I had a good feeling going into this year. 2020 was the year I’d enter my thirties, graduate from my nurse practitioner program, and start a new chapter in my health-care career. Like most 2020 graduates, when I rang in the new year I had no idea how wrong my mental picture of graduation this May was.
I had just started applying for jobs and interviewing when the COVID-19 pandemic hit my corner of the world in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a nurse and future nurse practitioner, I was not worried about my job prospects. We were entering a pandemic! Of course I would be needed!
Then the jobs I applied to and interviewed for were suddenly not needed. As hard as I try, I cannot find any position other than the nursing job that I held throughout graduate school, though now I’m overqualified for it. And I’m not alone. As the L.A. Times recently reported, job prospects for new graduates look bleak, even bleaker than during the Great Recession of 2008. So, what’s a new graduate in 2020 to do?
01. Develop some identity capital.
When I was going through my twenties, my go-to book for any career crisis was Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade. I am finding it equally helpful as I start to navigate my thirties. In the book, Jay describes the importance of developing identity capital, “the repertoire of individual resources we assemble over time.” Identity capital is the skills, professional relationships, and resources we build at work, which make us a unique candidate for whatever position we pursue.
With a recession, it is difficult not to be underemployed. Jay discusses how most twentysomethings are underemployed at some point. However, not all underemployment is the same. Some underemployment teaches you valuable skills, while other underemployment just passes the time and pays the bills. Jay advises that we pick the former in order to build identity capital.
In her book, Jay describes how her job as an instructor at Outward Bound, an experienced-based outdoor learning program, served as identity capital for her later career moves. Jobs can introduce us to other people in our desired industry, teach us skills that will be useful in our dream job, or connect us to resources that will be useful in the industry. Though our dream jobs may not be available, we can be strategic in building identity capital to eventually land them.
02. Confront your shame with courage.
One of the hardest questions my family, friends, and co-workers asked me after I told them I graduated was, “Have you gotten a job?” A wave of worthlessness and panic would wash over me as I answered “no.” I walked away from multiple conversations blaming myself for my lack of new employment. It took some time to realize that sudden, strong feeling was shame.
Brené Brown has spent her career studying shame, and her insights have done wonders in my life. In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), she defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Her solution? Courage. As Brown defines it in Daring Greatly, courage is “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”
It took courage to examine why shame crept up on me whenever someone asked me about my future employment. I had to examine my beliefs about myself and how this new reality upset that image. I work diligently for what I want, and my résumé is a track record of that perseverance. When I was in high school, I landed a job as a pharmacy technician, an almost unheard-of job for a high schooler. When I was in college, I landed an extremely competitive nursing internship at a prestigious teaching hospital. When I was in graduate school, I landed good clinical placements. I expected my hard work and résumé to land me a good job, and I felt that I had failed when it did not.
Though a core part of my identity has been tied to work, my identity is not my job. My core character trait is perseverance. I can still be the diligent, hard-working person that I am outside of a workplace. Instead of applying that determination at work, I needed to re-frame my mindset and think of myself as being determined to find work.
03. Use your weak ties.
As hard as it can be to admit that I do not have a job lined up when well-intentioned people ask, it can also be an opportunity. Whether it’s my closest loved ones or a co-worker I don’t know very well, I say, “No, but I’m looking! If you hear of anything, I’m all ears.” I have gotten a lot out of these impromptu conversations, and I’m building up my “weak ties.”
Jay defines weak ties in The Defining Decade as “the people we have met, or are connected to somehow, but do not currently know well.” Our relationships with our close friends and family are important, but weak ties can offer fresh perspective where our loved ones cannot. I cannot stress enough the value of weak ties. Weak ties are how I found good clinical placements in graduate school. I found one because of an old roommate of a friend. Another I had never met but had seen her name on emails from an organization we were both involved in.
I am extremely fortunate to already be working within the sector that I am looking for a new position in. I have access to weak ties who know about opportunities that I know nothing about and jobs that have yet to be posted. Even if they do not know of any particular positions, I have found weak ties at work to be extremely helpful.
For example, I had the chance to chat with multiple providers who are in the kind of position I want to be in. When I asked one about her experience in applying for jobs, she gave me great advice on how to set up my résumé to make it stand out. When I asked another about his experience, he told me about how long the process took. Weak ties can often be extremely helpful.
04. Stay humble.
Maybe you land your dream job and despise your boss. Maybe you’re underemployed at a job with good identity capital and have to stay in it for longer than you want. Maybe you’re desperate for any job and have to apply for something completely unrelated to what you think you want. No matter what your situation is, it can teach you something if you let yourself be humble enough to learn.
A couple years ago, I advocated for a friend who was interested in becoming a physician’s assistant to work with me in the emergency department. (Weak ties go both ways!). Everyone loved Jack. He was kind, helpful, always in a good mood, and great at his job. However, he quickly learned that he did not want to be in health care. Jack now works in marketing for a non-profit.
The best career advice I ever got was from my first nursing manager. She told me, “You can learn something from everyone. You can learn who you want to be, or you can learn who you do not want to be.” In the two contract positions I had after that job, I quickly learned what I did not want. As frustrating as it was to be in two consecutive jobs that I disliked, I also was able to figure out what I did like and moved to emergency room nursing.
That job helped me determine what kind of nurse practitioner program was the best fit for me. I have found that being in a job often helps me figure out the next steps. It took being a pharmacy technician to learn I did not want to be a pharmacist. It took working nursing jobs I did not like to find the one I did like. I still don’t have all the answers, but being able to admit that also makes me confident that I will figure it out.
Unemployment and underemployment can make you start to question your intelligence, the prestige of the school you attended, or even your own identity. But by finding work that will build identity capital, confronting job-related shame with courage, using our weak ties to explore our options, and staying humble in our journey, we will end up where we need to be.