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In the summer and fall of 2012, I found myself in an unexpected, scary situation. After I'd been working toward my Ph.D. for five years, my then spouse and I decided to divorce.

While the situation was complex, I found myself frightened, uncertain about my future on my own and on the verge of being unemployed and homeless. At the same time, I was rediscovering my own gender identity, which I discussed in an article last year when I shared my own journey as a transgender person. I negotiated an in-home separation until I could find full-time employment and began a job search -- before my dissertation research was complete. What followed was four months of what felt like endless emails to potential employers, countless versions of my CV/résumé and many interviews. All throughout this time, I felt a mix of embarrassment, adventure, fear and uncertainty related to my personal life, while having similar feelings while conducting a job search.

During this time, I found job interviews at universities to be the most disorienting events for me, as they were daylong affairs with one-on-one interviews, group discussions, job talks and informal conversations. I was grateful that employers are not allowed to ask questions related to marital status, and if an informal conversation drifted into that direction, I dodged the questions.

At the same time, I felt as if I were not being my authentic self, hiding whole aspects of my everyday life and feelings. Sometimes I hid who I was to disastrous results (I did not get those jobs), and sometimes I was able to feel mostly natural in my responses and interactions with people. In the end, I found a position -- one at an institution where I knew that I felt free to both process everything that had happened and to be myself.

To Share or Not to Share

For some of us, it may be uncomfortable, difficult, impossible or even dangerous to share certain aspects of our lives, whether it’s information about one’s religious beliefs, family structure, partners, personal history or any number of other things. Sometimes we make these decisions on our own, with the help of others we know or professionals (medical, legal, spiritual). We each need to explore and honor our boundaries -- the aspects of ourselves that we need to protect.

Additionally, we should make ourselves aware of what types of questions employers should and should not ask during an interview. If you have a concern if a practice or question should not be asked, and how to address it if you are, consult with a legal professional or someone trained in navigating hiring practices.

Here are some other recommendations to consider during job searches and interviews.

Find your balance in each situation, and forgive yourself when you cannot. Whether it is plans for building a family, relationship dynamics, political views, religious beliefs or core personal identities, there are parts of ourselves that, when we are looking for a job, we do not want to share with others at that time. How we handle this balance is important, though there will be times when the balance may be difficult. There will be times where we share more than we like, for example, and times when we are more reserved in an interview than we wish we’d been. We cannot change what we say or do not say, even if we would love to put the words we’ve spoken in a job talk back into our mouths.

Instead, we can just do our best to figure out how much we can share and still feel that we are preserving privacy in areas that we do not want to share (yet), while being as open and honest as we can to a potential future employer.

Be as honest as possible. Throughout it all, I do encourage job applicants to be as honest as possible. There are many scenarios where disclosing difficult or challenging experiences can make job searches uncomfortable or challenging. I understand and have experienced times when I have not wanted to disclose aspects of who I am -- my physical and mental health, my gender identity, my religious affiliations.

Once many years ago in a job interview, I provided untrue answers to avoid answering a question. Not only did the interviewers catch me in this answer, I created difficulties for myself at that institution that made future job applications there challenging. At the same time, I did not talk about aspects of my life experience (divorce, gender identity) that I did not feel ready to talk about if I did not have to. I recommend that you respond honestly as much as you can and have practiced nonanswers or practiced explanations for not answering. That said, I realize that isn’t an option in some situations, and I suggest that we each rely on the advice of professionals who are best suited to provide guidance in such cases.

When I was interviewing in 2012, if a question that crossed a boundary was asked, I usually offered what I call a nonanswer answer, where I responded to what I saw as the intention of the question (ease of my ability to move to a new city) versus the exact wording. Once I was pushed, even though those interviewing me knew that they should not ask, and I said that I preferred not to talk about what I considered a personal matter. In that case, I knew that this was a boundary for me and had prepared in advance a response I could use in case I was asked this question.

Learn about each hiring culture and expectations. When someone applies for a position, and especially before a job interview, I recommend researching as much about an institution or company as is possible. In addition to researching responsibilities, co-workers, leaders, missions, research and projects, it is important to learn about that institution or company’s hiring practices. How do they conduct interviews? Does their HR department have a website, and do they share hiring and interview practices on that site? Is there a format that hiring managers or search committees must follow? Researching answers to such questions can help you begin to predict the types of questions that may be asked or conversations that may take place during the interview. That then allows you to examine your own nonnegotiables in terms of what to talk or not talk about.

Share the you that you can live with sharing. Ultimately, an employer is hiring the person that they see and hear and get to know during meetings, interviews and site visits. Each of us is crafting a story of who we might be in a specific job when we apply for and interview for a position. Our work and productivity should matter most, but how we perceive and are perceived by others contributes to how we fit into a work context. We will spend on average one-third of our lives for any number of years in this context.

Thus, however we decide to present ourselves, we should present the story of a person we can live with being -- or be prepared for moments of adjustment and reaction on the parts of others as we begin to express who we truly are. Whether it is something related to our appearance, like hair color or dress, or identity related, such as family roles or whom we love, or behavior related, such as hobbies or religious dress, we each should decide how much of our identities we want to share. We should also determine how to live our lives in the workplace while not sharing the other portion we choose not to share.

Intersecting Stories

Ultimately, as I advise graduate students and postdocs, I find that the job application process is each applicant telling their story, listening to the stories of the people they meet at a given university or other organization and then determining how those stories mesh together. Our stories, while many times public, are still our own to tell. How we tell those stories about ourselves -- the depth and detail we share -- helps or hinders others as they also attempt to determine how our professional and personal stories will help a university or organization succeed at its mission. It is each of our responsibilities to balance how we nurture and protect our stories while providing enough accurate detail for others to decide whether or not to let our stories intermingle with theirs.

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