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Career advancement is exciting and rewarding, but it is usually accompanied by significant stress, uncertainties and hurdles to overcome. Gallup has identified five elements of well-being—career, social, financial, physical and community—and of those five, career well-being, or liking the job you do every day, has the strongest impact. People with high career well-being are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their life overall.

But these days, a sense of career well-being among graduate students and postdocs is tenuous, at best. A 2022 survey conducted by Nature found that 57 percent of graduate students worldwide had concerns about their mental health as a result of undertaking a graduate degree, and 65 percent felt uncertain about future employment or career prospects. In addition, according to the National Postdoctoral Association’s report, “2023 Barriers to Postdoctoral Success,” more than 90 percent of postdocs cited lack of clarity of their pathway to the next position had negatively impacted their professional and/or personal lives.

How can graduate students and postdocs sustain their well-being as they navigate a significant life change like a career transition? We recommend the following holistic approach for graduate students and postdocs who are about to embark on a job search.

Understand the role of competencies in job search process. Reflection on your strengths through tools like myIDP, ImaginePhD, and aligning your job profile with the core competencies required for the role(s) is critical. Conduct informational interviews with professionals in your chosen career path to learn about the needed competencies. Participate in internships, job shadowing, relevant professional organizations and skill-learning programs to develop specific skills. Graduate students and postdocs can be confident that skills gained through academic, research and co-curricular experiences can be successfully transferred to a nonacademic context and career path.

Manage expectations. It is possible to obtain a job that sets you on the career path of your choice, but it may not happen immediately or how you planned. Market dynamics, in or outside of academia, can be turbulent and not aligned with the timing of your graduation or completion of your postdoc. So you should go forward in applying with a positive attitude and without too much attachment to the expected outcome. Having realistic expectations sets a good tone for a job search process.

Recalibrate your values. While the goals you set earlier when you began your college or graduate training were valid at the time, life can present unexpected opportunities to reassess your values and refine your trajectory. Your values, the core principles that guide your decisions, change with your experiences, professional and personal relationships, and evolving life circumstances. Platforms like ImaginePhD and MyIDP offer tools to explore those values through assessments.

Take the time to delve into the results, identifying the intrinsic and extrinsic values that hold the most weight for you today. Are they intellectual growth and autonomy? Creativity? Social impact? Job security? Work-life balance?

Once you understand your core values, you can use them as a compass to navigate your journey. This isn’t about abandoning your past goals but about integrating them with your present ones.

Focus on wellness and self-care as important components of your job search. Wellness and self-care are buzzwords that may seem overused, but establishing a wellness protocol that is suited to your individual needs is key to your effectiveness and success. Exercise, pursuing a hobby, going outdoors to take a walk or pursue other activities, connecting with family and friends on a regular basis, or being part of peer support groups for job search and career explorations are all ways to help maintain your wellness.

Self-care is the consistent use of coping skills and activities to stay healthy, balanced and motivated. Developing a self-care regime, and then weaving it into your search strategy and process can be beneficial in dealing with the ups and downs of finding a job. Maintaining self-care practices, such as mindfulness, taking intentional breaks, stretching, and journaling can help to alleviate some of the emotional and physical stressors of burnout. It can also open up mental space for you to think clearly about your career aims.

Dealing with burnout. Burnout, a term coined by the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, describes a severe stress condition that leads to extreme physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. The feeling of tiredness and hopelessness at the onset of a job search or career exploration can be a sign of burnout. Evaluate your situation, and be kind to yourself. Burnout is not a forever phenomenon. You can reverse it and prevent it in future by consulting with experts, setting boundaries and establishing self-care routines.

Amid burnout, we may also be grappling with career enmeshment: an intertwining of personal and professional identities. Our narratives, and to a further extent our sense of selves, can become deeply focused on our identities as scholars, researchers, graduate students or postdocs, leaving us unsure of who we are beyond that image we have of ourselves. Such career enmeshment can have negative impacts on our career and professional development. It can lead to short-sighted goals, limit our career exploration and encourage a lack of boundaries—which can further burnout, negatively affect performance, and restrict our career progression. We must recognize and acknowledge when we are struggling to find ourselves outside of our work. Increasing our self-awareness about it can help us see the impact, not only on our careers but on our overall well-being, as well.

Reframing and dealing with setbacks. When you do not hear back from a prospective employer, or when you’re not invited for the next step in the application process, the rejection can be tough to handle. But we all need to treat such setbacks as learning opportunities rather than as failures. Viewing the interview process as an opportunity to share your research and skills and to grow your professional circle, can help reframe the situation. Moreover, reflecting on the interview process, the conversations you have, and any feedback you receive along the way will inform your next steps.

Developing resilience as a valuable skill to see ahead and beyond the setbacks and rise from it is essential. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the gift of trying again with a revised approach and renewed hope.

Seeking a safe and supportive team. Career changes, like other major life transitions, can spark emotional challenges. You should be attentive to signs like continued negative self-talk, persistent cognitive distortions such as overgeneralization or all-or-nothing thinking, anxiety symptoms or rigid perfectionism. They may indicate that seeking support beyond a career adviser, such as from a mental health counselor, could be beneficial. Prioritizing your mental well-being during a job search process can ensure that you are approaching decision-making with clarity and from a healthy space.

Today, with technology and the labor markets driving relentless change, self-awareness, self-understanding and adaptability have become increasingly crucial for navigating career transitions. Your focus, therefore, should be on comprehending your values, motivations, and identities, and growing your strengths to empower you to build a dynamic and fulfilling path.

Pallavi Eswara has been working in postdoctoral affairs for more than 15 years. As director for postdoctoral affairs at Boston University, she provides professional and career development advice to postdocs, including curated information and workshops on wellness and self-care. Lauren Lyon brings over a decade of counseling and program management experience to her role as director of the graduate professional success for STEM Ph.D.s and postdocs (GPS-STEM) program at the University of California, Irvine. She also serves as a university wellness ambassador there, and is an instructor of Career Development Theories & Techniques. They are both members of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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