Job Market PTSD

(Thursday Post Category:  Here’s How You Get Tenure)

Today’s post is another Special Request post, this time coming from Kate, who wrote an eloquent email asking for advice on how to cope with what I will call “Job Market PTSD.”

By Job Market PTSD (hereafter JMPTSD), what I mean is the state of being so traumatized by the academic job search that even when it is successful, and you get the coveted tenure track position, you cannot stop feeling anxious, inadequate, panicked and insecure. JMPTSD includes the survivor’s guilt that you feel toward the comrades-in-arms you left behind as you boarded what seems like the last helicopter out of The Search. It includes classic trauma symptoms in that the sustained terror of potential joblessness/insolvency, combined with the psychological warfare of hope offered and then snatched away (particularly in the new phenomenon of searches and offers canceled at the last minute), steals away your sense of security in the world. It includes a large component of Imposter Syndrome, in that you wonder “Why me? Why did I get this position?” And it includes an element of Stockholm Syndrome, in that your gratitude for the offer is so abject that your normal emotional boundaries evaporate in a frantic attempt to please your new employer.

I believe that JMPTSD is more widespread than commonly acknowledged. And in current market conditions, it is likely to get worse.

There is certainly a variety of JMPTSD that afflicts those who are ultimately unsuccessful on the job market. And that variety may be the more serious.

But for today I want to address the JMPTSD that afflicts those who DID get the tenure track job, but find themselves struggling to leave behind the trauma of the search.

Because what I’m hearing is, search trauma is having an impact on these assistant professors’ performance on the job. Instead of being a triumphant transition into professional security and financial solvency, the move to assistant professorhood provokes renewed fear and anxiety and self-doubt.

While all of us who have been through the assistant professor stage remember the struggle to cope and keep our heads above water, this seems to be qualitatively different.

This is a kind of sustained state of fear that saps your confidence and sense of well-being. Its primary symptom is a profound feeling of unworthiness that arises when the conditions for hiring are so chaotic and opaque and seemingly random, that it is impossible for you, the successful candidate, to feel that you actually deserved the job more than anyone else.

Given that the fundamental logic of assistant professorhood is based entirely on external approval to begin with, this effort can have toxic results. The main one seems to be an extreme susceptibility to exploitation.

Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, assistant professors are so abjectly grateful for the job that they find it impossible to say no.

Teach more? Sure! Take furlough days? Absolutely! Increase your class size? No problem! Give up your TAs? That’s ok—I can TA my own classes!

As one new assistant professor told me, “It made me less willing to negotiate, to speak up for myself, or to assert my wishes as to what I would teach.”

The marketplace has done to assistant professors what the eradication of tenure promises to do to their seniors: remove the possibility of resistance to disintegrating conditions of work.


What to do?

Well, at the risk of being cliché, I say: first, get therapy. This is legitimate trauma and should be treated as such.

Find other new assistant professors and start a regular lunch group. Don’t make this a writing group. Make it a support group. Share your experiences. Hold each other accountable for doing what it takes to stay mentally healthy.

Get outside and get in your body. Exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep. Find a good doctor in your new town and schedule an appointment for the Fall term.

Find a trusted senior mentor if you can. Don’t expect this person to really “get it,” though. If they’re already tenured, then they won’t really get it. But they can help you navigate your department and set healthy boundaries and avoid over-exploitation from service expectations.

Forgive yourself for needing downtime that seems to be “unproductive.” It is ok to watch TV and play with your kids and hang out with your partner and sit on the sofa and stare at nothing.

Keep creative, right-brain activities in your life.  Draw, journal, write poetry, throw pots, build a fence, plant a garden, restore an old car, make jewelry, sing, knit…. whatever speaks to you.

Remember that you deserve to be there and you are a full-fledged member of the department. You have the same rights as every other faculty member.  You are not a graduate student and not a second class citizen. You do not need to apologize for existing. You are entitled to ask for what you want. If trauma prevented you from negotiating everything you wish you had at the time of the offer, let your department head and your trusted senior mentor know what you need now.

You were hired to be a scholar. Insist on the time you need to produce scholarship, both at the department and in your home life.

You deserve the job you have. You deserve to enjoy it. And you deserve to succeed at it. And you deserve the support to make that happen. Don’t let anyone (including your own insecurities) tell you otherwise.

~~Readers:  Please let me know your experiences of Job Market PTSD.  I’d really like to hear them~~

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Job Market PTSD — 18 Comments

  1. Ha! Perhaps I have this in addition to my other academic traumas!

    I didn’t have it initially because I first got a job the first time on the market, having gone on market without finished dissertation (but it was finished by the time I started). In that job I got job trauma, though. I moved to a less traumatic job and still didn’t have job market PTSD. Then I had personal trauma and wasn’t in shape to do well in academia, and was going to call it quits, but my quit plan had some unforeseen flaws. And all my academic friends exerted extreme pressure for me to stay, so I went on the market again, this time with the do or die, people expect this of me attitude that, I think I would argue, is what gets people job market trauma. I got a job that seemed like a foreign country and had strange working conditions, but that I was glad to have since I didn’t see another option. And was determined to make a go of it and could have, knew how, except … I was too sensitized to what I had learned as a professor (I did not learn this in graduate school), which was, you must do as you are told. So then I started exhibiting the symptoms you discuss here. And of course, that was within more recent memory, so it was in a market situation more like what people go out in now.

    So what I get from this is: you have to have an alternative plan so you can relax. A good alternative plan. I am not sure everyone has the means to have this, however. Developing one needs to become part of graduate school, I think.

  2. OK, I’ve thought about it some more. I think part of the job market trauma comes from the excess of advice and warnings, the way they are usually framed. One feels one does not have enough information (my students say they feel as though the true lore were being hidden from them sometimes), yet one does get a great deal of exhortation about the dangers, what to watch out for, how one should be. When that gets combined with the idea that if one only watches for all dangers and is truly perfect, then everything will be all right, it becomes traumatic: because even then everything might not be all right (and it is not the candidate’s fault, but they get the impression it is or was), and because all the warnings and exhortations are a *HUGE* amount of pressure … and because, much advice though there may be, what is often NOT said is, people should also honor their own self knowledge.

    Examples: Student: “I want to work in a research institution.” Professor: “Who do you think you are, that you can choose like that! You will have to be grateful to have a job, no matter what it is!” or Student: “I am quite sure I cannot thrive in Oklahoma. If I fail to thrive and do not get tenure, then I will be in Oklahoma without a job. I would like to take this lesser job in Los Angeles. Then, if I fail, I will be in a city where there is work.” Professor: “How dare you take a three-year visiting appointment over the tenure track! You must not be serious about your work!”

    In sum, I think a lot of the advice which is given is abusive and sort of terrorizing, actually, and I think that contributes to the PTSD.

  3. Thank you for this post. I definitely have JMPTSD, though not as strongly as some others may have it. I was on the market for five years and had one interview for a traditional tenure-track job. (My Ph.D. is in cultural studies, and departments seem to want to hire people with Ph.D.s in their own discipline. No cultural studies departments = no jobs for me!)

    So when I finally did land that interview–and turned it pretty easily into a job offer–I knew immediately that I didn’t want to go back on the job market because (a) the whole experience sucks and (b) my chances of getting a job are slim. Fortunately, I landed in a department where there’s tremendous collegiality and a formal mentoring structure, so I don’t need to worry much about being a non-History Ph.D. in a history department. Without that mentoring and collegiality–and all the reassurance they provide–I’d be a total basket case regarding my chances for tenure because of my tendency toward impostor syndrome.

    So, yes–mentoring has been HUGE for me. And it’s not even mentoring so much as it is the collegiality, as I spent those years on the job market on the staff side of academia, so I know how the university sausage is made. Having a mentor who can clue new faculty in to the finer points of sausage-making is so very important.

    • thanks for sharing, Leslie! Based on some of the conversations I’ve been having about this, I think that mentoring is a huge component that isn’t always well understood or managed. People don’t know how to find mentors, when there isn’t a formal program on their campus. I’m going to write a post about that. Good luck to you!

  4. And – there’s the survivor’s guilt factor. I had people try to inculcate this in me early in the tenure track and it didn’t stick. But I caught it later on, as I kept getting jobs and things, and knowing more and more people who hadn’t or who weren’t doing well or who hadn’t had the opportunity to learn on the job what I had. I think it motivates a lot of how I still operate, guilt over surviving and getting tenure somewhere and all … and at the same time, I also have guilt over not having done still better !!! There is something in the way we’re trained that causes all of this, I am convinced.

    • I agree—academic types are highly susceptible to guilt and shame. it’s a chicken or egg thing to some extent. I am still trying to sort it out to write about it.

      • I’m wondering if you could do a post or solicit a guest post about this very thing. When you grow through graduate school with a cohort (either at your school or elsewhere) and then the job market happens. In some ways, we should be prepared for this. But in others it takes a real and unexpected toll equally on the friendships involved and the experience of friends on both sides of the equation in their jobs (those in TTs and those in VAPs). My friends group is going through this right now: two have TT appointments and five are entering another year on the VAP market. The two of us in the TT feel like mostly we end up apologizing for not deserving the jobs we have over our equally talented friends. It feels like reliving the job market traumas with every conversation.

  5. This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that formalized mentoring programs are no good. I’ve been assigned these in some of my various asst prof jobs and what these people do is mete out standard advice, possibly designed for persons other than oneself, or possibly even destructive … and then they are giving you this advice with the weight of the institution behind it. I think the position of mentor, in those contexts, is a CYA and social control mechanism of the university. I even had one who told me which other assistant professors, in other departments, I shouldn’t be having lunch with according to him (he just didn’t want me knowing people in other departments, that was all). Then all these people get resentment if you do something in a different way than they would, and so on.

    I think people should learn in college and graduate school to find own mentors. That having been said, I also think new people should be included / clued in by *everyone* more than they usually are (in my experience). My current institution, for instance, thinks you shouldn’t give info to asst profs on the theory that that might “control” them (?) — but I always pass on my conference flyers in their fields, tourist info, anything that might help them get oriented.

  6. This doesn’t just apply to academia. I am looking for a job outside of academia and I googled job search ptsd. I feel totally traumatized. I have interviewed so many times for jobs and not gotten them that I feel traumatized about my future.

    • I”m really sorry to hear that, cynthia. If you’re getting interviews, then your resume is good. if you’re getting turned down at interviews, then it might suggest some interviewing issues to work on. I’m always amazed at the ways that people sabotage themselves in interviews totally unconsciously and of course, unintentionally. I’m going to start posting on interviewing next week, so stay tuned.

  7. It is very refreshing to read this post. I think I definitely have JPTSD.

    I finally landed a post-doc recently after being on the job/postdoc market as an ABD, then recent graduate, for over a year and a half. During that year and a half, I was offered a few interviews (and got an offer for a 1-year teaching position) but I lost out on the tenure-track opportunities to candidates with years more experience and a larger publication record (a publication record that was nearly impossible to have coming straight out of the PhD). The tenure-track job market in my particular field is chock full of very highly qualified professionals with years of experience outside their PhD. It seems that the bar for landing the tenure track job just keeps getting higher and higher.

    Now that I am in a temporary position as a postdoc for 2 years I feel slightly relieved to not be jobless, and grateful for the time to write more pubs, but I am also haunted by feelings of inadequacy and that ‘I’m never going to make that tenure-track job unless I write lots of papers right this instant’.

  8. Pingback: The Unknown and Unknowable of the Job Market |

  9. I’d love to see a post on JPTSD for those who are not lucky enough to get a position. I’m currently navigating the academic job market with no success so far – it’s incredibly demoralizing. Despite being a decent candidate (I’ve won many grants/fellowships, but only have one sole-authored publication), I have not made it through the first cuts for several departments (evident because they fail to ask for additional materials). I find myself losing motivation to keep moving forward in my dissertation or in applying for other positions. I know there are other people out there in a similar position, but at a top 10 program, it doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere to turn for advice or support.

  10. I just got a t-t job after my first job talk. And I feel totally guilty. I told a former advisor who announced that I do not in fact “deserve” it because the job market is so subjective and there are many other equally qualified candidates. Advice on how to be confident?

  11. Posttraumatic stress disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder; the characteristic symptoms are not present before exposure to the violently traumatic event. Typically the individual with PTSD persistently avoids all thoughts, emotions and discussion of the stressor event and may experience amnesia for it. However, the event is commonly relived by the individual through intrusive, recurrent recollections, flashbacks and nightmares..:;’

    My own, personal blog site <

  12. Pingback: Is It Just Me? Slowly Disposing Of “Grad School Garbage” | Conditionally Accepted

  13. I’m so glad someone has put a name to my experience! And I totally have it, even though I have had /partial/ career success. I’m employed, but I’ve been working one-years for four years an counting through no fault or defect of my own. I’d been handling it well enough until last year. Last year really was when it got ugly.

    I was the internal candidate for a tenure track (I was the leave replacement for a retiring professor), and I busted my butt trying to get it. Nobody could have tried harder or done more. My colleagues knew it too, and I now believe they used it to get more work out of me. The deal breaker came when a colleague on the search committee gave me the first and only bad peer teaching review I’ve ever had, and it was borderline abusive in the way it belittled me. I found out later that he does this to most junior female faculty, but at the time, it was devastating. But I went to him to ‘learn to do better’ and busted my butt trying to ‘improve’ (i.e. teach more like him and less like myself). I know it’s hard to tell from my embittered tone here, but my attitude at the time was great. I took direction with a smile and did my best to fit in with the social life of the school, even though my colleagues were standoffish and rude to my spouse.

    I wanted a job, so I persevered. I published. I gave my time to student activities and created innovative classes, one of which was published in the school’s promotional literature. Students loved me. I didn’t even make it to finalist in the job search, and it broke my heart. Since then, colleagues who had left the college have reached out to me to let me know that my experience is not an outlier and that the institution regularly alienates and targets faculty who fail to fit their narrow ‘in crowd’ of traditional pedagogy and research. Bless them all. It helps a little.

    Back to my experience, though. I went into therapy even before I found out they planned to hire someone else, but the rejection took something important from me. Even without that awful year, I have been struggling emotionally under the annual pressure to find new employment. My husband has patiently followed me from job to job and every year we put off our personal lives, including plans to have children. I publish. I have a good reputation. My students adore me and it kills me every year when I have to leave them to move to a new institution. Financially, we’re struggling with debt brought on by annual moves and debt from conferences that aren’t /quite/ all funded. Sometimes my husband can’t get a job (I’m only there for a year, after all), so it takes a toll on my marriage. I’m sure it would be difficult for a man, but there are added issues when gender and reproductive goals are part of an extended period of one-year employment.

    I do not want to give up, and I’m sick of people telling me to do so, as if retreating were the appropriate response when I’m being bullied by colleagues who use my vulnerability to exploit me. I’ve built something, and I feel it’s sexist that I’m told to give up due to biological clock when my male colleagues aren’t. It’s also sexist that my trailing spouse is seen often by my colleagues as lazy for not magically finding new employment every year while housewives are ‘being supportive.’ I believe I add value to a discipline that is still largely white and male (I’m white, but not male). I believe I belong here and I’m willing to fight to stay. I have built a reputation as a scholar in an emerging interdisciplinary subfield and I’m finally getting some recognition for it. I am a fantastic teacher (I say this because my students and most of my colleagues say so too). I love being a professor and I’ve been doing it for years now. Besides, my only other option is to teach High School, which is something for which I have neither aptitude nor calling. Many do – I honor them! But I’m a different creature.

    So thank you for naming this, because this is my life. This is why I have panic attacks when evaluations happen and why I’m afraid to say no, or even to skip parties lest I seem less than collegial. One year in which my best efforts were utterly rejected (by a school I hated, no less) has made me a mess, even at the healthy institution that hired me this year. And nobody seems to get why I’m so ‘high strung.’ Maybe it’s because every little thing I do seems so weighted when my letters of reference and student evaluations are vital for getting me and my family another year of employment, hmm?

    It has a name. I’m glad. You validated me, and that’s an act of mercy that is very much appreciated. The one thing I will say for my current job is that colleagues have been vocal about reassuring me. I haven’t asked for it (and wouldn’t dream of it! God forbid I show anything but joy in my underemployment), but they are good to me and my spouse. They ask about my research and tell me when they hear or see good things about my performance. I wish – I wish so hard – that they could keep me here.

    Enough of that. Time to write my cover letters.

  14. “Find a trusted senior mentor if you can. Don’t expect this person to really “get it,” though. If they’re already tenured, then they won’t really get it. But they can help you navigate your department and set healthy boundaries and avoid over-exploitation from service expectations.”

    I absolutely understand what you’re saying – I’ve been through this so many times (the puzzled looks when you describe your struggles, the “You’re smart! You’re fine!” like that’s supposed to be some sort of panacea, the “I did it! You can do it too!” when you want to ask whether they’ve had a gander at all at the economy lately) – at the same time I absolutely do not get this at all.

    They’ve been through it – and our economic conditions are worse!

    I also don’t understand what we’re supposed to do when they are participating in expanding those service expectations under the “You’re young(er) – you can take it” or “You have to go through what I did – that’s only fair” (which latter is also completely unconsciously imposed) rationales.

    When “transfer out of your institution” or “find another employer” is … in this market, shall we say, not exactly an option (unless you’re, say, Ryan Lochte).

    Thoughts …?

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