Environmental Anxiety and the Academic Job Market

Job searching is a bit of a microcosm of the academic lifestyle. High-stakes texts are produced quickly, are still assumed to be ironclad, and all the while candidates are expected to be going about the rest of their job duties: researching, writing, teaching, mentoring students, and presenting at conferences. (And having a life? Maybe.) Peer networks during this transitional time can provide the best support, since the academic job market is (in mostly destructive, arcane ways) unlike any other hiring system. I don’t think I understood collegiality—the lived practice of being a supportive and cooperative colleague—until I went on the academic job market.

But at every juncture, candidates are pushed to think about themselves in negative terms: The money they may not have for new clothes, convention travel, and dossier costs. The dissertation chapters they may not have written yet. The time they don’t have to write, teach, prepare search materials, and hold together a normal life. What starts as a collegial support system could easily devolve into a black hole of mutually reinforced anxiety. Depletion is the key term, the keystone experience of most graduate students on the job market. Spending time with overwhelmingly negative people only exacerbates this depletion. This post will start to talk about ways candidates can provide empathy without absorbing so much of this environmental anxiety.

Problem solve
: Negativity tends to grow from feelings of helplessness or a lack of relative control. Overwhelmingly negative people may be closed off to thinking about their situation in positive ways; however, serving as the problem solver, or the person who brainstorms, even off the cuff, about potential answers to larger problems may help keep ambient anxiety at bay. If job-market talk moves from strategies for success to fears of failure, it’s okay to be the person to steer the conversation back to problem solving. Problem solving may look like organizing a dossier materials peer review or mock interviews, troubling shooting a particular question, talking in safe spaces about alt-ac options, or brainstorming ways to reorganize the CV to highlight different strengths and experiences. Action is the antidote to anxiety. Be ready for the fact that some peers won’t be open to problem-solving approaches.

Refract, don't absorb:
Job-market stress can cause even typically roll-with-it types to lash out. Friends and family, those who are closest and most supportive, can bear the brunt. Even if it sounds personal—“It’s easy for you to say, there are so many more jobs in your field!”—this lashing out is not personal. It’s true that the market in most fields is incredibly limited. Acknowledging stress as valid and completely rational honors the reality of the situation, which may include complex family, financial, and emotional issues.The idea here is to bounce those feelings of negativity back, through the prism of authentic care. The qualitative interviewing method of backchanneling can support these conversations: "Yes, I absolutely understand why you're so down. I'm sorry. It must be tough."

I risk sounding like a jerk here, but if there is someone or multiple someones whose negative energy becomes too much for you to bear, limit contact with those people. Everyone’s busy, so it’s not improbable that your schedule may require you to back out of informal commitments. If a peer group isn’t working, leave it. Practice saying no to social or professional scenes where you might leave less psychically comfortable than you arrived. I have been lucky to get to know some incredibly empathic people in academia. Some of these people are likewise deeply sensitive to ambient negativity. It is painful to watch them deplete their stores of energy to boost others. The job search is a self-centered process (again, microcosm for academia, unfortunately), and sometimes self-protection really is the best solution.

I’m interested in suggestions from readers who have navigated this difficult social and affective space. What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Is this psychic energy transfer a function of the job market and thus a rite of (academic) passage?

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