English Matters

Tell Yourself a Different Story: An Essay on Surviving the Job Market

In this guest blog, Dr. Jeffrey Aaron Weingarten (Fanshawe College) considers his path from graduate school to the job market, musing on the stories we tell ourselves through such experiences and how those stories can change in fruitful and unexpected ways.

weingartenThe first story I told myself about my career was also the only story I told myself as a graduate student. The story went like this: I belong in a tier 1 university, tenure-track, where I’ll be a star academic and the first academic working in my field to achieve a broad reading audience. While this felt like it was just my story, I also knew how familiar it sounded to other graduate students in my program and elsewhere.

It was easy to stick to that one magnificent story, because it seemed to me at the time like there was no alternative to it. For many graduate students, it often feels this way partly because of how frequently they see, modeled right in front of them, only one image of success: their mentors and colleagues. Some of us went to grad school, in part, so we could emulate the lives and careers of professors who got their jobs decades or even just a few years ago, when the stories available to them were much different than the ones available to the new generation of PhDs entering market. And so I couldn’t help but tell myself just one story: their story.

Now, though, I know that surviving the market means becoming a better storyteller—or, at least a more flexible one. Imagine many different versions of yourself, your career, and the best use of your expertise. Tell yourself a different story.

Tell yourself a different story about what you deserve and where you belong.

Maybe I needed a healthier perspective during grad school. Okay, I definitely needed one. That is to say, maybe both then and now I didn’t and don’t deserve anything specific or belong anywhere in particular. Maybe the story I should have told myself back then is that, once finished with my Ph.D. in English Literature, I’ll possess skills that are essential to achieving success in any market. Not just teaching and academia, but any place of employment.

How many of our students and friends coming out of Ph.D. programs know that a vast majority of employers agree that their three most desired qualities in every job candidate (in any market across North America) are the ability to write well, communicate effectively and professionally, and show the capacity for innovative creative and critical thinking? At the very least, communication skills are almost always considered a universal asset.[1]

Remember this: while many companies will concede that their recent hires offer field-specific expertise, those same hires tend to lack the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, and, for those employers, that ability is far more useful than field-specific knowledge. Hence, humanities-based Ph.D. graduates have become increasingly desirable candidates in most workforces. I always caution my students (especially those who seem hesitant to take my communications courses), that their superiors can certainly help them with workplace-specific knowledge, but statistically it is a near certainty those superiors cannot help them become a better writer.

You have other skills. No one in job markets outside the academy will care all that much that you discovered some obscure passage in an archive, but they will care that you can work under pressure, fearlessly speak in public, coordinate large-scale projects, establish and stick to long-term plans, and act as mentor, leader, and the authority in large and small group settings (i.e. as a teacher or teaching assistant must do).

And so here is where the story can change for humanities students. Do you see this new narrative budding? You’re not just one of many brilliant Ph.D. graduates vying for tenure-track jobs; now you’re quite possibly one of the only effective communicators catching and holding the attention of an employer who values your unusual potential and promise.

The more time that passed after completing my Ph.D. in 2013, the more I realized something important: the story where I belonged in a tier 1 university was a destiny story. It was comforting, at first, to believe I was meant for something. Destiny, I later realized, is a narrative bear trap. And it prevented me from considering, until much later, the possibility of working outside of the university.

Tell yourself a different story about the reality of achieving your dream.

There’s a story a friend told me once (which may be apocryphal, as Google has failed to corroborate it for me) about a South American slug whose brain serves only one purpose: to help it find the coolest rock shaded from the sun. Once the slug finds the rock, it has no more need to think, and so it eats its own brain. This is how I once imagined tenure to be: the moment at which I could relax and indulge in the coolness of the stable rock that my career had become.

As grad students, my friends and I liked to talk about the tenure-track job as the end of the road and of tenure as the end of the end of the road. But this isn’t true. In some universities, the tenure-track process is extremely demanding, as is the post-tenure life.

For me, realizing that wasn’t too upsetting: I’ve always loved throwing myself into teaching, researching, and publishing. For some academics, though, that isn’t the case. I remember a colleague telling me once that he looked forward to getting a tenure-track position because then he could just stop publishing; his story led him to believe that getting a job somehow meant no longer having to work.

Do not let your goals (one kind of dream) become fantasies (an altogether different kind of dream). But also … don’t become a sailor if you hate the sea. Understand the job toward which you’re working, its compatibility with your strongest skills, and its compatibility with the life you imagine living.

Tell yourself a different story about why you achieve your goals.

I see now that I wanted to become a star in my field because I wanted a pat on my back more than I wanted to feel good about myself. In fact, I conflated the two quite often. I assumed one led to the other. It doesn’t.

A friend of mine was once invited by her therapist to spend 1 month achieving one of her goals, and then to spend that same month telling no one in her life what she had achieved. It was a humbling exercise; her therapist was trying to teach her that the praise of others does not actually solve our inability to praise and love ourselves.

If you’re writing, publishing, and teaching to get something from someone else, then you’ve misunderstood the purpose of having an audience. An audience listens for themselves, and when you provide for them, it should be for their education and joy, not for their praise. Whatever you need to feel about yourself, it has to come from within.

Tell yourself a different story about where you’ll end up.

Even if you’re sure, as I was, that you want the tenure-track job, there are many other wonderful paths available to you.

When I won a full-time-job competition at Fanshawe College in 2015, some colleagues advised me to turn it down. Several people told me I was “better” than the job—by which they meant that I would have a “better” career if I held out for a university job. At the time, I was disoriented, because I had to rewrite my plan and because those reactions from colleagues and friends softened my gratitude for having gotten this job I’d wanted. Instead, I let myself feel that I had sold out by taking it. Suddenly, I was negotiating what was best for me with what everyone wanted for me. One friend, without meaning to sound insulting, said to me, “it’s okay; all of us have to settle for less sometimes.”

Gradually, my gratitude arrived. It came as I began weaving together the threads of a new story. Here they are:

A year goes by, and no jobs in my field have surfaced. I feel excitement about my teaching. I am beginning to wonder: I’m enjoying this job, and if I hadn’t taken it, what was out there for me to take instead?

Two years go by, I am rejected from what I once thought of as my dream job. Despite books, articles, conference papers, and reviews – I am not even long listed for the job. I start telling unhealthy stories. I say it is my fault. I imagine typos all over my cover letter that aren’t there. I don’t eat for days, until someone close to the search committee describes the profile the committee had had in mind, and it is a profile I don’t even remotely fit. It wasn’t my fault.

I eat lunch for the first time in four days as my friend keeps talking.

In the months leading up to that job competition, many kind people in my life had told me I was meant for that job. I start to tell myself a different story: I wasn’t meant for anything at all except to tell myself new stories.

Later that year, and I see a few jobs pop up in small cities in which I’ve never wanted to live. I don’t apply for them. I ask myself: how much of my current life will I lose if I go somewhere I don’t want to live?

My job is, more and more, my joy. Now I am asked to design new courses that reflect my expertise and interests. Now I am invited to develop new programs. Now I’m offered professional development leaves to explore new areas of research and teaching. Now I’m publishing my first book. Now I’m working on my next one. Now I have a dream job because I let it become that.

And now there is more I don’t want to leave. Finally living in the same city, I propose to my partner. She says yes. We’re married the next year.

Another year passes. I walk into my brother’s house that summer, and my fourteen-month-old nephew sees me and smiles so hard his pacifier slips out of his mouth. He runs up to me and squeezes my leg and then, for reasons I don’t understand, slaps my thigh (hard) and runs away, giggling maniacally. We spend the morning reading board books on my brother’s living room floor.

I’ve known it for some time, but this moment reminds me: the story I used to tell myself, “I’ll go anywhere for a job,” is a story I can’t tell anymore.

Tell yourself a different story about what it means to “survive” the market.

My point is this: grad students, graduates, and sessionals will survive the job market. But surviving the market does not mean getting exactly what you think you want. It does not mean striving to make just one story come true.

Maybe you won’t work in the university; maybe you’ll work in a college. Or maybe you’ll take an administrative role, rather than a teaching one, where you work with and meet students in completely different ways than you ever imagined. Or maybe you’ll take your skills into a world outside of academia, where those skills will make you an asset in a job market populated by a surprisingly high number of applicants unqualified to communicate in the workplace.

And maybe your time will not always be just about work – it is possible you may want to have a life one day, too.

And just because the story you live isn’t the first one you told yourself doesn’t mean it can’t be ideal. It is okay to tell yourself that your first story needs a rewrite. In fact, it is nourishing to revise your story from time to time, and sometimes it is important to write an entirely new one.

To do so doesn’t mean you’ve “given up.” That’s not what we do when we tell stories. Storytelling is flexibility and creativity, and such things are neither weaknesses nor signs of failure. They signal health. They show resilience.

And to master those skills, imagine your goals on spectrums. In other words, everything you want out of your professional or personal life should be well understood, but it should always be broadly imagined, both conceptually (every goal must take many forms) and temporally (if a goal cannot be achieved all at once, then it must be achieved in parts, each of which you must appreciate as much as the whole). Accept every unexpected form your goals take. And rush nothing. And then, for whatever you can be grateful, you must be grateful.

 Your goals and life are not specimens that can be measured, examined, and sketched while painfully and rigidly pinned down like a butterfly on a board. Where is there joy in such an image? It’s not there. It’s here: your life and goals are, like the unpinned butterfly, alive and thus exquisitely moving in the most unpredictable ways.

I am still learning to observe and appreciate those movements in my own life. I watch. I sometimes stare. And I try not to want, expect, or anticipate too much. My life flutters. My goals dart. I still have so many stories to tell.

[1] See my suggested readings at the end of this paper.

Dr. Jeffrey Aaron Weingarten received his doctorate from McGill University in 2013. He is a Professor of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College. His first book, Sharing the Past: The Reinvention of History in Canadian Poetry since 1960, will be published by the University of Toronto Press later this year. He can be reached at jweingarten@fanshawec.ca.

Some Suggested Readings on Employability Skills

 Gray, Elizabeth F. and Niki Murray. “‘A distinguishing factor’: Oral Communication Skills                 in New Accountancy Graduates.” Accounting Education 20.3 (2011): 275-294.

Holtzman, Diane M. and Ellen M. Craft. “Skills Needed in the 21st Century Workplace: A Comparison of Feedback from Undergraduate Business Alumni and Employers with a National Study.” Business Education & Administration 3.1 (2011): 61-76. 

Mishra, K. Employability skills that recruiters demand. IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 8.3 (2014): 50-55. 

Moore, Tim and Janne Morton. “The Myth of Job Readiness? Written Communication, Employability, and the ‘Skills Gap’ in Higher Education.” Studies in Higher Education 42.3 (2015): 591-609.



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