I have a PhD but am stuck in adjunct purgatory, working four jobs to stay afloat. I’m trying to find a full-time job. I always hear that you should self-advocate and use your networks, but when I do it goes badly. Folks look at me like I’m crazy (Me: “I have an idea how my skills can be put to use in this area.” Them: “That’s not how things work. No.”). Using my network always feels awkward and forced. Is there a “right” and “wrong” way to self-advocate and “use your network”?
D.S. / Newton
I’m so glad you included the bit of dialogue! Because that’s what you’re doing wrong: Presenting yourself as the answer to someone’s problem, a gold ring to be snatched. You need to ask, not offer. You are the petitioner, not the boon.
There’s a place for that kind of “I am your missing jigsaw piece” self-promotion, and it’s during the job interview. That’s when the organization has decided that there is a hole in the puzzle, and it’s your goal to demonstrate that you are the very scrap of cloud their sky is missing. You’re not there yet. What you need to be doing right now is unabashedly asking for help to fix your unsatisfying career life.
I get it. Asking for what you want, just putting it out there, feels needy and desperate, maybe even selfish. We’re supposed to ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them, right? Offering to help, by contrast, feels strong! Generous! Competent! Right? Now, hold that thought and flip it. That ego you’re trying to protect? Other people have those, too. And people’s egos extend beyond themselves, to their jobs and social groups and pets and musical taste, so when you swoop in and offer to put things in order — well, you’re pointing out that their jigsaw has a missing piece, and maybe they don’t think it does. Or they were hoping no one would notice. Or it’s been driving them up a tree, but management won’t authorize a replacement piece. You don’t know.
What you do know is your own unique curves and color, and that you need to find the right puzzle to fit into. So ask. “I cannot deal with this four-jobs situation much longer. Any job leads or advice would be appreciated. This is what I can do and what I’m looking for...” Then let your network feel strong, generous, and competent by helping you.
Networking always feels awkward when there are actual stakes involved. (When there are no stakes involved, we call it “shop talk” or “gossip” and enjoy it quite a bit.) Difficult as it is, the best way to do it is to carry as much of that burden of awkwardness yourself, and not foist it on to others. Ask for what you want; ask others what they want, don’t assume; and always put in a rhetorical escape hatch when asking a favor. (“Could I buy you a coffee and pick your brain about [industry], or are you overscheduled right now?”) That should help. Good luck!
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.