How to be Unemployed

So you’ve just lost your job.

That sucks. I feel ya. For real. I’m very sorry this happened to you. There really isn’t much to say for consolation. It’s easy to spend hours racking your brain for reasons why this happened to you. Perhaps there are people to blame. Maybe it’s way complicated and bigger than you. Either way, I hope some of my following advice will be helpful.

Stop. Breathe.

I know. You’re panicking. Almost no one is prepared for this, especially financially. But trust me: do not jump right into job searching. Take one week, and breathe. Step back, and assess your situation. I don’t care how awesome your network is, or how quickly you think you can get a job. I have never acquired a job from an interview in the first week after being laid off.

Plus, you’re going to need time to process this potentially unexpected event. You could be recovering from trauma. Whatever your situation, even if you were unhappy at that job, you’re still mourning a loss. So mourn. Breathe. Cry. Allow yourself a minute. It’s very difficult to take time for yourself when you know you need to be looking for a job, so allot one week of mental prep time.

If you really can’t even, feel free to schedule initial phone screens. Those are usually low-key and low-effort. Try to stay positive during those phone screens. If you can’t stay positive, reschedule them for the following week. You might be justifiably bitter or disillusioned from the previous experience, but you don’t want that to come across to a potential employer. I can understand if you’re worried about money, but you also want to be well-prepared for interviews or else money will continue to be a problem.

Speaking of money…

Unemployment compensation: go get it. I can only speak for the state of Pennsylvania, but you can usually file for it online. File for it the day you’re let go, because it can take a while to get that money. It’s worth mentioning that the maximum you can receive in UC is pretty shockingly low, but it’s better than nothing. You can opt to have federal taxes taken out, but only 10%, so you’ll have to calculate and withhold any extra you might need. PA doesn’t tax unemployment so they don’t withhold state taxes. You get to learn more about taxes! What a time to be alive!

Also! Get yourself some healthcare! If that wasn’t part of your severance, you’ll have 2 months from the date your insurance ended to get some at healthcare.gov. Again, I can only speak for the state of Pennsylvania in terms of what’s available, but here’s a few things to know:

  • You get charged a fee at tax time for every month you go without insurance, so it really isn’t worth going without.
  • This is fallback insurance. It’s better than nothing, but it isn’t going to be great. The deductibles are outrageous. It’s to get you through until the next employer offers you amazing benefits.
  • You’re going to pay about $400/month for the middle-range healthcare plus dental.

Another option is to use COBRA to continue your previous employer’s insurance. It can pretty pricey, but it’s worth exploring.

The Job Search

Learning about yourself

Week 2 begins and you’re ready to get yourself on the market. How exciting! You’re going to find out quickly which interview processes you thrive in, and which ones you don’t. This is a great thing to learn about yourself! Be honest with interviewers. If, for instance in terms of technical interviews, you suck at white board coding, just say so. Maybe they’ll be able to take it into consideration. Maybe you shouldn’t even bother with that company if that’s the only way they judge candidates. Or you can take some time to ramp up your skills in that area before continuing with that company. 

Some interviews may be rocky or awkward, especially when you’re first starting out. That may not actually end up being as bad as it seems. Good interviewers are able to see through any nervousness or awkwardness to evaluate your real skills. 

Learning about prospective employers

Ask questions! Now, due to your previous experience, the good and the bad, you have a better idea of what kind of environment you want to work in. Take some time to think about that, and during the interview process, ask about that company’s environment and processes. i.e: What’s it like to work there? Do they provide amenities like X and Y? How do they handle/accommodate extra hours worked during crunch times? How do they work to avoid having so many crunch times? What is their opinion of their team’s diversity?

More “me” time

Take days off just like you would from a job. You’re going through even more stress than you were when you were employed. Looking for a job is hard: harder than actually having one. Take the weekends. Take one weekday per week to just do you. Do nothing. Get some gardening or housework done. Sit and watch Steven Universe. (You should watch that!) But don’t do anything job-related if you can help it. Get plenty of rest. That me-time is super important to maintain your confidence levels and your ability to do well when the interviews happen.

Allow yourself to panic sometimes. It’s okay. Hug a pillow or a loved one. Have a nice cup of tea. Pet your cat. Eat some ice cream.

That said, do not let yourself fall out of good habits. Had you been going to the gym? Keep going, or exercise at home. I know it’s hard to find the motivation but do. not. stop. exercising and eating well. Don’t let yourself fall away. Heck, ya have more time to do the right things when you’re unemployed, so do them!

Keep in mind that it isn’t about you, most of the time. Even if you were outright fired for doing a bad job, there were probably many factors contributing to it (especially if you belong to a marginalized group). You can take time to think about what you could have done better, but don’t dwell in it. Focus on getting a job.

When you’re ultimately rejected a billion times

This is rough. It’s really hard to accept any kind of rejection. Especially if you are dragged through a company’s entire process for weeks (and then told you aren’t “senior enough”, which I’ve ultimately equated to the new, “you’re a woman and you make us uncomfortable but we aren’t self-aware enough to realize it”). It sucks if you’re really excited about a company and they end up not hiring you. Ultimately, so many factors are out of your control. This is a huge life lesson. It’s best to accept that their instincts are correct and you really wouldn’t have been a good fit there. Take a breath, and move on. You don’t want to work for a company who doesn’t value you. You want to work for a company who’s SUPER excited about you. You want the feeling to be mutual, because ideally, you’re going to work there for the next 2-3 years (in tech, anyway), at least. 

On mental health…

I focus heavily on self-care in this post because you can’t possibly be successful at anything you do if you don’t take care of yourself. I became depressed for a couple of weeks during my last stint of unemployment because I went into overdrive trying to find a job for like 5 weeks straight, no breaks (because I was panicking, because I was totally blindsided by the layoff). By the time I got to my third take-home code challenge I had stopped caring. I didn’t finish the 4th or 5th. Needless to say, this tactic didn’t do me any good. I was entirely unproductive for 2 weeks. The body needs breaks. Ultimately, I talked to over 15 companies in 2 months. I had applied to more than that. I still had ones on the list I didn’t contact. My network is huge, but it’s still so much work looking for, applying to, and interviewing with companies. My point is, it still took about 3 months to find a job, regardless of how hard I tried. Overdoing it does not pay off.

How to prepare to be unemployed

Step 1: Save money

It’s harder than it seems, and consistency is key. This is way easier said than done, and I am awful at it. I actually know some people who have 6 months salary saved up! Privilege. I laughed heartily and then sadly at them! Nobody ever gave me that advice when I started at my first job. I’m not sure I would’ve been smart enough to take it at that time anyway. But starting with the next job, do what you can. Ask for a free consultation with a financial planner. Learn how to make a budget. (It’s so important someone made a game.)

Step 2: No loyalties

Always be open to other job opportunities. Whatever company you work for now, or whatever company you will work for in the future, they are not loyal to you. You are a cog in the system. I don’t care how well you know the CEO or how much whiskey you’ve shared, they will let you go in an instant if they have to. Therefore, you have no reason to be loyal to them. Keep looking, maybe even just passively, even while you have a job. I know that is even more work to do but it’s worth it. Keep your networks open. Keep going to meetups and browsing job boards. You just never know when things will go south at your company, or better yet, when your dream opportunity will come along.

Step 3: Own it

That said, keep doing your best wherever you are. If you’re miserable, all you can do is give it what you can. If for no other reason than you’ll know in your heart that if they let you go, it’s _their_ loss. But also because meaning is more important than happiness. We look for meaning in what we do. And when it isn’t there, we gotta make it for ourselves. Doing our best, keeping up our skill set, learning new things, etc. is the best way to stay sharp for interviews. I’m not saying you have to do this in your spare time, but you can use even the crappiest of jobs as an opportunity to learn more. You learn a lot about yourself and your current skill set when you’re constantly interviewing. Some people say you should always be interviewing, but realistically that doesn’t work for everyone.

In previous jobs where I felt so undirected and confused about what my actual job was, one thing I wish I would have done was bought a programming book or two and just read them on the job. Who cares? Nobody was watching. It would have been justifiable if questioned. I could have found ways to incorporate newly learned concepts into the job, or maybe just worked on my own stuff if people really weren’t paying attention.

TL;DR

You’re going to be okay. Losing a job is so very stressful. Take a week to breathe, reflect, process, mourn, and move on. And then, actually move on. Keep taking care of yourself. You are not alone in this.


Thanks for reading. I wrote this because I’ve been laid off 4 times in the last 4 years. I’m basically an old hand at this. I’ve also recently seen quite a few friends be unceremoniously sacked, either in massive layoffs, or political ones. Whether it be that the recession actually did affect tech, or I just suck at picking companies to work for, I can only hope my hard-learned lessons are helpful to those new to the game.

EDIT 3 Nov 2016: Made some edits to the healthcare and unemployment sections to be more accurate

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