An Open Letter to Job Seekers from a 2008 Grad

Heather Farmer, Associate Director of Employer Relations, Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design

Depending on your age, you may or may not recall that 2008-2010 marked the early chapters of great economic challenges in the United States. While the nature of the struggle was not the product of a public health crisis as is the case today, many of the market aftershocks were the same: layoffs, hiring freezes, and fewer new jobs becoming available. In 2010, I had no choice but to transition from the safety of academics into an industry facing great uncertainty.

In 2008, I had just completed my associate’s degree in illustration at a regional community college and was transitioning to a state school not far from where I lived to complete my undergraduate studies. I graduated in 2010 with a dual BFA in drawing and graphic design, and entered a jobs landscape that was, for a time, only getting narrower—especially for creative professionals.

I’ll offer up front that everything turned out ok. As things normalized then after a time, so will things normalize again now. I want to affirm that you are not alone; that others before you—myself included—have embarked on their career journeys in times of uncertainty and not only survived, but thrived. The anxiety you may be feeling and the concerns you may have are valid and real, but they are also surmountable. Your sink-or-swim moment does not depend on getting that perfect job right out of the gate; it’s reliant on your consistency in doing the things that are within your power to do.

Before I go on, I also want to note that my reflections here are not intended to be applied as a universal cookie-cutter solution or how-to guide. This is an account of what worked for me personally. While some of what you’ll read is in alignment with general best-practices the Walter Center recommends, you should spend time evaluating your current situation, values, and goals to determine the best way forward for you.

All of that said, let’s break this down into three pieces: surviving right now, strategy for later, and sticking to it in the meantime. 

Surviving Right Now

When I first moved to Bloomington, I worked days at a preschool and retail in the evenings to maintain an income. In the “off hours” I would search and apply for design-related positions while also maintaining a slate of freelance projects. In times when I didn’t have freelance clients, I did design-related volunteer work for local nonprofits or just made up projects for myself. Sometimes, surviving means seeking out work that you are capable of doing, whether or not it’s related to your course of study. Having income will, ultimately, give you the footing you need to grow your career.

It can also be monumentally helpful to create and adhere to a framework for continuing your industry-specific job search. Whether you set aside a little time for this every day or you carve out a longer window of time on your days off, be deliberate and consistent in your efforts to find and apply for opportunities that align with your longer term goals.

What you can do right now:

Strategy For Later

One of the most important efforts I made was applying for everything. Let’s talk a little, though, about the words “applying” and “everything.”

Mass-submitting resumes and generalized cover letters is not an application strategy. In my experience, a standard resume was usually sufficient, but for every single job I pursued I wrote a customized cover letter. I curated job-specific versions of my portfolio whenever one was requested, even (and especially) when they were optional. At first, it would take me a couple sittings to get a letter just right, but eventually my cover letters folder was like a library of descriptions about my work experience. When I started a new letter, I could cherry-pick bits and pieces from other letters to use as a framework. Some letters contained similar information, but no two were identical.

I also want to emphasize that when I say I applied for “everything,” I don’t mean that I literally pursued every single Indeed listing that contained the word “design.” I mean that I applied for any legitimate job I turned up in my deeper research. Sites like Indeed and Glassdoor can be a good jumping off point, but whenever I found an interesting listing on a site like these, I would navigate to the company’s website and apply for the job natively through their own web-portal (or followed whatever email application instructions they provided). This can be a good way to vet opportunities, and to set yourself apart from all the other applicants who mass-apply through jobs websites.

After applying, I would check an organization’s staff listing on their website and email the head of the department I had applied to to express that I had submitted an application and looked forward to learning more about the opportunity. If direct contact information wasn’t available on the website, I’d get on LinkedIn and see if anyone I knew (or alumni from my institution) was connected to the organization in any way. I’d ask those people for an informational interview, or better yet, a portfolio review if my contact was connected to design workflows at all. Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that a large portion, even the majority, of available opportunities are not formally listed online. This is referred to as the hidden job market (check out page seven of this Walter Center Career Resources Guide). There are a variety of reasons why an employer wouldn’t publish a listing online, but that begs the question: how do you learn about and pursue jobs that aren’t posted online? By networking. This means requesting and engaging in informational interviews, and inquiring directly about what opportunities there may be.

With these strategies in mind, I pursued any legitimate position I could find in my industry that I was even remotely qualified for. In my circumstance, I often applied for positions that were more a means than an end. This is to say that my values judgement was that I would take any opportunity to get my foot in the door of my industry (provided my financial needs were met) even if it wasn’t glamorous, and continue pursuing my dream job from there. 

Whatever the qualifiers are in your circumstance, I still recommend applying for any positions that meet your minimum criteria knowing that many companies are altering their hiring procedures in light of COVID-19. Putting forth the effort of formally applying for a position can set you apart with a company once the market starts to regain momentum, and it will give you a reason to reach out and make direct contact to follow up. Maybe a position will be filled as planned, maybe it won’t, but you’ll have created an opportunity to distinguish yourself and keep the conversation going. 

Speaking of conversation, the only thing more powerful than putting your materials out there is putting yourself out there. Even in the midst of social distancing and virtual-only engagement, you have the resources you need to continue making connections in your industry, even prior to graduation. Requesting and participating in informational interviews with professionals in and beyond your existing network may seem daunting, but most people genuinely enjoy the opportunity to share and talk about their career experiences. Additionally, these conversations can help you get an insider’s perspective on what life in industry is really like, how to stand out as a job applicant with that organization (spoiler alert, you’ll probably be a standout if you’re asking about this in an informational interview), or get intel about upcoming opportunities. Don’t delay or be afraid to take the leap of issuing interview requests. There’s a first time for everything!

What you can do right now:

  • Spend 20 minutes exploring Handshake or the Jobs tab on LinkedIn. Identify one job or internship you can apply for this week. (And do it!)
  • Explore the Walter Center Success Network and LinkedIn more thoroughly and identify three alumni who are either from your program, currently practicing in your industry, or who are living in your preferred city. Reach out using one of these templates. We even have a handy guide for informational interviewing.

Sticking To It

Practicing consistency in your job search and application efforts, continually investing energy in your own skillset, and actively growing your network are strategies that will produce results if you continue to do them. Much like exercising, you have to do more than two or three reps to see results. The same can be said for professional development. Good practices and strategies should be viewed as a regimen rather than a check-list.

The tough part is sticking with it after you receive “no” for an answer, or when you receive no answer at all—but that will be the difference between those who already have momentum and those who have to start building it once the market begins to return to normal. Those who invested time and energy in strategically identifying and pursuing lots (and lots) of opportunities through online postings and networking alike will be far more likely to hear back than those who only occasionally submitted applications. People who took this time of unusual public quiet to connect with industry professionals virtually are the ones who will emerge with broader dynamic networks they can activate and call on as more and more opportunities become available down the road. 

The years immediately following my graduation were overwhelming at times, and the hardest days were when I had no choice but to accept that some things were just beyond my control—not unlike right now. On a day-by-day basis, however, I consistently did the things that were within my power to do. Over time, that was enough to launch my career as a creative professional and also navigate my industry with more agility than a lot of people my age with similar credentials. Ultimately, that is what set me apart as a job candidate when the market began to recover. It’s really, really easy to pencil things in for later (more commonly known as “never”), but by not falling into apathy, you have an opportunity to stand out in the short term and the long term. 

What you can do right now:

  • Click some of the links listed in this post each day, and do what you can with what you have, where you are.
  • Take a deep breath. Everything is going to be ok.
By Heather Farmer
Heather Farmer Associate Director of Employer Relations, Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design Heather Farmer