A few months before I passed my last requirements in college, I was shaken by irrational anxiety about finding work. The transition from being a student to being a graduate seems so unscripted and overwhelming, not anything I was equipped for even after years of education.
The prospect of working with new people, being subject to performance reviews, and dealing with the monotony of daily life was terrifying. And for good reason too.
It seems like there is no one to teach you how to respond to changes. No grounded framework to turn to during times of crisis. Even reliable institutions—the government, especially—are swinging dangerously close to the dystopian side.
To give you an idea of what to expect from the real world, here’s a guide on the five stages after graduation.
Stage 1: The Storm
There is no syllabus or program flow after you graduate. You cannot manage expectations or prepare. Most of the time, you only have to rely on your own wits to get by. And if you live life with an anxious mind, things can get pretty difficult real quick.
Graduating during a pandemic can be quite cruel. You’re unceremoniously released into the real world without any pomp and circumstance. So it’s sort of expected that you get washed over by a storm of negative thoughts.
Now is a good way for you to sort out any emotions you have from your past excursions: rejections, lost friendships, and unsuccessful romantic pursuits. It’s a necessary pit stop to recalibrate your personal and professional goals.
Because aside from the sheer exhaustion, you’re also going to grapple with a lot of messy inner conflict. So make sure to keep your comfort drink—coffee, water, tea, juice, or alcohol—an arm’s length away. After all, you will only be facing more disappointments and sobering realities from now on. You might need to stay comfortable and hydrated for the ride.
Stage 2: The Crash
Once you get the courage to actually start applying to jobs, you’ll quickly realize all your decisions have added up to little things you may or may not regret.
You may begin to feel a gap between you and your peers. After the veneer of uniformity has faded, you start to be aware of the key differences between you and other people. You’re no longer ‘coursemates’ or ‘blockmates’. Instead, you’re now ‘acquaintances’ living drastically different lives. The small things that you used to look over are now magnified tenfold.
In reality, those distinctions—your friends, your family background, your internships, your course, your college—make all the difference in finding fair and meaningful employment. You might not be on the receiving end of the lucky stick, and it can be a painfully lonely thing to realize.
Stage 3: The Cope
To comfort your wretched heart, you may turn to various modes of coping. Literature to soothe your fears. Weightlifting to quell your anxieties. Music to console your dreams. Therapy to ease your heart and mind. You feel the urge to find a spiritual guide or a life mentor to help you navigate life.
Because of this, you may encounter popular internet readings about work, such as the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber and the evergreen New Yorker essay by Toni Morrison, which states, “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”
It takes a while to grieve the person you could have been, especially when you feel like you have been robbed of normal college life. Aside from the feelings of not being good enough, you also grapple with the loss of your former aspirations. Finding comfort in the everyday makes things a little bit bearable.
Because even though you’ve figured out that the world isn’t fair, you just can’t quite decide how to deal with it yet.
Stage 4: The Disappointment
Your college administrators and teachers always make sweeping statements about how you’re going to change the world. And this has puffed your ego a bit. But when you actually step foot in the real world, it’s more quicksand than stable concrete.
All in all, the glittery and glamorous real world is just…underwhelming. The world is your oyster, but only until you can actually afford the things you want. Once you move past the joys of having free time, you just can’t wait to finish the day.
The world will humble you in comical ways. It will force you to come to terms with your limitations and realities. You have probably joined more internships than the average person and think you know what to expect, but you realize there’s more ground after rock bottom.
Stage 5: The Calm
In the midst of confusion and anxiety, you may get the urge to stay quiet and reflect. That’s good. A vital lesson to take into the heart is that things can wait. You can take the soul-sucking job if you have to. You can do things that bore you just to get by.
In the sea of hapless days, there may be one that will surprise you. You might get a call back from that dream company. You may even feel a refreshing sense of calm when you get rejected from a job opportunity you thought you had in the bag.
Whatever the case, your dreams can wait, at least for a day. At least until you find the energy to get back out there again. Being fickle, stupid, and clueless is perhaps the defining condition of the freshly unemployed.
It takes a lot of self-discipline to teach yourself to wait. But patience is the key to living a satisfactory post-grad life. It’s in the hope that things can get better, even when it seems like nothing is going your way. That, and resisting the compulsion to compare yourself with your peers.
In the end, you just have to teach yourself what no textbook can: have self-faith amid uncertainty.