The Confused Graduate: Guest Post on the Complications of Life After College


A Note: Jenna Farmer has previously posted here as "How To Pack When You're Moving to College." She holds a BA in English from from Rutgers University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Miami. After my recent post "Why I Don't Like Career Statistics," Jenna is contributing a "second opinion" on the strange and uncertain paths we take as we launch from college and enter "Real Life." 

The Confused College Graduate 

Enrolling in college is exciting – let’s just put that out there first. But, with all the anticipation around getting accepted, moving to college, decorating your dorm room, adjusting to the social life, etc., many of us often leave the actual academics part for last – almost as an afterthought.

That’s what I did. I spent my senior year of high school scrambling to study for important exams, writing admission essays, and overall focusing my worries on which college was going to accept me, not really taking the time to sit back and think, “what is it that I want to do in college, and more importantly, after college?”

The unavoidable cycle

Get good grades. Write the essays. Apply for college. Wait for a response. 

There were endless opportunities for workshopping our admissions essay, and zero opportunities for a crash course in “how can I take what I love/am good at, and turn that into a potential career.”

This is where, sometimes, public education is flawed.  And unfortunately, a lot of this uncertainty carries over into the collegiate experience.

The confused freshman to the confused graduate

There are plenty of soon-to-be college students out there that know exactly what they want, and they go out and get it. They know which classes to take, which organizations to join, which internships to get and which jobs to apply for. These people generally create a nice linear statistic that lends itself to a very pretty infographic – but I would confidently say this is more the exception than the rule. The unfortunate part is, this is how many educators are painting young people’s pictures for success. If you go to college, get good grades, get your degree (in anything, really), the world will be your oyster. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes, however, this is not the case.

For some people, grades aren’t the main focus, because it's not about proving anything to anyone – grades should be to measure how well you are doing in a certain field of study. For others, taking a year (or more) off before heading to college is a good idea, to gain some life experience. Some students struggle to be good at math and science because these disciplines promise more lucrative careers, rather than taking that art class they always wanted, isn’t a good idea.

But there isn’t always a lot of positive reinforcement for the “road less traveled.”

Turning what you love into a career can be messy

In my case, I knew what I was good at (art and writing, mostly), I knew what I liked, but I had no idea how to take those things and turn them into coursework or extracurricular activities that would help shape my professional future.

I switched from being a Visual Arts major to English major with an Art History minor based on what I was good at – I knew I could ace Shakespeare (alright, I’m also a big sucker for plays dead guys wrote). I didn’t major in English thinking “Well, I could be a teacher, or an editor…” I majored in English because I liked books and writing, basically.

I was confused. I had no idea who to even consult about this confusion – my campus at Rutgers had 50,000+ students. A professor could teach over 600 students and only offer ONE office hour per week for any one-on-one advising.

As a result, I missed out on a lot of opportunities. Four years later, I had a very expensive piece of paper in hand, but still kept asking the same question – “now what?”

Plan B

This landed me in graduate school to “try again.” While I definitely rectified a lot of my academic “wrongs” during my time there, I also got a lot of the same  “do this exactly, and follow these instructions and you will succeed” messages from professors, and not much advice for those of us who didn’t follow everything to a T. It was almost as if they were saying, “do these things and you will succeed, and if you don’t, you will probably fail.”

Advice to the future confused students: there’s hope!

So why am I telling you all of this? It is certainly not to ramble on about my own experiences or to make college seem scary or miserable (although it very well can be both of those things many, many times).

It’s to try to help those of you who have no idea what you want to do. You’re 17 or 18 years old – you shouldn’t have to have an exact plan, because life experience will undoubtedly change that plan.

It took me the better part of seven years after I graduated undergrad to really and truly figure out what I liked in terms of an actual career. And let me point out, I don’t regret my major one bit (long live the arts!) – it lead me down an interesting path, and though I may have been impatient with it at times, I eventually started carving a niche for myself in this crazy corporate, money-driven world.

First, make sure you know that NOT knowing is completely acceptable. You just have to design a path for yourself that will allow you to explore your options. College is a huge investment in terms of time and money, so when you go, it’s better to be sure you have a solid idea of what you might want to do. Set goals for yourself, and if you don’t meet them, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just try again, and stay focused on finding what you can do for the long haul, and don’t sweat the small things. Trust me, you may be told to put your GPA on your resume, but five years from now nobody is going to care that you got an A in English Renaissance Drama but have zero internships or other related work skills.

Second (and probably the most important), you should know that not knowing may set you up to be “alone” in the sense that, some of your academic mentors or otherwise may not be able to offer you any magical career advice. It’s going to be a lot of figuring things out on your own. You’ll be going against the grain, and with that:

  • Don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Just pick yourself back up, give yourself a little time to strategize and try again. Talk to former classmates, use social media, do whatever you can to get yourself out there to get a few decent nuggets of advice from people who are going through, or went through, the same thing. (side note: I’ve probably annoyed a lot of former classmates  or professors with my career woes from time to time, but it was much-needed venting that eventually helped me refocus)
  • Don’t give yourself hard deadlines. Seriously. I had this lovely picture painted with all these fantastic things I was going to accomplish before 30. I’m 29 (and a half), and have done maybe half of those things (and that may even be a generous estimate). But I’ve done so many other things that weren’t even in that initial picture, and I like that even more.
  • You will sometimes have regrets. It’s OK to have those bad days where you just think “what’s wrong with me? I wish could redo the last three years” – you certainly aren’t alone in that respect – but don’t let it consume you. Take your day to be gloomy, shake it off and keep moving. You can’t change what is done, but you can learn from it. On these days, talk to friends or family, ideally about something else to give your mind something else more positive to focus on. Come back to your future career issues when you have a clear head.
  • Don’t compare yourself with others! This was (and still sometimes is) a huge problem for me. “But this person graduated with a lower GPA and got this job…why not me?” It will be an endless pit of despair and negative thinking that will lower your self-esteem and slow down any progress. People who become successful do so partly because of some degree of confidence. If you don’t have any, just look in the mirror and start giving yourself positive affirmations daily. It probably sounds crazy and/or a little cheesy, but it really works. There’s got to be something about you that you can be proud of, and if you can’t think of anything, maybe take some time off before you go to college to do a bit of soul-searching.

You are a unique individual – so find out who you are and what you want to be (no matter how many years of trying it takes) and be proud of the outcome.  Your goals are not hopeless no matter what they are, as long as you are doing your best to try to meet them. 

Jenna Farmer is a content writer and graphic designer for, one of the leading online relocation portals, where she spends most of her day writing informative guides about all aspects of the moving process. She is a New Jersey native, but has lived in South Florida and Louisiana. When she’s not writing or designing something, she enjoys watching football (or entirely too many shows on the Travel Channel), riding her bike and spending weekends with friends.

If you like this post, please check out "Unconventional Twentysomethings," "Imagined Plan B Futures," and "Landing a STEM Job with Non-STEM Credentials."  Thanks very much to Jenna for this awesome guest post, and please leave some comments to let her know what you think.