The Final Year Fear

It gets hard to believe sometimes, but there is a life beyond the library.

This is the long version of a piece I wrote for my college newspaper in October 2015, as a form of productive procrastination. I was one quarter of the way through my final year in university and the ‘final year fear’ was in full swing. What am I going to be when I grow up? Where am I going to do it? What do I even want to do? The following is the result of all those questions and existential angst.

The real world gets real

Graduate programme application deadlines have more or less passed. A friend messaged me today asking if I’d like to go to look at masters programmes at a graduate fair. I’ve seen classmates wearing suits in college most days for the last two weeks, presumably heading to interviews and various job related events.

This real world after college thing seems to be more and more real by the minute, and I — like so many other students — still don’t know what I want to do about it, much less what I’m actually going to do about it.

We’re told a lot of things as we approach our final year of secondary school, and the leaving cert. Study hard so you get enough points for the course you want, choose something you’re truly interested by, and if that interest is employable, all the better. I did all of the above. I worked hard and got the points I needed, I chose a course I was fascinated by, and an employable one at that. For all the gentle (and not so gentle) teasing that BESS students receive about their choice of course, lots of us get quite good jobs straight out of college, in fields relevant to our degrees.

Then I took the next step that we’re told to take while we’re in college, I went and got an internship. For me, that was a summer in the Consulting department of one of the “Big Four” accounting firms. Some professional experience for the CV, a way to earn money over the summer, and most importantly, a chance to see if you actually want to do the job itself, or work in that particular industry. I put on a suit and tie, and showed up on time for three months. I sat at my desk and did all the right things, all summer. I won’t say I hated it, that would be a lie. I was enthralled by some of the work the firm did, and really relished the insight into the world of business. However, I certainly didn’t love it, and I don’t think the job is for me. In many ways, this is the best possible outcome as it stops me to committing to a career that I won’t enjoy. They offered me a graduate position at the end of my time there, but I won’t be taking them up on their offer.

Still none the wiser

So, having done all the things they tell you to do and with a job offer I didn’t really want under my belt, I walked into my final year of college still none the wiser as to what I want to do with my life. I’m sure this sounds familiar to a lot of you. It’s a scary feeling, especially if you make the mistake of looking around you. Maybe one of your friends is truly driven and knows exactly what they want to do next. Perhaps someone you know isn’t long out of college but has already landed their dream job and all the perks that come with it. Don’t even get me started on Zuckerberg and his ilk.

To clarify, I don’t begrudge these people. In fact, I’m tremendously happy for them and I wish them every success. What does bother me, is the pressure it creates for people who still haven’t figured the whole thing out, even if that pressure is mostly internal. I spent a couple of weeks last month frantically searching for a grad programme that I was enthused by and wondering why I didn’t have the next step planned out yet. Why didn’t I want to sign my three and a half year contract and start a ‘respectable’ career right out of college? Was I being left behind as my peers progressed to bigger and better things? What do I actually want to do?

Between chatting to stressed-out classmates and friends about planning their futures and careers, and my own haphazard attempts to do the same, something struck me. How much of this is simply posturing? How many people actually want to spend their 20s doing traineeships, post-graduate courses, and professional qualification exams? How many people are already planning names for the labrador and their 2.4 kids? I’m sure some people are, but in reality I think a substantial number of people are applying for all these programmes and courses because they feel that they have to, because they’re too afraid of the unknown to explore what else is out there.

I don’t want to focus on successful college drop-outs, the Bill Gate’s of this world, or people like Walt Disney and Richard Branson who never even enrolled in college. These are truly exceptional people who with luck, talent and perseverance rose to the top of their respective fields, and there is only space for a few of these people in our world. I don’t mean to discourage people’s ambitions, it’s just a statistical fact. The point I do wish to make, and that these successful people illustrate perfectly, is that there are other routes to a career you love, to finding what you really want to do. Getting stuck in the narrow, pressurised, competitive search for graduate jobs and programmes that you might not even want isn’t an efficient use of your time — it only drags you away from finding what you do really want to do with the next few years of your life.

I took a deep breath and thought about it all again. Not knowing what you want to do is not the end of the world. Not having a clear plan aged 21 or 22 does not spell disaster for your future. The next step might be a scary one, out into the great unknown of the grown up world, but it’s just the next step in what is a long journey. In the midst of all my existential panic about where my life was going something occurred to me, something my mother has always told me: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I took a step away from the application forms and linkedin updating and really thought about what I wanted to do when I grow up.

I don’t know… Yet

Well, not exactly anyway. I know the kind of things that I want to do, and what excites me. I’m getting a better idea about what would get me out of bed on a cold winter morning, what I would be willing to put my heart and soul into. So, instead of panicking about graduate programme deadlines and masters courses, I’m standing back from it all and thinking about how I can do the things I want to do, and work with people and ideas I am intrigued by. I haven’t figured it all out yet, and maybe I never entirely will, but it’s much better than stressing over a generic application form and worrying about that plan I still don’t have. No one ever tells you that, do they?