Next No More

Graduating is a terrible thing.

Not terrible in the sense that it’s a bad thing - though there are days when it feels that way - but in the Old Testament sense. In the “the great and terrible day of the Lord” has come sense. For the over achieving student, graduation may as well be the end of days. It is the end of Next.

After High School: Next, I’ll go to college and graduate with two degrees. After College: Next, I’ll go to graduate school in the UK and get my MA in Lit. After Grad School: Oh… Um, well. I did all that in five years but I don’t know what I want to do with my life any more, so I guess I’ll get on LinkedIn and try to find a job?

Next is no longer a sure thing.

Every expectation attached to your education comes to call. The difference between Aunt Bessie’s infuriating, “and what will you do with those majors?” and, “and what are you doing with those degrees?” becomes apparent. The former is annoying. Despite popular opinion, there’s a great deal you can do with a collection of English and Music degrees. The latter, though, when you stand in the cold of the job market feebly clutching at your mortar board is enough to induce an existential crisis. What am I doing with it?

No matter how impressive your academic record is - and having collected a BA, BFA and MA with honors all before my 23rd birthday I feel I can claim at least moderately impressive academics - what you do with it is the only thing that matters now. And that’s a lot of pressure. What is useful and impressive in a university setting is very different from what is useful and impressive in the rest of the world. And no one knows that better than the recent graduate.

The reality of graduating is that suddenly, nothing is the same. You leave the relative safety of schooling and many people aren’t even sure what they want to do anymore. I thought for sure I was going to go into the publishing industry. I had a plan. I was going to work my way up until I was an executive editor at a major publishing house. I thought for sure I’d have the confidence and ability to make it happen. To fill out as many job applications as I needed. To be that go-getter girl with a Next. And then I graduated. All my Next vanished like so much smoke. The great and terrible day had come and I had a diploma, a plane ticket home, an empty bank account, and absolutely no sense of direction. What am I doing with those Degrees? What next? Dear God, what next?

But I was lucky.

I got home and went to a choir rehearsal. And walked out with a job. Not a well paying full time job, but a job. That’s more than a lot of people less than a week out of graduate school can say. Especially after having been out of the country for a year. A director I’d worked with for years had just started a new interdisciplinary arts company in my home town. He needed an assistant. I took it and ran.

Thus far it’s been an amazing experience. And more importantly I’ve found a professional field that fulfills everything I’ve ever wanted in a career. I’ve struggled for years with reconciling my two fields. I’m a musician. I have a degree in music performance. But I am also a writer with a BA in Literature and an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture. When I decided to go for an MA in Literature rather than music, I accepted that I’d be relinquishing any ambitions of headlining any productions. But the thought of giving up music for a more staid career in the literary arts - a career path I wasn’t even sure I wanted any more - was devastating. I wanted both. But then this job was dropped in my lap, and I get to cover a lot of ground.

Not only do I work as an administrative assistant, mostly writing emails, taking notes at meetings, keeping schedules, and corralling vocalists, I get to help write original stage works and promotional materials. I get to sing in the company. I get to be the kind of performer-writer I didn’t think I’d ever get to be. I lose sleep and tech weeks for any given performance often has me close to committing murder, but I love it. I know what I want to do now.

Downsides? The part-time schedule is less than predictable. Though I’m 23, I look about 16, so being taken seriously is often an uphill battle. It doesn’t pay the bills. And I wasn’t kidding about that empty bank account. Grad school is expensive.

My new problem is that I know my Next. I’m going to be a glorious arts administrator. I am good at this and I love it. But my Right Now is unstable. I have a second job now to help cover my loan payments. I work as a princess performer for a local party company and do a darn good job at that too. But it isn’t any more stable, and the income is good but not regular or predictable.

I got lucky. My Next was dropped into my lap by a Canadian music director with a crazy scheme about a vampire-opera-ballet and making an experimental arts company in Little Rock, Arkansas actually work. But the great and terrible day still removed stability. My Next is no longer a sure bet. What was once a matter of an acceptance letter and financial aid is now a much more ephemeral thing tied to my bill to savings ratio and the whims of patron contributions, job markets, and how many four year old girls want a princess to come to their birthday party.

In the four months I’ve no longer been a student, I’ve gone from having nothing but a few degrees and an all encompassing uncertainty to knowing what I want for my Next and trying to pick out my way to getting there. I know what I want. I have a direction. But my gps is glitchy. Maybe I’ll wind up where I want to be. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll wind up not where I want to be but in a place that is even more what I wanted than I knew. I don’t know. I am piecing together a life in an irregular patchwork of part-time jobs, theatre mishaps, and Snow White wigs. The life of a recent graduate is an improvised comedy of errors.

But that’s the great and terrible-ness of the life of the recent graduate. Graduation is the synonym for uncertainty. Loans, job hunt, living situations, direction, and desires are but symptoms of the great and terrible shift in status.

Great and terrible because nothing is certain anymore. Great and terrible because “And what are you doing with those degrees?” is still a hard question to answer. Great and terrible because the pressure is on. Can I do it? Will it be worth it? Will my education be used or will it amount to some moldering pieces of fancy paper in the filing cabinet next to my social security card and birth certificate? Great and terrible because suddenly the world after grad school is a maze of ever opening and closing doors. Great and terrible because I am so ready for my Next, so ready to reach out and grab something I can’t yet see. Will I be quick enough? Will I be good enough? My life feels like it can be condensed into the teaser narration for an old tv show:

Will Elizabeth be able to balance on the ever shifting ground of multiple part-time pseudo-scheduled jobs, loan payments, and nebulous Next-s every recent graduate finds themselves navigating? Will she languish in arts administration purgatory? Will the princess performer ever get her own crowning career? Coming up Next…