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Seniors: Everything Has Changed, and Nothing Has Changed

A senior in English writes:

Pending the pandemic situation, I am planning on graduating in December. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing as far as a job search goes—when am I supposed to actively start looking and applying? What should I be looking for? How do people know how to do this (or is there no right or wrong way to find a “real job”?)?

My answer to this student:

The global pandemic changes everything — and nothing. It lays bare fundamental features of job hunting for humanities majors that tend to be obscured by the noise of a booming economy. The fundamental things that remain the same are these:

  1. There’s no direct path from a degree to success that is meaningful for YOU. It will be a process — just because that’s how life works.

  2. The “soft skills” that you’ve developed in your major (and that led you to thrive in it in the first place) are vital to every organization.

  3. Talking to people, learning more about areas that interest you, finding ways to practice and build your skills (even through short-term or volunteer projects) can be as important as identifying specific jobs to apply for and submitting your resume.

People often base their expectations about applying for post-graduation jobs around the experience of applying for college, where there’s a uniform process, a clear and universal timetable, and a fixed outcome (along with copious data about ACT/SAT scores and GPAs, and the like). Even though most students know applying for jobs isn’t like that, it’s really hard to shake that fundamental model for making sense of the process. The sooner you grasp that your job search is governed by YOU (your priorities, your strengths, your actions) rather than by external guides and expectations, the more progress you’re likely to make.

In more concrete terms — given a December graduation, you may not be submitting job applications until (a) the fall campus career fairs (bearing in mind that some of those companies will open applications in August) and (b) October, at the earliest, for jobs you find through various job boards/sites (including Handshake). Generally, small and mid-size employers post jobs when they have a spot to fill, so if they’re advertising in July (for example), they probably want someone who can start in August (or maybe September if they have a prolonged hiring process).

BUT NOW is a really good time to:

(a) Get in the habit of browsing job boards and reading


You can learn a lot about potential roles, fields and industries that might interest you, the structure of organizations that might employ you, terms of art and jargon that might be relevant to your interests, paths to promotion, and the relevance of your skills. Read widely! Don’t be put off by job titles — read down to the “Requirements” for jobs and think about how you could demonstrate that you have those abilities.

(b) Talk to people — reach out by email and ask for skype/phone/zoom conversations. 

Asking for advice and insight is a really great way to (a) get advice and insight and (b) build your network. Focus on (a) and view (b) as a potential byproduct. Ask for feedback on your resume, interesting people to follow on Twitter or LinkedIn, suggestions for books to read or professional organizations to get involved with.

(c) Stay in touch with the Humanities Professional Resource Center and the Career Center.

Take advantage of opportunities to get help fine-tuning your resume, practicing your cover letter skills, and having mock interviews. Also: attend virtual info sessions offered by employers who recruit on your college campus (these are listed among the Events on Handshake). You don’t have to be passionately interested in a company to get relevant insight out of its events. Those online sessions can help you learn more about what’s out there and get comfortable being professional in an online format.

(d) Keep building skills.

If the current situation has you overwhelmed and you have no bandwidth for more than getting through your classes and helping your loved ones, that’s okay. However, if taking action would help you feel less anxious and stressed, there are things you can do. Some employers are still hiring summer and fall interns, not-for-profit organizations are hurting for volunteers, opportunities for political and community activism abound, your campus organizations may need leadership as they move activities online, companies may be interested in part-time or project-based remote help (check out Parker-Dewey), and there’s all kinds of online training being offered (check out LinkedIn (free with your U of Illinois NetId), Salesforce’s Trailhead, NPR Training, Hubspot, and Coursera — to name just a few).

(e) Reflect. 

No life experience is ever wasted. Whatever you are doing in this moment to stay afloat, help those around your, or move forward counts. It can give you insight into your strengths, evidence of your skills, awareness of your priorities. Take note, and let this moment become part of your story.

We’re entering an unprecedented global depression, and more people are going to be pursuing fewer jobs. Unless you get very lucky, it may take a while. For that reason, keep this list in mind once you start sending out your resume, particularly (b), (d), and (e). Let your forward movement forward be what defines you — not the application-wait-rejection cycle.