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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

How to Pull Yourself Through a Rough Job Search When You Feel Like Giving Up

Job searching is hard. It’s hard for most people—for me, for you, for your friend’s friend’s cousin. I can’t tell you that your experience is better or worse than anyone else’s, and I can’t tell you you’ll immediately end up exactly where you want to be. But I can tell you you’re not alone.

I asked several people, including some Musers, to be open and honest about what it was like for them to go through it. Because we’ve all had those teary, throw-a-plate-at-the-wall, yell-at-your-friends-and-family moments in which we’ve hated the process, the hiring manager, the company, or even ourselves. We’ve all worried that we won’t find a job we like, or one at all. But eventually, hopefully, all that stress and frustration leads to a real life career.

Here’s how to cope with some of the hardest moments in the job search, according to real people who went through it—and came out alive:

When You Feel Like You Lost Your Chance

In 2009, editor and writer Sara McCord found herself in the heat of the recession. Everyone was desperately competing for the same limited amount of jobs, and after leaving her dream job behind in DC to move to rural Pennsylvania with her boyfriend, she believed she’d peaked. At 23, she says, “I thought this is it, I’ve blown my career. My best years are behind me. I wondered if everyone who had given me advice on leaving to be with my boyfriend was right. I thought I’d never get a good job again.”

And understandably—who hasn’t once thought their career was over during a rut? Before I could even ask, McCord told me she had no regrets moving for her boyfriend—now husband: “If you put your relationship first, you put it first. Don’t make yourself the victim. You have to be honest with yourself and say, ‘I’m choosing to put XYZ first.’”

She eventually landed two part-time jobs at $9 an hour. At one point, when her husband lost his job, she took on a full-time gig photographing auto parts, a clear deviation from her original dream.

McCord knew there was one thing that was holding her back—her location: “Sometimes you’re just in the wrong place. I knew that I wasn’t going to find my dream job in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. I was going to have to wait to leave for that.”

McCord believes it’s important to check in with yourself and try to pinpoint if something is preventing you from getting from A to B: “It could be that you have to move, or it could be that your passion for the industry isn’t showing through in your interview. Then, you have to change whatever that thing is. And, really, you have to be honest with yourself if you’re not putting your job search first. At the time, I didn’t—I put my relationship first.”

This is something I came across a lot when talking with people—the idea of making your job search a full-time job in itself. Not forever, but if you want to find a position you truly love, you’re going to have to prioritize your search.

But with that being said, it’s OK to choose another full-time obligation for a bit—being a stay-at-home parent, caring for a loved one, traveling. Your dream job isn’t going anywhere, and it’ll be there waiting when you’re ready to jump back in.

Once McCord moved, she found a job she loved within a matter of months, and the experience of being under-employed is one of the things that eventually led her to pursue a career that would allow her to work remotely full-time.

When You Keep Trying and Getting Rejected

With a background in communications and PR, Gaby Rocha, an old colleague of one of my co-workers, had a real drive for fashion. But she wasn’t picky—she’d take any opportunity in the industry as a stepping stone toward her dream job. She described her experience in the same way a college student would talk about studying for finals: “I drank tons of coffee and wrote cover letters for every job. I literally tailored every single one of them. I studied for hours every night before an interview, I tried to look the best I possibly could. I probably applied to hundreds of jobs.”

She sounded like someone who’d been this strategic and organized her whole life, and when I asked her if she approached everything in this way, she responded “definitely not.” Basically, the job search turned her into someone who spent hours trying to make the perfect impression in everything she did.

Now, the job search shouldn’t turn you into someone you’re not—in fact, being “fake” or trying too hard can lead you down the wrong path for you. And it shouldn’t consume your life, either—but, it is a full-time commitment to find and land an amazing position. Rocha was willing to put in long hours to go after her ideal career—and when she found it, she could honestly say she truly earned it.

Talking with her reminded me of a former roommate, Kerry Houston, who I’d watched for the better part of a year submit tons of applications without any luck. So of course, I called her up (where she now works at an insurance company) to see if she remembers it as vividly as I do. She did.

“The worst part was not hearing anything, then when you did hear back, it was so many more interviews then you expected,” she told me. “You’d go in to the third round, and then they’d surprise you with a fourth. It’s not even the rejection that stings, it’s the waiting and waiting and then the rejection after waiting for so long.”

She described her feelings to me about it like a state of limbo—you’re always anxious because you don’t want to get your hopes up when you can easily get rejected the next week or month, but how can you not get excited if you’re making it so far? And it became a puzzle of negotiating her time—should I go and apply to 10 more companies when I’m waiting on other leads, and is that wasting my time if I end up getting the job anyways?

The answer? No, it’s not a waste to continue applying, but you have to go about it strategically. Sure, if you’re in the right mindset to submit more applications, then go for it. But when you send out applications rapidly and without a lot of thought and care, that’s when mistakes get made and your application is more likely to just get thrown in the trash (and that’ll be even more frustrating). In this case, you might want to pull back and take a break until you’re ready to start again.

To get over the stress of it, Houston said she’d run about five miles, four times a week at a fast sprint until she couldn’t do it anymore: “I called it my angry workout. When I was rejected, I’d do a longer run. I didn’t think I could do that much, but I had so much energy in me that I needed to get out. You don’t realize how much this stress builds up into adrenaline, even if it’s negative adrenaline.”

When You Get Led On and Let Down

Long before Richard Moy was a writer for The Muse, he was fired from a recruiting role, which then lead to a long year of job searching. During some of the worst times, he was led on to getting a job not once, but three times. When we talked about it, I felt myself getting annoyed on his behalf.

But that’s a typical reaction when you hear these kinds of stories because we’ve all been there. In a few instances, hiring managers told him they were writing up an acceptance letter for him—but then suddenly began sending him cold emails, telling him the company was going in a different direction: “They’d say ‘we didn’t realize you’re more expensive than we can afford,’ or, ‘we’re going to take a pass,’ or, ‘we think you’ll be bored here.’”

It was confusing. Here he was willing to accept just about any opportunity that would pay the bills, and apparently he was either too overqualified for the role, or he was too expensive—and yet, never once did he ask for a set salary. “A flat rejection would’ve been much easier,” he said. “But they kept leading me on. I felt worthless. I kept thinking, I don’t know what else I’m qualified to do, and no one wants to hire me for what I am qualified for. I just had to remind myself to stay on course.”

The thing is, looking back, staying on course was what was holding him back. The roles he’d applied for were in account management, but his real passion was for writing. When I asked him the turning point in his search, he said honestly, “I tried to force my way back into account management, but the world essentially was like, ‘no, go be a writer.’”

There will be times in your job search when you’re trying to make something happen, and someone else (a.k.a., a hiring manager) doesn’t think it’s a good fit. These are the frustrating, horrible moments that are out of your control. But there will also be moments when maybe you’re trying to force something that wasn’t meant to be. Rejection stings, but squeezing yourself into a career that isn’t your size? That’s inevitably more painful.

When You Think You’re Out of Options

Like McCord, Career Coach Melody Wilding started her career during the financial crisis. After graduating from Rutgers, and then getting her masters at Columbia, she was disillusioned by how hard it would be to find a job afterwards: “I kept thinking that this wasn’t what I was told in college. I had all the boxes ticked, why wasn’t this working?”

Going the traditional route failed her—sure, she received some responses and interviews, but none of her options were what she was looking for. “The thing I always advise my clients to do, and something I did as well during my process, was to make a list of your must-haves, your non-negotiables, and your deal-breakers,” she told me. So no matter how hard her search was, she never compromised the importance of having a short, flexible commute: “And this in itself cut down on the time I was wasting on jobs that didn’t work for me.”

But like most, she hit that wall when you start to run out of places to look and things to apply to: “I hit my low point where I became sick of being frustrated with myself and the process. I knew that something drastic needed to change. If nothing about the way I’m going about this isn’t working, what is?”

At the time, she was getting through grad school with internships and part-time jobs, anything she could do to get some valuable experience. She decided that instead of looking outward for a job, she’d turn to what she already had at her disposal. She built on her current jobs and activities and turned them into networking opportunities or freelance consulting gigs. She started attending events hosted by people she knew and put herself in social circles with individuals who could give her the advice and guidance she needed. Now she has a coaching practice on top of a full-time job as the Director of Social Innovation at ConsumerMedical.

“Instead of waiting for someone to choose me, I chose myself,” Wilding said. She believes this is the mindset any struggling job seeker should have: Take charge of every element of your career, even the parts you don’t think you can control. Because you have just as much power to break the cycle as a hiring manager does.

When You Start to Doubt Yourself

I’m a perfectionist. It helps when I’m cleaning my apartment or proofreading articles for typos, but it hurts when it comes to being rejected. So, during the worst parts of my job search—when I was going through three, four rounds of interviews, completing edits on 100-page manuscripts and churning out writing samples, getting led on and let down—I was really hard on myself.

I was angry at all those hiring managers, sure, but I hated my mediocrity more. I wished I was smarter, more experienced, better at interviews, cooler. Similarly, my roommate told me the biggest blow was when she’d have the perfect resume, but get rejected for a culture fit. Really, you start to doubt everything—your major, your life choices, your personality.

But I knew I wasn’t worthless. Even on my worst days, I reminded myself that I was a hard worker and a good person, and because of those traits and my passion, I’d eventually be recognized by (the right) hiring manager.

So, while this mindset didn’t lead to an immediate job, it did shift my perspective. Several of the people I talked with told me that you can’t take the job search personally, and they’re right: “There will always be someone who’s bigger, faster, stronger than you,” Houston told me. “But you have to remember there’s only so much you can do.”

So identify your best qualities and cling to those when the tides get rough. Because no rejection should ever convince you you’re not deserving of a job. You may get some great, useful feedback, and you may get some really harsh criticism, but you can’t let the search define who you are.

The first thing Wilding told me when I spoke to her was, “People always say ‘My story isn’t typical.’ But when it comes to the job search, it becomes the typical story. Because everyone’s been through something like it.”

And she was right—even when you think you had it rough, there’s a likely chance you’re not the first person, or the last.

I can tell you that everyone I talked to said they have never been happier where they are right now. They found their passion, they landed their dream job, and they get to do the things they love, every day.

It takes work, blood, sweat, and tears to get there—but when you do, looking back will never feel so good.

Photo of upset woman courtesy of golubovy/Getty Images.