Job Market PTSD

RE-posted from 2011.  When this went up the first time, it got very little response.  That surprised me.  I think this is a real thing.  Readers?

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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.   This isn’t any kind of “official” diagnosis–it’s just something I’ve observed.

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.

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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~~

 

 


Comments

Job Market PTSD — 26 Comments

  1. Thinking of all the veterans or rape victims who suffers from actual PTSD, I find the application of this term in the context of this post rather insensitive. The post itself is interesting and relevant, but I hope that the term JMPTSD disappears as soon as possible.

    • Hear hear (on both counts – the post is interesting and relevant, but the term is insensitive). This is like the people who say that they’re bipolar because they’re having mood swings, or obsessive-compulsive because they clean a lot. It’s appropriation, and when it passes into the culture it makes it harder for people to understand the situations of those who actually have PTSD.

      I am all for more talk about the anxiety patterns shown by academic job searchers, the consequences of those anxiety patterns, and useful self-care for people experiencing this. Just don’t co-opt someone else’s condition.

    • I’m actually a rape/bullying/emotional abuse survivor who used to meet the criteria for PTSD (not sure whether i still do today). Actually I found the term “job market PTSD” validating, not offensive: it means that what’s happening is a genuine thing that comes from the job search, as opposed to yet another emotional mess caused by the “actual PTSD”.

      Then again, maybe that’s just me and some people might really get offended. Usually I hate it when people use the words autistic/schizophrenic/rape in inappropriate contexts, just wasn’t the case here.

  2. This post describes my situation exactly! I’ve been saying I have PTSD, after years on the job market, just 2 yrs working with TPII and I landed a great TT job, teaching my specialty, in a great city, with great colleagues. Yeay! But I had been working about 90 hours a week on adjunct job, job search, publications, never sleeping, going on adrenaline, never mind child-rearing which my husband was doing practically on his own. Now that I actually got the desired job (after a few months of dreading the offer could disappear), I’m physically destroyed. Body aches, completely exhausted all the time, need to sleep by 7pm and can’t wake til next day. Can’t write a line. I forget everything. I can barely think. When the new job contacts me I’m at their mercy, they give me night classes at children’s bedtime and I say yes yes thank you that’s great. Sigh. I read a zen book that said be grateful for your defeats, as they gave you time for silence and deepening. So I’ll try to think of that and let myself sleep and recover.

    • Dear 8 Years on the Job Market,
      I have been through similar times and know the symptoms. Respectfully, from what you have wrote, I would take your symptoms very seriously, but consider a wider range of diagnoses, including chronic fatigue or adrenal burnout, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. Find someone who can help you recover physically and psychologically sooner rather than later!

  3. On a more positive note, I’ve made myself not work weekends, and we’ve been spending more family time, laughing together as we had not in years. I can see how unhealthy my life was, never ever having time to laugh and play with loved ones.

  4. I agree with the previous commenter about the term Job Market PTSD. I wouldn’t say what I’ve experienced has been near to that. However, I will say I have experienced a few emotions post-successful job search (which is in large part due to the advice provided on this blog) that border on a kind of survivor’s guilt or even the conditioning that comes with being contingent for many years.

    What I find myself having to do is switch modes and remind myself of that optimistic/motivated person that I was when I began graduate school. The fact that those dreams which germinated there are coming to fruition now is overwhelming, and I still have so many colleagues languishing on the market that it feels almost shameful to celebrate my success. Not sure what you call all of these things though.

    I appreciate the sentiment of the post, but yeah the term should be reconsidered.

  5. I can understand the sentiments of the previous commenters in taking offense with the label ‘PTSD’ in this situation, but I mostly found myself nodding while reading through the ‘symptoms.’ Even with a signed contract (over 2 months ago now), having decided on my course offerings for next year with my department chair, and even having placed some book orders for those classes, I keep waiting for some tragedy to strike. That a problem will arise in my visa process (I’m a foreign national) or that the school will suddenly call me to say they’ve changed their mind. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, with no reason, which is affecting my ability to really celebrate this achievement of my ambition of the last decade. I don’t like telling people who are still on the search that I have an offer, not only because of survivor’s guilt and that enduring Imposter Syndrome, but also because I somehow don’t feel like it’s a sure thing until I find myself on campus teaching in front of my first class. I can imagine that those with unsuccessful job searches are rolling their eyes right now at the lucky few wallowing in their supposed ‘distress.’ (#firstworldproblems?) But I’m one of those people who have had to work really hard to get past ‘acting like a grad student,’ especially in this final stage of the PhD, and I appreciate the advice on how not to let all this ‘psychological baggage’ impact my performance, and enjoyment, in my first years as a junior faculty member.

    • “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, with no reason, which is affecting my ability to really celebrate this achievement of my ambition of the last decade. I don’t like telling people who are still on the search that I have an offer, not only because of survivor’s guilt and that enduring Imposter Syndrome, but also because I somehow don’t feel like it’s a sure thing” exactly!

  6. PTSD can refer to many kinds of trauma, and is an appropriate term here – it is the stress disorder that comes after the trauma of the job market. It is clearly less traumatic than violence, but it’s still traumatic. And, yes, oh, yes, it is a thing.

    I am finishing my first year on the tenure track and am still kind of terrified that if I drop a ball or screw something up – even something minor – they’ll just, well, fire me. No contract for you! My anxiety stems from not just the usual job market trauma, but a really wretched experience with a horrible bully at the uni where I was a VAP and internal candidate. The worst part? I went back for another year of VAP because I didn’t really have any other options, since they waited so long the first year to make a decision, which was promptly voided by the administration due to the search chair’s unethical behavior. So I spent two more semesters having to see this horrible person in the hallways and pretending like he hadn’t spread rumors about me, talked shit about me to his students, and like the entire faculty hadn’t just stood by and watched as he came after me in the interview. It was awful, y’all. Aw. Ful. And, no, I didn’t get the job the second year either because he had his proxy blackball me in the new search.

    I am now at a great little regional school near my hometown, with people I like, who are nice to each other, we all work equally hard, my chair actually (get this!) *thanks us* when we do good work! They seem to like me …. but…. it all seems too good to be true. Surely something terrible will happen, right? I don’t know what yet. I live in a red state with a governor who is no friend to higher education (despite his own Ivy League education). Maybe they’ll close the college? Maybe they’ll close my department? Maybe they’ll decide that they can do with one person in my field instead of two? I don’t know. It’s not entirely reasonable, but if something doesn’t go perfectly, I do get really anxious about it. I hope this feeling goes away and soon.

    • “Trauma” and “PTSD” both actually mean something, and that something is more than “I feel crappy after a stressful experience”. There are many kinds of traumas, and I am all for recognizing that something like online bullying can indeed be a qualifying trauma as defined by the DSM, but that doesn’t mean every bad experience in life, even a sustained one, is a trauma in the sense that “post-traumatic stress disorder” refers to. And PTSD doesn’t just mean being miserable or insecure or unable to say no.

      I think what Karen is talking about here is a real phenomenon, but that doesn’t make it PTSD.

  7. I ran across this post about PTSD being caused by things that aren’t physical violence – such as online bullying – and I thought of our conversation here about when it’s appropriate to use the term. So, herewith, an article about PTSD caused by online bullying, but containing a number of good links to articles about what PTSD is, and specifically addressing the fact that non-physical violence can cause it:

    http://manboobz.com/2014/04/22/how-melody-hensley-is-putting-the-bullies-to-shame/

    • Thanks, Jezebella. I actually believe that this term is appropriate, and growing more so as the depredations of the job search/adjunct exploitation increase apace.

  8. Hi Karen,

    I wanted to say thank you for posting this. I recently accepted a TT position and was thrilled by the opportunity, only to find a few weeks later that the thrill had changed to terror. A whole new kind of terror. I struggled with the ‘I will never get a job’, ‘how will I pay back my loans, pay rent, survive etc” in the last two years of my PhD and in the sessional market. It was tough. Particularly tough was dealing with the whole culture of fear and failure that circulates even the idea of not ending up in an academic job, that I would not do what I had been working towards, and maybe not do anything even related to my field of study. I was in the process of re-negotiating what it was I could do with a PhD and was trying to come to terms with looking for different jobs, embracing the idea of ‘transferable skills’ – something with which I wholeheartedly agree – only to get a call for an interview for a job that I thought was long over. It caused a mini-world shift.

    The process was great (thanks for tips on this blog) and I got the offer. Then the fear set in. To echo Jezebella – is this too good to be true? I felt everything that you talk about in this blog. There is though, another I would like to add. The feeling of isolation. I found that when I got the offer I felt like I couldn’t tell people who were still on the market, as though I no longer had anything in common with them, and yes, because of survivor guilt. It felt especially difficult because I had friends who applied for the same job and because I was a recent graduate – who was I to get the offer!? I also felt estranged from my friends who are still in the process of completing a PhD because I worried that they saw me differently, not only because I finished, but because I now have a job. I worried that we would no longer have anything in common – like all my struggles through the course of my PhD suddenly disappeared. Finally, despite the welcoming nature of my new department, I am still not one of them. I am too new. It felt like I was truly isolated, from everyone. Add to that the fact that I will move from my friends and family to a brand new city all on my own, only acts to compound the feeling of isolation.

    Even the idea that I felt this way, that I was anything but overjoyed and thankful for my job, made me feel guilty. Like there was no justifiable reason I should be nervous, insecure or isolated. Your frankness, and the frankness of those above who have commented, have made a difference to me and the process I am going through. I no longer feel isolated or quite so ridiculously freaked out. Thank you. I am of course, extremely excited and very very thankful for my job but will not let my gratitude impact my ability to make good decisions. And of course, my friends are still my friends 🙂 and I look forward to helping them in any way as they continue their journey.

  9. Pingback: Recovering from the Job Search | INALJ

  10. I think Karen has made a good point, and getting side-tracked by labels does not help the conversation move forward. There is an explanation for why this article did not initially get much response, beyond the “PTSD OR NOT” tangent. Your observations are quite valid, but they extend far beyond the academic world. While this may be a somewhat recent phenomenon there, it is an old story for the rest of the world.
    Personally, I have been subject to job offers given, paperwork signed, time spent, and then let go in under 90 days. I am not alone. It is a common enough practice for when a company does not wish to pay the taxes associated with actually hiring an employee. Ethics in the market place are few and far between; it was only a matter of time before it entered the academic fields as well.
    Having stated this, let us move beyond the “oh, what a horrid world it is!” and seek a solution. Kate has offered a few options for maintaining a healthy balance between work and rest, which sound remarkably like the beginnings of a union. I would encourage this, and ask those who live in academia to study this trend further. After all, if we don’t study it into the ground, how can we root out a solution?
    As an artist, I wish to tackle this problem… eventually. However, I need more of you to dig your teeth into the subject and look at it objectively. Find the reasons, find the root of the problem.
    Why has this become the normal behavior of employers? Why are companies so unwilling to work with people? Why haven’t these same companies simply devoted their efforts into making androids to replace us all? (It is what they want from us, right?) Why are our laws so complacent with this behavior? Why are unions and other organizations designed to help the average worker so despised and/or ineffective? Why do demonstrations and protests (which I’ve seen regularly) never seem to work anymore? Is there a better method for making our work environments healthier? Where have wild things like ethics in business gone? How do we stop this poisonous trend?
    I haven’t got the resources to answer most of these questions, but between all of us, perhaps we can answer at least a few.

    Keep digging.

  11. I was diagnosed with Bi Polar Disorder in Law School. I failed to be responsible in my treatment mainly because of the stigma associated with the Illness. I convinced myself that no one would hire an attorney if they knew he was mentally ill. I continued the denial until it was too late. I now advocate that the illness does not discriminate. That you need to be pro active. If each person is honest with himself and confronts the illness in a responsible manner, that will help contribute to the slow removal of the stigma associated with mental illness especially in the White Collar profession. Please don’t wait until it is too late.

  12. Emily, Jezebella, and Karen, I cannot tell you how much your individual words resonated with my own situation. I spent two years on the market, had a baby, moved 5 times, overcame severe postpartum depression, challenged my family-of-origin’s (and culture’s) assumption that I could not be both a mother and a professional teacher and scholar, and confronted very scary economic realities that nearly ended my marriage. All along, I kept up the mask of absolute confidence, giving talks, publishing, and selling my scholarship in interviews and campus visits (4!) while swearing that I wanted to commit to Univ. X and only Univ. X. (No matter how horrifying the locale.)

    Like Emily, I was ready to leave academia behind . . . and then I got an offer from a small regional school. I love my colleagues and the city I get to live in. I have some semblance of work-life balance, and I feel like both my teaching and my scholarship still matter. But Imposter Syndrome came on like a hurricane. Why did I deserve that job when the two other finalists (friends of mine) didn’t? And the flipside: after trying the Wheel of Chance that is the academic job market, why was I at a small and less prestigious place, and not the R1s where I had been a finalist? And as Emily mentions, add the issue of finding yourself in a new place with a new culture where you have few friends and do not always understand the unwritten rules, and the feeling of isolation can be overwhelming.

    After my first year in the job (by about April of second semester), I completely fell apart. Like Jezebella, I found myself shutting down over small adjustments, easy course corrections. (A critical line in my chair’s teaching observation? Easily worth two weeks of freakout.) Life, of course, threw me some major unrelated curveballs in there, but I feel like some elastic quality, some reserve of well-being and balance was simply gone. Rebuilding that has become my priority this summer. Mindfulness/meditation, therapy, social support: I’m throwing it all at the wall in the hopes that something will stick.

    But I also have to say that, as much as I appreciate this blog (and followed Karen’s advice to a T, though I never became a client), I think one of the keys to overcoming this particular issue is to ignore some of the “party wisdom” found herein. I truly appreciate that Karen lays bare the strategic moves on the academic chessboard, but I find I have to recover MY OWN intentions in order not to feel like a pawn. The cult of academia teaches helplessness and blind obedience, and small amounts of strategic rebellion can be incredibly healthy. I will not try to make a 3-hour commute for a big-deal research fellowship work. Instead, I will work on my own and sit down at the kitchen table and ask my son how first grade is going. If it enriches my life and impoverishes my scholarship somewhat, I might just be ok with that. (!) And truly, this is a long game, not a short one. I plan to be productive for decades more, and however I get there is just going to be fine.

  13. Pingback: Mental Health in Academia | Tenure, She Wrote

  14. I have PTSD. The symptoms sound similar, but this is not the same thing. The amount of therapy and suffering and the level of disability PTSD causes to your life is very different. It seems like the way PTSD is used here is metaphoric.

    I DO find this use offensive. Similar to typically-abled people using the term “depressed” for merely sad, or caused by something going wrong short term in their day.

    My husband holds a Masters and is an adjunct at 3 different school and has to put up with a lot of what you listed here. I do see the emotional and psychological effects. On the other hand, we would both agree that this is not the same as having my mom die when I was five, not being allowed to grieve and then being raised by abusive, psychologically damaged father and stepmother who demanded perfection and did not allow us to voice opinions or emotions.

    For what you describe, academics may benefit from a few months to a year of talk therapy, strengthened support from their school, a support group, a good union, a better job or fit.

    People like me who struggle with PTSD have to live with bias and stigma, are often unable to get through the work day, get triggered, disassociate, depersonalize, go through years of experimental medications, support groups, trauma therapy, EMDR, DPT, all expensive, frustrating, and time consuming.

    I have very much enjoyed reading your site and have learned a lot. I hope you will rethink or rewrite this entry.

  15. Whatever you call it, it’s a thing. I am in my first year on the T T, and I second and third and so on so much of what has been said already about the guilt, the imposter syndrome, and the inability to say no. I have the additional problem of having a new baby. I am on a delayed schedule because I asked for that, but it has not helped enough. I feel that I am at a psychological disadvantage even compared to the other new hires in my department and that I owe the department something for having been so inconsiderate and undedicated as to have a baby my first year. It is hard not to feel that I am failing at everything. Ps I don’t have post-partum depression.

  16. Thank you for this post. As soon as I read the title it resonated with what I’ve been experiencing. I admit, I used the same language to describe the sensation to a friend just recently. This year I was offered a T-T at an R1 in my first attempt on the job market, which is not supposed to happen. I got lucky and the stars were aligned just right for some reason. If this one hadn’t worked out, I would have been in the trenches fighting to get a VAP somewhere. I have many friends who are in the VAP situation and returning to the job market each year, living apart from spouses, putting in impossible hours. It sounds awful and narrowly escaping doesn’t make me feel much better about it, especially when equally deserving people receive such horribly unequal treatment as visitings or adjuncts.

    Yes, the war/trauma terminology is overly dramatic, but I think it serves to highlight the sheer randomness of job market outcomes (meritocracy it ain’t) combined with the lack of any sense of control over your own life and future. “Wheel of Chance” is what one poster said, and I think that’s the right image. Meanwhile, in the balance is your most basic ability to provide for yourself in this hyper competitive, neo-liberal economy. Perhaps like narrowly escaping a bad accident, you’re happy you’re alright, but still very shaken up.

  17. I was so RELIEVED to see this post. After 3 years on the market, multiple moves all over the country for temporary positions as a postdoc and VAP (all of which were very painful for my 2 children who I parent alone) I finally landed a TT position and felt relieved for about two weeks. Now, after my first year, I am more depressed than I have ever been in my entire life (and considering that my fiance died in an accident in 2006 when I first began graduate school, THAT is saying something). I am now 75 pounds overweight, taking antidepressants, seeing a therapist once a week, and miserable that I live on the other side of the country from my family but can’t afford to get home to see them. I already had shaky self-confidence as a grad student but the job market tore. me. up. The hardest part wasn’t even the outright rejection it was the times that I was SO CLOSE to getting a position (successful campus visits, being wooed, feeling GREAT about things and then after weeks and sometimes months finally being told that the position was offered to someone else and accepted). I have thought about suicide (I never would because of my kids) and I cry almost everyday. This is real. To call it “JMPTSD” is no joke. In fact, it is precisely that knee-jerk tendency to minimize and/or scoff at these feelings as invalid that exacerbates the profound sense of isolation those of us fighting our way through it feel. I sincerely wish all of you the best as you try to heal, know that you aren’t alone.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, Madelaine. I’m glad you’re getting help through therapy. Take care. Perhaps if others who identify with this experience want to share comments on this thread, I can help put you in touch with each other.

  18. As the current search year is coming to a close, I’d like to share too. I am both relieved and sad to come upon these posts. Like Madalaine, I am a single mother. I defend my dissertation this month but, without job prospects for the year that looms ahead, I am filled with fear, doubts and dread. It’s been a long journey. Happily, I can report that I can still get excited about ideas. But the academy has also been very damaging. There was the anxiety attack in the middle of the night, my first, which took me to the hospital and left my daughter’s own nerves raw. There is this massive loan. Right now,our financial situation is precarious. There is enough money in the bank to get us through the next two-three months. But then what. Thus far, I have one class to teach at my university for which I will be paid very little. Still, it will be very good for the next rounds of job applications. My large student loan will come due soon. In a few months, the academic job market will begin again. This year I sent out a dozen applications and received three first-round interviews. This is reason for hope for the next year, I remind myself. My first article will be published in a high-ranking journal this fall. See, I look for these signs for hope. But the world seems to be getting darker and it feels as if it is closing in on us. Reading the comments confirms another fear–that the tenure-track job may not even provide a respite from this suffering. It could get worse. Nice to know that I am not alone.

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