Jumping through Hoops: Some Qualitative Reflections on the Job Search

In previous installments, I’ve reflected on the job application process and provided quantitative insights into my experience of applying for public health jobs. In today’s installment, I offer a more qualitative perspective, focused on showing examples of the hoops I have been jumping through in search of steady and meaningful public health employment.

So, where does all this leave me? As of my most recent data (January 2019 – December 2022), I had made a total of 143 highly targeted job applications within my specific niche. During this 4-year period, I also engaged in several intermittent periods of contract employment of up to 9 months’ duration, when I was less active on the job market.  

These quantitative insights are valuable, but I’d like to move towards eliciting some more qualitative data as I reflect on all of the many and varied hoops I have had to jump through in order to engage with the requirements of the job application process. In today’s installment, I report back on my experiences with these 143 job applications by providing examples based on my notes during the process.

  • I’ve been highly targeted about only applying for positions that connect to my specialist expertise.  I’ve applied for positions within the public sector (federal, State, and local government), private sector, nonprofits, academic institutions, hospitals, health insurance companies, recruitment agencies, contracting agencies, consulting firms, and more. And still I read advice telling me to “just be flexible” about my expectations for the kinds of roles I’m willing to take on.
  • I have submitted CVs, resumes, cover letters, writing samples, diversity statements, teaching statements, research statements, proof of prior income, references, contact details for references, transcripts, certificates, an external third-party evaluation of my credentials.
  • I’ve completed processes for disclosing my sex/gender/race/ethnicity/disability/veteran status. I’ve disclosed my criminal history (none). I’ve consented to participation in background checks.
  • I’ve provided personal information that feels really incompatible with the US-based employer’s stated values of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and yet was still officially required in order to progress through the recruitment process. For applications with overseas employers, I have provided information that would have been illegal to ask for in the USA.
  • I’ve completed questionnaires about my foreign language skills, my software skills, my programming skills. I’ve self-rated my leadership attributes and my management experience.
  • I’ve made applications with cover letters, without cover letters, directly through LinkedIn, using EasyApply, giving permission to access my LinkedIn profile, with my full academic CV, with a focused resume, with my social media credentials.
  • I’ve written cover letters that I am proud of, cover letters that are too long, cover letters that unwittingly contained typos, and cover letters with revisions from ChatGPT.
  • I’ve re-entered my entire education and employment history multiple times into an ATS (applicant tracking system) that already has access to this information from my resume, because the system wants everything again, even though after 20 years of work experience in a characteristically choppy environment this is a complicated and time-consuming process.
  • I’ve completed applications that require my employment history to be documented in my resume, in my LinkedIn profile, and then through manual re-entry into the ATS of exactly the same information for a third time.
  • I’ve been contacted by recruiters based overseas who were very difficult to understand and communicate with.
  • I’ve engaged with an application process where no instructions were provided for submitting application materials.
  • I’ve engaged with an application process where the job description was only available by email after indicating interest in the position, based on the job title alone.
  • I’ve engaged with an application process where a recruiter invited me to select one of their external vendors who would then send my details to the employer as a third-party applicant (no thank you).
  • I’ve received calls asking for more specific details about my application and promising to get back to me for next steps, but they didn’t.
  • I’ve spent oodles of time delicately crafting the precise application for the position only to receive a rejection because the employer decided to change what they were looking for without sharing that information.
  • I’ve submitted my application by email when the employer website appears to be not working for days at a time.
  • I’ve talked with HR people who promised to get some more information about the process and then get back to me, and then they never did.
  • I have been asked by employers to share my references at the initial application stage (way too early to be bothering my references). I have asked my references for permission to share their details at the final stage of a job application, only to discover that the employer had already contacted them earlier without my permission. I have pushed back and communicated to employers that I prefer to share references only after the interview stage, in order to confirm information previously shared.
  • I have engaged with employers who ask for referee contact details only, so that they can seek the actual references themselves, due to concerns of confidentiality. I have engaged with employers who think that it is the candidate’s job to go through the hassle of requesting and reminding referees to send the written references, confidentiality be damned.
  • I’ve seen companies to which I have previously submitted applications now re-advertising the same position again and wondered whether or not to re-apply: sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. And often the outcomes are different.
  • I have attended interviews in-person and remotely. I have used Zoom and Teams and Webex and the good old-fashioned telephone. I have participated in screening interviews, technical interviews, HR interviews, bot interviews, panel interviews, and “informal chats.”
  • I’ve engaged in screening interviews to determine that I meet the minimum criteria for eligibility and then never heard back again even though I clearly was eligible. (A screening interview is still a first round, whatever you call it.)
  • I’ve been asked weird questions by recruiters who are clearly unfamiliar with the technical specifications of the role that they are recruiting for.
  • I’ve engaged in “informal chats” with the same employers who would later be interviewing me, where they have had the opportunity to gather information about me that would not be permissible at a formal interview.
  • I’ve participated in interviews with bots, a soul-destroying process conducted in the name of efficiency that signals to me that the employer has zero interest in establishing human relationships, and opens the door to new forms of discrimination.
  • I’ve participated in interviews with human beings who gave me no opportunities to establish connections or ask any questions either. 
  • I’ve been invited to attend an interview on one specific date and then been ghosted when I indicated that I was unavailable on that date and tried to reschedule.
  • I’ve been informed that I have been shortlisted for a position and asked to confirm my interest in setting up a time for interview, and then never heard back again.
  • I’ve been required to prepare a presentation of my work. I’ve been required to prepare a presentation on an extra-curricular topic. I’ve been required to share copies of my work product.
  • I’ve been welcomed into an interview with the words: “You have such a great resume. Why on Earth would you want this job?”
  • I’ve participated in interviews where the questions were provided in advance, and it was a lovely experience that truly made me feel as though the employer wanted to give me an opportunity to shine. Thank you.
  • I’ve felt as though the interview went well and that I had established connections with the interviewer/s, but then failed to make it through to the next round.
  • I’ve felt as though the interview went poorly and I could have done better, and then been informed that I have made it through to the next round.
  • I’ve been ghosted after a panel interview where I thought that I had done well and established credibility.
  • I’ve been ghosted after an interview and then found out from LinkedIn that the employer hired internally.
  • I’ve been ghosted and then found out from the employer website that the employer stopped hiring for this position. 
  • I’ve been ghosted and then tried to follow up with the HR Department and been ignored; then I found a personal connection within the company who told me that the position had been filled internally.
  • I’ve been led to believe by the employer that my interview process would be moving forward, then never heard back again.
  • I’ve been screened by a panel who told me to expect to hear back from them about next steps within precisely 3 weeks and then never did.
  • I’ve been told by the interviewer that their unspecified HR people would be getting back to me within an unspecified time period and then of course they never did.
  • I’ve been told by the interviewer that the hiring manager would definitely respond to me with an outcome within 2 weeks, but they never did.
  • I’ve been told by the interviewer and the HR person how much they enjoyed speaking with me and what a strong candidate I am but there was another candidate better suited to the role.
  • I’ve been asked by the employer to hold on for 4 months while they hold a meeting to create the job previously advertised. (No, I don’t understand either.)
  • I’ve been told by the interviewer that I was a strong candidate who had done very well in the interview and should expect to hear back from them very soon, only to be rejected.
  • I’ve been told by the hiring manager that they want to hire me for a different position instead and then never heard back despite multiple follow-ups.
  • I’ve been told by the interviewer that the process went well, and I should feel good about the way in which I presented myself, and then never heard another word from them despite active follow up.
  • I’ve been told that I performed well at interview and the employer liked me very much but has decided not to hire for this position after all — only to see the position again advertised online.
  • I’ve been encouraged to apply for positions at the University department where I was teaching by colleagues who then ghosted me.
  • I’ve been told by the hiring chair for an academic position that I was a strong candidate, but my competitors were fully funded, bringing their own grants into the position. There’s no qualification that can compete against free.
  • I’ve been told that the employer wanted to hire me but that a decision had been made to cut this position, so they wanted to offer me a consulting gig instead – only to see the original position again advertised online.
  • I’ve been told by the interviewer that I was a strong candidate with impressive qualifications but they decided to hire internally instead.
  • I’ve been told that the employer was impressed with me and wanted to find a way of hiring me but another candidate had more experience.
  • I’ve been told that I am overqualified. I’ve been told that I am too specialized. I’ve been told I am too experienced. I’ve been told that I should take my PhD off my resume.
  • I’ve found out updates on my application status from employer portals and recruiter websites and LinkedIn and individual networking connections.
  • I’ve received automated updates from recruiting sites that say exciting things like “The COO has viewed your application!” and then ghosted.
  • I’ve received emails that tell me nonsensical or unhelpful things during the hiring process like the hiring process might have been put on temporary hold although you may or may not still be under consideration for this position so maybe you’ll hear back later….
  • I’ve received multiple rejection emails from different people for a single job, as if they really, really wanted to communicate how very rejected I was. 
  • I’ve received rejections within less than 24 hours after submitting the job application. I’ve received rejections more than a year after submitting the job application.
  • I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard: “Your resume is excellent but…”, “We enjoyed meeting you but…”, “You’re a strong candidate but….”
  • I’ve smiled and chatted at Zoom interviews until my face hurts. I’ve built connections and networked and sought informational interviews. I’ve attended meetings and webinars and workshops. I’ve enrolled in additional trainings. I’ve shared samples of my previous work. I’ve created presentations and work products upon request. I’ve made small talk and jokes and big-picture analysis and commented on the news, the weather, the technology, the lunch. I’ve researched all the advice and followed it.

And still they tell me: “Just be flexible.”

So now what? In the next installment, I will reflect on lessons learned from these experiences. 

Questions (join me for discussion in the comments or on LinkedIn)

  • What kinds of hoops have you had to jump through in order to participate in the job application process for public health?
  • Why are these hoops so varied, diverse, and opaque?  How can we make the job application process more transparent and equitable?  
  • Should we be working towards removing the hoops or standardizing them?

Read previous columns in this series:

Author Profile

Katie Schenk
Dr. Katie Schenk is an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health informatics specialist. She has been working on the public health frontline for governmental Health Departments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Dr. Schenk is serving as a member of the US Medical Reserve Corps at COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites. She teaches Public Health and Global Health at American University in Washington DC and George Mason University, VA. Previously, Dr. Schenk led a portfolio of social and behavioral research studies on children and families impacted by HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa at the Population Council. Visit her website: https://kdspublichealth.com/about-dr-katie-schenk/ Follow her on Twitter: @skibird613 and LinkedIn: dr-katie-schenk-4a884b84