Comment & Analysis
Nov 21, 2015

Feeling The Final-Year Fear

Charlie Collins examines the existential panic of trying to figure out what you’re going to do when you graduate.

Charlie CollinsStaff Writer
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

For final-year students, graduate programme application deadlines have almost all passed, and this “real world after college” thing seems more and more real by the minute. I, like so many other students, still don’t know what I want to do about it and much less what I’m actually going to do about it.

We’re told a lot of things as we approach the Leaving Cert: “Study hard so you get enough points for the course you want, choose something you’re truly interested in and if that interest is employable then all the better”. I did all of the above: I worked hard, got the points I needed and chose BESS, a course both fascinating and employable. Then I took the next step that we’re told to take and got an internship. For me, that was a summer in the consulting department of one of the “Big Four” accounting firms. While I won’t say I hated it, 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 would not enjoy.

Having done all the things they tell you to do and with an unwanted graduate job offer 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 as at least one of your friends probably knows exactly what they want to do next or has already landed their dream job. But while I don’t begrudge these people their success, it creates a lot of pressure for people who still haven’t figured the whole thing out. Last month, I found myself frantically searching for a grad programme and wondering why I didn’t 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?

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But how much of everyone else’s organisation is simply posturing? How many people actually want to spend their 20s doing traineeships, postgraduate 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 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.

How many people actually want to spend their 20s doing traineeships, postgraduate courses and professional qualification exams?

It’s made worse when you focus on successful college dropouts, the Bill Gates 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. It’s just a statistical fact. What these successful people illustrate perfectly is that there are other routes to a career you love and 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.

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 a long journey. In the midst of all my existential panic about where my life was going, I remembered something my mother 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.

While I still don’t know exactly, I do know the kind of things that I enjoy. So instead of panicking about graduate programme deadlines and masters courses, I’m standing back from it all and thinking about how I can work with people and ideas I am intrigued by. 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?

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