On Campus

Unemployed for a day

Rybak on pounding the pavement for work

Recently I went through a very bizarre process known as OCIs, which stands for “on campus interviews.” The fact that these interviews actually occur off campus is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of strangeness. It really throws me that I just interviewed in October in the hope of securing a job for May 2009. More than that, in fact, applications were due around the end of August. That’s all just part of being a second year student in law school, and probably of minimal interest to those not in law school. But the experience reminded me of something we tend to obscure. It’s that we’re all currently unemployed.

Okay, full-time students often have part-time jobs, so it might be more accurate to say some of us are unemployed while the rest are underemployed. But the fact remains we all lack the capacity to really support ourselves and we’re all surviving on some combination of loans, bursaries and scholarships, the sufferance of parents and family members, etc. There’s nothing at all wrong with concentrating on school, of course, but it’s understood to be a temporary state of affairs. At some point down the road, whether it be four years or seven or nine, we all end up on the job market and come face to face with the truth I just experienced. We’re all un(der)employed, and have been for quite some time.

This was a bit of a déjà vu for me. I remember what it’s like to be unemployed and looking for a job. It’s about the most unpleasant experience imaginable. You take your résumé and you put on some decent clothes and you pound the pavement. As the sophistication of your job market and the field you’re in increase, you may find you’re dealing with recruiters and specialized agencies and processes that are mediated in other ways. But the essentials remain constant. You work the real and virtual pavement. You make the best impressions you can in short spans of time, and then you wait. There’s a lot of waiting.

Inevitably, too, there’s a lot of rejection. I’m speaking from past experience now rather than recent events, as I’m writing this piece before I know the outcome of my interviews. In part this is because I know they might Google me and this article might pop up. So if you just interviewed me and you’re reading this article now, please note I’m not really talking about you. Oh, and please give me a job. Now, where was I? Oh yeah, rejection.

Based on probability alone, any job hunt involves a lot of rejection. You apply to a lot of places. Only some of them give you interviews at all. Then maybe you don’t get any of those jobs and you go out and apply again. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every time you go around you’re a little more deflated. If five people haven’t hired you already then why should the sixth? And if twenty people haven’t hired you it’s even less likely the twenty-first is going to do so. It becomes very hard to keep your chin up and your confidence alive, and yet that’s almost the most important part of the process. After all, if even you don’t believe anymore in your value as an employee, how do you expect to convince any prospective employer that you’re worth hiring?

My answer to this problem is to remember that at worst it’s my résumé that’s been rejected and not me as a person. I’m a lot more than my grades and my work experience. And even though my various extra-curricular activities are on there too (most of them, anyway, including this blog) I’m also a lot more than the line or two I can spare to describe them. There are many things I do that hopefully make me an attractive employee, but I don’t do them only to be an attractive employee. And that, for me, is the last line of defense that allows me to soldier through the inevitable rejection of the job hunt and not let it get to me.

I’m reminded of all the students I know – some of them have never been on the job market – who seem to view employability as the begin-all and end-all of just about everything they do. There isn’t a club they join or a task they volunteer for that isn’t implicitly aimed at securing a job or a career down the road. Although I try to be sympathetic to this attitude I’ve just been reminded why it’s dangerous. When you take this approach too far you literally do become your résumé. When everything meaningful that you do is geared towards getting a job, and for whatever reason you can’t get one, then what’s left?

It’s been a number of years since I’ve been unemployed in any urgent sense or forced to remember what that feels like. Based on the taste I got last week it’s pretty much what I recall. It sucks. But it also isn’t the end of the world, one way or the other, and I’m sure it’s healthier to keep that in perspective. Not only is it healthier, it’s even the best way to ensure that things turn out well eventually, if not sooner then at least later.

I’d encourage all students to take an extra look at all the things they do and remember that much as job and career are important, other things are important things too. Don’t become only your résumé. It won’t do you any favors out on the job market. And if you ever find yourself unemployed in the future (as happens to a surprising number of professionals) you’ll need some greater sense of self to fall back on.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.