What’s your job application strategy? Pandemic edition
Learning to improve my job search prospects.
“What’s your application strategy?”, a design manager asked me during a Zoom chat. Although the phrase was new to me, the idea that job search involved strategy was familiar.
When I began my search in June, I understood the difficulty that lay ahead. Making a career change is an uphill battle, but doing this during a pandemic felt like I had fallen into a deep pit with a dusty sky fogging my vision.
I started by solely applying to all the product designer jobs I could find. I forfeited exercise, regular meals, and socializing in efforts to outcompete other candidates. This continued for two months until I hit my breaking point.
I operated like I could control my outcomes with higher inputs when I was actually burning out my operating system. I took a two-week break to re-center, analyze what went wrong, and devise Application Strategy 2.0.
Those designated two weeks spread to a month as I grappled with existential waters. I asked myself, “Why do we work?”, “What is this all for?”, and “Am I focusing on what will matter to me at the end of life, let alone the next few years?”.
I could not ignore the fact that many factors were uncontrollable, and the pandemic’s effect was considerable.
I also had to surrender to my human limits that I destructively labeled as weakness. Instead of trading sleep and play, I had to prioritize them to keep myself focused and hopeful.
It’s easy to feel discouraged at the 500+ applicants on a LinkedIn job posted 4 hours ago, the immediate rejection emails, and portfolio feedback that seem to contradict my updates from my last edit.
The job application process is notoriously an emotional rollercoaster, but during a pandemic, the motivational LinkedIn posts feel more like lifelines than self-promotion.
Is there an end to this misery?
Will the unemployed ever find jobs before this pandemic ends?
Sorry, buds. No one knows the answer to that, for it is out of our control.
This lack of control discouraged me until I took that break to evaluate my strategy.
To design an application process that worked for me, I had to critique each part of my strategy, decipher the useful bits, then iterate on new strategies until I met my metrics: less doubt, less limbo, and more moments that reminded me of what’s most important in our little lives.
“Did you get a job yet?”
— Everyone and their moms
No, son. But my mind is in a better place, which means my productivity and my prospects have also improved. Employment will not make me feel whole, but the lessons and small wins gained from this challenge will.
Here are the paradigms and tactics that have and continue to rescue me from the valley of misery.
Doubt is natural in moments of uncertainty. Without feedback, we cannot know for certain what steps to avoid moving forward. Reminding myself of the following helps me break that unhealthy feedback loop.
- I’m going to be okay. There is immense power in reminding ourselves that we will succeed. We will receive our offers, start working, and quickly forget the anguish we are lamenting right now. Until then, we must remember that this period is temporary, and we will be stronger for this struggle. Repeat after me: I don’t want what doesn’t want me.
- Prioritize craftsmanship for long-term success. We are being hired for our craft. If it rusts, our hireability will diminish. Staying sharp can take many forms such as performing design critiques, reading books, or following our curiosities. Also, honing our craft removes the monotony of applications, increases our confidence and irresistibility as promising candidates. The form of our practice matters less than practicing the patience and concentration needed to develop progress — for, those who become masters are those who’ve persisted despite feelings of boredom and discouragement.
- Let go of trying to control everything. (Oh, did you just make you more anxious? Me too.) I forget that my application is influenced by many factors other than my submission. Jobs can be posted externally when only meant for internal employees. Budget cuts can cause positions to close. Recruiters on their last day may click “Mark as Read” on their queue only to decline them all before leaving the company (Yes, this is a real story). How could I be upset if these factors are also at play? I feel more powerful when I stop equating my rejections to failed efforts and focus on what I can control — my mindset, environment, and strategy.
“Ooo, they missing OUT. More of the best and less of the worst. We love to see it.”
— Me now after every rejection email
I slowly optimized my environment to omit distractions and sharpen my focus. A focused mind allows me to work efficiently, thereby making more time to recharge and give to my loved ones.
These tactics help me feel accomplished at day’s end:
- Remove incoming notifications by turning off notifications on all my devices, defaulting to “Do Not Disturb” mode, and deleting social media off my phone.
- I no longer answer phone calls in the middle of tasks and usually postpone responding until I end my work day.
- In efforts to monotask, I aim to keep one window/tab open at a time and close all my windows/tabs before I sign off for the day. This guarantees a fresh desktop the next day. Also, all websites that I find but cannot read immediately are bookmarked and closed.
- I take all my breaks away from your workspace, spending time in nature when possible.
- I wear earphones and study alone.
- I invested in tools that improve my workflow such as a monitor to scale Figma more easily and an ergonomic mouse to end hand cramps once and for all.
3. Application Strategy
This part is especially variable to individual experience, so I mentioned the only strategies that are generally applicable.
- Reflect on what works and doesn’t work. Identifying patterns informs us on how we adapt our strategies. I noticed that I wasn’t getting many interviews, so I knew that my submissions needed iteration. If you are unsure of how to improve, reach out to designers for advice on what you can improve.
- Understand your audience. Remember that recruiters and hiring managers also have challenges such as homeschooling their kids or nursing a sick family member. This compassion will help you strategize the best way to reach someone. I found that people were much more responsive through direct emails. There are no guarantees that you’ll find the right email, but if you do, be charming.
- Ask people for help. How are I supposed to get hired if no one knows about it? Though aware of the power of networks, I often felt scared when it came from asking for help in fear of looking weak, but I had to get over it if I wanted referrals, introductions, or any morsel of advice to steer in the right direction. Telling people you need help doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.
- Find a way to get consistent feedback. Without feedback, it’s hard to know if we’re moving in the right direction. My slumps came when I didn’t know my next step, so I reached out to designers who were willing to share their thoughts on my work and process. Asking multiple designers allows me to find patterns in their critiques, identify objective from subjective advice, and convert them into actionable tasks.
- Teach what you learn. This lesson is what pushed me to blog again. I often thought that my words were invalid since I’m a beginner in this field. However, my friend explained that the beginner’s lens is powerful when it comes to asking questions from an outsider’s perspective. Sharing ideas from where you are is helpful for those who are earlier in their journey. Also, writing is useful in synthesizing thoughts and solidifying understanding of new knowledge.
For the times I tried my best and things did not go as planned, I say c’est la vie. Instead of dwelling, take time to recharge.
Much like a computer with a dead battery, how do you stay motivated if your spirit has depleted?
Every time we do something we don’t like, we make a bargain with ourselves to push now and play later.
We must honor that bargain to allow the negotiations to continue. Having something to look forward to keeps us grounded and motivates us to persevere.
“Working on a problem reduces the fear of it.
It’s hard to fear a problem when you are making progress on it — even if progress is imperfect and slow.
Action relieves anxiety.”
— James Clear
Though an incalculable amount of luck is involved in a job search, there are many strategies that are within our power. As long as we remain active and continue to iterate our process, we are moving in a positive direction.
Product designer exploring life and design questions to better understand humanity. Writing from Oakland, CA.