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5 Tips To Help PhDs Overcome Frustration And Depression While Job Hunting

job hunting tips when you can't find a job | Cheeky Scientist | unemployed and depressed

Written By Sarah Rodrigues, Ph.D.

Changing careers was really challenging for me.

Sometimes I felt like all of my efforts were for nothing.

I felt worthless, hopeless, and helpless.

Each tailored industry resume I wrote kept me glued to the computer for hours.

And then I waited… and waited.

Sometimes, I never heard back from the employer or even knew if they had seen my application.

Each industry interview I had, I studied and practiced as if I was preparing for my thesis defense.

I walked away each time thinking I had nailed it.

But then, I would inevitably receive the dreaded email…

We appreciate your interest in our company but after careful consideration, I am sorry to let you know we have decided on a different candidate that better matched our qualifications.

The reasons for my rejection would vary.

But they were all non-specific.

I didn’t have enough experience, or other candidates possessed more relevant skills, or the company decided to go in a different direction.

Here’s what they were really saying—it’s not you, it’s me.

Each time I was rejected, I felt more crushed and demotivated.

Rejection feels miserable.

That’s when I started thinking about quitting my job search.

That’s when I started thinking that maybe I should just go back to academia.

I knew that I could get a postdoc position if I wanted to, and then I would be safe for a few more years.

I started thinking that maybe I didn’t have the emotional intelligence and transferable skills to get an industry job.

I was on the verge of giving up one day, when I decided to reach out to a hiring manager who had rejected me for a position.

What did I have to lose?

The hiring manager had interviewed me for a position, and then sent me a standard rejection email.

Usually, that was the end of it.

But this time, I decided to follow up.

I didn’t follow up to ask why or complain, I followed up to thank her and to see if new positions were available.

I even recommended a past colleague for a different position.

The response was very favorable and she agreed to hold on to my resume and call me back when a position that was a good fit opened up.

We stayed in touch for weeks.

I started staying in touch with dozens of hiring managers and recruiters who had rejected me.

That’s when things started to change.

That’s when I started to fail forward, and within a few more weeks, I got a great job that was a perfect fit for me.

The job search period is a crazy roller-coaster ride, but it’s definitely a ride worth taking.

Why All Job Searches Are Frustrating

Job searching requires strategy, self-control and self-motivation in the face of discouragement, setbacks and self-criticism.

It’s not an easy process.

A recent After College Career Insight Survey found that only 13% of graduate students have a job lined up before graduation while 74% do not have a job lined up at graduation.

That’s right—74% are facing unemployment at graduation!

A study conducted by the University of Minnesota followed and analyzed over 70 job seekers who had high levels of expertise in their fields and who were currently employed.

The study showed that 51% of these highly skilled job seekers had difficulty facing repetitive rejection.

The study also found that being rejected negatively affected the job seekers’ self-worth, even though they were highly skilled and already employed.

Job searching provoked a wealth of negative feelings in the participants.

They felt helpless, hopeless, frustrated and even embarrassed.

Do these feelings sound familiar?

The good news is that the above study also found that top job candidates were able to improve their feelings and outcomes by changing the way they reacted to new challenges.

For example, if they saw a setback like not getting an offer after an interview as a challenge instead of failure, they were more likely to get a job down the road.

They were also more likely to have a higher quality of life, better mental health, and a better attitude toward their current and future employers.

Rejection is an inevitable part of the job search process.

The key is to not let your frustration overshadow your career goals and to turn every challenge into an opportunity.

how to overcome frustration when job hunting | Cheeky Scientist | job hunting strategies

5 Strategies For Staying Motivated In Your Job Search

In today’s job market, PhDs are competing with many other applicants for the same opportunities.

As a result, the only way to stand out is to communicate your value over other candidates’ effectively.

Negativity will get you nowhere.

Beating yourself up after every missed interview or unanswered message will damage your self-confidence and hold back your job search.

Most importantly, other people will notice your negative mindset.

Interviewers will sense your lack of self-assurance.

The only way to keep moving forward and making progress is to use everything that happens to you during your job search to your advantage: even mistakes, missed opportunities, and rejections.

Here are 5 strategies for overcoming frustration and depression while job hunting…

1. Don’t take rejection personally.

Presenting your work at a scientific conference in front of 10, 50 or even 1,000 people can seem like an easy task compared to the dreadful experience of a 1:1 interview.

I remember presenting my project to a big assembly and answering some very critical questions.

Then I went on my first industry interview and fidgeted in my seat nervously the whole time.

What was the difference?

When I was at a conference presenting my data, I never took criticism personally.

They were talking about the data and my project overall and I appreciated their input to move my project forward.

If you want to get a job in industry, you must learn to create this detachment.

You must learn to detach yourself from rejection.

Instead, look at the job position and your job search as a project.

Not receiving a job offer is not a personal attack.

It’s an opportunity to re-focus and improve.

Just because one company says “no” today doesn’t mean it’s a “no” for all future positions, forever.

Each rejection is a learning experience.

Do not fall into the trap of dwelling on a rejection and wondering what might have been.

Learn from it, take new action, and move forward.

2. Surround yourself with positive people, not negative people.

Job searching is a lonely venture.

To stay motivated, you must surround yourself with the right people.

If you have negative people in your life who subtly put you down when you get rejected, you must remove them.

Instead, you need to surround yourself with positive people.

Ask friends and family members for support (yes, actually ask them).

Join a trusted community or association so you don’t feel like you’re the only one going through this.

Most importantly, step away from negative mentors or academic advisors and seek out positive leaders to help you.

It is very easy to paint yourself as a victim during the job search process.

The interviewer was biased.

The process was fixed.

The world hates me.

You completed your PhD and you joined the top echelon of highly skilled workers.

Why aren’t employers banging on your door?

You have to avoid this weak mentality.

Avoid playing the victim and blaming other people for your failures.

Avoid surrounding yourself with people that encourage this negative behavior too.

Instead, surround yourself with a positive community of like-minded people where you can share honest experiences and learn trade secrets.

3. Ask for feedback after a rejection and keep following up. 

Receiving constructive criticism is never easy.

But if you want to improve and progress, it’s absolutely necessary.

If you get rejected, don’t give up and don’t slash and burn.

Instead, reconnect with your interviewer.

Follow up with them after you get your rejection notice, and then continue to follow up with them.

Here is an example script you can follow…

‘Dear [Employer],

While I am disappointed that I am no longer considered for position [XYZ] at your company, I completely understand your reasoning for taking a more experienced candidate and I thank you for the opportunity to interview.

Moving forward, it would be helpful if I could receive feedback regarding my interview, if there is anything I can improve upon for the future or if there are additional skills I should acquire to make myself a more competitive candidate.

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,

[The Perfect Job Candidate]’

Once you send this message, wait a few weeks to hear back.

If you don’t hear anything, follow up gently every month to build the relationship.

Not only does following up help you for the next interview, but it shows the employer that you welcome their feedback.

It shows them that you have the grit and emotional intelligence necessary to work in a tough industry.

It also puts you in a position to hear about new openings at that company, or in the industry in general, faster than you would otherwise.

4. Record your progress and celebrate the small victories.

Organizing your job search is imperative to keeping track of your progress.

It’s also important for providing you with proof in terms of how far you’ve come from when you first started.

Recording your progress will keep you from repeating mistakes and will fill you with a sense of growth.

You should have a running spreadsheet of the companies and positions you’re interested in.

You should also include all of your connections at these companies on this spreadsheet.

Keeping track of the connections you’ve made, as well as the last time you contacted them and the next time you plan on contacting them, will help you diversify your job search rapidly.

You should also keep a folder with your tailored resumes and cover letters.

Being meticulous and strategic in your job search will help you to quickly regroup after a rejection.

It will help you stay organized in today’s very competitive job markets.

The key is to set small, attainable goals for each week.

This will keep you focused on specific tasks, which will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and defeated.

Don’t lose sight of the effort it takes to transition into a new career.

When you do hear back from a recruiter or receive positive feedback regarding your LinkedIn profile, celebrate it.

There was a time when you couldn’t even fathom leaving academia.

Now, recruiters are contacting you and you’re getting industry interviews.

That’s a big win.

Remember how far you have come and remember how important each step is along the way.

5. Take a day off to re-energize and gain perspective.

Everyone needs a break.

Even PhDs.

It is very easy to burn out during job a search.

There are endless jobs to apply to, networking events to attend, and people to connect with.

You can end up spending every day glued to the computer, which only fuels your frustration when you hear nothing positive in return.

If you want to stay motivated, you need to allow yourself time to recover.

Taking one day to yourself or taking one day off to spend with family and friends, with no computer access, is the best way to breathe life back into your job search.

You will come back stronger and more creative than before.

Taking a few days off from an intensive project like a job search has been shown to alleviate frustration, change perspective, and spark novelty.

Motivational slumps are normal.

The only way to overcome them is to strike an intelligent balance between hunting and resting.

Job searching is a daunting process. In order to make your transition out of academia successful, it’s necessary to learn effective coping mechanisms for staying motivated. It’s important to keep a positive outlook and to create small, specific goals for yourself so that you can see measured progress over time.  When you are faced with rejection, learn from it and grow so that you can approach the next application that much stronger.  Surround yourself with positive people and refuse to give in to negativity and a victim mentality.  Above all, take breaks and be good to yourself.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Sarah Rodrigues Ph.D.

Sarah Rodrigues Ph.D.

Sarah has a Ph.D. in Hematology & Oncology and currently works as a business developer in Paris, France where she is responsible for international strategic sales and developing new markets. Sarah is passionate about biomedical research that is translated into products, bringing innovative solutions to market and improving global health.
Sarah Rodrigues Ph.D.
  • Julian Holst

    Thanks for saying that about the slumps being normal. I’ve been trying to network even while still in school, but once in a while I get exhausted due to trying to do so many things at once. All your advice is terrific. That last one just helped the most today.

  • Kathy Azalea

    I think it took a great deal of courage to start contacting the very hiring managers who rejected you! It’s counterintuitive, but it obviously paid off big time. That never would have occurred to me. Thank you so much for the tip!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    This is such an awesome article. You’ve really made the point that even though job-hunting is a tormenting process in a lot of ways, we can just choose to look at it as information. As post-grad students, we all know how important it is to do research, and we rarely research ourselves! So this is just a chance to figure out what’s going on and fill the gaps in communication that we need. 🙂

  • Harvey Delano

    I love the organizational tip of keeping a spreadsheet. That way you don’t have to have a bunch of little notes all around cluttering up the place.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    It doesn’t surprise me to learn that the vast majority of people are discouraged by the constant rejection in the job-seeking process. And it also doesn’t surprise me that most people don’t have a job lined up after school and leave there with a diploma and unemployed. But I think your advice is sound: stick with positive people and stop beating up on yourself for being in this process — after all, your negativity does nothing to get you a job. As you say, rejection is part of the process.

  • Sonja Luther

    I think you have a good point about celebrating successes like finding good connections through LinkedIn. Too many times it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the process of job hunting. Taking breaks and taking time to review what you did right is probably more constructive than constantly dwelling on what you did wrong.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    This process for creating and following up with industry contacts is very well thought out and outlined. It’s a process I’m making note of for future networking because it contains aspects I hadn’t thought of. It’s always a good idea to look for new tips on networking and job markets, even if you have a good position, because one never knows when it will come in handy. So thanks very much! 🙂

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Isaiah’s always saying to ask for constructive criticism, even if it’s uncomfortable, and I can see why it worked out big time for you. The amazing thing was that you didn’t cave in to fear and freeze up — you went out there and got the feedback you need. I think most people just look at job hunting as a pitch fest — they’re pitching and the employer’s supposed to be catching. But it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t ask for feedback, you’re not going to get it.

  • Theo

    I can relate to feeling like the hiring people are out to get me sometimes! But you just have to hang on hanging on. This is great info for the job hunt. What’s best is it gives us time to get started before even getting out of jail … I mean, academia!

  • Winona Petit

    The young PhD’s would be wise to follow this advice. It was easier when I graduated … PhD was very rare and appreciated.

  • sp

    surely inspiring. i am going to organize my applications sent without response!
    anyway the most frustrating issue is when you are unemployed and you have to pay all those bills piling up. i expected rejection. in my idea it is sth normal when there r peoples out there having done 5postdocs and ready to grab the job of your dream u stands no chance but you try. who knows maybe sb prefered a more fresh graduate than a science guru

  • pavithra

    Dear Sarah, Thank you for this wonderful write up. Each and every point that is mentioned here is invaluable. A great motivation for all the job searchers across the world. The way how you have explained to follow up with recruiters is definitely worth trying. Keep writing more to inspire us:)

  • pigbitinmad

    Hardly. Not after 25 years of rejection day after day after day. Impossible you say? NOT!!!! I do save every single rejection letter I have gotten since 1990 though. I have never EVER….and I mean, NOT ONCE gotten a job as a result of an an interview. And I get interviewed a lot. Later I have been told — by those who were literally forced to hire me against their will — that they thought I would suck, but that I turned out to be “the best person they every had in this job.” NO $H!T SHERLOCK!!

    Bitter? You bet.