other search processes are in play? Consider both your interest in those other positions and the chances of them returning a result before your deadline. If you are far along in another search you’re interested in, consider contacting that employer and letting them know. Tell them you’ve received an offer (no need to say from whom) but would be excited to work with them, then inquire about their search timeline. If they’re just as excited about you, your message might nudge them to move a little faster. Or a lukewarm response could tell you what you need to know.

Know What You Know

What do you know? Make sure you get the details of the offer, then make sure you actually understand them. (This glossary of employee benefits terms might come in handy.) Also, consider what you learned during the search process about the role, the organization and alignment with your values and career goals. Asking strong questions about responsibilities, career paths and the organization’s culture during your interviews -- and taking copious notes afterward -- can help make this process easier.

What could you know? Determine whether and what kinds of additional information would help you understand your options and make a decision, and consider whether that information is achievable given the timeline you are working with. You could contact HR for clarification on technical details in the offer, negotiate to shift the terms, have a conversation with someone in your network who used to work at that organization or meet with a mentor to talk about how this job might set you up for another one a few years down the line.

What can’t you know? You aren’t actually a wizard, and you can’t predict the future. So try to accept not knowing everything about every possible you and decide if you want this particular maybe you to be you you, at least for now. Rather than wonder if an offer represents the one perfect job for the one perfect future you (there isn’t one!), think about it in terms of trajectory. You can’t know for sure where you’ll land, but you can try to understand what direction this job will set you off on. Is that a direction you want to head?

Whether you decide to accept the offer or not -- both valid choices -- make peace and make plans. More doors will open as you move along the paths of your career. Consider how your next job can prepare you to open them when the time comes. And don’t forget to celebrate!

Bio

Derek Attig is director of career development at the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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