Scott Cunning, an associate professor of economics at Baylor University, recently laid out his life path and his feelings regarding jumping into grad school right after college as part of a Twitter thread. He makes a number of points that are good, including the idea that grad school shouldn’t be about inertia or self-doubt, but rather when you know what you want (and that you want grad school). He talks about job choices and the benefits to getting one as well here, and I highly recommend giving the whole thing a read.
The nexus of his thesis is something students should keep in mind: You won’t know what you want to do until you end up running into it. That can make for some pretty high levels of anxiety for students and parents, as well as some really awkward family gatherings where random relatives feel it is their duty in life to say, “So you STILL don’t know what you’re doing yet?” instead of “Nice to see you. Pass the potatoes.”
In hopes of helping you defend your psyche from the chaotic panic and shutting down the naysayers who keep blaming your generation’s downfall on “FaceSpace and those iText things,” here are four things to keep in mind:
Everyone in college is lost and that’s just fine: At the beginning of each semester, I ask the students in each of my classes what they want to do with themselves once they get out of school. Some of them have a vague notion, half of an idea or a general sense, and that is about the BEST it gets. Only once in all my time teaching did I ever really have a kid tell me something straight-up honest and it was last semester:
Me: So what do you want to do with your IWM (Interactive Web Management) degree?
Him: Make a ton of money.
Me: How will that work?
Him: I don’t know. I’m gonna figure that out when I graduate.
For the rest of the people in my class, it’s like this: “I want to graduate, get a job, not move into my parents’ basement and not have to answer stupid questions like this one from every relative who runs a business selling wiener dogs out of a mobile home and somehow thinks they’re better than me.” Spoiler alert: That’s the American dream of this generation.
Cunning is right, though, in that you won’t know what you want to do until you do it, which is why they force you to take a boatload of general education requirements in college: They figure you don’t know what you want, so they give you a taste of a bunch of stuff.
Instead of taking those classes with only the edict of “Please, God, not another 8 a.m. on Fridays,” look at classes that might interest you and see where they take you. That’s how you bump into things you might like to do for the rest of your life and find some direction. In the mean time, it’s not a problem to not know.
Being good at something doesn’t mean you should do it: The longest-running argument in my life is between my mom and me about what I should have done right out of college. She still believes that I would have made a great speechwriter for politicians, based on my various skill sets. I liked to write and had the ability to turn a phrase fairly easily. I did well in public speaking courses and extracurricular activities, such as debate and forensics. I worked well under pressure and could logically process information quickly. It seemed like a perfect fit for me.
Here’s the counterargument I had for mom: I hate politics.
I spent a lot of time with political figures during college, ranging from student government folks on up through the city and county leaders and found I disliked the majority of them and their attitudes. I never understood the wrangling and the gamesmanship they used to carve up their little portion of the world just a little bit finer. I also hated the arrogance and ego associated with the jobs. Why on Earth would I want to write things for people like this so they could snow under a whole bunch of voters in hopes of furthering their own petty agendas?
The point is, Mom and I were both right in some way. She was right that I had the talent and skill set to do this as a job, and I was right that I’d rather gargle with raw sewage than subject myself to that career path. Thus, the maxim outlined above.
You might have a talent, a skill or some general proclivities that push you into a realm of study or onto a career path, but keep in mind that just because you can do something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should. If you don’t like something, don’t put yourself in a position where you dedicate your life to it.
In this regard, Dad had the better take on this topic: Find something you like doing and you’ll never work a day in your life.
You are not a fraud, even though you will feel like one: During my doctoral program, we had a class in which every faculty member in the school could come in and discuss his or her research or offer us advice. Of all the advice I got at that point, a couple stuck with me, including this one from Dr. Stephanie Craft:
A few years into your career, you are going to look around and panic because you think that you are a fraud. You will worry that you aren’t good enough or smart enough or whatever and you figure that it’s only a matter of time before everyone else figures this out, too. You then start counting the days until the entire illusion you’ve built will shatter and you won’t know what to do.
Don’t worry. It’s not true. You are not a fraud. You will be able to push past this.
A few years ago, I read about this concept called “imposter syndrome” that essentially captures this whole notion perfectly. It happens to a lot of people and it’s not something you can necessarily dodge in advance of its arrival. When it hit me, it didn’t matter how much work I had done, how well I had done at that work or what everyone else thought about how awesome I was. All that mattered was that I figured I’d eventually get caught short and revealed as something between a carnival huckster and a guy selling snake oil out of the back of a covered wagon.
The one thing that made the difference was remembering what Dr. Craft told me and realizing her prescience on this fraud fear arriving also made it likely that she was right that I could beat it.
Your parents’ generation sucked at this, too: If your parents tell you that they knew everything when they were your age or that they had a job or that they knew their destiny, I’ve got two words for you: “Reality Bites.” This movie came out 25 years ago, or roughly around the time many of your parents were finishing up their college careers and looking around for whatever that next stage of life would provide. This movie really captured the post-collegiate zeitgeist better than almost anything else at the time, and it provides you with the perfect time capsule to look at what your parents dealt with.
You have Lelaina, Winona Ryder’s character, who was working as a young assistant producer for a cheesy morning show where the host (John Mahoney) treated her like crap. When she got fired for perhaps the best on-air prank possible, she tried to find a job in her field, only to realize that she couldn’t get hired anywhere. Her father thought her generation had no work ethic. She craps all over her friend Vickie for offering her a job at The Gap, and falls into the bell jar of trying to find meaning in life via a “psychic partner” phone line. It only gets weirder from there (although the final love connection she makes is really too Hollywood for its own good).
If you strip away that last part, you realize that this generation didn’t know anything either, and I say that as PART OF IT. Sure, she fell in love at the end, which is pretty much what the film industry was selling at that point, but she didn’t have a job, was dead broke, had to use her father’s gas card to pay bills and there was no sense she was figuring it out. (And yes, that’s why reality really does bite.) Still, that generation eventually dug in, figured something out and managed to build a life that produced you.
Whatever they tell you about their origin story, view it through the prism of “Reality Bites” and you’ll probably be closer to reality.