"Pre-Graduation Blues" OR "Advice for The Real World"

I’ve got the senior year blues. I know there are people out there who insist their years after college were better than anything else, but I don’t know how I’m going to get from point A to B. I only see a few options, and they all seem confining.

  • This Summer I tried my hand at medical research and the 9 to 5, but it wasn’t a good fit.

  • I’m being encouraged by my advisor and parents to contact a professor at one of the top schools and pursue a graduate degree in engineering. I love learning, but I’m also ready for something new.

  • I’ve got friends with similar majors who entered the workforce with a higher starting salary than my parents, but they’re simply sitting in the same office every day doing the same work.

  • I could do humanitarian work with Peace Corps or somesuch, but not until I’m positive I’ve completed my education and I’d be happier if I could use my degree to help people.

  • I’d like to work for myself. I know what I’d do and which niche I would fill, but am entirely unprepared for the reality of starting a business. On top of that, people in the same field often tell me attracting customers and investors is difficult without a PHD.

So what should I do? I’ve got a fair amount of student loans, so I can’t just backpack around Asia. Anyone have any options I haven’t considered? What did YOU do? I’ve also been warned about taking a break from education with the intent to return. So please, share your advice on entering the “real world”!

There is no real world.

- I’ve got friends with similar majors who entered the workforce with a higher starting salary than my parents, but they’re simply sitting in the same office every day doing the same work.

Whatever you end it up doing, there’s going to be tedium involved. Even working for Peace Corps. Even backpacking across Asia.

I work an office job now, and the work is the same day in, day out. It could be driving me crazy, but it doesn’t because I don’t define myself by my work. Work is just what I do 8 hours out of the day As long as the other 16 hours are great, I can tolerate a range of shittiness for the 9 to 5.

So whatever you end up doing, make sure you eventually learn how to partition your life.

The sooner you enter the real world, the better. You’ve only been prepping so far, your real education is about to start.

That’s ok. There is no perfect option, so while it’s good to weight the pros and cons of your choices, remember you’re not looking for a choice with nothing in the “cons” category.

I would say that this is a this is a goal to be working toward, then. But the best way to get that business experience is to work with something established first, then with something that someone more experienced is starting up, and then on your own business. I own a business doing something that I love, but I didn’t get here instantly. It’s taken a couple of years of learning and work, and I’m still about another six months to a year from self-sufficiency (which means I’m still working my 9 to 5). And remember that working for yourself is great - I wouldn’t trade it for anything - but it’s not tedium-free. Searching for clients and handling billing & other administrative tasks don’t exactly thrill me, but without those activities I have no business.

I’ve found that my life and career has been a matter of evolutionary change. I was working retail all through college, then on graduation day was offered a “real job”. It wasn’t in the field I wanted, but it was movement away from retail so I took it. That job led me to contacts that are still paying off now as I start my own business, and it also got em a job offer for a different position - still not exactly in my chosen field, but with better pay, opportunities to complete some projects that gave me experience in my chosen field, and the flexibility to start my own business while still getting a steady paycheck. You won’t necessarily find the perfect option now - look for something you can live with while you continue working toward your ultimate goal.

One of the things that makes the years out of college is that it is a time where you are trying to discover who you want to be. Sort of the same way college is, but often they pay you.

I’d recommend finding a full-time job. Peace Corps, backpacking across Asia and “somesuch” IMHO are simply ways of continuing to avoid real world responsibilities. Once you have a real job and steady income, a lot more possibilities open up to you.

My first year out of college, I found a job in my field (structural engineering) that was a mile from my parents house so I lived at home. On the weekends, I either went bar hopping with my high school friends or drove down to the Jersey Shore to party in a house I shared with a bunch of my college fraternity brothers and some Accenture consultants they worked with. That same winter we did ski house.

It was a lot of fun, but it still felt a little “stuck in my hometown” and “clinging to college life”, plus I didn’t like being an engineer. So I got a management / IT consulting job up in Boston and a few years later went back to business school for my MBA.

Still hate office work though.

If you are interested in Peace Corps, I’d recommend applying now. Peace Corps has a number of very cool partnerships with some excellent graduate schools, and returned Peace Corps volunteers get really good perks at a lot of grad schools: free tuition, prestigious research projects, early graduation, no application fees, etc. Peace Corps is a very, very good thing for people going into grad school to have done. It will help you get better offers from better schools.

There are also 'Peace Corps fellows" programs that combine your Peace Corps service and graduate school. Basically, you do the standard two-year Peace Corps service, and only have to do one year of graduate classes. It’s a really cool program that can save a lot of time and money. You can see what universities Peace Corps has deals with on their website.

Another important factor is that the application process takes, on average, about a year. You can defer your entry if you are invited to serve, but there isn’t a lot you can do to make it go faster. There is a medical screening component to the process that is lightyears easier complete at a student health center that is familiar with the forms. If there is any way you can do the medical screening as a student, I would really, really, really do everything I could to do so.

Finally, there will be other opportunities to serve, but Peace Corps is by far the most accessible way to get significant experience in developing countries, and if you do not have that initial experience, it is going to be a lot more difficult to get overseas in the future. And someone in early in their career is going to have a lot more opportunity to grow professionally as a Peace Corps volunteer than someone in their mid-career. I walked in with little more than basic office experience. I walked out having taught high school and university, founded and managed a library and youth center, ran summer camps and teacher training courses, written a technical manual, developed gender empowerment programming and advised on the steering committee of a million-dollar program. It’s a good kick in the pants for a fledgling career, and if you use some initiative you can gain MUCH more career experience than you would working up the ranks back home. Feel free to PM me with any questions.

If Peace Corps isn’t a “real job”, then I have no idea what the heck I was doing waking up at seven every day for four years. For the record, Peace Corps volunteer quite often work fairly normal 9-5 jobs at schools, hospitals, agricultural extension posts, city planning offices, business development centers, banks and youth centers. For my entire four years of service, I had set hours and worked alongside local colleagues in a way that was indistinguishable from any other teaching job, except that it happened to be in another country. We had performance reviews and were accountable for the work we accomplished, and people who did not do their job were fired.

Peace Corps found us a place to rent (although if we wanted to move, we’d have to make our own arrangements.) We had to furnish it, set up and pay utilities, cut our landlord a rent check each month, manage our banking, deal with the police when necessary, manage our visas and residency documents (Peace Corps would help us with the first round, but we’d be responsible for managing any renewals), make our own travel arrangements, make doctor’s appointments, etc. Peace Corps provided advanced medical care (routine stuff would be on our own with local doctors), twice yearly training sessions, security updates, a technical library and a very nice water filter. But we lived independently and managed our own affairs just like any grown-up. The Peace Corps office was a three day drive away. I was much more on my own that I’d be just about anywhere else.

You don’t have to be a sole proprietor. Starting a business with a partner or two allows you to combine skills and interests- some people don’t mind, or even like, all the business-y aspects of business. But, you’ll have to put in some time in the working world to find those partners-to-be, as well as establish relationships with customers. Customers who already know and like you won’t care if you have a Ph.D., and investors won’t care if you have a good customer base to target at the outset. Seems like taking a job right now could be an effective means toward your (very worthwhile) goal.

Not sure if this is relevant, but just for the record, my view is that the old adage “Do what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is crap. This may work for a small number of people, but there’s just not a market for all of us to be doing what we love. There’s only room for so many writers and musicians and zookeepers, and even they suffer a lot of boredom. For most of us, the workaday world has a certain sameness, a certain tedium to it. The keys to enduring are to work in a place that isn’t too bad (although every place will have its share of BS) and find most of your happiness and meaning in activities beyond your job.

It’s awesome that you want to help people, but does it have to be tied to your degree? There’s guaranteed to be a need for all sorts of help unrelated to your educational accomplishments in your community right now. Doing volunteer work can go a LONG way towards curing the sense of unfulfillment that a “regular” job can bring.

25 words or less: Take a job with a goal of finding future business partners and customers, and do fun and meaningful things off the job.

^ This. Careers are over-rated. Make sure you have a fulfilling life outside of work and if you have a fulfilling job that is icing (not the other way around). The job is just a means to an end.

My advice is to set some goals and then set a plan to achieve them; have a 3-5 year horizon, and no more. Make sure you are evaluating the goals periodically and make adjustments as you see fit. Don’t let yourself get pigeon-holed into something you will eventually get burned-out from. Select a job/career that gives you lots of transferrable skills, that you can leverage as your situation changes (due to things within and outside your control). And when things change that affect your plan, be flexible. If you don’t set the goals and the plan, no one else will, and you will just flop around waiting for something good to happen.

What is your major?

I’ve got degrees is computer hardware engineering and biomedical engineering. I really enjoy small portable medical devices, and hope to do that sort of thing with my life.

Sven- your enthusiasm for Peace Corps is certainly exciting, but I have been unable to find any way to work my majors in. How diverse are the different programs offered?

And I guess everyone else is saying that the tedium of working regular hours is worth it. I just remember my parents being too tired every day to do anything once returning from work, and too exhausted by the time the weekend came to do anything then. I don’t want to make that mistake.

Off the top of my head, Peace Corps Mexico focuses on engineering. There are many health programs, and there may be some that work with communications technology and public health, which is a very hip topic in development these days. That said, most health programs are focused on health education and basic public health. There are lots of programs teaching computer science (that’s what I did), and if you are on advanced level, you may be able to teach university. In your free time, you have support to develop your own programs. A friend of mine, for example, founded a tech incubator in Cameroon that has risen to international prominence and is leading innovation in the region.

There will probably be a time when you make your peace with the 9-5, but I don’t think that time is now. When you are in your 20s, you have a comparative advantage in that you have the ability to take on challenging and riskier career paths that someone with a family, mortgage and all that would have trouble with. One way or another, you’ll probably eventually enter the daily grind, but why rush it if you aren’t feeling it? If you do have that dream of something bigger and better, or at least different, now is the time to pursue it with everything you’ve got. Plenty of people are perfectly happy with the work-to-live model. Some people aren’t. If you are lucky and work at it, you can at least create the possibility of having a fulfilling and stable job. There are plenty of 9-5s where you continue to learn and grow. Aim for one of those.

My career philosophy is “never do anything you don’t want to do,” and it’s worked out pretty well. I kicked around lost and confused after undergrad, working daily-grind jobs and spending all my money on travel, feeling pretty depressed and not seeing my path from here to there. Then one day I realized it’d be a lot smarter to figure out some way to get other people to buy me airplane tickets. I joined Peace Corps, and had the most amazing four years learning new skills, making friends around the world, learning about different ways of life and growing professionally. During this time, the pieces all came together and I discovered my calling. When I returned, I entered grad school and managed my career with absolute laser focus, using everything I had to get the right jobs, internships, and additional experience. Now I’ve got a very nice 9-5 in a relevant and personally fulfilling field that offers ample travel and contributes to the world in very real ways. I still get faced with tough choices (I just got offered, for example, a solo job in a very remote area), but as I get older my priorities are changing and it’s a lot easier to make sense of them.

Everything has trade offs, and nobody else can tell you what sacrifices are worth your priorities. Only you can know when something feels right and when it feels wrong. Trust that feeling, look ahead, use your energy when you are young to feed your ambition, and go for it!

While individuals, industries and companies will obviously have huge variations in typical employee exhaustion levels, avoiding this mistake will mostly be a question of intention. My parents always came home and watched TV, and I found myself falling into the same pattern when I got my first office job. It took a while to learn how to set goals and plans for myself that deliberately precluded doing nothing after work. If I come home tired now, I’ll push myself to run or go to my martial arts classes.

It sounds like your work leading up to this point in your life has left you in the enviable position of coming to a branch in where there are very few possible poor decision. Whichever route you choose to take will most likely lead to a rewarding future in one way or another.

My only advice is:
If you get a job at the mall offering people cologne samples. When they say no, listen and don’t spray them in the face.

Oh, there’s always plenty of opportunities to make poor decisions. :smiley: Takes but a second.

I went to school in Colorado and liked living there so I wasn’t in any hurry to leave after graduation. I worked crap jobs for a couple of years, went on some big adventures, played in bands, had some fun. I went back to school for music education but it wasn’t for me and I left. While at school that time around I had a job supporting a psychology researcher and rather liked it. After leaving school I moved to NYC and parlayed that bit of experience into a job supporting clinical trials at a cancer research hospital and I’ve been in that line of work ever since, now working for pharmaceutical companies. The tough part was once I got a job that I really enjoyed, and that I was making some money at, the fire kind of went out of my musical pursuits. I don’t have much advice, really, except that there’s a lot of interesting stuff to do out there that you don’t know exists yet, and that you just might like, so keep an open mind and don’t be overly beholden to what you got your degree in.

I don’t expect you’ll follow this advice, but my recommendation is: join the military. Seriously. Now, as a couple threads around here have recently discussed, this is not a morally neutral act - you’d need to consider what the military does and what you might be asked to do as part of it. But if you’re okay with it, you might find the military to be a really good option.

Why? You sound adventurous, don’t have a lot of money, and don’t want to get an office job and sit in front of a computer. The military has decent pay, bonuses, lots of perks, and gives you interesting work that is usually not computer-bound. It lets you travel, and can look good to future employers or grad schools.

I’ve never been in the military myself, and never had an interest in it growing up. When I graduated from college it was the furthest thing from my mind. I was in a situation like you’re in now - not much money, not ready for a 9-5 office job, restless, and interested in seeing the world. I found ways to scratch all those itches and had some good and interesting times. But aside from good memories it didn’t all add up to much, and when I finally decided to try a white-collar, 9-5 job a few years ago I discovered it was every bit as miserable as I’d always feared.

I left that job and now live and work (as a civilian) on an Army base. I talk to a lot of soldiers and have gradually come to wish that I made the decision they did. There are young 20-somethings here who have done far more interesting and challenging things than I ever did at their age, all while making good money and putting something different on their resumes. While I was wandering aimlessly they were learning new skills, getting leadership experience, and traveling the world on the government’s dime. I talked to a soldier yesterday who’d been sent to Japan to help with earthquake relief, done an exchange in Romania, and was now working on some program with the Afghan Army.

The downsides of the military are well-known, and they’re real. But as someone who’s been where I think you are now, that’s my recommendation, and what I now wish I’d done myself. And I say this as someone who went to a hippie, Quaker college, majored in the humanities, and has never been in a fight in his life - not an obvious candidate for a person who wishes they’d joined up.

I think a lot of jobs in the military are more computer bound than you think.

Just keep that sparkling sense of humor and you’ll be ok.

I’ve worked on computer hardware for over 30 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever done the same thing twice. And biomedical engineering is the wave of the future. You picked the right major. Here in Silicon Valley we’re hiring like crazy, and starting salaries are absurdly high. It helps to have an M.S. at least.
Now, when you start you might do the same thing for a while, since the real world, especially in engineering, is a lot different from school. A good place will teach you what is really going on. But, even in engineering, good ideas are at a premium. If you want to sit there doing the same thing every day they will let you, but if you have higher ambitions you can often accomplish them. That is something to ask the people you interview. You have to perform, of course. And you have to have the guts to take risks.
I’ve been stressed, I’ve been frantic, I’ve been overloaded, but I’ve never been bored.

Pay your dues in the 9-5 world until you learn enough to consult on your own.

As an aside, do you truly only work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week? I am sort of fascinated by this 9 to 5 type of job. I wonder in this day and age how many people actually work this type of office based job with regular hours.