Looking for a Job During the Pandemic
It’s no fun, but not impossible.
Posted Jul 04, 2020
One of my patients is looking for a job—right now, during a pandemic. Millions of others are in her shoes. She needs practical advice and moral support. I don’t know for sure that anything I can do will make a difference, but we are making a plan.
Margery is an Associate Professor at a small, sectarian college outside New York City. Colleges like these are cutting their budgets, closing departments, furloughing staff as they wait to see whether students return in the fall. Actually, they have been financially strapped for years, as enrollments sink due to fewer students and rising tuition. In a bid to attract what students there are, they have added amenities and taken on debt that they now fear they cannot repay.
Morale has deteriorated, and Margery wants out before she is given the ax. But amidst a pandemic, when virtually every institution of higher learning is postponing capital projects; not hiring anyone; and essentially holding its breath, what is an academic to do? “Kill, if it’s possible,” Marguerite quips.
I like Margery. She is funny, brash, an unreconstructed feminist. She wrote her dissertation on the origins of vegetarianism in the 18th century. She is an eco-feminist, and campaigns around the world to call out men whom, she contends, destroy the planet in testosterone-crazed meat-eating bravado. She wears a ring in her nose, an emblem of her days in an Indian ashram. To her credit, my being a man hasn’t interfered with the treatment and has even been a subject for us to explore.
Academics like Margery deploy their positions as spring-boards to radical change. They thrive in these little colleges, which are perversely proud of the excitement they generate. The colleges, which don’t pay very well, also leave professors to their own devices—it’s possible to experiment, teach new courses, change the world one student at a time.
So, for a while, Margery was content. But, as she told me recently, “you know what’s hitting the fan.” Her course-load was increased, even while some of her colleagues were eased out. She became scared, depressed, then desperate. On top of it all, she is a single mother.
We decided to draw up a list of potential alternatives. How about working for a nonprofit? Margery has a lot of friends in Birkenstocks. Publishing? Prep schools? Tutoring? There were considerations about health insurance for her family. Margery consulted her dissertation adviser. She wrote to everyone she could think of. Nothing. Dead silence.
I tried to encourage Margery, even light a fire—which shouldn’t be hard, given her irrepressible nature. But it was hard. The kindling of some constructive suggestions and attainable goals provided no sparks. Margery had fallen into desuetude from a toxic brew of fear, bewilderment, and daily reports that the economy will just get worse. “In a few months, 20 million people will be looking for jobs,” she said. “Who am I?”
But then I saw an opening. Margery’s rhetorical question—who was Margery?—was actually the answer or at least it provided an opening. I suggested that we approach the job search from the other direction, that is, not in terms of jobs that were available but, rather, according to what Margery could do for anyone so fortunate as to get her.
We discussed Margery’s experience that demonstrated her essential qualities—she is a fiercely articulate firebrand with a head for organizing. She can write stuff that draws on history as much as on current politics. She is committed. A fount of ideas. Exciting. In another era, and based on her Irish background, she would have been Maud Gonne, the great revolutionary who captured the heart of William Butler Yeats. I wanted Margery to envision herself being herself, just in another place.
She began drafting letters to universities that had Women’s Studies programs. We suggested that no matter how badly they were short of funds, they needed someone like Margery to take those programs public, open them up to the community, and excite women to think of themselves as activist, political beings. We suggested that no one could turn ivory-tower theory into streetwise praxis as much as Margery could. We said that if those places meant what they said within their own confines, then the inevitable consequence was to let everyone know. In written Chinese, the kanji for crisis is composed of two characters, one represents danger and the other opportunity. So I like to say that every crisis contains an opportunity.
In other words, we pulled out all the stops. It was clear that COVID-19 was a formidable obstacle to anyone’s hiring anyone, least of all in an academic institution, but for that reason we felt that nothing should remain unsaid. Go for broke. There is a concept in tort law called Last Clear Chance where, if you know about a danger and fail to avert it, then you can still be liable even though the other person was also negligent. In other words, if Margery didn’t give it all she had—right now, full stop—then she couldn’t complain when those 20 million other people came looking for the same jobs.
COVID-19 has made “plans” of any sort seem tentative, but within that massive sphere of limitation one still has to try. Trying is an important, even essential, aspect of being resilient. As Shakespeare said in King Lear, “Nothing will come of nothing.” One’s own best resource is often oneself. I encouraged Margery to write letters that sounded realistically optimistic (also part of resilience) about what she could do for an institution without sounding ridiculously optimistic that things were back to normal—or that it would be by the time the new semester began. We spoke about how raising consciousness is slow, laborious work even in the best of times, so that if Margery began work in the fall, she could help build programs that would begin rolling out as things opened up. We made optimism sound plausible.
We held our breath. There were a few responses. Now our sessions are largely practice interviews conducted over Zoom. Margery is worried about how she looks on Zoom, more or less like a reflection in a fun-house mirror. She has not done her hair in months. Her apartment looks like a mess in the background. But these are the worries, I assure her, of everyone else. For interviews, she chose to spruce things up, including her own appearance. We discussed her nose ring. She let it go. I quoted Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, “What’s essential is invisible to the eyes. What matters is the answer to that fundamental question—“Who am I?”
We had to work on maintaining authenticity when an interview is conducted remotely, mediated by a screen. “I feel like I'm acting, like I’m a performer.” Having spent my fair share of hours in front of a screen with others, I advised her not to look at her own image on the top right-hand corner of it. I told her that everyone else would be in the same boat, that Zoom-faces have become emblematic of the distortions in every phase of our lives. “Don’t apologize for looking like a rubber doll.”
We don’t know yet how Margery’s venture into the job market will develop. It could come to nothing and become a crashing disappointment after a whole lot of work. But Margery’s situation will not get any better as colleges continue to consolidate, close or, at the very least, shudder in response to continuing pressures. Mostly, I want Margery to think of herself as a survivor. Survival is not just a matter of luck, though luck is an undeniable factor more times that most survivors willingly admit. To continue and indeed prevail, you have to play all the angles and give yourself utterly to meeting the challenges. You have to think outside the box if you want to get outside the box. That is what Margery has started to do.