How do make peace with my career anxieties so I can update my C.V.?
October 30, 2014 11:44 PM   Subscribe

I am going to defend my Ph.D. in a few months. That means I really need to be applying for jobs. But I haven't touched my C.V. in months--years, probably--because every time I think about it I get overwhelmed by waves of anxiety and despair and impostor syndrome. How do I get past that and update the damn thing so I can start sending it out?

I've had some issues with anxiety and depression (and arguably an initially poor fit with my project and advisor--no one's fault, just incompatible styles) that have made me go a bit slower than my fellow students and left me with an anemic publication record. I can't figure out what, if anything, makes me more worth hiring than one of my more-qualified colleagues. I feel awful about the opportunities I've missed and the things I could have done better. I have no sense of my marketable skills, or of what would be worthwhile to mention versus what would make me look pathetically desperate for C.V. content. I've considered going to the university's career center for help, but I'm concerned that I'd end up sobbing about what a worthless human being I am and making the poor career guidance person very uncomfortable.

Still, I can't be the only person with this problem. Can you suggest some strategies to set aside my career anxiety for at least long enough to figure out what needs to go on my C.V. and make the necessary updates?
posted by cortisol to Work & Money (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My anxiety tends to manifest this way, and so I break things into teensy-tiny baby steps, especially if it's not, like, something that needs to be done in the next 24 hours. Like: Baby step one is just to open the existing file. After that, if I'm too anxious, I can go do something else, but I have to leave the file open. Baby step two is to re-read what's already there. That kind of thing. Ease back into having contact with the thing that's been producing anxiety, until opening it up to work on it no longer makes me freak out. It used to give me a lot of trouble, now I tackle a lot of larger projects this way and it works pretty well.
posted by Sequence at 11:50 PM on October 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think CVs can be paralysing if you think about them as showing what makes you more marketable / better than anyone else. That inevitably leads you down the rabbit hole of comparing yourself to others, thinking of all of the ways in which you could do better, etc etc. That way lies madness.

Instead try as much as you can to think of a CV as showing what you can do and what experience you have. It's the adult equivalent of the "What I did on my summer vacation" essay. Many CVs are, at least in structure, fairly boilerplate. What are your publications, if any? What is your teaching experience? What talks, if any, have you given? What other jobs have you had? etc. (If you aren't sure what information you should include, this is something you can get out of talking to the career centre without devolving into a sobbing mess).

Bottom line is, try to see assembling the CV as a task of (a) compiling this information; and (b) presenting it in an optimal fashion. Framing it this way accomplishes two things. Most importantly it removes the judging element -- you aren't thinking at all about what other CVs look like, you are just trying to be accurate in putting yours together. But secondarily, it gives you lots of small fiddly things to focus on, as a way of distracting yourself from your anxiety.

The nice thing is, once you've done that you'll be 90% of the way to having a CV. You might then need to do a little bit of additional optimising with respect to specific employers, but that is something that can all come later. Right now your task is just to get the basic thing together, and you can do that without even thinking about what other people's CVs look like, what the overall job market is like, or any of that anxiety-producing crap. Whenever you start to think about that, stop yourself and focus on font sizes and formatting. That'll get you most of the way.
posted by forza at 12:08 AM on October 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I've always found that it's easier to overcome the imposter syndrome while working on a CV/resume if said work is preceded by a glass of wine. Or two. Not three.
posted by DrGail at 5:12 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does your school have a career center? Have someone sit down with you and help you. It's okay to ask for help. There are folks out there who know EXACTLY how to sort it out and present your skills and talents in such a way so that you can find a job you'll be a good fit for, and an employer can find an employee who will thrive and be happy in his/her organization.

So far, your whole career has been competitive. You stack yourself up against others, and you're all competing for publication, grades, grants, etc. Once you graduate, you'll be a person who fills a needed slot. That's all. You won't HAVE to be the smartest person in the room all day, every day! How awesome will THAT be?

No one gets as far as you have not being good at whatever it is. Are there better writers? Probably. Are there better lecturers? Perhaps. But the point is that you're plenty good at what you do.

Your CV lists your experience, skills and accomplishments. It's not an arguement for why you'd be the best candidate. It opens the door to a discovery between you and a potential employer. Interviews are not auditions. They are give and take between people who may potentially work together.

So chillax. Get a pro to walk you through how to best showcase your already awesome self.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:59 AM on October 31, 2014

Do it with a trusted friend (who has a great CV) instead of with someone at the career center. Let them do the actual editing of the CV while you dictate and eat [insert comfort food of choice, glass of wine, etc]. They can go through each category with you, i.e. "ok, so now we're going to add your current degree on as 'expected in February 2015'" and you can just tell them about things that you've done in that category and confirm details are correct.

If you really feel like a worthless human being (especially despite the fact that you're about to finish an incredibly challenging and grueling marathon of a graduate degree, one that fewer than 2% of other Americans have achieved), you should probably be talking to a counselor or therapist about that.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:35 AM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not clear from your question whether you're planning to apply to academic jobs, postdocs, or non-academic jobs.

If something in academia, do not bother going to the career center (unless yours is extremely well known among fellow classmates as being useful for this). Most career centers are going to give bad advice because the academic market is just really different than applying for other jobs. Instead, you want to be talking to your advisor, other committee members, and former grad student friends who successfully got jobs in the past 1-3 years. Unfortunately, the CV is the easy part...for academic jobs, it is simply going to be a list of what you've done. So, it's all about compiling that list. CVs do not typically contain a lot of commentary or tailoring like a resume might. The Professor Is In has an excellent post laying out all the details putting together a CV, so my best advice is to go to a cafe for a few hours and just follow it top to bottom filling each item in. If you're really feeling like you can't open the file and this is impossible, perhaps team up with a trusted friend, buy them lunch, and ask them to make the outline based on that post and fill things in as you say them out loud.

I do not want to freak you out (sorry!) but as I'm on the academic market myself at the moment, I will say that you really need to be putting the majority of your focus on other pieces of your application, and it may be too late to apply for tenure track jobs this year depending on your field (most of the deadlines in my field are September and October). Obviously fields differ in terms of timing and postdocs/visiting positions will come later, but if you do want to try for academic jobs this year, you do really need to meet with your advisor and figure out how to get your materials together immediately. Your cover letters, writing sample, teaching statement, and research statement are much more time consuming than the CV, and that's where you're going to want to put most of your energy for applications. You'll also need at least 3 letters of recommendation, and you'll want to request those right away so that your committee (or whomever else you are asking) has as much time as possible to write them.

Now, if you're NOT applying for an academic job, then do not waste your time on a CV. Instead, you want a resume, which is a very different beast -- shorter, more tailored to specific jobs, and typically more focused on specific skills and accomplishments rather than just a list of what you've done. Things like number of publications might very well matter less (although of course it depends where you're applying). Here the career center can be really helpful. I would bite the bullet and make an appointment. Believe me, you will NOT be the first person to ever break down in tears in their office, so if it happens, that is okay.

Good luck! I know how it feels to be there emotionally with the PhD, and the only way to the end is through it. My best advice outside of the practicalities is to lean on your friends and fellow grad students. Once you open up about how hard this is, I will bet you will discover than many of your colleagues feel much the same way. Support is good.

Feel free to memail me if you have questions about CVs vs. resumes -- I've been through putting together both for different types of jobs.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:37 AM on October 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: >I can't figure out what, if anything, makes me more worth hiring than one of my more-qualified colleagues.

Great news! You don't have to be better than them to get a job. But you won't get a job without applying. I speak as the queen of underperforming graduate experiences and poor advisor fit, who now has a job that suits me very well. I'm not a tenure track professor, I don't have high impact (or, like, any) publications. My CV was *significantly* underpowered compared to the other people that got brought in for interviews for this position. You know what got me my job? The way I talked to the staff that I now manage. My interest in doing the kinds of things that were actually on the job description and not viewing that job description as something I'd work in around my own research project. The fact that I was familiar with the university where the job was. And the fact that I'd pieced a thesis together out of a bunch of odd little go-nowhere side projects meant that I just happened to have the relevant skill set for this particular job. Getting a Ph.D. is proof of nothing but that you are a very stubborn person. Use that stubbornness to chip away at this problem, just as you have done for your Ph.D. project!

Now without knowing you I can't say whether your negative self-talk is your brain being naughty or a true perspective on your career prospects, but if we're assuming the latter is true, here are some places to think about jobs. University core facilities, Patent office, community college/non-research university lecturer, grant writer/administrator/govt agency grant admin, industry sales, and the everpresent delaying tactic of postdocs. Look through the jobs listed at your professional society. Look through job listings at universities or government labs you like. Look for other labs with the funding your lab has, look at their job listings. Look at the job listings at the NSF, NIH, NIST. Go really broad, because there are more types of jobs than you can imagine right now.

I found my university career services department to be... not-unhelpful, but not as helpful as they were for undergrads going into industry with a local company. They did have some classes which were helpful. If you're afraid of crying all over someone, see if there's a seminar or something to start with. You won't need to say anything, and they'll break things down into manageable steps.

And, feel free to pm me, I'd be happy to look at your CV or talk in more detail about any of those jobs I just mentioned (I either do that work, or know someone who does, in each one of those cases). If our fields have any overlap I might even be helpful. :)
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:17 AM on October 31, 2014

I've always found that it's easy to update my CV as a filler task when I'm procrastinating on more important things. Like ... working on writing a thesis chapter, perhaps?
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:11 PM on October 31, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone; this is all very helpful. I am applying to both postdocs and non-academic jobs, but not trying for teaching positions at the moment. (I am also seeing a therapist for my self-worth issues; I feel like what I really want is a combination career counselor and mental health counselor, but as far as I know my university doesn't offer that service.)

rainbowbrite, that Professor is In post has just the kind of detail I've been looking for.

tchemgrrl, thanks for the suggestions about alternate career paths; I'll probably post another question about that soon.

RedOrGreen--believe it or not, I am so freaked out by my C.V. that I've been procrastinating on it by writing thesis chapters.
posted by cortisol at 7:34 PM on October 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to comment on your search for the right might see if student health will refer you to someone. Not sure how your insurance works, but my school covered mental health visits at a very reasonable copay. The woman I saw through the last few years of my PhD was somewhat like what you describe -- combination of career counselor/mental health counselor. She worked almost exclusively with graduate students who were struggling with their work, so she knew the weirdness of academia/committees/dissertations without a whole lot of explanation on my part, which was awesome. (I feel like people outside academia sometimes don't really "get" it and will be like "Oh, it can't be that bad!") Anyway. I don't know if someone like this exists in your city, but it might be worth at least checking it out to see.

Good luck going forward!
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:29 AM on November 3, 2014

Response by poster: Ha, I was kind of joking about the combination career/mental health counselor, but maybe I'll look into it (although in general I am quite happy with my current therapist.) Based on my own observations and some of the questions I read here, I am beginning to think that all grad students ought to be assigned a mental health counselor automatically as soon as they start graduate school. Not everyone would need them, but it might save some heartache for the ones who do (and take some pressure off advisors.)
posted by cortisol at 9:25 PM on November 3, 2014

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