Numerous job rejections can lead a grad to feel useless and like a failure. How can one feel better about their self-worth, and get the motivation back to apply for more?
Dear Losing Hope,
I so deeply wish we were in the same place, sharing a cup of something delicious, so I could lean over and give you a big hug. And I’m not all that hugg-y, this is just one of those times….
I’m going to speak in a language those of us in the UK know all too well this time of year: viruses. Have you ever been really ill, with chills, headache, cough, sore throat- the works!- and finally after you feel it’s lingered too long, you go to the doctor or GP and he or she says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do to treat you; it seems to be viral, so the only thing that will help is rest, liquids, and patience.” Well, I’m about to sound just like that doctor. There is nothing I can do to make this season of waiting and disappointment go away – you have to take care of yourself and wait it out and know it will not last forever. There will be a breakthrough one way or another and I can guarantee you will not live this way for the rest of your earthly days. So, here’s my version of vitamin c, herbal tea, and a fleecy warm throw blanket:
1. Don’t narrow. Broaden. Our tendency in the face of rejection is to either quit and walk away, or refocus our efforts and try again; fight or flight, so to speak. Desperate to avoid feeling that sense of dejection ever again, we either jump ship or redouble our attention to every detail, disciplining ourselves to perfect the application/ job talk/ interview responses. Inevitably our anxieties, insecurities, and uncertainties build.
Just like an artist’s work, the academics’ publications, conference presentations, and research are personal, an expression of the inner workings of their hearts and intellect. So, it feels personal when one places one’s work in someone’s hands, that someone reads or reviews it, and decides it’s not good enough. In that case, it feels like * you* are not good enough – not true, but I get it- and you just want to work harder so you can be deemed good enough.
Of course, yes, we need to refine anything that might increase chances of success in future applications. However, I think it’s best to avoid becoming obsessive about it. Talk to your advisor or mentors, do what you can to increase your application’s strength, then press save, close your computer and walk away for the evening or the afternoon or whatever period of time you can wrestle yourself away. If a painter or photographer or sculptor created pieces that again and again were rejected by critics who didn’t share their vision, style or aesthetic sense, would it be advisable for them to lock themselves in a dark room day after day and simply by sheer force of will, drive themselves to create something beautiful? No. They’d need to be out in the world to be inspired, they’d need to be part of something larger than themselves in order to generate anything worthwhile (and not totally depressing). They’d need encouragement to continue to produce their own style of art – critics be damned- and to just keep working toward finding the right buyer or market or audience.
Same to you, Academic. Resist the urge to sit in front of your laptop pounding and pounding the keys trying to create something brilliant and worthwhile. Get out there and interact with the world, with other disciplines, with strangers and friends and loved ones and nature, and be refreshed. Then, and only then, get back to pounding those keys and let’s see what happens next.
2. Do something for someone else, even though you don’t feel like it. It’s me, the seemingly unhelpful doctor again, telling you to drink fluids. I know you think it won’t make any difference to how you’re feeling, but just hear me: it will. Take five minutes, thirty minutes, one hour, four hours – anything!- and go do something to serve someone else. Get out of the muck of academia for just a second. Buy someone flowers and leave a note of encouragement. Send a card to someone. Buy a coffee for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop. Pick up litter. Donate a bunch of household goods to a homeless shelter. Serve a meal at the soup kitchen. Bake something and give it away. Call someone who would love to hear from you. Clean for someone. Help someone with their groceries. Anonomously do something nice for someone, somewhere.
Prescription: Do one such thing every day during this time of waiting and you’ll survive with your heart, your mind, and your sense of self in tact.
Laura M. Benton, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and professional Graduate Wife (12 years, friends. Two MA’s and a PhD.)
To write with your own question for The Graduate Wife team, email TheGraduateWife@gmail.com or LBenton.LMFT@gmail.com