When I started my first job search as a graduate student two years ago, I was set on the notion that I just needed a job. With student loan payments looming over my head, I was so focused on needing to get a job that I didn’t really consider what I wanted in a job. Fast forward to working in higher education in a national climate where white supremacy is showing up in full force on campuses, where we have to balance the fine lines of education and free speech, and where many of our students, our colleagues, and perhaps ourselves are having to defend our own humanity. I’m operating in survival mode, I’ll be honest. This work has gotten tough, and for those of us with one or more marginalized identities, thriving sometimes isn’t even on our minds.
If this resonates with you, here is a pep talk: you deserve to thrive in a world despite multiple social forces denying your humanity. You deserve to thrive as a professional no matter how many times this world tries to break you. You deserve moments of joy even when the world feels hopeless. You deserve to work in a space where your lived experiences are real and you don’t have to check your identities at the door. And as an educator, you and your brilliant, complex mind deserve a place for it to be stretched and challenged and encouraged and embraced. So even if you are only hoping for a job, I encourage you to take some time reflecting on not just what you absolutely need to survive in a job, but what you need in order to thrive.
In my own job search, I focused so much on being the best candidate for a job and not enough on what job would be the best for me as a person. My hope is that taking time to center yourself and reflect on the things that are important to you will put you on a path to finding a work environment and job that refills your cup, lifts you up, and helps this world feel a little less daunting. Below I share four things to honor as you job search and reflections to help you center yourself.
1. Honor What You Need
I began my job search thinking about my non-negotiables. I needed a Target and a Starbucks. I needed to be within driving distance of my family and my partner. I needed vision insurance for my disability. I needed my campus to have a space for LGBTQIA folks. Some of our needs are based on things that remind us of home or help us feel better after a long day. Some of our needs are tied to identities or our health. Without them, we may not make it a month and we certainly couldn’t dream of thriving.
Some of these non-negotiables may be obvious to you: safety, health, finances, community. For those that aren’t as obvious, reflect on your current environment. What helps you get through the day? What empowers you? Who is crucial to your happiness? Make a list. Then, do a Google search, read school newspapers, search on social media, and craft questions for when you are interviewing. Socials are a great time to ask about the community beyond campus. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask people you know. As a graduate student, I was hesitant to share where I was searching, but if people know you are job searching, it is okay to tell people where you are applying! You never know who will have insight into a school or know someone who is familiar with that campus.
2. Honor What Gets You Out of Bed in the Morning
The national atmosphere over the past year has made it hard for me to find the motivation to get out of bed some mornings. In January, seasonal mental health doesn’t even allow me to sit up some days, so I recognize that getting up isn’t always an option. In times of good mental health, though, the view of Lake Michigan out my window got me up every day (also duty phone calls at 3am). At my current institution, I recently volunteered with a huge event to promote proactive and reactive bystander intervention and I was excited to get out of bed. These are the passion areas, the things that energize you, and the things that give you hope.
Check in with yourself in your current environment. What motivates you? What gets you excited for the day? What do you look forward to? What helps you keep going when the going gets tough? What re-energizes you? Some of these will be work related and some won’t be. These may be opportunities your work environment offers or a direct component of your job. Check the job description or the institution’s strategic plan and craft these into questions for interviews or socials. Ask about flexibility and health benefits regarding mental health or ask what the culture is like around mental health days and self-care. Work is going to feel like work when motivation isn’t there.
3. Honor the Things That Help You Do Your Best Work
I feel my best in my work when I get to brainstorm new solutions to problems, when I get to be creative and try something new, and when I get to train or present on things I am passionate about. The day-to-day tasks that haven’t been updated in years and answering emails make me feel useless. There are internal factors that determine what my best work is but a lot of my best work comes from being in the right environment that complements my values and my strengths and being around the right people that embrace the work I love doing. The external factors affect whether or not we find value in our work, affect our commitment to continue growing and challenging ourselves, and can be helpful in avoiding burnout.
When do you feel like you do your best work? What does that feel like? When do your colleagues, your supervisors, your staff, and your students witness you doing your best work? When do you feel most accomplished, like you contributed something to the world today? What are those “I’ve got this!” moments? What interviewers wear, how they interact with one another, and how they treat you give some indication of the culture of a department. Tune into the kinds of questions an employer asks in an interview and ask specific questions to get examples of innovation, change, social justice, or other things you care about.
4. Honor Your Full Potential
I was so focused on the short-term goal of getting a job that I really forgot to think about my long-term goals. I really hadn’t thought about professional development opportunities, what opportunities were built into my position to set me up for my future, or how my supervisors would support me in my growth to set me up for my next job search. Finding a place that allows you to do your best work is will certainly help you gain skills and engage in opportunities that set you up for your career. How long people stay with a department, whether or not an institution provides professional development funding or a professional development plan, and what opportunities are available to collaborate across different offices can indicate what your professional growth might look like.
As professionals in a field that focuses all of our energy on students, it can be far too easy to forget about ourselves. It is crucial in this field to find spaces that re-energize you, that embrace your existence, and acknowledge the struggle. This is only a start, but I hope these questions help you begin to honor yourself, your needs, and your humanity so you can find a work environment that does the same.
Ashley Trewartha, M.Ed.
She/her/hers & they/them/theirs
Iowa State University