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Anxious woman looks at two men interviewers with their backs to the viewer

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Often, we enter a job search presenting our best, that which makes us most noticeable or most interesting to potential employers. We emphasize our strengths, our achievements, the capabilities and possibilities we may bring to a position, and the professional and personal struggles that we’ve overcome.

But we do not always talk about the struggles that we are currently having, whether we are dealing with a health issue, a problem with a relationship or a hardship in a family or friend group. In a way, we may look at a divorce that we are experiencing, a long-term illness that we are coping with or other personal or familial strife as something separate from either our work or a job search—a situation that seems to call for compartmentalizing the personal from the professional.

As a graduate and postdoc careers professional, I have found myself taking that approach, as well as sometimes encouraging others to take it. I believe this is sad, for reasons that I will explain below, because the more I work with scientists pursuing many different career paths, the more I doubt that this compartmentalization is fully possible and always a good thing. At the same time, I also understand how such compartmentalization may be what some of us need to function professionally at times.

When Sharing Is Best—or Not

Based on my experience working in the area of career development, I’ve found that we each regularly make decisions about what to disclose about our struggles and the personal burdens we carry in a way that’s appropriate during particular job searches or professional interactions. For every person or situation, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating the difficulties of life while also finding or keeping a job.

In my life, I’ve had times when I have kept my personal struggles to myself in the workplace. Those include, for instance, what I was feeling while finishing my undergrad degree, engaging in student teaching and working a full-time job at the same time that my mother was undergoing treatment for cancer; the torment I felt after my youngest brother’s death just months into my current job; or how my then-disintegrating marriage was tearing me apart emotionally while I was expected to lead a team of graduate student instructors four years into my Ph.D. program. I still am not 100 percent sure of what caused me to share so little about those experiences, other than a lack of feeling safe enough professionally at such moments to say anything or my sense that my network of support was not what I wanted or needed it to be in those situations.

Yet, at other times, I have been able to share my struggles with co-workers, supervisors, my network of colleagues and anyone else I could. I did so when I shared information about my divorce during a job search with a person who would later be my supervisor. Later, I told my current supervisor with tears in my eyes about how the loneliness I experienced during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic made me feel like I was breaking apart. And recently, I have been honest with colleagues and superiors alike about how I am terrified about a surgery I am having in July to clip a cerebral aneurysm.

In the first examples, I described, where I kept my feelings to myself, I felt that I needed to be much more reserved. In these other cases, however, I have felt safer with the people I’ve opened up to, and I also have felt that the only way forward for me at those times, in those moments, was to share—to open up about what I was experiencing and what I needed. I needed at those times, respectively, the acceptance at my workplace to a major life change I was undergoing, the opportunity to feel with others and be a part of something even while physically isolated from my coworkers, and the chance to be seen as someone who can be brave and innovative in my job activities while terrified outside of work.

In each case, that level of transparency is what I needed and what I felt that I was able to act upon. So, whatever the situation, and whether I decided to share or not, I know within myself that I did what I needed to do.

Honoring Burdens

I will not pretend to be a scholar of either empathy or vulnerability, but I do want to make an appeal for us each—whether as job-seeker or hiring manager, employee or supervisor—to learn more about what it means for each of us to practice empathy both during the job search and in the workplace. During the search, I hope that job-seekers can be as honest as they can be while also determining how much to protect themselves, and that hiring managers and search committee members can try to understand the interviewee or applicant’s perspective as much as is reasonable. In the workplace, I hope that we can try to understand what others feel and to see life as much as we can from their perspectives before making assumptions about what they do or why they make certain decisions, especially those we disagree with.

I have heard people describe how sharing a struggle with an interviewer has shaped their job search or how a potential employer has practiced empathy in the search. Such stories have given me hope that we can have a kinder workplace, one where we are allowed to be human and can at least feel safe with sharing or not sharing what we experience outside of it.

Ideally, I would love to see workplaces where we laugh, support each other and understand when one of us on a team stumbles under the weight of the burdens we each might be carrying. I also understand that, for the many reasons we each have, we may not want to share things, and I respect that. Yet I hope for an increased sense of safety for everyone, in the way each person needs it, as we try to work together during our professional lives.

Lauren Easterling (she/her/hers) is director of trainee services at the Indiana University School of Medicine and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. Her work focuses on providing high-quality career development and learning experiences.

Blue and white logo of the Graduate Career Consortium.

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