When to Give Up (and What to Do Next)

January 22, 2014

If your follow-up messages are ignored, your references are never contacted, and there’s no way to move forward with a position, it’s time to give up. For any number of reasons, that job simply wasn’t yours. 

So, what next?

What to Do Next: Fail Better, Iterate

Credit: Cole CampleseMany of the reasons a candidate is passed over aren’t under your control. The listing could have been a “compliance posting,” placed to satisfy legal niceties before hiring a pre-selected candidate. Cultural mismatch is another common factor; engineers who thrive in dynamic start-ups may be less than ideal for institutional positions. Budgets change, projects expand or evaporate, internal politics complicate selection … When subject to factors beyond your control, the smart thing is to give up on that job and move on.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to be learned from each failed attempt; far from it. Just as no experiment is a failure, no application process is worthless. Every iteration offers a lesson, with an opportunity to refine and improve your strategies.

Fail, improve, fail better. Iterate until hired.

Step away and take an honest, objective look at your search, application, interview, and follow-up tactics. One or more of these elements may be holding you back:

  • How are you choosing your targets? Are you applying for the wrong jobs, reaching too far from your core skills, or doing inadequate preparatory research?
  • You have two chances to make a first impression: your resume and cover letter. Grab a second set of eyes – preferably someone who offers honest, constructive criticism – and polish these to the best of your ability. Don’t forget to personalize each set for specific positions and employers.
  • Interviews are extremely important. Hiring managers will rate engineers with solid interview performance higher than those with equivalent or better qualifications. Soft skills are crucial, like it or not – so take a careful look at improving your interview performance.
  • Finally, attend to your follow-up communications. Are you keeping yourself on the radar? Making a professional, conscientious impression? If you’re not following up at all – or doing so incorrectly – you’re neglecting opportunities to seriously improve your chances.

Every failure is a chance to improve. Assess your performance as objectively as possible, improve those factors under your control, and apply for the next position.

Despair: Not Even Once

Credit: Quinn DombrowskiFrustrated idleness is depressing. Failing to find useful work is depressing. Depressed engineers are idle and present poorly as candidates … which only sustains and compounds the cycle.

If you’ve been out of work for any length of time, you are uncomfortably familiar with the self-catalyzing cycle of despair. Depression, lack of motivation, and sheer hopelessness have an evil synergy, robbing you of the energy to address their cause. Bills pile up. Your professional networks fray, your skills rust. It’s a waking nightmare – and that’s not a word I use lightly.

The feedback cycle of unemployment-related despair drives some people out of the workforce entirely (pdf). These discouraged workers – those “marginally attached to the labor force,” by official euphemism – are often good, useful people. They’ve just … given up.

Do not indulge in, permit, or fall victim to despair. It’s a destructive feedback cycle, best quashed immediately upon detection.


You’re neither useless, nor hopeless. Without you, and those like you, all of this – lights, water, hospitals, the Internet – stops.

You’re an engineer. Your discipline enjoys the lowest unemployment rate among nearly all professional fields and there are over 300,000 jobs waiting to be filled right now.

One of those jobs is yours, so dust yourself off and get back in the game.

Stay Busy, Stay Viable

Resilience is that qualitative, human factor that helps you bounce back and try again. Brittle elements break – give up on that job, flex, and turn your efforts towards the next opportunity. For frustrated job-seekers, the best way to encourage resilience is useful activity.

Conveniently, many of the common tactics engineers use to cultivate professional resilience are the same hiring managers look for to mitigate employment gaps in a candidate’s work history:

  • Keep current in your field. Continuing education courses and technical training are excellent options; use them. The longer you’re out of work, the more important you make a serious and visible effort to keep up with developments.
  • Network, network, network. Join public discussion groups, attend meet-ups, go to conferences – the more engineers and hiring managers you know, the easier it is to find an “in.”
  • Consider volunteer work related to your field. Engineers Without Borders is one option, but there are many ways to visibly rack up good karma while keeping your edge. Ask your local civic or religious organizations if they could benefit from your services.

It’s better to walk into an interview able to say, “I spent that Winter honing my skills and engineering sustainable infrastructure in developing nations,” than “I just couldn’t find work.”

Stay busy – visibly, provably busy – and you’ll find it’s easier to shrug off setbacks during your job search. The positive feeling which come from mastering new technical skills, tackling challenges in your community, and interacting with your peers isn’t just warm, fuzzy fluff; it’s a real and useful asset. On one hand, useful activity prevents despair cycles and maintains viability. On the other, no one wants to hire Eeyore.

Credit: Sean MacEntee

When you give up on a job, don’t give up on your job search … and never give up on yourself. Stay busy, refine your job search strategies, and get right back out there.