Help me acquire a protective machete to conquer the dark forests of career despair.
June 28, 2011 9:59 AM   Subscribe

How do I stay motivated in applying for jobs when, after a year, even looking at a job description or approaching a cover letter gives me an overwhelming sense of doom and failure?

I graduated in June of 2010 with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and expected that it would take me a few months, at the most, to find a job. I'd had several internships, an editorial position at the school paper, and a thesis with honors -- decent experience, I thought.

And yet... over the past year, no professional, "first" job. A job through the school ended last September, and since then, I have had some movement -- work in a coffee shop, internship in DC, and now, in a new city, a job in a bookstore (where I currently work) -- but no salaried, entry-level position that might offer me the chance to move up and gain some kind of professional "foot in the door." I've had a half-dozen interviews, mostly through friends' references, but even in these I often felt that the interviewer was only half paying attention somehow (even an interview I managed to get on my own went this way for some reason).

The first six months, this seemed par for the course. After that, I started to get a little traumatized. At the end of my internship (April), I made it clear I would love to work for the organization, and two of my supervisors and a woman from HR seemed sincerely interested in helping me; however, I have applied to a number of appropriate entry-level positions there in the meantime, informed them, even sent them my materials, and gotten very little traction. It's an extremely competitive organization (in a competitive economy) but I'm starting to internalize the idea that in reality they didn't really give much of a shit about me -- that I was one of the many dispensable interns.

So this brings me to the question! I apparently put a lot of validation in others considering me to be valuable. But how does one project confidence (and more importantly, FEEL confident) when the whole job search is a soul-suck designed to make you feel inept ("we've chosen someone more suited to our needs") and valueless?

I'm really looking for ways to inoculate myself against constant rejection, to develop a thicker skin, to devour that look of indifference and get stronger! As an easily encouraged & discouraged person, I feel like I'm on a self-worth roller coaster -- when I get a glimmer of interest I am overjoyed, when I get no response afterward I am utterly dejected. I'd like to be able to put some space between me and the roller coaster. To not wake up panicked at 2am, or start crying out of nowhere out of sheer demoralization. (The more time elapses in between me & graduation, the more panicked, pressured, & hopeless I feel.)

I've developed a habit of running recently, which, while totally unrelated, has been wonderful. I love feeling strong and being able to achieve measurable goals. I would love to find a similar psychological construct, if that makes any sense -- a way to feel strong & disciplined mentally and continue a daily process of job applications & hunting despite seeing no benefits. Hopelessness is the kiss of death & I need to keep it at bay.

I would LOVE to hear what worked for you in a similar situation. Also, poor is an understatement for my condition right now, so therapy is out of the question.

(Apologies if this question was a bit run-on and/or vague. I wanted to get at something really specific if possible, rather than how-to-get-a-job. Also, just in case I sounded whiny, I understand that cafes and bookstores are pretty cushy minimum-wage gigs -- I just have a goal, and need to maintain the motivation and self-esteem to work toward it.)
posted by aintthattheway to Work & Money (12 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I love feeling strong and being able to achieve measurable goals.

IF this is so, you need to set goals that aren't dependent on pleasing authority figures. I don't want to be harsh, but I've run into a number of recent graduates who have been very successful by pleasing teachers, parents, professors, and so on, but not so successful in the "real world". Your previous experience isn't actually very relevant to the working world, unless you want to write scholarly papers.
Have you not had summer jobs, part-time or full-time? Employers want to see initiative and some familiarity with the world of work. Have you made any advancements at your current job--worked on book signings, promotions, suggested improvements, started social media, etc.?

You worked on the school paper--do you want to continue in journalism? Would you want to write company newsletters, PR materials, reports? Do you want to work in the international arena in someway--NGO, a company that does international business?

It's true--you were a disposable intern. You're not special. But that doesn't mean you're not valuable to an organization--you have to prove that you've got skills and abilities (and not just writing papers, doing assignments, etc.) that can help the company realize it's goals, which are usually increasing profits or reaching new customers, and so on.

I'd suggest that your goal is gainful employment at a career level. And then, you outline the steps you need to take to get there. Self-esteem comes from actions. You can actually work on your resume, cover letters, networking, LinkedIn profile and all that stuff while feeling "hopeless". Your emotions don't have to jive with what you do--acknowledge the feeling while still doing what you need to do.
You like running--any running clubs around? Run near the office of a place you want to work. Serendipity can work for you, if you're prepared.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:15 AM on June 28, 2011

Freud said something like sanity is love and work. And I think there's some truth to that. In the sense that most human beings derive their self-worth from doing something meaningful with their lives and from their friends and family.

So the first thing is to understand that how you are feeling is totally normal. The economy is crap right now and although you can keep repeating that to yourself, doing so doesn't solve the problem that you need meaningful work to feel fulfilled.

So find meaningful work for right now even if it won't pay you. For example, I'm an attorney and for me this would mean taking on pro bono work. For a computer programmer, it would mean taking on an open source project. For you, I think it would mean volunteering for some kind of international development organization. Admittedly, it won't pay the bills, but it will get you out of the house, get something to put on your resume, and get you in contact with people in your field. And it will help insulate you from rejection because you'll have meaningful work that you can feel good about.
posted by bananafish at 10:20 AM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ideefixe -- most of the positions I've applied for have been as an Editorial Assistant (anywhere) or Research Assistant in an international realm, which mostly jives with my internship experiences. I also had a job in the library through my four years of undergrad which included data entry and some other administrative tasks, and have applied to Administrative Assistant positions as well. Ideally I'd like a position as Editorial Assistant to begin, although I'm not at all choosy about where.
posted by aintthattheway at 10:34 AM on June 28, 2011

There are people out there who have five or six internships under their belt and still having trouble landing editorial assistant jobs. That isn't to say you can't, but it helps to see who you're competing against in the pool. I tried to get into trade fiction editorial myself before, and this was starting before the economy tanked, and my internships weren't enough, and nor was the fact I had freelanced a bit, was editor of the school paper, and other aspects.

The terrible fact of the matter is there are way more applicants than editorial assistant jobs. I'm not trying to discourage you here. You should try to freelance some. If you're looking for a book publishing Ed Asst. job, then intern at a literary agency. It will suck taking on unpaid internship work when you already have a job, but it can help you in your networking and searching, as well as make you seem more dedicated, proactive, and focused in what you want to do.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:41 AM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

First of all, I'll recommend two books. Sweaty Palms: The Neglected Art of Being Interviewed (helped me a LOT), and 30 Days to a Good Job (first book to have anything new to say, IMO, compared with other job-hunting books). I always recommend reading biographies of people who overcame obstacles. My standards for this are FDR, ER, and TR (and his sister Bamie, who gets a lot of discussion in TR books).

OK. I'm in DC, currently a journalist. I was talking to a coworker the other day about how we've both heard employers in DC say that they are having a hard time finding qualified people - !!! And we've heard this a lot. Here??? How could that be???

My coworker said that someone at a PR firm (whether a director or someone in HR, I do not know) told him that it's because people are not sufficiently tailoring their resumes and cover letters to positions sought.

I am sure you are, but there's a data point, at least.
posted by jgirl at 11:14 AM on June 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

I went through an extended job search last year (took 8-9 months to find a job that I hated but would look semi-decent on the resume, and then another 2-3 months before I ditched that job for a pretty great position) and I sympathize with you, it is very disheartening and totally messes with your brain and your confidence. It didn't help that the last couple of months of semi-unemployment (did some temp positions and worked at a restaurant for a while) I was having some major back problems that I'm still paying off the medical bills for . . .

I'm not sure what to tell you about dealing with the situation emotionally, though I think taking up running is a good thing and would generally advise you that keeping social is a good way to try to keep the spirits up.

In terms of your job search, I don't know what avenues you've been pursuing (so sorry if this is all repetitive), but one thing that I enjoyed doing and which was good for feeling like I was making some progress or doing something useful with my time was going on informational interviews. Reach out to whatever networks you have (alums at your school, family friends, etc.) and try to schedule an interview or two with people in professions that interest you. Informational interviews are kind of fun because they allow you a chance to be in an interview like setting but without the pressure of having someone say yea or nay to you as an employee. They also build connections. I got the job which officially ended my employment through someone I did an informational interview with, and had then volunteered with for a few months. (admittedly, I didn't end up liking the job, but that's another story).

Also, since you're interested in international affairs, why not try the Peace Corps? Or even Americorps if you are interested at all in public service? The pay is not too great, but both of those experiences can be great for professional development. Of course as a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I guess I'm biased, but I thought I'd just throw that out there.
posted by Rinoia at 11:52 AM on June 28, 2011

er, meant to say the job that ended my UNemployment . . .
posted by Rinoia at 11:53 AM on June 28, 2011

Stop looking at job descriptions. Instead, figure out what you want to do, do some research and find companies that employ people like you, and start making phone calls.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:44 PM on June 28, 2011

IF this is so, you need to set goals that aren't dependent on pleasing authority figures.

I strongly agree with this and suggest setting some goals that you know you can achieve yourself through hard work and dedication. That might be something like running a 10K or anything else that doesn't depend on other people. This will build your confidence and improve self-esteem.

Even when you have a job sometimes people aren't going to give you the validation you want. Many employers like to just tell you when you did something wrong, which certainly isn't going to make you feel good either. So, building your own self-reliant sense of self will help you at every single stage in your career.

That being said, it's totally normal to be on an emotional roller coaster as you are constantly rejected in an ongoing job hunt. Of course that totally sucks!!

First, this isn't about you. The economy has been so harsh on those just out of school. I got my first job by basically showing up on time to an interview - it was the first interview I had. I didn't have six internships either. In retrospect, it was just a very good economy and workers were in demand. You are not that lucky. Which just means you may have to keep trying and keep your spirits up a little longer than I did.

I recommend "What color is your parachute" for some effective job hunting techniques. You're doing the right thing by networking with your internship company, but you may want to consider reaching beyond HR and talking to anyone you met while working there. They all have contacts in the industry and had to get their first jobs. Buy them coffee or lunch and ask for advice and ideas. Hopefully they will provide more contacts. Rinse and repeat.

I've been noticing a lot of these questions are from recent grads who mention their major. I'm not sure if that's because you expect to find a job related to what you studied? You may want to reconsider that idea and think about your transferable skills. I was a history major, so I learned a ton about applying context to situations, researching and writing. I have been able to apply those skills to many pursuits you may not consider related (like formulating business strategies). My classmates with history degrees who tried to find history related jobs were a bit disappointed to discover that most of those were mind-numbingly boring and paid poorly. This is a long winded way to say: think broadly about what is going to be interesting and financially lucrative for you, rather than what you think you are trained for.

Concrete ideas for keeping your spirits up as you continue the search:

1. Set some goals that you know you can achieve. something like setting up 5 info meetings a week. Achieving your goals will feel like progress.
2. Hang out with your friends. You are definitely NOT the only person in this situation and you and your friends can be a support group!
3. Treat yourself. Relax with a book after all of your hard work. Take time to enjoy the relatively low stress lifestyle you currently have. Eat some ice cream. Don't deny yourself pleasure because you don't have a job.
4. Volunteer. Helping others who are far less fortunate may help you feel better about your current situation.
posted by rainydayfilms at 2:20 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you thought of leaving Chicago? Truth to tell, DC has a lot of companies, non-profits, and government agencies that deal with international business and governments. Chicago is more business2business oriented, from what I know.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:26 PM on June 28, 2011

I'm far from an expert at job-finding, but here are some things that helped me both find a job and not feel too crappy during the process (it's depressing out there in unemploymentland, i know!)
I put together a 'job-search notebook' I went and bought a good old spiral-bound notebook. It contained 2 major sections:
1. 'Reference', including:
A. a list of my past employers with addresses and phone numbers and dates of employment
B. references (names, numbers, email)
C. my past addresses (i needed these for background checks, if you don't, then ignore it)
D. a list of my skills. this is important. it makes you feel good. really dig deep and make it great.
E. a 'form letter' cover letter. just an outline with some key phrases that could easily be tailored to whatever position I was applying for.
F. my logins and passwords for all the various damn applications and websites.
G. interview stuff*
2. 'Daily log'.
I would sit down for an hour 2x a week (that's about the frequency that new jobs in my field and my city appeared) and check all the websites. I would make notes about everything I did. "nothing new on Craigslist"... "applied for analyst position at company X"..."emailed Scott to see if he's heard of any openings"...

*I also broke down and went back to the student services center at my Alma Mater (even though I've been out of school forever) and had one of the counselors look over my resume, and did a mock interview. I got some good ideas from her about how to answer certain questions, and what questions to ask the interviewer, etc. I took notes and made a cheat sheet.

Having all the info in one place made filling out applications easier (thus harder to put off) and having a visual record of 'things I'm good at plus the practice interview did wonders for the self-confidence. I don't know if any of this helps, but "having a plan" never hurts.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:59 PM on June 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Thanks, all! A few notes -- I am actually not in Chicago anymore (the info in my profile is outdated) -- I'm in a smaller (100,000 people) city that more strongly favors engineers and "tech" people. A poor choice, maybe, but I was able to get a job here & have very cheap rent because I know some people here. It was basically my alternative to moving back home after my internship ended, which would have had even fewer options (very small, rural, Midwestern town). My sister lives here, and I know a bunch of her friends as well. I would love to move back to DC, or NYC, but it isn't financially in the cards unless I have a job first. Those cities are expensive. I have been applying to jobs there & my parents have offered to help with plane tickets if I get interviews, but I haven't yet. I worry a bit that it's because I'm so far away, but I'm not sure what to do about that.

cmgonzales -- I actually am working on a freelancing project (haven't tried to pitch it anywhere yet but I think it's an interesting story) and I really enjoy it. Maybe I should dedicate more energy to that and less to sending applications out into the void? Talking to people directly is also more inspiring than doing an Indeed search and sending out apps to no one in particular, although the response to "networking" is usually pretty tepid given that everyone knows what's going on.

I haven't tried informational interviews yet, but I will give that a shot! Really like the progress notebook idea as well.
posted by aintthattheway at 9:10 AM on June 29, 2011

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