Your graduation. It’s one of the best days of your life. Everyone’s smiling, the cameras are flashing, the cheap sparkling wine is flowing, you’ve made it. But something is missing. Throughout all the talk of new chapters and new beginnings, there is an overwhelming sense of fear.
‘So, what’s next?’ And there it is, in those three simple words lies more emotion that any well-meaning lecturer or family member realises. The lucky few will have already got a job lined up, the even luckier few will have already got a job lined up that they actually want to do. For the unlucky majority, that simple question is something they will still be trying to answer, long after the graduation gowns have been folded away.
The recent Buzzfeed article calls us the ‘burnout generation’. And it’s not wrong. After reading it, I’m haunted by the words that a student’s first job determines ‘their intrinsic value for the rest of their lives’. Because although that is a perhaps extreme view, there is truth to it. In the excessively fast-paced world we live in, you are judged on every aspect of your life and your career (or lack of) is no different.
For me, I took the ‘easy option’ – a Master’s degree. I still needed the support systems I’d worked so hard to create over the course of my four year degree. I wasn’t ready to give up the security of lecturers I’d built up relationships with and a building I knew my way around. As someone with Borderline Personality Disorder I form attachments unhealthily quickly and the thought of change terrifies me. I’m not alone in this. So I made what was a relatively easy decision, stay on at the university I’d grown to love and study in a department I had found support from.
But it wasn’t that easy. I didn’t realise how much I depended on the friends I had during my undergraduate degree. With a new level of degree came a new level of independence and I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t ready for it. I wanted to learn more about my chosen field of study, and I absolutely still do. However, sitting here four days away from a deadline I am totally unprepared for with no one to talk to, suddenly it doesn’t feel so fun.
We joke about how postgraduate study is a postponement of ‘real life’ or ‘adulting’. To all intents and purposes, it is. But it should not be treated purely like this. Now more than ever it feels like time is running out. As someone once quipped to me ‘you can’t stay in this university forever’. If there was a sense of urgency to get out into the adult world last year, it has been magnified tenfold. It most certainly was not the easy way out.
The real and rarely spoken about issue that underlies this problem is loneliness. I’m writing this after texting a friend I made back in my first year of university about how I’ve been feeling. ‘I get you, I’m really lonely too’, she replied. She and I took different paths after graduating but the feelings are the same.
Just as you are thrown into the unknown when you leave school, you are positively catapulted into uncertainty when you leave university. The average student will graduate when they are 21 or 22 but our brains are still not yet fully developed. We are not children, yet not quite adults. Why then should we be expected to fulfil some idealistic adult role in society? Leaving a student life where your friends are round the corner and feedback is just an email away is really hard. Humans need others to rely on, and when you lose that it is terrifying.
I know I will face backlash for what I write here. Call me a snowflake, because to an extent that is what I am. I’m fragile, we all are. But I am tired of the constant noise about how good we have it nowadays. I am immeasurably privileged to have gone to university, I am fully aware of that. But that privilege is being eroded by the increasing commercialisation of education. It is as if what were once powerful institutes of education are being turned into factories, with the sole aim of squeezing out a new breed of career-ready student.
It’s not that simple and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. There aren’t the opportunities and so many of us trying desperately to cling onto the career ladder feel like we’re going nowhere. We’re stuck in a circle of employers wanting experience but not giving us any. It feels truly helpless.
In answer to the question ‘what next?’ I don’t know, I honestly don’t.