How do I support my academic-wannabe boyfriend?
January 29, 2011 8:14 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend is on the academic job market this year, and (surprise) it's not going too well. How do I support him?

I'm in a relatively new relationship with an older graduate student in my social sciences department, and he's having a terrible year on the job market. Every once in a while he has terrible bouts of anxiety about his future/the quality of his work/his life choices up until now.

Compounding the difficulty is that we're actually in a very good department, with great placement, and even this year, most of our candidates have managed to procure jobs. The boyfriend's work is very good, he has publications and everything, but it's also unfashionable at the moment, and it's killing him to watch his classmates score great jobs while he struggles to even get interviewed.

I have no idea what to say to him when he starts to get anxious like this. I can listen to everything he says and "be there for him," but that doesn't seem to do much good. Because I'm a younger student in the department (working on, as he reminds me, an extremely fashionable topic), I can't really draw on my own life experience to think of something useful to say. I remind him that the process is capricious and doesn't reflect on his quality as a human being or even academic, but that just makes him feel like a fool for having even tried. (Which, yes, we all are--no need to remind us.) I try to remind him that he'll be back on the market next year and so he needs to keep his head in the game and finish the dissertation, but that doesn't actually help to dissipate his anxiety and get things done.

He's already in therapy and talking to his therapist about anxiety, and we're both really good about working out, eating right, all those stress-managing things you need to do, so at least we're on the right track there.

So, question: If you had a crappy year on the market, what did your friends and significant others do or say to help you feel better about yourself and your future? How can I help him manage his anxiety? How do I support him without letting my own anxiety about my place in academia come through?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Two thoughts.

First, he hasn't finished his dissertation yet. In my department that's been an indicator of who gets interviewed and who doesn't. It's so competitive right now that many departments are probably not even considering people who aren't finished. I mean, I know of someone at Harvard with two universally-acknowledged world leaders in his field (as in, the #1 and #2 people in his field), and he didn't get a single interview--come back when you're done, he was told.

Also, I haven't gone on the market yet, but some friends who have recently tried and struck out have said that they sane by exploring other non-academic options. I know this is probably obvious advice, and that he's probably already thought about it. But just the thought of it in the back of your mind helps to reduce the stakes, and hence the anxiety, of the diss-finishing, self-marketing process.
posted by Beardman at 8:38 AM on January 29, 2011

He needs to focus on what he can do to make himself more competitive.

posted by k8t at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2011

Damn phone.

For example, pick up community college teaching or adjuncting for more instructor of record lines on cv. Or get a secondary interest that is fashionable and get on some pubs asap.

He should ask senior faculty that he is friendly with to critique his cv.

Career services might have someone that can help critique his cv, cover letter, teaching statement.

Get as many people to look at cover letter as possible. It can take a year or draft one.

Fwiw, I failed to get an academic job and left for government.
posted by k8t at 8:50 AM on January 29, 2011

My SO continually helps me perfecting my CV, cover letters, (even my scholarly output, as a proof reader) and cooks me tea or coffee (as I do for her when she's working hard).

That (and hugs) should help him a lot. Nothing better for some average-to-blah self esteem to have someone tell you, "but you've got this qualification, it needs to go there in your CV; I'd skip this part here, put it there, makes a better impression; yeah you got an interview, but no job, but hey, do you realize you actually got an interview, that's awesome..." etc. etc. in other words, focus on telling him specifically why and where he, according to you, is awesome/has good chances, and don't even mention your experience from your own field.

(On preview. Often but not always, dissertations need indeed to be ready and done for academic start jobs. It's usually in the job description. Making contacts before the end is good, getting all nervous isn't. Darn, we're all nervous.)
posted by Namlit at 8:52 AM on January 29, 2011

"I'm in a relatively new relationship with an older graduate student in my social sciences department" ... "How do I support him without letting my own anxiety about my place in academia come through?"

Well, if you're in the same field, can you support each other by collaborating on papers? Publishing more is one of the best ways to make yourselves more competitive on the job market. Or, if your research interests aren't close enough to co-author, you could still schedule regular times to buckle down side-by-side to each work on your respective projects.

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing
posted by Jacqueline at 8:53 AM on January 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm on the job market for the first time this year and have been rejected from nearly everything. The chair of my department got feedback from two schools, and they didn't even look at my cover letter or references because I haven't finished yet.

It's extraordinarily difficult to get a job when you're ABD -- nearly impossible in my field, and I imagine it's the same for your boyfriend. If you want to help him, help him finish his dissertation. Forget about the job market. That's very tough to do and I'm failing at it myself, but it's the truth.

This isn't about him. When he goes on the market again next year with PhD in hand, things will go much better. These rejections are not an assessment of his quality or ability to be a scholar. They are a product of committees seeing "ABD" on his CV and immediately putting his application in the "Reject" pile.

Finish the diss.
posted by venividivici at 9:14 AM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some of the answers you've received so far all seem like they're directed to a far different question (perhaps "How can I help my boyfriend get an academic job?"), and therefore may well be among the worst answers to the question you actually asked. Unless something is actually wrong with it, trying to "fix" his CV is, to say the least, not the most supportive thing to do. This academic economy is something that even people whose perceptions are a few years out of touch with the current market can't really help you with: many fields have far overqualified, brilliant candidates going begging even for adjunct work right now, people who have absolutely nothing that needs fixing about them. It could easily be that the only help you could give your boyfriend's CV would be to magically add a couple of published books to it.

I don't have any great ideas about special ways to be supportive in this situation, and it sounds like you're mostly doing the right thing already. It's probably best, for the most part, just to focus on being caring and supportive in the same way you would to someone who'd suffered any other trauma with a large component of future-oriented anxiety (that is, it's not really the grief over this year so much as his fear of the future years that likely needs addressing). Just try to help him find ways to keep going, and to keep writing and working, in the face of this massive discouragement — maybe that means talking about his dissertation/research as a worthy thing in itself, and helping him reconnect with his intrinsic interest in it, or maybe (most likely, in many cases I've known) it just means leaving him alone about it and being nice to him in other ways.

If you really do want to help directly with the job-search process — which might well be such an emotional minefield that it's best avoided entirely — then don't listen to random MeFites' opinions about how to help: instead, find out what parts of the process cause him, specifically, the most unhappiness, and figure out ways to help with those specific things, whether it's digging through the listings for viable short-term jobs or trying to schedule and work on future publishing projects.
posted by RogerB at 9:18 AM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

He absolutely needs to finish. Come see us over here.
posted by LarryC at 9:19 AM on January 29, 2011

A couple of other small things: first, be prepared for this process to take several years, and for it to continue to be this emotionally punishing the entire time. To whatever extent you can, try to cultivate the expectation (in yourself and in him) that each year's market is another lottery ticket, but that there may be a significant number of years of semi- and un-employment, adjunct and VAP and post-doc positions, still between him and the longed-for tenure-track job. This is the situation for all but the luckiest few in the current academy. (And yes, luck is what it's about, nothing much else; the myth of meritocracy is thoroughly untenable in the current academy.) It may be reasonable to start thinking about exit strategies later (think about how it will feel after doing this another half-dozen times with the same result), but not yet — you have to keep plugging away at your work and teaching in the meantime in order to hit the market again the next time around. On the bright side, no one seems to look askance at short bouts of unemployment or non-academic employment these days; some gaps in the CV's chronology are not a big deal provided it still reflects a strong intellectual agenda.

Second, one small thing that might help would be to stop referring to him as an "academic-wannabe," even in private to yourself. This struggle is what it means to be an academic now; he is one already.
posted by RogerB at 9:37 AM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a brutal time for all of us in academia. I haven't slept well in ages and the anxiety is almost soul crushing. The best advice I can give you is just listen, give him a chance to vent (but not get too caught up in it), and plan tangible things that you two can do together. Just say how about we do x tomorrow in the morning and then in the afternoon we work together.

Having someone else make the decisions helps alleviate the anxiety. As you do engaging stuff together, you two will get closer, he'll have a chance to back up and see the big picture and be aware that this isn't his fault and he'll just have to ride it out.
posted by special-k at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

RogerB has great advice. In the current market, in almost every field, talent is necessary but far from sufficient to get a job. If your boyfriend's research area isn't currently fashionable, there's not much you can do about that. If his job search materials are sensible, carefully proofread, and well formatted, additional tweaking is not going to do much good. A lot depends on luck.

It sounds like you're pretty supportive already: you're eating well, getting exercise, doing fun things together. If you like entertaining, you might add that: a dinner party, even a potluck, is a good distraction (as long as all your guests aren't other angst-ridden ABDs...). It's also a great motivation for cleaning house.

When I was on the academic job market (in the late 90s), a few things I found helpful were to limit my job-searching work to one afternoon a week (look through ads, put together and mail applications, etc.) and, the rest of the week, file away all that stuff and pay it no attention. I also found it helpful to schedule clear working hours for the dissertation and for reading in my field. My wife was also a grad student in history, and we would sit down to work at the same time. Making incremental progress on the dissertation, or reading an interesting hour, was satisfying. It helped me focus on what I found valuable about my research (in RogerB's terms, its intrinsic interest to me). It also helps to identify a concrete next step to take: "finish dissertation" is daunting, but "draft the next two pages in chapter 4" can be done in a day.

Whether any of that would help your boyfriend, though, depends on him.

I did also reflect from time to time about other careers that I might find satisfying. It may be too early to start planning an exit strategy, but it doesn't hurt to daydream. Most top graduate programs socialize students to consider themselves failures if they don't wind up with a job at a research university (except in disciplines where industry or government employment is common). Try to resist that mindset.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:15 AM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

My husband is also on the academic job market this year, and while he's not depressed or anxious about his chances specifically, it's still totally nerve wracking. I completely sympathize.

This is a weird suggestion, but perhaps try talking about it less. If he brings it up, go with it, but don't ask him how things are going. If he has an interview, he'll let you know. If he gets a rejection, he'll let you know. If you're asking him how things are - that makes him think about it more and he really doesn't need to be doing that.

If he notices and asks why you haven't been asking, tell him simply "I have total faith in you and know that you'll let me know the second you know anything."

I try to remind him that he'll be back on the market next year and so he needs to keep his head in the game and finish the dissertation, but that doesn't actually help to dissipate his anxiety and get things done.

This probably isn't helping. He already knows all of this. Try to be positive and say "Well, you'll do your best this year. If it doesn't work out, you'll try again." Again, emphasize that you have faith in him. Don't remind him of anything he needs to do - he already knows and is anxious enough about it. If he's truly not getting anything done, there's really nothing you can do about that. Any prodding at this point will probably be counter productive and add to his anxiety.

You can try encouraging him gently by asking about it casually - "Are you going to be working on your dissertation today? I was just wondering because I need to go by the library" or whatever. But absolutely don't act like a walking to-do list, it's not going to help his stress level.
posted by sonika at 2:37 PM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been on a couple of search committees just recently and the market is so tight that we've basically thrown out any application unless the candidate was finished or (at the very least) had a confirmed defense date. He needs to get done.

I don't know the full context but his reminding you that you're in a fashionable field sounds a little passive aggressive and snarky (after all, he presumably chose his topic). Watch out that you're not spending so much time trying to bolster *his* self-confidence that you forget about your own work.
posted by media_itoku at 2:38 PM on January 29, 2011

In his shoes I would want to hear these thngs over and over:
- You picked your topic for a reason, and it was a good reason.
- You will find something. It's a matter of time and searching, of trying different approaches and of looking at different places. You've successfully navigated past challenges and you will figure this out now.

In other words, you believe in him then and you believe in him now. Buffer him from the most corrosive aspects of his self-criticism and remind him of his strengths such as confidence, creativity, perseverance. Don't say things you don't believe, or you'll lose the credibility you need to help him here. But only give advice or constructive criticism when asked. This will take a long time so don't plan on one speech being the silver bullet.
posted by salvia at 2:46 PM on January 29, 2011

It will get a little better once the hiring season is over. (I'm assuming you are in the middle of prime hiring season for your field, and some people are getting flyouts etc and he's not.) The active season is always hardest IMO.

Lots of good advice above - but one thing that he and you can both do is to cultivate interests outside your specialty. I am talking about hobbies - cooking, rock climbing, making music, something that is not academic. Make time for it and have it be a thing you can talk about that is not connected at all to your work. Have it be a thing that's intrinsically enjoyable, not something that is calculated to help in academic work somehow. The people I've known who are most resilient in the face of academic job market stresses and disappointments are the people who have active interests (things they spend time on) outside the program. Life needs to be larger than your job -- if it isn't, job setbacks can feel disproportionately crushing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:03 PM on January 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

If he's near the end of writing his dissertation, he has no doubt already experienced the worst of academia. The despair, the self-doubt, the capriciousness of it all. Remind him that he came through that. That things always suck just before they get better. See if you can persuade him to talk to senior people in his department and elsewhere about what their early years were like. It helped me a lot during my own three years between finishing the PhD and landing an actual serious academic job when I heard that e.g. the senior bigwig prof in our dept who everyone treats like a god took six years to land a job, and had nothing but rejections for publications during that time. Or that another senior academic who I admire hugely and who did his PhD at an Ivy League worked in a shoe factory afterwards for several years before landing his current job.

Also, I like this quote from one of my favourite academic bloggers who is currently on the job market: "Academia has made previous attempts on my life and sanity and did not succeed in depriving me of either one. I will be fine."
posted by lollusc at 4:43 PM on January 29, 2011

Have you asked your boyfriend how you can help and support him? This may come down to a matter of personality and what feels supportive to him as an individual. Some people like pep talks. Some people like gallows humor. Some people need to go for a long run to burn off anxious energy. If talking about job market stuff exacerbates his anxiety, he might just want to be left alone about it and update you on his own schedule.

It's possible to get into a vicious cycle of emotional pressures where you want to make him feel better, so he feels like he needs to "feel better" in order to please you, but if he doesn't really feel better right away the perceived demand to act more optimistic than he feels can create additional anxiety and stress, which you pick up on and respond to by trying to make him feel better . . .

As someone who's been on the academic job market with a less-than-supportive (and now emphatically ex-) partner, I suggest:

1) ask him what kind of support he would like from you.

2) any time he brings up job-related stuff, listen sympathetically and non-judgmentally. Don't give advice about how to handle his search; or if there's some really precious piece of advice you can't stand not to give, offer it once, succinctly, and then if he doesn't run with it, let it drop. Don't speak over-optimistically about any area in which you do not have solid information to back up your optimism. When I was job-searching, nothing made me battier than people who knew nothing about the job market in my field (or who knew the field, but weren't present for the interview I'd just struggled through) chirping that they were sure I'd find a job, they were sure the hiring committee thought I was stupendous, etc.

3) Cook meals, give back rubs, propose movie dates. Offer to run small errands or help with the administrative minutiae of mailing apps, ordering dossiers, etc. (though do not become your boyfriend's secretary / housekeeper to the point where you are neglecting your own academic progress). Like LobsterMitten suggests, cultivate non-academic hobbies. Cultivate non-academic friendships, too.
posted by Orinda at 12:29 AM on January 30, 2011

I was writing a long response nthing the thing about him finishing his dissertation, and making a few points about recommendations, but then I realized that that's exactly what rogerb said: answering a different question.

So just one thing:
The boyfriend's work is very good, ... but it's also unfashionable at the moment...

I'm a younger student in the department (working on, as he reminds me, an extremely fashionable topic)
This needs to stop. Telling yourself that your work is 'unfashionable' is probably unhealthy (especially if people are happy to publish his work); it's certainly self-pitying, and above all it's not going to help. But it's much worse to displace your own insecurity by reminding your new girlfriend that her work is 'fashionable'. Want to help him? Tell him to finish his dissertation and get his recommendation letters in order, not place weird indirect blame on you ("Of course, your work's... fashionable") for the fact that he's not getting interviews.

He shouldn't feel bad for working on his topic; you certainly shouldn't allow him to make you feel bad for working on yours.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:11 PM on January 30, 2011

This is going to have to be couched very delicately, but, as a grad student myself (going on the market next year), one thing that helped me a lot was letting go of the idea that getting some non-academic job was the end of the world.

Academics in general, and grad programs in particular, cultivate a sense that leaving the academy (note, I'm talking about getting a civilian job here, not leaving without completing the degree) is somehow a mark of failure. If you analogize it to any other field or industry, you will see that this is totally crazy. People change careers all the time, and very rarely is this a sign that something is wrong with them.

So, take a look at sellout. It may help to understand that there are other options, even if he doesn't want to exercise them. And to cultivate a sense that the academic job is one path among many, not the only one. This, incidentally, goes for you as well - the academic market always sucks, so it may help you in a few years.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seems like your boyfriend has at least a few things to contend with.
1) Stress about the past- choices he made..
2) Stress about the present- is he doing what he should be doing ..
3) Stress about the future- will things work out in a way that he will be satisfied ..

Coupled with that he probably has other feelings associated with stress/anxiety .. like you say resentment, anger, desperation, etc ..

In addition I'm sure that he doesn't feel confident in knowing what to do to maximize his chances.

And you as the observer, and eventually in his shoes too, are trying to figure out how to help him and I guess longer term help yourself too when you cross that line.

I don't have specific advice- though I've been there before too. But I'm reading a great book by Richard Wiseman that talks about what works for eliminating stress quickly, how to interview well, how to increase your happiness .. all with very short exercises based on recent psychological research of what actually works. Maybe you'll find some good ideas there to deal with the thoughts and emotions of this tumultuous time.
posted by blueyellow at 4:43 PM on January 31, 2011

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