Awesome Etiquette: How To Answer Questions About Your Career, Or Lack Of One

Dec 24, 2015

During the holidays, gatherings with friends and family offer an opportunity to catch up and share stories about the last year. Inevitably, these conversations turn to work and if you're a recent graduate looking for work in your field, it can quickly get uncomfortable.

Dear Lizzie and Dan,

I have over the past few years applied to a number of academic appointments in English departments across the country and have, like a number of people in the humanities, not been able to secure a position. This means I have become, at least in the eyes of my in-laws, the living cliché of the graduate student who simply will not graduate.

What often begins as a series of friendly questions soon turns into a not so friendly inquisition, which invariably ends with some flavor of the questions: 'Have you ever considered other options?' and 'What would those be for you exactly?'

I prevail on your joint-expertise in dealing with this line of questioning, that is at once sympathetic and invasive.

Doing my best to maintain my temper for now,

Brian

The two sample questions that you gave, "have you considered other options" and "what would those be," both sound insulting because, obviously you considered other options. In choosing your career path, you've chosen to pursue the thing that matters most to you. It's really undermining to hear again and again that your choice is "wrong."

In Europe, it's considered bad form to ask someone what they do and to then make that the center of your conversation. You can see the danger: that immediate association of what you do and who you are; where a person feels that their value is being questioned because of their job (or lack of job.)

Remember, it's okay to tell people that you don't really want to talk about your search for work.

What often begins as a series of friendly questions soon turns into a not so friendly inquisition, which invariably ends with some flavor of the questions: 'Have you ever considered other options?' and 'What would those be for you exactly?'

At the same you are making the allowance that these questions come from genuinely curious friends and family. You can always say, "You know that job search is really difficult. I'm trying not to talk about it so much during this holiday season." 

It so simple to set up that boundary. You can share as much or as little as you want. With that phrase, you can bring their attention back to the time you are all sharing and shift the conversation.