In two previous posts (see here and here) I’ve discussed some issues related to being on the political science job market. In the first installment I wrote about some basic organizational steps graduate students can take to prepare for being on the market. The second installment dealt with how graduate students can attempt to evaluate their prospects for getting a job. In this entry I’ll focus more on how you can cope with the stresses of the job market.
Again, I’ll stress up front that these posts are written primarily on the basis of my own personal experiences, and are intended for people who are trying to get a tenure track job at a research program in political science. I’d encourage everyone to talk to other people and get some feedback on their job market experience. That said, I think this post is more generally applicable than the previous posts. Grad school is stressful, but so are a lot of other careers. No matter the source, finding effective ways to manage stress is important. And if anyone has any additional tips or suggestions, please feel free to note them in the comments section.
As I’ve previously discussed, and as many people already know, the job market can be an incredibly difficult and stressful process. The competition is incredibly fierce—particularly with the economy in a slump for the past few years. And given the socialization process that you experience in grad school, the notion of failing to get an academic job or seeking non-academic work can feel incredibly stigmatizing. After 4–6 years in graduate school, you’ve likely forged some close friendships with other people in your program. When you get to the stage where many of your friends are getting jobs and you’re not, well that can only increase what is already a stressful process. The idea of completely changing careers is enough to bring up feelings of failure, and potentially losing touch with all of those people you’ve come to know so well only compounds the problem.
So how do you cope with this kind of stress? Let’s get the glib response out of the way first. You drink. I mean, it’s something many of us do already, and there seems to be a certain broad appeal to the cliché of drowning your sorrows. It can be effective, but I’m not sure it’s a great solution to what can be a long-term problem. It does, however, point the way to a slightly better option. It’s easy to want to go into a self-imposed isolation when you’re under so much stress, but I think taking steps to ensure that you are regularly getting away from work and socializing is a must. Going to the bar is a great place to blow off steam, but for me it was more about having the chance to just spend some time outside of the office with my wife and friends.
It’s easy as a graduate student to get stuck behind your desk for long hours and then go home to crash on the couch/bed. While many of us are really disciplined when it comes to our work, we’re less disciplined when it comes to taking care of ourselves in other ways. Going out with friends is fine, but there are other things we can do to help ourselves. I’ve increasingly enjoyed cooking as a means of getting my mind off of work, and I know some people who took up this hobby much earlier in their grad school careers as a means of taking care of themselves (cooking a solid meal for themselves at least once per week). Really, any kind of external hobby is important. I got together with several fellow graduate students for regular gaming sessions for a while. Others took their competition more seriously and participated (quite successfully) in various gaming tournaments while in graduate school. Exercise is also key. Run, walk, jog, lift weights, yoga, whatever. We know exercise has all of these great health benefits, and it can do wonders for a cluttered and worried mind in particular. Making this a part of your routine can go a long way towards lowering your stress levels when you’re on the market. No matter what you choose, having some sort of hobby outside of graduate school can really help. You may find that some activities work more than others. Go with those.
Being around other people and just having some time away from your work can be a great way to take your mind off of the stresses of the job market. But it can also feel like a temporary distraction—come tomorrow morning you’re just going back to the office to face it all over again. Having someone to talk to about everything that’s going through your head is incredibly helpful. This can be tricky, though. I’ve said repeatedly that one of the best things you can do is to talk to other people and get information about their own experiences on the market. I still think this is appropriate. As I’ve mentioned previously, the more people who I talked to the more I realized that temporary positions were not at all unusual. Just having this knowledge really helped to alleviate some of my fears.
The tricky part concerns venting. Everyone needs to vent, to talk about their frustrations. Where, and to whom you vent, however, are the tricky parts. You have a right to discuss your concerns with your advisor(s), but they’re probably not the best person to have an hour-long emotional jam session with. It’s not that they don’t care, but keep in mind that they may have multiple students on the market at any given time (depending on the size of the department and your particular advisor). And if you’re on the market for any length of time you might need several of these sessions. The same goes for your friends and family. You probably have more latitude here, but take care. Even when you’re incredibly close with certain people excessive negativity can take a toll on the relationship. My wife was a huge source of support—she’s a social worker and does counseling/therapy for a living, so she’s very, very patient and understanding. Still, I’d be lying if I said that three years on the market didn’t lead to some punctuated moments of stress in our relationship. Basically, whether it’s your friends or family, you don’t want the relationship to become your emotional dumping ground. It can quickly create an incredibly toxic environment. In short, this is a delicate balancing act.
This leads me to therapy/counseling. Depression and anxiety are not problems that are isolated to the job market—over at the Duck of Minerva, Amanda has previously written about depression in academia. Still, I’m willing to bet that for many grad students the job market is often one of the biggest triggers/drivers of depression and anxiety. Therapy can be a big help, but I suspect too few people seriously entertain it as an option. In many circles there’s still a great deal of stigma attached to mental health treatment. It seems as though it’s somehow more acceptable to admit that you’re suffering from a problem than to seek help in treating it. Speaking of which, remember that time your appendix burst and you kept it to yourself? Probably not. Your brain is an organ and it needs care like every other part of your body. Depression and anxiety come in all shapes and sizes (so to speak), and acknowledging that you need help is not some admission of being “crazy”. If you think so, then you probably don’t know what serious mental illness looks like. This is not to trivialize depression or anxiety—it’s entirely possibly to have severe cases of either, and they can have serious effects. My wife worked on an inpatient mental health ward at one point while I was in graduate school, and hearing what some people and their families have to deal with really helped to put things into perspective for me. And quite often even people with scary sounding disorders like Schizophrenia can function more or less normally with treatment. However, in the majority of cases concerning grad school we’re probably not talking about such extremes—some people might need someone to talk to, others might find medication helps. Ultimately, though, it’s going to require some amount of work, and you get out of it what you put into it.
I had already started seeing a therapist for separate health-related anxieties shortly before I began my time on the job market, but I found my visits really helped me to cope as the market-related pressured mounted. Turns out therapists get paid to listen to your problems, and to work on solutions, which allows you a space and time where you can vent without worrying about polluting your home life, work environment, or social circles. However, there was no couch. No analyzing of dreams. No spirit animals to guide me on my quest (a capybara would have been cool, though). And every comment was not met with a pensive “Mmmmmm. How do you feel about that?” A good therapist is going to use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help you learn how to cope by changing your thoughts and behavior to improve how you respond to your stressors. Having someone who can help you to recognize patterns in your own thinking and behavior (assuming you are honest with them) can be of tremendous help in getting you to a point where you can identify workable solutions and develop positive coping strategies/skills. In my experience it was a huge help all around.
While the particulars might differ for a lot of people, I suspect that one of the best things you can do to change gears is to actively confront the idea of not getting an academic job. I’m not saying to stop trying. Rather, take a serious look at non-academic jobs. Talk to university job counselors. Find out what kinds of jobs you’d be qualified for. Find out how you can market your skill set. You’ve spent the better part of a decade in school—surely you’re qualified for something. With any luck you’ll land that tenure track job you’ve been striving for. In the interim, however, the problem is we don’t often know what our options are, and our programs are not necessarily geared towards providing us with that information. As tired as it might sound, it’s the fear of the unknown and taking that first step that are the tough parts. Consequently you really have to take it upon yourself to learn what the non-academic job market looks like. I did eventually start to do some research, and the reality was not quite as scary as I’d thought before hand. Again, see this post by Kate Kidder at the Duck of Minerva.
The takeaway is to be proactive. Self-care—both physical and mental—doesn’t just happen. It’s something that has to be practiced on a regular basis. Whether it’s on your own or in groups, the important thing is that you take steps to help manage the stresses of the market (and grad school more broadly).
 It’s not unheard of for people to have psychotic breaks while they’re in grad school. That said, my understanding is that this looks substantially different than a case of mild depression. If you suspect someone is severely depressed, or notice that it’s having a serious impact on their wellbeing, you should help them seek treatment. It’s often the case that they won’t want to do it on their own.