By Sian Ogle (@sian.ogle)
In my final year of university I spent most of my time thinking about my thesis, graduating and the small matter of the ongoing global pandemic. I was so fixated on the finish line that I didn’t give more than a passing thought to what life would be like in the weeks and months after I graduated. Sure, I had planned the e-celebrations, made job applications and tried to save some money, but it still seemed like something to worry about later. That was until I eventually graduated and the mental box titled ‘to worry about after graduation’ sprung open. Despite hitting university later in life, in my twenties, I still found the first year after graduation to be a massive learning curve. So here are the 5 main things that I have learned since graduating from university.
Be financially and mentally prepared for the waiting period between graduation and either starting a postgraduate course or a new job.
I wanted to go into employment after completing my degree and I had this perception that I would have a few weeks off and then I would start working. For me, and for a lot of people, this wasn’t how it panned out. It took several months of writing a multitude of applications, waiting to hear back and not really having an idea of what I was doing before I eventually got my first job offer. Meanwhile, my student loan and maintenance grant had ended. This was not something I had prepared for, and so my finances were grim for a few months. So if you can put money away in your last semester I would recommend it, or make arrangements to cover yourself in some way for those in-between months. In addition to financial preparedness, I also think that it’s important to be mentally and emotionally ready for the gap. I went from frantically working to having a very blank schedule within a day. This left me feeling a bit lost and vacant for several weeks as I tried to establish a new sense of normalcy. All transitions can be stressful, even if they are good ones, but being aware of what is coming can help.
2. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
During that time where you maybe don’t have a plan, money or a schedule, it’s natural to look at your friends and see what they are doing. It seems like they have everything worked out, a job lined up, a new course, taking on new hobbies. That perception isn’t true for most people. I can promise that everyone is comparing themselves after graduation and many people who seem to have it all worked out have no solid plan. Self-comparison is a universal trait so, instead of fighting against it, what I have found helpful is when you catch yourself comparing yourself to someone else, ask yourself why. Why this person, why does that dimension of comparison make me particularly anxious? Usually, I found that it was an area of my life that I had low confidence in and I was going down the ‘I’m terrible and everyone else is great’ spiral of doom. Just being self-aware and catching yourself in the act can reduce the self-comparison panic. Not everyone has the same life circumstances that you are facing and you have the time to reach your goals.
3. Your first job may not be what you pictured
So you’ve got through the waiting period and the dreaded self-comparison has reduced as you have landed your first job. You go in on your first day with the assumption behind you that we were all taught: “Go to university and you’ll get a good job”. Then you get in through the door and you find that it’s just alright or you might actively loathe it. It may be a bill payer. Either way, it’s not what you envisioned when you were writing sonnets about the profession for your UCAS personal statement. This exact situation hit me like a train, and it was compounded by the fact that I felt I had no right to complain. I was one of the lucky ones who had got something to see me through the pandemic. I was grateful, I worked hard and I learned a lot. However, it wasn’t anywhere on the path to the dream career that I had envisioned. On top of that, getting into a job that would set me on the road to where I wanted to be proved to be difficult. After leaving university on a high, it was a big dump back to reality to realise that there were few jobs out there, let alone jobs I would have been qualified for. So you’re not doing anything wrong if your first job isn’t what you thought it would be. Get the experience, identify what skills you are lacking and try to build your CV in those areas. Your first job isn’t permanent and you’re not trapped there.
4. Learn to navigate workplace hierarchies and advocate for yourself.
Interpersonal dynamics and perceived power differences impact both the completion of projects and the culture of an organisation. For example, when I sent emails that had my position as an intern in the email footer I got minimal responses. If I removed my position or sent a message on behalf of my manager, suddenly the responses came within 10 minutes. Similarly, I was occasionally talked over and not included in the conversation during meetings with male colleagues. I learned that you shouldn't be afraid to assert yourself in these kinds of situations. As someone who is working on being less conflict-avoidant this was an uncomfortable realisation, but using my voice was necessary for people to take me seriously. Also, being assertive doesn’t have to mean conflict. For instance, joining the conversation and replying to a point that maybe wasn’t directed at you can restore the balance of the conversation. Don’t be afraid to take up space, even if you are new!
5. Allow yourself to celebrate being a graduate!
The last thing that I have learned since graduating is to allow yourself to be proud of having graduated! The culture of both the UK and Ireland is a self-deprecating one that does absolutely nothing for our self-esteem, so instead of diminishing your achievements try celebrating them. Your degree is something that you worked hard on for a long time at a considerable cost, you’re allowed to be happy about it!