Blog - Mental Health On the Job Market

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large.

Grad students have trouble with mental health, and if you’ve been one, you know it—which is why sociologist Katia Levecque’s work on high levels of risk for psychiatric disorders like depression in Ph.D. students went viral in 2017. The part where you work really hard for low pay for years is bad enough, but when you’re on the job market, looking for a place at the bottom of the academic ladder as one of hundreds of applicants for scarce positions—all while trying to establish a rooted life as a (maybe not-so) young adult—the feelings of precarity can be overwhelming.

What can be done? As Levecque said in an interview with “Science” this year, the problem is a complex one: “It’s not all the fault of the academic structure and culture, and it’s not all the fault of the individual.” We should all advocate for better working conditions and employment terms for early-career researchers. But working on an individual level, here are some things that you can do to manage the flood of feelings of uncertainty that the job market can bring.

Try to reach out and touch a world that’s not academia.

If you are overwhelmed by the prospect of putting together an entire second job search for an alt-ac position (fair!), do some small things that can connect you with a non-academic career. Follow professionals in the field on Twitter, and eavesdrop on what they’re saying about the ins and outs of their job. (They may also share ads for positions in the field, which is a bonus—you can see what requirements are de rigueur, and try to tailor your resume to fit.) Asking some of these people for informational interviews can be another good option; as the blog Beyond the Professoriate says, such chats are lower-stakes, and they can be “a fantastic way to stay motivated during your job search.” 

Go on a walk.

There is apparently science behind this common prescription for relieving stress. When you are anxious, and don’t know what’s coming, you become afraid, and your vision gets narrow; when you’re walking, you’re naturally scanning the horizon, and that side-to-side action of the eyes calms your brain. This isn’t about endorphins (though those help) or vitamin D from sunlight (that’s good too); it’s about forcing a reorientation to your situation. 

Don’t overdo it.

As Anna Meier writes in a blog post about being on the academic job market, you may have many opportunities extended to you to practice your job talk or have your materials reviewed by others in your program or university. Try to figure out which of these artificially imposed external deadlines will be helpful in developing your material and nailing your presentation, and which will not. “Do things that scare you a little,” she writes. “Don’t do things when you know they’re going to send you into an anxiety spiral and not actually help you.”

Try super hard to resist projecting outcomes.

As a friend said recently of her husband’s academic job search (which will affect her future town of residence): “I can’t seem to keep myself from hitting Zillow every time he gets an interview at an institution.” This kind of projection may be difficult to avoid, and some of us are better at compartmentalization than others—but try. As Tal Yarkoni wrote in 2012 about his strategy for staying on track while on the job market: “Spending as little of my time as possible thinking about my future employment status, and as much of it as possible concentrating on my research and personal life.”

Envision a long-term project outside of work.

In a new book, Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing, civic advocate Pete Davis argues that long-term happiness for people, and health for their communities, becomes possible when people commit to projects for decades at a time. He calls these people “long-haulers.” 

One reason an academic job search is so dispiriting is that many people who enter Ph.D programs intend for academia to be their “long-haul” project. Look at the CV of somebody who got a good tenured position a few decades ago, was supported in their research and is now in their sixties; that person is a long-hauler. That’s the kind of CV that inspires committed grad students who love academia to go for it. But when jobs are so scarce, academia may not be able to serve as your long-haul project.

One way to maintain mental health during an uncertain job search is to re-invest in other things that you plan to do your whole life long. Cooking, gardening, writing that’s not related to your Ph.D research, spending time with children you plan to see grow up (plus these other COVID hobbies)—these are all long-haul projects that can bring you solace, when the job market goes up and down. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.