In middle school, you may have celebrated your ascent into adolescence with Vitamin C’s tear-inducing “Graduation” (Friends Forever). Perhaps in high school, you threw your cap into the air to the words of a more contemporary graduation song like “Good Riddance” (Time of Your Life). In college, however, you march to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” down a path that may just determine the rest of your life. No pressure!
As my grandfather told me after I graduated from college, “Finally, a diploma you can do something with!” The message was clear: I now had to choose to do something with this diploma. Unlike in past graduations, where the next step was practically thrust upon me, I had no clear path to what I was going to do next. Sure, I had submitted my applications to graduate schools, but was I ready to begin another two years of school already? Did I really want to pursue social work? Should I take some time off to travel, volunteer, get a job?
While at this point I have answers to these questions, they plagued me throughout senior year and in the months after graduation day. If you find yourself in the midst of a storm of questions and doubts about what to do after graduation, here are some tips to consider:
Talk it out.
- If you have an idea of what you would like to do but don’t know what your next step should be, ask people working in the field you want to enter for guidance.
- Don’t know anyone in your potential career field? Ask your family, friends, professors, pastor or campus minister to help connect you with someone.
- If you don’t have a field in mind yet, go to your school’s career services center to try and establish a starting point. (Colleges usually offer this service free of charge, even after graduation!) If this is not available to you, start examining what interests you and talk some ideas out with your peers and mentors.
Be inventive with your major.
- The fact that you majored in, say, theology, doesn’t mean you have to become a theologian. Find a way to combine your major and the things you’re most passionate about! Graduated with a theology major, but drawn to a career in counseling? Fuse your two passions and pursue a master’s degree in pastoral counseling and spiritual care.
- Don’t limit yourself or your potential career path. Get creative with your major and your interests until you find what will make you happy in the long run. Check out these specific tips for finding meaningful work that you’ll love.
Why not graduate school?
- The thought of additional years of school may seem off-putting, but if you know that the path you want to follow requires a master’s degree and you feel confident in your decision, begin the application process to your desired schools.
- Even if you’ve graduated, take advantage of the resources your college has to offer while starting your applications. Go to the career services center where counselors are available to review your resume and personal statement, as well as to offer guidance about graduate schools; or talk to a former professor, advisor or dean who might give you some tips and advice for your applications.
Give back while you contemplate!
- Volunteering is a great way both to take some time off to reflect on future plans and to give back to the community.
- Local vs. global — volunteering close to home not only benefits those in need in your community; it also helps you stay close to your support system during your “What am I going to do about my future?” decision-making process. Serving in a different country, or even a different state, will allow you to expand your network and learn about different cultures.
- In addition to the emotional and spiritual benefits of service, certain service organizations offer financial aid for students who plan on going on to graduate school. While researching possible service opportunities, inquire whether or not there are benefits for volunteers. For example, the Peace Corps offers a variety of benefits to graduates who serve for two years. Jesuit Volunteer Corps also provides some financial support to volunteers.
Consider taking the “dreaded” gap year.
- I’m not sure when the gap year got its bad rep, but taking a year off is not a crime! If you feel like you don’t know where to go yet, why not take a gap year to figure things out?
- Stay busy — study for any tests needed to enter graduate or medical school (the GRE and the MCATs won’t pass themselves!) Or get to work on those beloved applications (job and school).
- Volunteer! (See suggestions above.)
- Find an internship or apprenticeship in your field.
Find spiritual support
- Find a friend or mentor who will keep you on task, help you stay focused, and most importantly, encourage you. As I proceeded to change my career path four different times during senior year, my friend Wanda (with our many venting sessions) was my only source of sanity!
- Practice prayer and meditation to quiet the stress around you, or find a spiritual director for spiritual guidance and support.
- Plan a retreat, so that you can get away from your routine and focus on discerning what God has in store for your future. Look for a retreat center nearby if you don’t have the funds to travel.
Lastly, when you finally make and commit to a decision, REGRET NOTHING (within reason)! After I officially enrolled in graduate school, I had several attacks of second guessing myself and just pure panic. Should I have taken some time off and worked? Will I regret not volunteering abroad? Will I ever have the opportunity to take some time off for myself ever again? Doubt is a normal part of the post-grad life. There are so many opportunities available to us and, as a result, when we finally choose a path, we may question ourselves. Unless there are serious downsides to your decision, be proud of yourself and stay firm in your convictions!