Dealing with Rejection
This past fall I went on the job market for the first time. I had started my seventh year of my PhD program, and with several publications under my belt, I felt the end was in sight. My plan was to get a job lined up for the following fall, and write my dissertation this spring / summer.
The problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I haven’t had the smoothest PhD experience. There were failed projects, periods of anxiety and depression, and doubts about if I have what it takes to be an academic. There were also periods of great joy, incredible productivity, amazing people, and exciting travel. There were days where I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than astronomy, and days where I felt that being a barista at Starbucks would be a better career path for me.
I decided that I would apply to every job that looked interesting to me, and make the decision once I got offers. My advisors agreed that this was a good idea -- keep my options open for as long as possible. I applied to a lot of jobs. I applied to finance jobs and consulting firms. I applied to tech companies and start-ups. I applied to teach at private high schools and community colleges. I even auditioned to be the host of a science television show. I also applied for post-docs and faculty positions.
As you can imagine these applications were all quite different. I spent weeks and weeks preparing for interviews, writing essays, tweaking my CV so that I seemed like the perfect candidate for each position. I was asked to interview for many of the jobs I applied for. I got to final stage interviews with companies, was invited to interview for faculty positions, and I was shortlisted for several post-docs.
I didn’t get a single offer.
Whenever possible, I asked for feedback from my interviewers, yet there wasn’t a consistent reason for why I wasn’t getting offers. A few jobs said they would have hired me, but couldn’t due to unanticipated funding limitations. One job had another candidate whose partner was willing to work at the university as well, and so they were getting “two for the price of one.” One university said I was a finalist, but decided not to hire anyone, due to not having a large enough applicant pool. No one was able to give insightful advice about what I should change to make myself a stronger candidate.
The rejection was hard. It was hard to interview somewhere, meet my potential coworkers, learn about the work I might get to do, get really excited about the opportunity, and then a couple weeks later hear that they weren’t extending me an offer. People suggested that I should stop getting my hopes up, that I should approach each interview with a heavy grain of salt. Yet, I felt it was important to bring to the interview the enthusiasm and excitement that comes with believing and hoping I should be hired.
Then there were the tens of form rejection letters, the compulsive checking of the astro-rumor mill, the weeks of time spent away from my thesis work while I prepared applications and interviewed around the country. I even gained 10 pounds due to stress, comfort eating, and lack of time to exercise. The craziest rejection was when I received a form "regret" letter from a university at the exact same time I was giving a"job talk" colloquia at said University. Classy.
So what did I do?
I found it extremely helpful to talk about the process with many different people. I asked friends and family to look over my application essays, asked people to send “good vibes” my way during my interviews, expressed excitement for my successes, anxiety around the process, and genuine disappointment when I was rejected. Some people were helpful, some were not. I continued to talk about my process to the people who were helpful. I got a lot of advice, support, encouragement, and most importantly heard again and again that I wasn’t alone, that I shouldn’t take it personally, and I shouldn’t give up.
I have tried to frame the search in my mind as an opportunity to gain experience in interviewing and increase my professional network. Perhaps none of these interviews resulted in a job right now, but who knows what opportunities these interactions will produce in the future? After this job search, there are a lot more people who know who I am and what I am working on. I got a lot of helpful feedback on my thesis work, and got learn about what a lot of other people in cosmology are working on.
I now have a much clearer perspective on what I want to do next. If nothing else, the interviews gave me a peek into what a career would be like at these various places. I’ve discovered that finance bores me, that I can’t handle the lifestyle of a management consultant, and that there are very few places in the country I am willing to move for a “term” or post-doc position. Moving forward I am going to focus my job search. I plan to spend the next six months finishing my dissertation as well as gaining experience to be more competitive for teaching or tech jobs.
I’ve accepted that I might not have a job lined up for next fall. I’ve accepted that I might need to postpone my graduation another semester, or even graduate unemployed. I’ve also accepted that this is a hard time to find work in America and specifically in astronomy. Part of the benefit of being honest about my rejections and failures, was that others confided in me their own struggles. Many successful astronomers, who I admire, and who are further along in the careers than I am, are not getting offers this year. It’s sad because the result is that the field of astronomy is going to lose some good people.
If you were on the job market this year, and didn’t get a job, or didn’t get the job you wanted -- please know that you are not alone, you shouldn’t take it personally, and you shouldn’t give up.
Jessica Kirkpatrick was offered a full-time faculty position at a small university outside of Seattle.
Jessica Kirkpatrick was offered several tech / consulting jobs in the San Francisco Bay area.