Summer has started. A long job market season has come to an end, and yet another one is about to begin. Most Inside Higher Ed readers know people who are on the market, often for several years, and most likely want to be supportive of job-seeking friends and colleagues. While this desire to support is of course wonderful, the forms that said support takes is often misguided. In composing remarks for a panel on preparing for the job market, I reached out to several other multi-year job seekers, to ask what had been helpful - and not so helpful - for them. Every person I asked expressed frustration with how people not on the job market spoke to them. That is, well-meaning advice and support often came off as harmful or counter-productive. The comments below are all things we have heard while on the market, most of them repeatedly. Of course, different support is required or desirable for different people, but it is my hope that the suggestions below are helpful for those who want to be more supportive to those on the market.
“You're so great, I'm sure you'll get a job soon.” Rather than being reassuring, this statement just shows that the speaker does not understand the academic job market. Being great, or smart, or motivated, or any other superlative, is not a guarantee for a job. Further, these kinds of comments can inadvertently put blame on the job seeker, by implying that if they were just a little better or worked a little harder, they would get a job.
Relatedly: “But you are made for academia.” Says one person: this comment suggest that “I can't do anything else and as though to do something else would be a bad thing.” Constantly hearing that academia is the only valid option makes the potential of having, or choosing, to leave even more terrifying than it often already is.
“You're getting interviews! You're doing well!” Certainly, congratulations are appropriate when somebody gets an interview. However, interviews in-and-of-themselves do not mean the job search is going well; they do not pay the bills, they do not equate employment for the upcoming year. Says one job seeker: “First, let me say that lots of people have said to me that getting interviews in this market needs to be considered a success. ...I find such sentiments patronizing and aggravating and completely devoid of reality [or] material concerns such as HOW I will eat [or] pay rent.”
“Have you ever thought of doing xyz?” The answer is probably yes, and now the job searcher is put in the position of having to explain to the person asking why this is not a viable option for them. For example, US citizens frequently suggest options to me that are not viable because of my visa status. These suggestions means yet again having to explain my immigration status to someone, and yet again being stressed about it. (The exception, of course, is if you happen to have personal experience or expertise knowledge of a particular situation, and can offer concrete advice for overcoming potential hurdles.)
“Don't stress out.” Looking for a job, and the resulting insecurity of how one will pay rent, have money for food, manage debt, support one's family, maintain a good visa status, and so on, is stressful. Why tell somebody in that situation that they should not be stressed? This invalidates the experience of job seekers, and shows us, yet again, a lack of understanding.
Validate the person's experience – Instead of automatically blurting out “It'll all work out,” affirm that being on the market often, frankly, sucks. The most supportive comment I got this year, after getting rejected from a job I very much wanted and not having any good alternate prospects was a simple expletive. Another job seeker suggested "Wow, i'm sorry. That's tough" as an appropriate response to sharing bad news. Said someone else: “When rejected – and you will be – it is ok to feel however you feel. It is ok to feel nothing, to be surprised, pissed, and/or devastated”
Reminders that it's good not to put all one's energy toward the job search – This can take different forms. Someone mentioned appreciating being told by a colleague to focus on her research and writing. It can also be about having time for a life outside of work. I am grateful to the people in my life who have repeatedly urged me to go dancing, or taken me on a bike ride. If the job search is not the only thing in our lives, rejections are easier to handle.
Support the decisions a person makes – They might be different from the ones you would make, or have made, but they are probably still made for good reasons. If someone is thinking about alternate career paths, provide space for talking that through. If someone decides to turn down a job, listen to their reasoning. If someone decides to go on the market for a sixth year, that is also fine.
As fall comes creeping up, and with it another job market cycle, hopefully these tips can help us be a bit kinder, and more supportive, to those looking for a job. The market is stressful enough, without those closest to us adding to the stress.
Stina Soderling holds a doctorate in Women's and Gender Studies from Rutgers University. She researches landownership among queer people in the rural United States, and also works on questions of academic labor. When not working, she can be found singing shape note music.
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