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As the job hunt drags on (and despite several interviews lately, it seems endless), I keep turning this question over in my mind.

I am a firm believer in Joan Didion’s famous assertion that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – often without even realizing it. Over the last year, I have found myself telling a lot of stories about unemployment and the job hunt, to myself and other people. They range widely, from the socially acceptable (I’m grateful for unemployment benefits) to the plucky and determined (I’m sure I’ll find something soon) to the truly painful (there must be something wrong with me). I have tried and tried to make sense of not only my most recent layoff – which, frankly, is a little easier because the pandemic upended everything – but also of my struggle to find a stable, low-drama, creatively fulfilling communications job where I can stay for a while.

Here are a couple of facts: I have done communications work for almost 15 years. I have worked at four different universities, and never stayed in any one job for more than a couple of years (sometimes by choice, sometimes not). There are lots of stories to be told about this, too: massive shifts in the higher education industry; a couple of better opportunities that came along; a few toxic work situations I needed to get out of; a couple of temp gigs that always had an end date. And, of course, a couple of endings (including the latest one) that I did not choose.

I know so many people – in my industry and out of it – who have held the same jobs or done the same kind of work for many years. I keep thinking there must be something I’m missing, that I can’t seem to find a similar situation. I have always chased (and been taught to value) stability, and I have always believed (perhaps wrongly, it turns out) that hard work and dedication would get me there.

Earlier in my career, I worried less about moving around a lot, and expected to find a more stable situation eventually. But my mid-career years have coincided with several departmental reorgs, leadership changes at my workplaces, my divorce, and a global health crisis. That is a lot of upheaval, and sometimes I think it’s no wonder I have bounced around like a tennis ball for several years now. Other days I think the story must have something to do with me: some fundamental lack that makes me dispensable.

I don’t know, of course, how this latest chapter in my career saga is going to turn out. I have done a lot of wrestling and crying, writing and running, venting to friends (and here on the blog) along with a lot of combing job boards and writing cover letters and interviewing. I don’t know if the chapter will end with me finding a similar gig to the ones I’ve had in the past, or something similar in a different industry, or something out of left field that I never could have expected.

More broadly, I don’t know what kind of story this is: is it the kind where the heroine slogs along for a while and her hard work is rewarded? Or the kind where something or someone swoops in sideways to introduce an entirely new storyline? Or a different kind I haven’t thought of yet?

Humans are meaning-makers, as one of my college professors (a jovial redheaded man with a passion for medieval literature and an equal passion for mobile technology) used to remind us. I think readers, writers and storytellers – and I am all three – are especially inclined that way. So it’s no wonder I am spending so much time trying to wrest some meaning out of this story. But it’s not over yet – we haven’t even reached the next stopping place, or the next chapter climax. And of course, there’s often no way to tell you’ve reached the turning point until much later.

For now, I will keep doing the things: networking, interviewing, cover-letter-writing, requesting the unemployment benefits I still need. I will keep living the story, because that’s the other thing: you only get to know what kind of a story it is if you stick with it.

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Hello, friends. It’s been a year this week since I was furloughed (which seems both impossible and about right). The first few months were a different kind of limbo than the one I find myself in now, mostly because I was hoping to go back to my job at Berklee eventually.

As you know, that didn’t work out, so I’ve been hitting the job hunt hard every week (or what feels like all the time) for months now. And it’s exhausting.

I’ve always appreciated the boundaries of the 9-to-5 office job: I want to have a job where I can work hard, even occasionally go above and beyond, but then I want to leave work at work. I’ve never wanted a high-powered communications director job, because I’ve worked for those folks and I’ve seen what it entails: they are always on call, nights and weekends, especially in times of crisis. Similarly, I never really wanted an all-freelance life, because of the constant hustle it requires. You’re always looking for your next gig, even while you’re juggling the ones you’ve got. And if you swap applications and interviews for projects, the job hunt can feel exactly like that.

I get job alerts from several places in my inbox, so I see them at least once a day during the week. I’m always combing job boards, talking to friends and connections about the kind of work I want, working on cover letters, trying to imagine a different life. I’ve had several interviews lately (yay!) and those require both prep and follow-up, both of which I’m happy to do (and sometimes it’s even fun). But the cumulative effect feels like a lot of hustle for (so far) not much payoff.

Several of you readers have advised treating the job hunt like a 9-to-5, and I’m doing my best to limit the hours it dominates both my time and my brain. I generally take breaks on the weekends, and during the week when I need it or when there’s something special going on. I’m trying to remember that more effort doesn’t always equal more results. But I know I’ve got to keep hustling until I find my next gig.

I’m willing to put in the work, but for today I just wanted to say: the hustle is constant. And it can be tiring.

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computer tulips hpac

It’s the question at the heart of every application process: what if I get rejected?

What if I do all this work on a cover letter and my resume, and the HR person or hiring manager tosses aside my carefully polished materials? What if they pass me over without a second thought, or – almost worse – what if they take the time to interview me, and then decide I’m not who they are looking for?

It happens, of course – often multiple times in every job hunt. It happens in our lives, too: not getting picked for the team, getting dumped or brushed off by a potential partner, drifting apart from or being excluded by our friends. It’s easy for others, especially those we love, to say “it’s not about you” when a person or organization rejects you, and most of the time there’s some truth to that. But no matter the type of rejection, it still stings – even if you know there were other factors at work.

Real talk: some days the fear of rejection is enough to make me want to slam my laptop closed and just stop putting myself out there for employers to dismiss. Some days the form rejections from application portals slide off my back (this is rare; I’m a sponge, not a duck), but more often, they have a bite. And it’s always disappointing when you’ve made a connection with a real person or group of people and you get an email or a phone call beginning with, “I’m sorry…”

I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) to really believe – and remember – that while rejection stinks, getting turned down for a job doesn’t mean I am not qualified or experienced. It especially doesn’t reflect on my worth as a person (more on that in a future post). It’s also not the end of the world, as my mother would say, and it definitely is a signal that I need to keep going. Sometimes, repeated rejections or disappointments have even nudged me to consider new possibilities: as a girlfriend noted last week, rejection can be redirection. (Case in point: my string of layoffs and struggles working in higher ed communications are part of what prompted me to cast my job-search net wider this time around.)

Some days, though, as my friend Stephanie noted recently, rejection just sucks and there’s no silver lining. I think it’s important to name that, too. Rejection may push us in new directions, make us stronger or simply remind us that we can get through hard things. But sometimes it’s just that: hard.

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darwins scone stripe journal coffee shop table

One of the most exciting things about the job hunt is also one of the hardest: imagining a new, possible life both before and during the application process.

A certain amount of this is necessary, of course. Before I apply – before I invest the time into combing an organization’s website and writing a cover letter – it makes sense to consider whether the job is a good fit. Am I qualified? Does it sound interesting? Would the commute (when we go back to office life) be workable? Does the organization seem like a place I would want to work? The answer to all these questions has to be “yes,” or at least “maybe/probably,” before I even open up a new Word doc and start trying to find the name of the hiring manager.

For me, it’s sometimes tougher after I’ve applied – or in that strange limbo period between a first-round interview and whatever happens next. Sometimes I try to picture what a day or a week in that job would look like. I always go on Google Maps to check and double-check the potential commute. If it’s an organization where I know someone, you can bet I ask them what it’s like to work there. But all of this is purely hypothetical at this stage. And it can require a lot of emotional effort.

When Kathleen Kelly has to close her bookstore in You’ve Got Mail (more on this in a future #romcomrewatch post), Birdie invites her and Christina over for tea. “Closing the store is the brave thing to do,” Birdie declares over Earl Grey and scones. “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life!”

Kathleen is disinclined to believe her, at that moment (and I don’t blame her), but Birdie’s words have come back to me in many contexts over the years. Going to grad school, changing jobs time and again, moving to Boston, getting married, deciding to get divorced, starting a new relationship – in all of these instances, I have dared (sometimes still am daring) to imagine that my life can look different than it did. Sometimes that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s daunting. More often than not, it’s both.

It can be a real bummer to invest time and energy into applying for a job and then imagining how that life might look, only to find out you didn’t get it. (This has, obviously, happened to me more than once.) But I don’t want to stop imagining potential lives, because the alternative is to just apply mindlessly – or settle – for whatever comes my way. And I don’t think that’s the answer. I have to believe (despite the evidence, some days) that a thoughtful, curious search for a new job is better than a robotic one. I want to go toward work that interests me, even delights me, or at least has the potential to do so. And that only happens, I think, with a bit of imagination (and a lot of Internet searching/letting friends know I’m looking/pounding out cover letters).

So, at least for now, I’ll keep daydreaming a bit about possible lives as I keep tweaking cover letters and scouring job boards. Hey, at least daydreaming is fun.

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It used to be a kind of game: I’d sit in meetings, especially ones marked “strategy” or “content,” and mentally (or sometimes physically) take note of every empty word or phrase my colleagues, or especially outside consultants, used to talk about our work. Words like stakeholders, platforms, multi-channel, workflow and especially content. The words ask and creative used as nouns; the word language used as a verb; acronyms like KPIs and ROI and SEO. I’ve even heard a few like operationalize (what?).

All of it makes me itch – it seems like a false, too-easy way to get away from talking about what we’re really doing (writing stories, interviewing people for podcasts, creating websites and brochures) and why we’re doing it (to get students to enroll, to advertise events or programs, to inform and entertain our alumni or other audiences). Jargon is also a way to exclude people: it’s so easy for students or new colleagues or even experienced folks not to know what you’re talking about. It’s gatekeeping language, often used to self-aggrandize or hide problems, and it is bland and impenetrable as tofu.

This is a problem as I continue the job hunt, because most of the job descriptions I’ve seen contain a fair amount of jargon. I can translate it, and I don’t fault them for it, necessarily, but the jobs I’m drawn to tend to be the ones whose posters write clearly and concisely about what the job actually entails. If a job description is stuffed full of hyphenated phrases with no real meaning, I’m wary of both the job and workplace it’s trying to describe.

While communications work in general is a bit more abstract than, say, serving coffee or teaching a yoga class, it does include measurable, concrete tasks along with the broader work of “strategy” and “ideation.” I don’t want to work at a place where people are so wrapped up in high-flown phrases that they’re unable to define what they actually do. We are all human beings who live in a tangible world, and I believe it’s important to talk about our work in human (vivid, interesting) terms. I also believe we should be able to laugh or roll our eyes at ourselves when we do get tangled up in jargon.

Have you run into long-winded, abstract job descriptions in your own searches? (Please tell me I’m not alone.) And other than a well-practiced eye roll, what is there to do about it?

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Hello, friends. It’s Monday again and I’m back at the computer with a mug of Earl Grey at my elbow, watching the fog drift over Boston Harbor and pegging away at the job hunt. There are a few postings today that look appealing, so I’m making a list and diving in, while pausing to acknowledge the Groundhog Day quality of this whole enterprise – namely, search-draft-apply-rinse-repeat.

I keep thinking of that old saw about the definition of insanity. I don’t know if Einstein actually said it or not, but it seems clear to me that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a recipe for at least feeling crazy.

Why should I apply to this job or that job, if the same set of actions last week garnered a rejection or (more) radio silence? What makes me think this college or nonprofit will answer my email, or call me for an interview, when most of the others have not? How do I know which job description, full of industry jargon and careful HR-approved wording, might possibly lead me to a real place with real people where I can be useful, be welcomed, make a contribution (and earn a living)?

I don’t, of course. And while it’s true that getting creative with the job hunt – going to webinars, letting friends and former colleagues know I’m looking, even writing a whole blog series about job hunting – might help, it’s also true that, for many jobs, a resume and cover letter are required. You have to go through the process: find the posting (or look at the one someone sends you), decide whether it sounds interesting, write and proofread a cover letter, go through the electronic steps to apply. You have to sit through the auto-response emails and the waiting (more on that in a later post). You have to, in short, do a version of the same thing, and expect – or at least hope for – different results.

I don’t have a neat and tidy answer for this one, except that it’s got to be done. Grit and gumption (and lots of tea) are definitely required. And for now, I’ll try to vary the process (and my cover letters) enough so that it doesn’t feel exactly the same every day.

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Friends, I am job hunting. And it is the worst.

Some of you know that I was furloughed last spring, then had my furlough extended through the fall as the pandemic dragged on. I was officially laid off a few months ago, and have been slogging through the job hunt ever since. (Photo is of my makeshift standing desk at home.)

Some weeks, that means sending out applications and resumes; most weeks, it means combing through job boards and email alerts, and doing freelance work (like this recent story I wrote for Harvard’s Ed School, where I used to work). And every week, it means fighting the job-search demons in my head.

Everyone I know has been through the job-hunt wringer a few times, but it seems like nobody talks about this stuff, at least not publicly. We gripe to our partners and get networking tips from friends, but I’ve yet to find a real, honest exploration of the toll it can take on your soul. I need a way to wrestle with those challenges outside my own head (and my journal), so I’ll be sharing some of my job hunt woes here on the blog for the next while.

First up, the blindingly obvious: what nobody tells you.

Nobody tells you how disorienting it can be, the sudden feeling of being cut adrift from a paycheck, a workplace, an institution, a community. No one admits–or, in my experience, people rarely admit–how daunting it is to wake up in the morning and have no idea what you’re going to do next. How it feels to have a few tools at your disposal–a newly polished resume, job boards, cover letters to tailor and send–but to know that so much of the search is completely beyond your control.

It’s like chipping away at a mountain with a pickaxe, or like those diggers working to free that ship in the Suez Canal last month. No one, least of all you, has any idea when the daily patient effort–or some totally unrelated effect of an external force–will crack the granite wide open and let an opportunity through. And no one admits how demoralizing it can be.

I’m job hunting, we say, as if it were going to the dentist or walking the dog or cleaning the kitchen floor. Just another item on the to-do list. Something everyone does, sooner or later. While that last part is true, nobody tells you how painful and frustrating it can be, although most of us know. Nobody talks about how it can wear away at your sense of identity and self-worth, not to mention your bank account. And in the middle of a pandemic, few people seem to have any idea what work will look like in a few months. Remote? Hybrid? Fully back in the office? No one can tell me that, because no one else, at this moment, knows.

I’m writing these posts because I need this conversation, but I’m hoping that maybe it will open up a space for others, too. If you’d care to share your job-hunt woes (past or present) in the comments, I’m all ears. Let’s be honest about how tough it is, and maybe share what’s gotten us through, or what’s helping right now.

More job-hunt musings to come.

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komorebi harvard yard tree sky

First, the leaving.

I knew it was a possibility for a long time: the job I signed on for, back in 2016, is of a type that comes up for renewal each fiscal year. This was my fourth job at Harvard, and I’d already weathered a layoff and two temp gigs – so I wasn’t all that surprised to learn, in April, that I’d have to leave at the end of June.

Even at Harvard, few things are set in stone: my time there has seen massive internal shifts, many of them for the better. This storied place, ancient and rooted, is also a place of constant movement and change.

I did my best, this spring, to soak up all the rhythms and traditions I love there: Morning PrayersCommencement, my daily walks to Darwin’s. I had about a thousand coffee dates and sent out so many emails telling people: This chapter is ending. I don’t know what’s next.

On my last day, I walked to Darwin’s mid-morning, then went back later for lunch with a girlfriend. We sat outside, leaning against the plate-glass windows, eating sandwiches and talking about change. She had just started a new job, and I had no idea what the summer held. We agreed: change is hard, even when it’s exciting. And uncertainty is a beast.

Later that afternoon, I slipped away for a walk with a friend, and then came back to the office for my own bittersweet Mary Tyler Moore moment: packing up my bags and switching off the lights for the last time.

Of course, as a friend reminded me, Harvard isn’t going anywhere: it has survived for nearly four centuries, and if I want to go back there sometime, there’s a good chance I can. But this chapter, this particular stretch of five years where the Square became my daily ground, has ended.

I don’t have a word to sum it up neatly: like so much of life, it is full of contradictions. But somewhere between all those emails and meetings, between the headlines and the phone calls and the student interviews, between Tuesdays at the farmers’ market and Thursday mornings on the sixth floor, between frequent trips to the florist and every single day at Darwin’s, Harvard Square became my home.

I’ve landed in a good place across the river. But I left part of my heart in Cambridge, and for now, I’m making a point to get back there as often as I can.

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Last week marked my six-month anniversary of being unemployed. Happily, I got a job offer on Monday morning – which also happened to be my sister’s birthday. (Her reaction, when I called to tell her the news: “Happy birthday to me! You got a job!”)

However, the offer was contingent on a successful check of my references, so I waited in limbo for four days while the good folks in HR did what they had to do. And that was almost worse than not getting the offer at all – so paranoid was I that they’d find some small reason to revoke it.

My week of limbo/liberty was blessedly free of hitting the job boards, but full of the other activities which have filled my last six months: a freelance project or two; laundry and dishes; making soup for lunch; walking to the post office and the branch library; playing around on Twitter and blogs; sipping tea at the dining-room table while journaling or writing. And feeling guilty.

No, I don’t feel guilty about doing freelance work, tending my house or even taking a break for a cup of tea. I love my quiet mornings here at the dining-room table, sunshine coming in the windows, my current bouquet (this week it’s daffodils) blooming away. I love being able to stir up a pot of soup or nip down to the branch library for a new novel. And I am so glad I haven’t had to brave the cold during our string of snowstorms (though I am now joining the commuting hordes at my local T station).

Rather, I feel guilty about all the things I haven’t done while searching for a job. Couldn’t I have applied to more jobs, gone to more networking events, worked harder to score more interviews? Should I have taken a part-time job somewhere to make money, or applied for plain old temp work instead of specialized writing temp work, or allowed myself fewer excursions to downtown Boston? I definitely should have spent less time browsing the Web, clicking links and reading my favorite blogs. And couldn’t I, in six months, have completed a full draft of that travel memoir I’m always talking about writing?

I’ve felt guilty about all of the above, and also about spending my days at home, warm and cozy and wearing jeans, while my sweet husband spends his days driving around the South Shore of Boston, seeing clients for therapy, often not getting home until seven or eight o’clock. I’ve felt guilty about not doing more to help him provide for the two of us. I’ve wondered if I were going about this job search the “right” way, if there is a right way. And I’ve felt especially guilty because I’ve actually enjoyed my unemployment.

I didn’t enjoy the financial strain, of course – which has grown worse as we’ve needed to pay for heating oil and slightly higher bills in the winter. Nor did I enjoy the loneliness, the feelings of cabin fever and isolation when the weather grew frigid and I began spending nearly all of my days inside. When the weather was nicer, I could find more excuses to spend afternoons downtown, poking around the shelves at the Brattle or browsing the clothes racks at Second Time Around, or sitting on Boston Common, book and camera and journal in hand. But since winter hit for real, it’s been pretty lonesome around here, despite my love of solitude and the connections available online.

But I have enjoyed some parts of my time off. For one thing, I didn’t have to rush right into an office when we moved here in August; I had time to unpack, to hang pictures, to arrange our apartment and explore our neighborhood. I’ve spent happy hours browsing at the libraries in Quincy and many sun-soaked afternoons on Boston Common. I’ve gotten to know the heart of Boston, which for me lies in the two green spaces in its center, the bustling Beacon Hill area just north of them, and the narrow streets east of the Common filled with some of my favorite Boston spots.

For another, I’ve had time to write – which I craved in Abilene, particularly when my job at ACU grew crazy and deadline-filled. I’ve kept writing for ACU, written dozens of articles for Halogen, blogged more regularly than perhaps ever before, and written some secret things I hope I’ll get to share with you one day. I’ve had lots of time to sit at this table, daydreaming, dressed comfortably and never lacking in sleep or good food or time to do whatever I pleased. Time like this is a gift to a writer, and I’ve tried to appreciate it and use it well, instead of squandering it in useless pursuits or spoiling it by obsessing about money. (Not, I might add, always successfully.)

But most of all I’ve enjoyed the freedom of this time – the complete liberty to structure my days however I want, even if that has included a little too much sleeping in and a bit too much “wasted” time. I’ve loved being in control of the hours of my days, although I’ve spent the vast majority of those hours alone. I’ve hardly had anywhere to be at a certain time for months, except church and a few outings with friends. It’s reminded me so much of my life in Oxford, where my only obligations were classes, church, working for ACU-Oxford and volunteering at Oxfam. I’ve had lots of time – however heavy it’s hung on my hands sometimes – to just be.

Starting this week, all that will change. I’ll get up with my alarm clock, to shower and dress and head downtown to Emerson College, where I’ll spend my days writing and organizing content for the college’s website. I will have co-workers, an office, a lunch break, a commute, and many fewer hours to myself. (And much more money in the bank than I’ve had.) I expect to enjoy most of these things, or learn to adapt to them – though I know there’ll be an adjustment period. Mostly, I’m thrilled to have found a job I think I’ll love, at a place I already admire. (And when the weather turns warm, I can go eat my lunches on Boston Common – happy thought!)

Have any of you ever struggled with guilt during unemployment/a career break/graduate school/another instance of downtime in your life? How did you handle it? I’d love to hear your stories.

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Tales from Temp-land

Following in the footsteps of my friends Annie and Juliette, I’ve spent three days this week working in an office as a “Temptress” (Annie’s term, which is so much sassier than plain “temp,” don’t you think?).

Actually, I was supposed to spend the whole week there, and next week too. But after I got through all the projects they had for me, and politely but firmly turned down their offer of a longer-term job (building and editing corporate PowerPoint presentations), I got to call it quits yesterday. So, once again, I am free – no more hour-long commute through highway construction to Waltham; no more blue-and-gray cubicle; no more solitary lunches at my desk, and awkward small talk with people who aren’t really my co-workers.

Of course, this means I am also again broke/out of work/back to sending out resumes. But you know what? I much prefer this reality to that one.

I’m realizing again (as if I didn’t already know) that I was not cut out to work in corporate America. I loved working at ACU because of the people, and also because I believe in the mission of the place. I believe in the power of higher education to broaden people’s horizons and change their lives. I believe in the place that gave me an English degree, my first semester in Oxford, lots of dear friends and so many new ways of thinking. On the other hand, I don’t possess an ounce of passion about supply-chain dynamics and office restructuring and editing 150-page documents (I kid you not) of corporate-speak.

So it’s back to the freelance life, back to running errands in Quincy and taking breaks to wander around Boston (while the weather holds) and sending out resumes for jobs I would actually enjoy. And I feel like a kid set free from school – only instead of “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” it’s “No more commuting, no more cubicle, no more sad reheated desk lunches!” (I know that doesn’t rhyme, but does anything rhyme with “cubicle”?)

Don’t mistake me: I’m grateful for the opportunity to make a little money and a few connections, and I hope I land some more assignments through the temp agency I’ve signed up with. But I’m also grateful for a few more free days, and the chance to keep pursuing my writing dreams, exploring my new city and making my “one wild and precious life” just that.

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