GUEST BLOG – Bikinis, Blizzards and COVID-19: When the unexpected hits

Please enjoy this guest blog is written by Tracey Pakstis, honorary Dirty Girl and fantastic friend, who has wisdom to share.

Earlier this winter, the first real snowstorm of the season was predicted in my region. We had heard about it on the news for days, and as I stepped out into the early morning darkness to get to work, I was prepared. I left early, was extremely bundled up, had a blanket in my car just in case, and my cell phone was fully charged. I checked the train schedule for delays and for my ice scraper in the backseat.  As a self-professed Type A, I am always prepared for the worst.

But what happens when we are hit with something we never see coming? What happens when we don’t see something BIG coming?

A couple of summers ago, I was called into my boss’ office on a random Wednesday morning. I had worked in higher education for over twenty years, obtained my doctorate, and I was happily doing my life’s work. I had recently survived a divorce, and a few years before that a very serious health diagnosis, but nothing prepared me for what I heard that morning. When I saw the face of my HR Vice President, I knew in an instant. “It’s not you, it’s the position,” my boss offered.

Suddenly, I was in a blizzard wearing nothing more than a bikini and flip flops.

In that instant, 20 plus years of my professional hopes and dreams vanished. I lost free tuition for my son.  I lost my source of income and my benefits. I lost connection to a community I loved like family. And to make things worse, the boss who laid me off had been a personal and professional mentor for over 15 years.  When I took all that into consideration, I remember thinking I was down to one flip-flop.

This situation, and all the emotions tied to it, have resurfaced for me in the recent days with all the COVID-19 related lay-offs that are happening around the country. When you lose your source of income and security in such a turbulent time, it can be overwhelming. I think all of us, regardless of our employment status, are feeling off-balance. Here are a few things I learned as I battled my way out of the blizzard that I was so woefully prepared to face.

It’s time to call on your survival tactics.

Find Shelter

Don’t be afraid to lean on your family and friends. It is completely understandable to be angry, scared, or any other emotion you may be feeling. I found my friends who worked in corporate were especially good listeners as they were far more experienced with being laid off than I was. I needed some help in quieting the panic and fear that had washed over me, and quite honestly, stayed with me for some time.  I started to work out again for stress relief, and limited wine and sugar. Yes, you need self-care right now, but you want to choose self-care activities that build you up and get you closer to your goals.

Treat your injuries

I allowed myself some time to grieve and feel some real emotions, but clearly, I had to get moving again.  In this gig economy, I used my strengths to get some projects going while I was looking for full-time work. I built a profile on and tutored high school and college students. It felt great to help others and to feel needed when I was at my lowest. What are some of your talents that you may be able to leverage while you job search? While many of us are sheltering in place, is there anything you can do at home?

Call the professionals for help

Initially my job search was not going very well due to the fact that the market in higher education was horrible and I was not even considering other options. I had not penned a traditional business resume in years, and I had no idea where to start. I reached out to colleagues I admired who worked in corporate and asked to see their resumes. I hired a career coach who assisted with focusing my job search in areas other than higher education, in addition to helping me re-write my resume and cover letter. Yes, I spent money at a time that I did not have a lot, but it was an investment in myself. And it paid off in the long run.

Keep your wits about you, even when you feel like you may freeze to death

After a few months of searching only in higher education, I decided it was time to cast a wider net. I had made the decision to look in the biopharmaceutical field, and the jobs may be plentiful in my region, but the competition is fierce. I was consistently being overlooked interview after interview due to my lack of experience in the field.  

Sitting at my kitchen table one morning, I was feeling hopeless. How was I going to break-in? At this point unemployment had long run out and my son was starting college in the fall. I needed some experience to put on my resume and I needed it quickly. A stroke of genius hit me… I’d call an employment agency!  I called and interviewed at the top 5 agencies in my region for biopharmaceuticals, and I had my first job within two weeks. It was temporary, but it would allow me to get some immediate (and recent) job experience on my resume which would eventually help me to make the move into a new industry.  

And that strategy worked. The company who hired me on a temporary basis ended up hiring me as a full-time employee after eight months.  There are agencies hiring right now for remote project work you can do at home during the pandemic for companies in all different industries. Get on LinkedIn and search for the best employment agencies in your area.

Use your compass

I never thought I would ever leave higher education. However, when the decision was made for me through the lay-off, I had to adapt. I now work in the biopharmaceutical industry, in a job I love, making a lot more money than I ever did in my old career. I tell you this, dear reader, to give you hope that anything is possible.  No matter how hopeless it seems in your darkest moments, there is a way to persevere.  

It may take some adapting on your part, but you can craft your second (or third, or fourth!) act, and it can be something better than you ever imagined. It may be tempting to go right back into your old field when this pandemic is over, but maybe you need to be better prepared by switching industries. Or a different role. Or perhaps a change in both. Don’t settle back into old patterns that are comfortable. Plan NOW for the next crisis.

And you know what? I will never be caught in a blizzard in a bikini and flip-flops ever again. The lessons learned through this difficult experience have me prepared for the worst in a way that is very freeing.  When you know you can land on your feet, you are less afraid to take chances and you are better prepared for whatever may come your way.

Dr. Tracey Pakstis works in biopharma after a 20-year career in academia. She is the mother of two grown rockstars, a spoiled Chihuahua, and spends her weekends talking to her boyfriend’s bear, Yogi.

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