depersonalizing constructive job application criticism
September 10, 2020 2:36 AM   Subscribe

I am in the process of applying for non-academic jobs (don't tell my supervisor) because lol the academic job market doesn't really exist anymore. My boyfriend is helping me with applications. Every time he critiques or even gently edits my cover letter or resume, it makes me cry. This is enormously frustrating for me. How do I make it stop??

I have been a postdoc for a few years, and am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am probably not going to be successful in applying for faculty positions this year. I am applying for non-academic positions. My boyfriend, who has a great industry job, is helping me apply, but talking about it and choices I am making and responding to his suggestions or critiques makes me get very emotional and almost inevitably cry.

I don't cry in response to feedback in most other situations, including in response to academic job material critiques. My last 10 years in academia have left me REALLY GOOD at rejection and responding to constructive (and, to some extent, not constructive) feedback and I think the last time I cried in response to feedback might have been my first grant rejection? I suspect that this is tied up in feeling like I have failed at the thing I devoted the last 14 or so years of my life to, and so working to make a different path more feasible and more likely is enormously painful? I suppose that's a painful thread to untangle at a different time.

BUT in the short term, how do I stop crying in response to kind, well-intentioned, accurate, constructive feedback from the boyfriend whom I love quite a bit? Understandably, he doesn't like it when it makes me cry. I can make one future appointment with with career services at the university where I did my PhD, but I am not super hopeful about help they can offer, as they're in a very different part of the US than I am now with a strong focus on undergrads. My folks haven't applied for jobs in a long time. My supervisors are both firmly convinced I just need to adjunct for a few years to pay my dues and then I'll get a good solid R1 position; they have neither expertise nor interest in being helpful. Right now, he really is my only resource for non-academic jobs, and I really don't want to cry on him. Help? How do I step back from the emotional stuff to just clinically improve things?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hi! Junior academic here.

I think all of this--the stress of navigating academia for 10 years, mustering excitement about the poor labor conditions of even the most prestigious postdoc, frustration at starting from scratch, the toll it can take on a relationship, paltry institutional support-- is TOTALLY WORTH CRYING ABOUT. I myself have cried about it many times. Not to mention (gestures broadly at the world) all of this? Hell, I have even cried because I have been so touched by how generous some friends were at helping me find non-academic jobs when my own dissertation advisor couldn't even put in a single lousy good word when I was on the market.

Can you explain to your boyfriend, who presumably loves you and wants the best for you, that you aren't crying because of anything that he had done? You might be assuming "he doesn't like it when you cry." I am sure he is more upset for you than with you.
posted by athirstforsalt at 3:39 AM on September 10 [10 favorites]

This is not really a response to your question, but I did a whole lot of crying when I applied for my first industry job five years ago. If you’re in the life sciences, I’d be more than happy to give you gentle feedback on your materials and also listen to and validate your feelings. Just memail me if you’re interested.
posted by juliapangolin at 3:40 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]

PS I am in the humanities and eked out a tiny career as a freelance cultural journalist before I un-quit academia. For whatever it's worth I will happily look at your stuff, too.
posted by athirstforsalt at 3:42 AM on September 10 [3 favorites]

Well, I’d try hard to think about other folks you could reach out, where the relationship is more collegial than intimate. Maybe a former classmate? Also, it’s okay to cry—sometimes I cry because of being overwhelmed with any strong emotion. Can you talk to your boyfriend about that? Tell him it’s not a criticism of him. But really, I’d try to develop another support system.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:44 AM on September 10

Are the critiques verbal, in person? If so try having him do it all in writing. Read it when you're alone, cry if you need to (alone), let it sit a day, and then come back and edit. Whether it's because of your disappointment with your career path, or because criticism from someone we love is harder to take than criticism from others, at least this solves the problem of "crying on him" and lets him continue to help.
posted by evilmomlady at 3:45 AM on September 10 [8 favorites]

I wonder if "stop crying" is the wrong answer here. The crying sucks for both of you, but I expect it would help him to see this post and know that it's not about him or his comments. (He may already know that, for that matter.) Another thing you could consider is if he marks up a printout of your resume or leaves comments in the Word/Google doc that you can read and cry about at your leisure.

In terms of the "how do I do this damn job thing", which is kind of the question behind your question, I have some unsolicited advice:
  • you're right that the college career center will likely be useless (mine gave me the handout they give to 18 year olds about "things you can do with a math major" and told me to claim to know Matlab because I'd taught a discussion section that uses it, not realising that it would be implying I knew something (anything) about numerical methods)
  • you're also right that academics will generally be useless at giving advice (my advisor at least recognized that and told me to ask my brother)
  • I got some good mileage out of Martin Yates's "Knock Em Dead" books that I found at the library
  • there is/was a website/forum called Versatile PhD for people going on the non-academic market. I have an acquaintance that got mileage from it--if you me-mail me, I can try to ask him
  • did any of your PhD contemporaries leave academia? can you talk to them? anyone from undergrad in your subject who didn't go to grad school or who dropped out of a PhD? I got good advice and some informational interview contacts from an undergrad friend
  • I will edit/give feedback if you want. (I became a software engineer, so I may be too far afield from you; I came from pure math)

posted by hoyland at 3:52 AM on September 10 [2 favorites]

Another thing to consider is that the academic CV is a totally separate beast from a resume you might use to apply for non-academic jobs. Your academic CV is very "YOU" -- generally a lot longer and detailing all your many successes in the academic world. A "resume" is very "THEM" -- fitting yourself into the mold you think that company might be looking for.* I found it very hard to go from listing publications and scholarships and good things like that to trying to distill my skills down into a couple of lines of corporatespeak. Especially when you add in the emotional component of what that transition signifies to you and your sense of self. All of which is to say, I'm not surprised that this is an area that stirs up big feelings. And your partner, who may very well have great advice from working in the private sector, may not realize that this simple administrative task is standing in for....a lot more than that. You may also be a bit of an overachiever and may be finding it hard to accept that your attempts at writing a job application in the private sector isn't perfect the first time, and that may make you doubt whether you could even be successful outside academia (ask me how I know!!!). So, go easy on yourself, maybe try to explain to your partner that this isn't about the feedback itself, but about a whole lot more, and it's going to take you some time (but not much) for you to re-adjust your worldview. But trust me -- you will very soon be taking it in stride!

*generally speaking, of course...I realize that you would still tailor your application to whatever school you're applying for, but still....
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 6:00 AM on September 10 [13 favorites]

Hi, are you me?
Some things that have helped me avoid (or at least displace) the crying-during-editing-session quagmire:
Written comments delivered asynchronously help, yes, as they provide (as folks have said above) space to process them and have those initial Big Feelings (mine: defensiveness, despair, certainty that I am doomed to fail at everything, etc) in my own space/time. I still HAVE the feelings, but they’re felt in a way that doesn’t risk him feeling bad for being honest and/or me letting my defensiveness make me lash out at him for generously doing EXACTLY what I asked him to do.

BUT: I have found I also need to have a talk-through session about his edits, so that he can tell me WHY a phrase/sentence/point isn’t landing, and WHY what I feel is The World’s Cleverest Cover Letter is just not giving the information the company needs in a way they want to hear it (clever as it might be!).

ALSO: The fact that he is a computer science-y guy and I am a humanities/literature person means that we view the conveyance of information in VERY different ways, in terms of mode, form, content, everything. Neither of us is right or wrong, and neither of us has magical insight into exactly what the company I’m applying to wants. I find it helpful to remind myself pretty frequently of this fact, and to also remind myself that this allows me to listen to his criticism, understand where it’s coming from as best I can, and reject it if I don’t ultimately agree. It’s ok to not accept edits! Even those done in a generous spirit by a person you love!!

Caveat to all this: I am unemployed, in academia or otherwise. Lol.
posted by Dorinda at 6:54 AM on September 10 [6 favorites]

half a valium will depress the crying reflex down to a much more manageable level.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:54 AM on September 10

If you can afford it, I would suggest working with a resume writer experienced in working with academics transitioning outside of academia / converting academic CVs to resumes for non-academic jobs. I know some people who had good experience with the post-ac services at The Professor Is In.

Do you have any contacts from your graduate school or postdoc who are currently in non-academic jobs with whom you could just talk about how they got their non-academic jobs? And then depending on how the conversation goes and how comfortable you feel you could ask them to review your cover letter and resume.

I feel the key here is working with somebody with whom you don't have the kind of emotional connectedness and investment as you do with your boyfriend.

Hang in there. I've transitioned in and out of academia and transitioning out of academia felt extra hard compared to going into academia from industry.
posted by needled at 8:12 AM on September 10 [4 favorites]

Hey, maybe your boyfriend isn't the person you should be getting feedback from? If it makes you upset, why torture yourself? I'm sure you have lovely friends, mentors, and other contacts who could give you valuable feedback too! You do not have to force yourself to go through this with your bf!

Just for instance, I may beg my personal trainer to tell me which muscle groups I need to develop more, but I would blow the fuck up if a romantic partner evaluates my body in the same way. I am always desperate for critique of my writing from my trusted writer friends, but I'd be a blubbering mess if my best friend said anything less than "This is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, pure perfection, all shall bow before thee." And while all and sundry are welcome to talk to me about my clothes or my hair or my weight or my age or my face or my skin, I will bite my mother's head off for breathing a word on any of these topics.

You get this, right? Relationships have limits and that is okay. This isn't something that's wrong with you at all. You're coming up against a very valid, and very valuable, constraint in what this relationship means to you and what functions it serves in your life. It seems like you want and enjoy X, Y, and Z with your boyfriend, but you do NOT want A or B or C with him. This is a good thing, a fine thing, a great thing. Embrace it. Don't fight it. There is nothing wrong with this picture, nothing to fix.
posted by MiraK at 8:41 AM on September 10 [6 favorites]

Is there a type of edit you are asking for specific to your goal? Maybe the open ended general aspect of the critique touched on personal attributes rather than career achievements. Or your perceived lack of unity in the achieved goals department. SOs tend to hold our greatest valued opinions and our deepest levels of self doubt with the same words or gestures. Try to get one other non personal proof read and then compare the gist of the notation. You may need to step out of the girlfriend role for a minute to see the benefit of the critique to your end goal vs. Using his success at resumes against him.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 12:26 PM on September 11

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