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In academe, going on the job market is often viewed as a fearsome trial through which Ph.D.s must pass on their way to postdocs and professorships. Surprisingly, it’s also one for which many students are remarkably underprepared.

Colleges and universities typically hire for academic positions on an annual cycle. In my field of management, positions are posted in July, candidates are vetted at conferences in August, interviews and flyouts happen in September through January, and offers might roll out anywhere from November to March. That means the process itself can last more than seven months—an often grueling experience on top of the long slog of the Ph.D. itself.

Going on the job market is not only an unavoidable step on the path to an academic career, but it is also the penultimate one, building on years of work as a Ph.D. It can thus feel as if those years of our previous efforts and decades of future potential hang on the whims of unknown committees and an opaque process.

In a field that is already struggling with mental health, all this makes the process a recipe for disaster. Our advisers and mentors help us on methods, not mental health, and they are often among the constituents we need to court to succeed in our careers—so no room for display of weakness or second-guessing there. Meanwhile, friends and family outside academe frequently don’t understand its distinct challenges. Thus, we are often cut off from our most important support networks just when we need them the most.

In my own experience, written materials offering guidance are lacking as well. We can find plenty of information about how to succeed in landing a job but a lot less about how to manage the emotional challenges the process entails.

So what can we do? My perspective on this issue is informed by my personal experience. I’m an untenured academic on the tenure track at a major research university’s business school. Previously, I held the same position at a business school at another large research institution. I’ve been on the market twice and have worked with dozens of students and peers as they’ve gone through the process of finding employment.

Throughout our collective successes and failures, I’ve seen how hard it is to manage the emotional aspects of the job market. I’ve also identified some of the common challenges, as well as tools that help overcome them.

Managing the Process

First, the process. The focus of this article isn’t how to land a dream job. Instead, it’s how to stay healthy and balanced while landing that dream job. The challenge, however, is that it’s a lot easier to stay healthy and balanced when things are going well than when they are not.

My first piece of advice, then, is to set yourself up for success. Hitting the market with a portfolio you are excited about and with good work under your belt can transform a grueling trial into a fun opportunity to strut your stuff. The thing to remember is the Rule of 2.5: expect any project or paper to take two and a half times longer than you initially expect. So start early.

My second recommendation is to take care of yourself physically. The job market feels like a sprint, but it runs from August to February, and even our conferences are five days long. Over that time frame, it’s often counterproductive to try to push yourself too hard and too fast. Instead, the only winning strategy for such a marathon is eat, sleep, exercise and do whatever it takes to stay healthy and sane.

The third thing I suggest is to recognize the importance of community. Research can be lonely, and at its worst, the job market seems to pit friends and classmates against each other. But the truth is that communicating and commiserating doesn’t really give anyone an edge. Rather, it can help us prepare and make the process feel a lot less lonely. I forged many of my closest academic friendships and most valuable collaborations in the crucible of the job market search with peers who might otherwise have been rivals. My advice is to reach out, connect and celebrate collective successes. It’s a hard path when walked alone.

Managing Outcomes

When we imagine the process, many students stop there. But understanding and dealing with the results of going on the market can be just as hard as managing the process itself.

The first issue is the role of noise. Job offers are binary, but they are also very noisy—meaning that whether you get an interview, how well it goes or whether an institution is even hiring depends on a whole host of factors you’ll never know about (i.e., on what the dean had for breakfast or on butterflies flapping their wings in another hemisphere). What that means is that the outcome of the process ends up saying very little about you or the quality of your work. If you land the job you want, that’s great. And if you don’t, it may not reflect negatively on you at all.

It’s also very easy to get sucked in and feel that if we don’t land a job—any job—all those years of effort we’ve put in will be for naught. That is a fallacy. Our reasons for wanting to be academics vary, but it is typically because we are nerdy about our field or are attracted to the lifestyle. What we often forget along the way is that there are lots of ways to be nerdy and have a good life. Overlooking that can lead us to feel hopeless if we don’t get the job we want—or to make trade-offs on location or compensation that we shouldn’t.

A useful concept here is BATNA, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” from the study of negotiations. BATNA highlights that how well you do in a negotiation is shaped in part by what options you have outside the negotiation. In that view, the job market itself is a negotiation with your field to land a job and lifestyle you want. And that means that the more you’ve researched and know about other paths you might pursue, and the more attractive those options are, the better you will do.

That is true even if you end up staying on the academic path. It’s a whole lot more enjoyable to walk a path if you’re doing so because you want to, not because you need to. As Tina Solvik explains in an excellent article, “Framing career exploration as another research project to undertake while pursuing your Ph.D. … requires information gathering and assessment, can have unexpected discoveries, and is a long-term process.” Sadly, it’s too often treated as an afterthought or a sign of not being committed to the path. That’s not true.

Managing Your Feelings

Almost everyone I know who landed a great job, myself included, asked themselves whether they deserved it and would be able to keep it. Impostor syndrome affects everyone, but it may be worse than normal for academics, who are expected to be confident masters of their domains. You can find a lot of good advice on how to deal with impostor syndrome, but the most important point is to just be ready for it and know that all your colleagues are asking (or at one time did) exactly the same questions.

Ultimately, landing an academic position isn’t the only outcome of the job market that you should be thinking about. Your health and well-being matter as well, and they aren’t worth sacrificing along the way. If you can effectively work to manage the process, the outcomes and your own feelings, you will be far more successful over the long haul.

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