Don’t Know What to Do After College? A Practical Guide to Help You Decide

8 options for students without post graduation plans

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The following is a guest article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies or positions of Shemmassian Academic Consulting.


Introduction

When you graduate college, everyone tells you things like, “Life is nothing but possibility,” and, “The world is wide open.”

These phrases are supposed to be encouraging, but they ignore the fact that graduating college can be a time of uncertainty, fear, and confusion.

You’ve spent four years with your head down, working hard, focused on getting your degree. But now that you’ve walked across the stage and have your diploma in hand, things can feel quite anticlimactic. “I graduated college, now what?” you’re probably wondering.

I was in a similar position not too long ago, and today I want to share eight pieces of advice that helped me along my post-college journey. There’s no need to do all of the things on this list, but I hope that at least a couple of them will help you move away from fear and toward the excitement that everyone promised would come after graduating college.

1. Move to a New Place

It’s likely that college was your first time living away from home. This meant a new level of independence and many valuable lessons about how to get along with other people.

Still, college is very much a bubble. The world beyond is much broader (even if you went to college in a large city). But if you stay in your college town or home town, it can be difficult to see this.

That’s why my first piece of advice is to move to a new place. This could be for a new job (more on that in a later section), or it could mean taking some time to backpack and see a lot of different places. It could even go along with an internship or volunteer opportunity.

Regardless, there’s great value in moving to a new place. Whether it’s one state over or across several continents, getting out of your familiar surroundings will expose you to new ideas, people, and ways of living. Even if you end up moving back to somewhere familiar, taking a few months away can provide valuable experiences to discuss in a job interview or a personal statement.

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Live at Home

I know I just told you to move to a new place, but I also want to address something that’s a great source of anxiety (and even shame) for many new college grads: moving back in with your parents.

While it’s more common than you might think (31.4% of U.S. young adults 18 – 34 live with their parents, according to a 2014 report from Pew), there’s still a stigma around living with your parents. It can feel like you’ve “failed,” that you’re not truly independent.

While I don’t advocate living with your parents forever, there’s nothing wrong with moving back home for a few months (or even a couple of years) while you hunt for a job and otherwise figure out what you want to do next. 

Assuming your parents are comfortable with it, living at home offers two valuable opportunities. 

First, it’s a chance to build up your savings. Unless you were exceptionally scrupulous with your finances, it’s likely you left college with minimal savings (not to mention student loan debt). 

When you live with your parents, you don’t have to worry about the same expenses you would if you lived on your own. This is an opportunity to start saving up money to use for a deposit on an apartment, living expenses during graduate school, or just money for emergencies.

Second, moving back home offers an opportunity to get to know your parents as equal adults. This is an entirely different dynamic than when you were a kid, and you might even find that your parents are pretty darn cool (especially when they pick up the tab for dinner).

Ultimately, living on your own should be your goal. But while you’re laying the groundwork for that, moving back home can be a smart financial and personal move.

3. Spend Time Networking

While the saying, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” isn’t perfect advice, there’s some truth to it. When you’re competing against the same graduates with perfect GPAs and prestigious schools on their resumes, the best way to cut through the crowd is just knowing the right person.

And to know the right person, you need to get out there and start meeting people. The best way for you to do this depends on your personality. If you enjoy going to formal networking events, then I absolutely recommend it. You get to meet a lot of people at once, and you never know who might be there.

If big events aren’t your thing, though, you can still network successfully. More introverted people tend to do better one-on-one, so you need to seek out opportunities to connect with other professionals in a more intimate setting. 

My favorite method is this: Seek out people who are doing things that interest you and offer to buy them lunch. You can send an email (or LinkedIn message) stating that you’re a recent graduate interested in learning more about [BLANK FIELD]. 

Never underestimate the power of the phrase “I’m a recent college graduate.” People like to help out those who are younger, as it can, by extension, make them feel young again. And offering to buy the meal shows that you’re serious (not to mention courteous).

4. Get an Apprenticeship

A lot of people will tell you that getting an internship is the best way to break into a particular field or industry. While internships can be very valuable, there’s another, potentially more powerful method that people often overlook: apprenticeships.

You probably associate apprenticeships with vocational education, but apprenticeships are certainly possible in “professional” fields as well. They offer a variety of advantages that internships do not:

  • The ability to learn directly from an experienced professional.

  • Avoidance of much of the drudgery and busywork that come with traditional internships.

  • A chance to accelerate your learning with real-world experience.

There are a couple of ways to go about getting an apprenticeship. The first method is to simply ask a professional in a relevant field. You can offer to work for free or very little, helping them to do whatever tasks they’d rather not. 

While this method can work, it can also be intimidating to make such an ask. For this reason, I recommend looking into a resource such as Get Apprenticeship. Get Apprenticeship works to match motivated individuals with companies look to fill entry-level roles. They focus on jobs at startups, meaning you get to work in a fast-paced environment with opportunities for quick advancement.

If you’re interested in going directly into a field that doesn’t require a more advanced degree, apprenticeships are one of the best ways to get started.

5. Pursue a Volunteer Opportunity

Spending a year or two doing volunteer work through an organization such as Teach for America, AmeriCorps, or WWOOF has become an increasingly popular way for recent graduates to gain life experience while figuring out what they want to do next.

And for many students, this can be a great option. After all, you may not graduate college with much work experience or many connections, but you do have several crucial qualities: you’re young, energetic, and (likely) unattached. 

This makes post-college the perfect time to spend a year working on a farm or in an underserved urban community. You’ll be able to absorb new ideas while also developing a strong work ethic and making new connections across the country or even the globe.

6. Consider Graduate School (But Only For the Right Reasons)

Whether it’s law school, medical school, or even a master’s degree, going to graduate school can be a great way to gain new professional opportunities while boosting your earning potential. But you should only go to graduate school if you have sound reasons.

It’s tempting to pursue a more advanced degree while you figure out what you want to do with your life. However, using graduate school to postpone career decisions is a poor use of your time and money.

From a time perspective, the opportunity cost of graduate school is significant. The 2-8 years you spend getting that degree is time you could also spend making professional connections, earning/saving money, and learning on the job.

Not to mention, graduate school can be quite expensive. The average student loan debt for recent M.B.A. graduates, for instance, is $66,300 (according to data from Credible). For law school and medical school grads, the average debt is even higher, at $145,500 and $246,000, respectively.

If further education will help you earn more and pursue the career of your dreams, then the time and money can be worth it. But think carefully before you commit, and don’t be afraid to take a gap year (or even several years) to work and gain more experience while you decide if grad school is right for you.

7. Try Working for Yourself

So far, I’ve focused mostly on advice that applies if you want to work a traditional office job. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s worth it to look at other employment options. One such option is self-employment.

The popular image of working for yourself involves getting investors and growing a startup. While that can be an exciting, fulfilling path for the right people, working for yourself can also mean freelancing or starting a small online business that you can run remotely.

While your parents may balk at the idea of you stepping away from the safety net of a big, stable company, working for yourself also offers a level of freedom and mobility that can be difficult to find at a corporate job. At the very least, it’s a way to make some money while you hunt for other jobs. 

8. Just Get a Job (It Doesn’t Have to Be Forever)

For my final piece of advice, I want you to consider just getting a job. This could be an entry-level job that feeds into your larger career goals, but it could also be a part-time job in the service industry or retail. While this isn’t as “sexy” as some of the other options on this list, it can still be a useful move.

To start, getting a job means you’ll be earning money. If you’re still living at home, this offers a chance to save up the funds you need to get out of your parents’ house ASAP.  You could also use this money to fund a trip or other valuable learning experience (see point #1). 

Additionally, there can be value in having a job that’s less than ideal. It teaches you how to remain calm in the face of unpleasant circumstances, as well as how to deal with people (a valuable skill in both work and life). 

At the very least, having a job you don’t love can motivate you to do the work to find a better job, whether that’s through networking, further education, or any of the other avenues I’ve discussed. 

And remember: your first job does not define what you do for the rest of your life. You have plenty of time to find your dream job, and it’s unreasonable to expect that it will be the first job you get out of college.

It’s Okay to Be Uncertain

No matter what I tell you, you’re probably still anxious and uncertain about what life after college holds. But I hope this article has shown you some options that will help you be a little less uncertain and a little more excited.

No matter what, just remember that you won’t get through uncertainty by sitting at home and worrying about the future. Instead, you must take your future into your own hands. You must take action. So pick something from the list above and start making things happen!


About Our Guest Contributor

Ransom Patterson is the editor-in-chief at College Info Geek, a site that helps students study more effectively, become more productive, and get great jobs after graduation. You can learn more about how College Info Geek helps students here.