Obstacles: Post-College Realizations

I started off my morning with the intent to write about my trip, to finally put together my experiences in an attempt to form a list of life lessons.

After an hour and a half, I didn’t even make it past the first paragraph.

Writing my intro was so difficult because I relied on one (obvious) key assumption — that I learned anything at all.

Sure, I made a lot of mistakes. I’m human, so it’s only natural to err. But then I made the mistakes again. And again. And, oh, you guessed it, I made them again.

I relentlessly continued with the same approach to the job search for two straight months without regard to the reality of my results: there aren’t any.

Move the big rocks first

When I took a class on editing and style, the professor shared a writing philosophy that I very much admire. It went something like this: If you’re at the beach and you’re trying to fit rocks and sand and water into a bucket, you’re going to have a hard time fitting the rocks in the bucket if you focus on the sand and the water first.

The same can be said about spelling errors and punctuation. If you focus on these little things first, you might miss that what you are writing about isn’t even on topic in the first place.

Instead, start with the big rocks. Everything else will easily slide in to place.

In writing, this means checking to see if paragraph order is logical, if the theme is on topic, and if you’re even speaking in the right language.

This writing philosophy can be applied to solve life problems.

In my job search, I focused on the sand and the water. I changed the way I wrote cover letters, my CV, the way I spoke about myself in interviews. I wrote cold-call e-mails and networked with all the people that I know in the area.

I definitely learned a lot about the job search, but all of these things are the minutia. They’re the spelling errors and the sand and the punctuation and the water.

If I want to get to where I want to be, I have to focus on the bigger rocks, the language, the bigger obstacles in my search.

Once I move those around, all the cover letters and the CVs and the interviews will slide into place.

So I took some time, did some thinking, and came up with two main obstacles present in every step of this journey.

Obtacle #1: Everyone else

I decided to move to Boston because this city has over 32 schools of higher education. I thought that by being in the seat of academia, positions in research would be boundless. I was right.

There are innumerable hospitals and schools which host an incredible variety of cool research labs (e.g. the neuroscience of meditation and yoga). But the reality that I recently faced is that exposure does not equate to opportunity, especially in the seat of academia.

Each year the city of Boston is host thousands of current undergraduate and graduate students. Each year thousands of current undergraduate and graduate student seek employment. Each year thousands of these students graduate, leave school, and enter locally into the workforce full-time. The market is replenished endlessly.

When I first got to Boston, there were 10 or 20 new research positions posted daily. Now that school has begun, most of those positions have been filled.

Paid lab opportunities within schools have all but disappeared. Most professors rely on the overabundance of willing undergraduate and graduate students to work in their labs for free during the school year.

What this means is that whatever paid research opportunities are left over are incredibly competitive.

I have been to a couple interviews that were incredible. I studied like I was cramming for a college exam and made myself the most confident person I could possibly be. I connected with my interviewers, falling into almost 2-hour conversations.

But I still didn’t get the job offer.

For all my preparation, for how well worded I was in my CV and interview, for how good I felt about the interview length and how well we bonded, someone better and far more suited for the position interviewed and accepted.

That’s not to say that I’m bitter. Many of these people interviewing are those who have had a clear trajectory for a long time. As such, they prepared by gaining strong experience in research, tailoring their degree appropriately to match the needs of their chosen career path.

I’m a little later on the uptake, so I’m playing catch up. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life until just a year ago, and my first research assistant role ended up in a non-lab setting. It can be a challenge to compete with people who are experienced lab researchers.

This leads me to my second obstacle.

Obstacle #2: Myself

Though I am only just beginning to say it out loud, I recognized that other, more experienced people are an obstacle early on in my job search. The reason I couldn’t admit it is because doing so requires humility. It requires the ability to admit that I am not the most competitive person for the job, that after pouring hours of study into earning a degree, developing my experiences, writing my CV, writing cover letters, I still am not where I need to be.

Recognizing myself as an obstacle requires me to admit that my key working assumption has been inherently flawed.

I am better

Because I earned my degree, I feel a sense of entitlement. I feel like I have the right to no longer work in customer service or manual labor or any non-degree position. This sense of entitlement is amplified by the fact that I have 8 years of experience in the military and 1 year in customer service. I feel like I have “earned” my way out.

The reality of life is that a paycheck is a paycheck. My stomach and my need for clothing and shelter outstrip whatever pretentious perception I have of the workforce.

And by all means, my outlook has been pretentious.

I have been arrogantly believing myself to be above where I came from. I looked upward at people for so long that now that I am in a better place educationally, all I can do is look downward.

And I have been looking down since the moment I went back to school. I alienated friends and family and coworkers every step of the way.

My arrogance has made my adjustment to Boston difficult. I applied to many customer service roles, and then cancelled the interview last minute because every fiber in my body told me that I was better than that.

It didn’t just have an effect on non-degree positions. I applied for work in HR and other administrative positions with the same outcome. I felt like my path to research is righteous, as if I deserve work.

I actually went to a couple interviews and failed outright not because of a lack of qualification, but because of self-sabotage. I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but I purposefully answered with undesirable, honest responses about my intended stay at the company in the hope that I wouldn’t get the job.

Arrogant little shit

It’s sickening to admit, arrogance. I have been my own biggest obstacle. Believing that I am above something means that I delayed everything. Had I jumped into customer service or an admin position my first week in Boston, I would have had time on days off to search for research experiences or volunteer in a lab to make myself a better candidate.

But, like I said before, admitting to arrogance requires humility. It requires the recognition that you’re not above anyone or anything or that you’re as hot of shit as you think you are.

There’s a phenomenon in psychology — I can’t remember what it’s called — but it’s the idea that when a person of extreme views is faced with contradictory evidence to their view (e.g. belief that the world is going to end tomorrow, but then it doesn’t), they tend to polarize even further into their beliefs and find increasingly irrational justifications to continue believing (e.g. the calendar is based on an incorrect sun cycle; the world is actually going to end next year).

Faced with the contradictory evidence that I was not as prepared as I could be, and that I need to take any job that will pay me, I polarized even further. I hit zero in my bank account a few times and relied on the help of my brother and cousin to keep me going. Like a person with a gambling or alcohol addiction, I was counterintuitively working against my own health, telling myself that I just needed one more day, one more application, one more, one more, one more.


Sometime in the past two weeks I finally woke up.

I got a job at a catering company and I start this afternoon. I’m in talks with someone to volunteer in their lab. I am working with Harvard Extension School to start my Masters in Psychology this January (the Masters vs. PhD route is another arrogant one I have been so desperately holding out against, but that’s another post in its entirety).

In other words, I’m finally doing what I need to do to survive while also making myself a more competitive candidate. I am facing everyone else as an obstacle by overcoming myself as an obstacle.

I just wish I had allowed myself to do something sooner. Before I graduated, the professor in my senior seminar class warned everyone about exactly what I have been doing, about not taking opportunities, about thinking myself better than. I had her in mind going into the job search, but expectation and reality are two very different things. I wanted to believe.