Help Me Get Unstuck in the Job Hunt
April 6, 2021 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Searching for a job sucks in any situation, never mind a pandemic. Help me think about job options and strategies for not losing heart.

This question really struck a chord with me as I’m in what feels like a similar position. I’ve posted on the Green a few times already about frustrations with the job search, and I’ve hit a particularly low point recently. I realize that the job search is tough under the best of circumstances and we’re still in a global pandemic, which makes it even more difficult, but I’m also not going to just throw up my hands.

I have a PhD in English, and most of the jobs I’ve held have been stopgaps or academic in nature. I no longer want an academic job, so I’ve been looking at other positions that let me make use of my skills as a writer/editor and/or as a researcher. (I have other skills, but those two are certainly my most developed.) But I keep running into several roadblocks in my search:

1) Lack of experience
Jobs/industries I'm considering include grant writing, technical writing, copywriting, marketing, and publishing. (Other suggestions are more than welcome.) I find that even entry-level jobs require a few years of experience that I don’t have. For the jobs I've gotten interviews for, the employers said outright they chose someone with more direct experience. How do you get the experience if no one gives you the job to get the experience? Is there any way to get a job without doing some volunteering or taking classes? One more caveat: I am just scraping by on my current income, so I’m leery of additional expenses in the form of classes, coaches, etc.

2) Lack of skills
Some of the postings I’ve looked at ask for familiarity or demonstrated experience with certain platforms. I’m hoping this is something I can overcome, though it’s something of a problem as I do have a job currently, so fitting in time for the job search itself has already been challenging. Adding one more commitment seems daunting. (Unlike some, I don’t have more free time thanks to the pandemic.)

3) Lack of relevant writing samples
My journalism clips are over a decade old, and all the major writing I’ve done since then has been academic and/or internal. It makes me wonder what to send when applying for, say, copywriting jobs or if I should write something hypothetical. Is that acceptable?

This is probably more scattered than I’d like it to be, but I really feel like I’m treading water. If folks have any answers for the above questions or other advice for keeping at the job search when it feels continuously demoralizing—or jobs/industries amenable to a humanities PhD—I’m all ears.
posted by Definitely Not A Robot to Work & Money (4 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Let me start by validating the way you're feeling. Searching for a new job is hard - I spent about 6 months doing so last year. What you're going through doesn't indicate anything negative about you. At all.

My main advice would be to gently cultivate any existing personal or professional relationships you have at a place where you'd be interested in working. My current role involves a lot of interviewing, which means collaborating with our recruiters. In my experience, a candidate's odds go up considerably when someone is a referral vs. the 20-30 cold applications a posted job may get each week. My observation is also that referrals get a somewhat more lenient eye with regards to ticking off all the requirements compared to someone who applies through the website.

The other main piece of advice would be to try to stay open for unexpected opportunities/roles. When I applied to the place I work now, I have to admit I went into the first interview with a quiet "well, I won't get hired, but this will make for an entertaining story" attitude.

I ended up being super-impressed with the first interviewer, and the people in the subsequent interviews, and by the time I accepted the job, I felt like a bit of a jerk for my initial attitude. Moral of the story: sometimes great opportunities come from unexpected angles.

I hope this helps - and again, in my experience there is little to no correlation between candidate quality and the outcome of a job search. Try not to let this process affect your self-image any more than necessary; if you have to judge anything, please judge the broken and inhumane systems that produce these outcomes.
posted by FallibleHuman at 9:02 AM on April 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've been job hunting since January. I have over a decade of experience doing writing and editing for a large retail company. It's tough out there, especially if you live in a city with a lot of competition. Almost every writing job will want to see applicable writing samples. And by applicable samples, I mean writing samples that closely mirror the type of writing you'd be doing at that particular company. If you live in a less competitive market, it may be easier.

You could volunteer somewhere to get more samples, although using your old journalism clips and internal writing would work as well — just don't show the dates. I think coming up with hypothetical copywriting samples could also be a good strategy. If you're getting interviews for writing and editing jobs without much paid writing experience, that's a really good sign. It's honestly a numbers game, so I'd encourage you to keep applying for jobs and spiff up your portfolio. ​

I wouldn't worry about learning the different platforms. Every place I've interviewed with asked if I was proficient with a certain platform, and if I wasn't, they said something like "you can learn it on the job."

Now is a tough time to be looking for a job. Companies can be choosy when they have hundreds of applicants for one position. I applied for a position where was one of the final six candidates out of 300+ applications. Didn't get the job. If you have any personal connections to a company, that will help. I feel like recruiters are mostly looking for ways to eliminate talented candidates since there are so many out there, particularly in the writing and editing space.
posted by purple24 at 12:02 PM on April 6, 2021

My sincere sympathies. I am sure you have the skill set and temerity to do well in many of these roles; it’s just always frustrating to get that first role that shows your academic writing skills will transfer beautifully into, say, technical writing.

I do not have writing-specific advice, but I was previously a hiring manager in a field with a number of self-educated people or people transitioning from somewhat-related-but-not-directly-related educational or professional paths. I also once conducted a search for a UX writer (similar to technical writing, but the goal was to write, say, in-app tutorials or very user-friendly tutorials and documentation) where we were open to people without prior experience. Some suggestions:
  • Can you reach out to people in the jobs you want? I find that people who have just started in their new career, or people with a similar path (e.g. English or humanities PhD to grant writing) will be most eager to respond, because they remember the struggle and will identify with your difficulties. Ask them how they got their first job. Ask them how they selected writing samples. Ask them if they created new writing samples or found a way to edit their existing ones to seem more directly relevant. Ask them what types of jobs they had the most and least success with. And so on…
  • Can you find a slightly smaller ‘niche’ within, say, technical writing/grant writing/etc. that you can focus on? It is obviously helpful to look broadly at possible jobs you can apply for. But trying to target your experience to a job generally requires that you get a bit more specific. I would suggest picking a smaller niche within these spaces that you can focus on (e.g. understand typical required skills vs optional but strongly desirable skills; what platforms are most commonly used) and then use that focus to sharpen the writing samples and resume/CV you share. You have to do a bit more work to show how your prior experience translates to a new area; that work is easier if you have one area to target, instead of feeling lost among many. If the niche doesn’t work out, you can shift to searching broadly or to investigating a different niche.
  • Related to the above: I wonder if the platforms you feel you’re ‘supposed’ to know will be more manageable once you pick a niche. I can’t speak about technical writing in general (so others should absolutely correct me or share their own thoughts), but within our search I would have found it positive if someone said they knew their way around Github and Markdown. The required fluency here could be accomplished by someone spending a day or two watching tutorials, reading best practice guides, and trying these out a handful of times. This varies, obviously, but this may not be as insurmountable a barrier as it feels when you are looking at a list of 10 potential new tools and platforms to get familiar with, versus the one or two that are a plus for a specific niche.
  • You asked about sending hypothetical writing examples. I think this is a great way to show initiative, drive, etc. (all the things corporations profess they love!) and concretely show that you can independently translate your writing skills into a specific context. Picking a niche here will help too. Can you identify one sample document you can investigate to understand typical format, style, best and worst practices? Again, an example for what would be helpful in the UX writer search I conducted: someone taking a piece of relatively common, somewhat technical behavior/software/tool and explaining what it does and how to use it in layperson terms, e.g. “What is an API and how APIs usually work?”. If you talk to people with the kinds of jobs you want, they may be able to advise you here.

Your skills in efficiently researching an area, synthesising the main points, and finding a way to elegantly communicate that to an audience with less-specific knowledge (which you’ve surely done for your dissertation and numerous academic pieces) will be an enormous asset to many workplaces. Once you figure out a way to pitch your work I strongly believe others will recognise this. All the best and I hope some of this was helpful.
posted by w-w-w at 3:04 AM on April 7, 2021

UX writer, UX content strategist and UX researcher are roles you might look into. It's a growing field and many hiring managers are *fairly* open to career transitions. I know many UX folks who came from writing, editing, publishing, marketing, research, academia, non profit, library science, etc... You'd need to take a few online courses etc, but it probably wouldn't take much to get up to speed. And may be more interesting than technical writing.
posted by Text TK at 8:16 AM on April 7, 2021

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