In the past months, we've experienced dramatic changes to life as we know it. If you were in the process of a career search when the pandemic hit, all your planning may now seem pointless. During times like this, we have to make a choice: Do we retreat and hide, or do we push forward and see this as an opportunity for growth and positive change?
While I've never been on the job market during a global pandemic (who has until now?), but I have been on it three times across two recessions. Lessons learned from those experiences may help you find your way through this downturn and others you will face during your career.
Career Planning vs. Career Reality
When I began my Ph.D., my career plan was to be a college professor. The timing seemed perfect. Reports at that time projected huge growth in faculty hiring, so I thought I’d be applying when a record number of tenure-track positions were available. We all know how that worked out. And to make matters worse, I competed my Ph.D. in 1991, during a recession that began in the late 1980s. I spent three years on the academic market searching for a tenure-track position that never materialized.
For those of you currently hoping for a tenure-track position, COVID-19 will make your long-shot odds of landing a tenure-track position even longer. During both the 1990 and 2008 recessions, many tenure-track faculty jobs disappeared and never returned. The same thing is likely to happen with this recession.
What can you learn from this? Your career plan needs to be flexible, no matter what path you are on. An event like the one we’re experiencing now will result in shifts in career options. Some will disappear, and new ones will appear. This isn’t a new phenomenon -- we no longer have buggy-whip makers -- but that doesn’t make it easier when the career you planned and prepared for disappears.
Being forced to make a career change is not fun. It felt like I was being pushed out rather than making an exit on my own terms. And I had to take time to process my feelings so I could move forward. But once I made the change, I realized a lot of the elements I liked about being a professor were still part of my job. In hindsight, it would have been prudent to have a longer list of career options. Once I made the switch to my new career, I then continued to explore other options in case I wanted or had to shift careers again.
The fact is that the best career plan is one that includes several options that are all equally acceptable paths for you. Then when you enter one of those careers, continue to build your skills and connections in case that position becomes a victim of changes in the career environment.
Be Realistic About Your Career Options
During an economic downturn, it’s especially important to be realistic as well as knowledgeable about your career options. There are three main types of career transitions: 1) same industry, different job, 2) different industry, same or similar job, and 3) different industry, different job. The easiest is the first one; the hardest is the third. When I first explored career options outside faculty life, I was looking at positions in both a different industry and different functional areas, which is the hardest transition to make. My second search involved the same industry (higher education) but a different job (career services). There were enough similarities that I was able to make the case that I could do the job. As an instructor, I taught communication, and my classes involved content that overlapped with career education.
When I look back at the first search, I found it tough to make the argument that I could do the jobs I was applying for. During the second search, I only applied for staff positions at universities, and I found it much easier to make the claim that I could do the job. Notably, both of these searches happened during two different recessions.
Don’t Quit Your Search
I became a career counselor for graduate students early in 2008 during a recession. Late that year, many universities, including mine, instigated a hiring freeze. For the next two years, as I helped students to start their careers, the hiring landscape looked bleak. And it didn’t help that “the experts” were telling people to give up. The news media continually reported on the high unemployment rate, the large number of job seekers, the scarcity of jobs and the feeling that no one would ever get a job again.
In the face of the current pandemic, we are receiving similar messages. And I recently heard someone who teaches career planning suggest that job/internship seekers should give up until this is over. I strongly disagree. Even if you take a brief hiatus from applying for positions, you can still pursue activities that move you closer to your career goals.
Giving up ensures you won’t find a position, but if you keep looking and use more creative search tactics, you might find something. Even if you don’t, you’ll have developed a network and demonstrated to people that you are resilient, and you will be well prepared for when hiring begins again. Spend time thinking about all the things you can do, the skills you’re learning in graduate school, the projects you’ve completed and the contributions you can make to society. Connect with others who have been through tough economic times before and seek their perspective. Look at this situation as a problem in search of a solution and become the problem solver. Make sure all the things you say about your career search and planning are positive.
Remember, you can’t change the circumstances of the pandemic, but you can change the way you look at it, talk about it and experience it. Look for ways to be positive in the face of the negative. Building that skill will come in handy throughout your career.
Also, now is the time to be bold in your approach. If you have been applying only for posted jobs, you are missing out on a lot of opportunity. Connect with other people in the career you want to enter. I recently worked with a student who wanted to enter a career path when he didn’t have the expected qualifications. He talked to many people to learn how he could promote himself for the job he wanted, and after several months, he was able to get an interview and an offer.
Since you’ll have to do this virtually, as an added bonus, you’ll improve your video interview skills that will help you land the job. And, maybe through one of those connections, you’ll learn about a problem a company is facing that you have the skills to help solve. Or you can propose a project you can do in collaboration with someone in the industry you want to enter. Your ask might not always result in a yes, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.
This pandemic will give birth to new industries and new career paths, and you have an opportunity to be one of the innovators who helps forge new paths. In fact, right now, companies that help people work remotely are seeing a surge in hiring. Zoom, the platform many use to meet with students and colleagues remotely, is seeing huge growth as people use it in industry as well as to keep in touch with friends and family.
So push forward into this brave new world. But don’t do it alone. Reach out to the career development professionals at your institution and strategize with them on how you can make a career plan that you can adapt and adjust as needed.