Generally speaking, the final semester of graduate school should be an exciting time in one’s academic career. Though there’s still work to be done — projects to defend; jobs and PhD programs to apply for — all that hard work will pay off. You’ll get to celebrate the end of one chapter with friends and family, and anticipate that the work you’ve put in the last two years will make the transition into a new chapter easier than it might’ve been otherwise.
Then, in the middle of that final semester, a global pandemic hits. The whole world comes to an abrupt, excruciating halt, and that excitement from before? It’s replaced by dread, because how do you finish a degree amidst a pandemic? How do you even think about trying to find a job, in a new world of mass layoffs and hiring freezes?
Now that I’ve lived through these questions and come out the other side, it’s easier for me to see past the doom-and-gloom fog that hangs over them and know that things worked out. Still, I think it’s important to start with the doom-and-gloom because that’s certainly how it felt at the time. It might even be how someone reading this is still feeling.
I’ll be the first to tell you that those feelings are completely valid, and that you’re not alone in feeling them. Hopefully, by sharing some things I learned in my own journey toward finding employment during a pandemic, you’ll see something that might help you.
Tip 1: Embrace that things won’t go according to plan
Before March 2020, my post-graduation plans were to get out of Manhattan and find a full-time job (with benefits!) in the Kansas City area, where I’d lived before starting grad school. Fast-forward almost a year later, and now I work as the Office Specialist for the Chapman Center for Rural Studies, and as a library assistant at Manhattan Public Library.
It’s safe to say that things didn’t go according to plan, but you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
One thing I acknowledged early in the pandemic was that my concept of a “plan” wouldn’t work in the world’s current conditions. This informed how I approached job hunting post-March 2020. While I was determined to make my Kansas City aspirations work, I knew I couldn’t completely leave Manhattan and the connections I had here in the rear-view mirror. I also recognized that full-time work might not be guaranteed, and that I should open up my options when applying. It took several months and a few moves (including one to Kansas City, if only for a few months), but by making my plans more flexible, I ended up where I needed to be.
Tip 2: Know that you have options – even during a pandemic
Here’s something I’ve shared with maybe two other people: in July, three months into job-hunting-during-a-pandemic, I finally landed an interview. The interview went well enough for me to be offered the position, but then I…turned it down. That’s right; my ticket out of unemployment spit itself out for me to take, and I forfeited my spot in line.
I’m sure I know what some might be thinking. But everything you could want—Full-time job! Health benefits included!—was RIGHT THERE. Trust me; I thought the same thing even as I composed the email turning down the position. Right beside that thought, though, was a stronger, more reassuring one: For your own happiness, this is the right choice.
When the stakes are so high, the instinct is to get yourself to safety in the quickest way possible. This might mean taking a job that affords you benefits like a full-time salary and health insurance, even while knowing that deep down, the job itself isn’t the right fit for you. Had we not been in a pandemic, I might’ve taken that position. But the emotional upheaval it caused reinforced the determination in me not to settle and bury my personal happiness “deep down.” Employment and a steady paycheck are important, but joy and passion for the work I do is essential. By making the tough decision to reject one opportunity and have faith that I’d find one more fulfilling, I now have two jobs that allow me to utilize and develop skills I’m passionate about, such as writing and student development.
Tip 3: Rely on your people
Even in non-pandemic times, we’re told that networking is one of the keys to success, particularly when it comes to find
employment opportunities. This sentiment becomes even more valuable in our current moment. I learned about both of my current jobs from other people, and I know that the connections I made during my time in the Manhattan community helped me stand out among other applicants.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like asking for help. I don’t want to burden people with my problems, so I keep them to myself. The truth is, though, if I hadn’t accepted help from others this year, I literally wouldn’t be where I am today.
The pandemic has made all of us vulnerable in a multitude of ways; lean into that vulnerability and allow other people to look out for you. You never know what might become of it.
— Dustin Vann (BA ’16, MA ’20)