Unsexy Advice for the Grad-Next-Door

Originally published May 11, 2018

Photo credit to University of Rochester

I’ve been getting a lot of ads from the University of Rochester (my alma mater) suggesting that I bestow my pearls of one-year-out-of-college wisdom upon the Class of 2018. I’ve read a lot of post-undergrad advice op-eds, and I find that they generally fall into one of two camps:

  1. Listen up, you sonsofbitches, playtime is OVER. Your dorm was cute, but this is the REAL WORLD, it’s ROUGH, and you better get USED TO IT.
  2. Carpe diem! You have your new job lined up and you’re looking for apartments in your new city. Here are some tips to network like a pro, stand out to your supervisor, and generally be meliora AF.

When I graduated, I didn’t find either of those to be terribly helpful. I graduated magna cum laude last year with my BA in Gender Studies and a minor in Computer Science. I took my studies seriously, was heavily involved in my extracurriculars, and worked multiple part-time jobs to delve into my interests and puff up my resume. By most standards, I “did college right.” I didn’t necessarily need the kick in the pants that Advice Column #1 so graciously offered.

But I didn’t fit neatly into the scope of Advice Column #2 either. I didn’t have a career path lined up after graduation, and I’m still churning out job applications today. I have spent the last year watching many of my classmates thrive in prestigious graduate programs, enter startups (or begin their own!), accept gigs at Google, and just generally be the types of alums you see in brochures. After a while, it became hard not to see my classmates’ successes as my own personal failures.

I had so many wonderful people giving me career advice and resume pointers, offering to read over cover letters and practice interview questions with me, guiding me through how to sign a lease on an apartment, and generally helping me with so many of the practical aspects of post-undergrad life. However, there is a severe lack of emotional guidance when it comes to crossing this milestone.

So, Class of 2018, friends of mine who are (maybe) a year younger than me, let me sit on this pedestal of experience and tell you some things that I came to realize this year as a less-than-perfect Rochester Alumna.

You will be tempted to compare yourself to your classmates online.

When I created my Facebook account back in 2008, I was struck by how much better everyone else’s life looked compared to mine. A friend and I could upload the same picture, but if she got more likes than me then her experience was somehow superior. This was quite upsetting to me, and once when I was bemoaning my lackluster existence to my poor mother, she told me something that remains relevant today: “Comparing your life to someone else’s Facebook timeline is like comparing their highlight reel with your outtakes and bloopers.”

Turns out, this is also remarkably applicable to LinkedIn. Social media is the perfect place for a humblebrag; whether you “just want to let everyone know” that you’ve accepted a job on Wall Street or are “excited to announce” your continued education in Exciting State University’s astrobiology PhD program, these posts make achievements seem effortless. What’s harder to swallow is how easy it is to spin a negative story into a positive, thought-provoking meditation. Your freshman year roommate wasn’t rejected from his dream job! He made wonderful connections at an amazing company and hopes to see them again at an upcoming conference.

I am guilty of this. I have ALWAYS been guilty of this. I’ll probably still be guilty of this in ten years. It is so easy to scroll through profile after profile and have yourself a good wallow in self-pity. Cut that out. Even if you can’t convince yourself that everyone is struggling just as much as you are, cut it out because there are two ways of wasting time online: being sad on LinkedIn or finding joy on /r/babyelephantgifs. Choose wisely.

You probably are doing enough with your job search.

One of the unspoken problems of being unemployed is that there’s no definitive way to balance the time and energy that you should put into working towards NOT being unemployed. Does searching for jobs count as work? How many applications should you send out every day? Should you take time to improve a skill that might make you more employable or is it better to spend those hours trying to make connections?

Over the last year I have spent countless hours wrought with guilt that I wasn’t doing enough. If I let myself have a leisurely lunch, that was a waste of time. Taking a nap was verboten, and doing it anyway required PENANCE! Ironically, this didn’t make me more productive. It just ate up time. I haven’t sent more applications or gone on more informational interviews because of this strict moral code, but I have felt pretty bad about myself.

The rest of your life doesn’t stop because you haven’t found a job in the niche topic you studied extensively at a private research institution. You need to let yourself breathe and enjoy yourself, too. The job hunt is a terrible numbers game where the odds are against you, and you need to recognize that. Write it on your bathroom mirror if you have to. If you spend every waking hour putting 100% of your heart and soul into every single application, you’re going to burn out.

You are still you, and you are an interesting, worthy, multi-dimensional person.

From kindergarten through senior year of college, I had at least one constant identity marker: student. School inevitably introduced me to new passions and interests, which in turn gave me multiple other identities: musician, sorority sister, IT whiz. I expected that after graduation I would shed my student identity and comfortably slide into my new professional role, whatever it was, and take that on as my new identity.

I wish that I had developed a greater sense of what identity meant beyond what someone does between the hours of 9AM and 5PM. Without an official title, I struggle with thoughts about being a nobody. It’s hard to remember that you are good and worthy and employable when, at best, your inbox is filled with thanks-but-no-thanks emails.

In reclaiming my feelings of identity, I had to look past the noun phrase descriptions I was used to. I didn’t have an orchestra to play with anymore, so maybe I’m no longer a musician, but I am someone who memorizes entire librettos and is perfectly happy to wax poetic about the lyrical development of the American musical theatre post-1943. I’m not a student anymore, but I could spend hours watching video essays about film, music, and literature. These pieces of me don’t fit nicely on nametags, but perhaps they shouldn’t. We are complex; why should we describe ourselves with three words, max?

I could keep listing self-defeating behaviors, but I’ve rambled for a nice long while. In short, be kind to yourself. Be patient with yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for being confused about what you want, and don’t hate yourself for not knowing how to achieve it once you find it.

As Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote in the finale of their 2003 raunchfest Avenue Q, “Life may be scary, but it’s only temporary.” I’m not sure if the “it” the refer to is a particular situation or life itself. I think that “it” differs for everyone. Whatever your “it” is, I know this much: it’ll be okay.