Above: Detail from Drawing, late 19th century. Brush and gouache on cream paper, mounted on cream paper. 9 1/16 x 8 1/8 in. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Friends of Drawings and Prints with special assistance from Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Phyllis Dearborn Massar
I can’t remember the number of academic and academic-adjacent jobs I’ve partially applied for. I begin applications, but I rarely finish them. Sometimes, I forget to finish them; other times, I see “applications in progress” when I log in to apply for a different position. Most of the time, I regret not completing them. More than that, though, I regret the underlying reason why I don’t. That I’m lazy is the easy answer; if that were all it is, I could overcome the challenge. The real reason is complicated, borne out of collapsed confidence and overwhelming odds.
I love reading a job announcement and envisioning myself in the position. I think of the ways my skills and expertise would contribute to the job, allowing myself to take pride in the PhD that seems irrelevant in my day-to-day work as a management analyst for a local government. I even allow myself to think that I bring qualifications to the table that other applicants couldn’t possibly, for I have gained workplace skills in nonacademic settings that should make me more marketable. The balloon of optimism deflates when I consider my age, how long ago I graduated, what I’ve been doing with my time since then, and my competitors, a mwah-mwah echoing in my head. At this point, my goal is to be considered a viable candidate, and being selected for the position seems like a pipe dream.
Jan Janas. Beautiful Lady. Dyes on silk. Reproduced from The Fine Art of Painting on Silk (Schiffer Publishing, 2018). Courtesy of the artist
I have no problem finishing the tedious parts of an application. Filling in text box after text box of personal, employment, educational, and demographic information is mind numbing but rote. I run into trouble when I get to the part where I need to upload documents, like a cover letter or writing sample: I freeze.
I stare at my monitor, willing my fingers to type something coherent, anything engaging, that contains a keyword that will pass the algorithm of the application tracking system. I reread the job announcement for inspiration, consider my options, and eventually click “save and continue later.” By the time I muster the morale and energy I need to sit in front of a computer at the end of an exhausting day of sitting in front of a computer, sign back in to the application site, and work on the narrative portions of the application, I have little to no time until the job posting closes. Finishing the application feels like a losing battle.
It’s the diminished returns. The amount of effort that goes into applying, let alone that went into my degrees, research, and teaching, doesn’t pay off. I rarely get any feedback from prospective employers. Months can go by without any contact from the search committee: no “thank you for your application” and no “we regret to inform you.” Most of the time, I find out I wasn’t selected when I poke around an employer’s website and see someone else’s name next to the position. Discovering that I’m not even worth a rejection letter is further demoralizing.
There are some applications I’ve finished, of course, and I’ve gotten a few great interviews. My prospects seemed good! I’ve been screened by recruiters. I’ve had phone interviews, video interviews, and in-person interviews. I’ve flown across the country for the prized campus visit. My confidence boosts for a little while, and I think maybe I do have a shot at getting the job I want. This feeling of hope invigorates my job hunt, but only until reality sets in—or at least the reality of me applying and applying and getting a disproportionately low number of interviews. Theoretically, as someone recently reminded me, I suppose I do have as good a chance as any other applicant, but the lack of proof is disheartening.
I take advantage of as many mentoring and advising opportunities as I can. I want criticism of my application materials and interviewing skills to help me hone how I present myself on paper and in writing. In fact, I participated in the AJS Conference Mentorship Program at the 2019 conference: my mentor gave me good insight into the kind of positions I want, and I left San Diego feeling hopeful. Most of the feedback I get is positive, so I wonder where the disconnect is between my applications and my preparations.
I’m lucky that I have stability in my current job that affords me the time to get over my anxieties. I can take as long as I need without worrying about making ends meet. Although unrelated to my academic interests, the position is well paying, with good health care and retirement benefits. I don’t know how I’ll break the cycle of starting and not finishing applications, lamenting my chances, and questioning my qualifications, but at least I have a job to tide me over.
I’m on the same market as applicants ten or more years younger than me, more recently graduated, and more willing to live like a grad student a little longer.
Maybe I would’ve been a better candidate years ago; now, I’m on the same market as applicants ten or more years younger than me, more recently graduated, and more willing to live like a grad student a little longer. However, I do want that job, and I am qualified for it. Besting my angst and working through the paralysis—or even pretending enough to finish the job applications I start—would at least get my foot in the door. Leaving applications unfinished reminds me of my insecurities; maybe finishing them will remind me that I am competitive, that my aspirations are reasonable.
Rachel Leah Jablon is an affiliate of the Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include Jewish literary traditions, performance of identity, and memory.