Early post-grad life was like a tiger in the jungle. It chewed me up, spat me out, and I never saw it coming! The time since then – about a year – has been a wild ride. It ended up well enough, but there are a ton of “truth bombs” I wish someone would have dropped on me before I began the post-grad job hunt. Since the 2014 graduation season is almost upon us, and I was already a basket-case around this time last year, I thought I’d write a little something so others might benefit from my experience.
Truth bomb #1: It’s way okay if you’re worried.
The people in our lives want us to do well, and are probably a little scared for us. The six months before graduation, all I heard were things like, “You’ll land okay, don’t worry!” “You’ve got so much great experience! Any place would be lucky to have you.” “You have a killer resume, you’ll be fine!” I don’t think one person in my life validated my “What if I can’t find a job?” hysteria. I bet every new grad has at least some worry in them (if not, your confidence might need adjusting or you might not be aware of it yet) and wherever you fall on that spectrum, it is totally fine! Unfortunately, around this time last year I was in the clutches of an anxiety disorder, so just waking up and trying not to lose my shit every day was a big deal. It was wreaking havoc in my mind, body, spirit, relationships, and life. I ended up skipping the school graduation entirely and almost skipping the celebration my family had planned.
And oh goodness, the people! Every time a well-intentioned person said, “You’ll be fine!” This pacifist wanted to pass-a-fist across someone’s face! There’s something to be said for good intentions though, and the people who have them. I was incredibly blessed to have many good people in my life, one of which was my financially stable boyfriend who I was living with. He said, “If you want to take some time and just focus on looking for work, I’m okay with being the bread winner.” Having worked since I was a teenager, my arm didn’t need much twisting on that one. It worked nicely for a while. The first couple of weeks were heaven! Wake up, fill out applications, hit the gym, make follow-up calls, meet a friend for coffee, my anxiety was on vaca and it was divine! A month in though – as can reasonably be expected – my post-grad job hunt wasn’t getting much traction and my anxiety came back from hiatus with a vengeance! My mind began to ruminate on questions like, “Why won’t anyone call me back?” and “WHEN AM I GOING TO FIND WORK?!??!” All these kinds of feelings: frustration, fear, sadness, it might be a bummer to hear, but it’s all totally normal. So if you find yourself feeling some of these things this year, know that (it sucks, but) it’s okay and like all things good or bad, it will pass.
Truth bomb #2: Always send a “thank you” note.
You might be hearing a lot of conflicting information about what the best approach is to finding work. I did too. So I tried a little of everything: grad fairs, networking, applying to every job online remotely relevant, making follow-up calls, and showing up to random places in-person. Unfortunately, I don’t imagine there’s any one magic bullet that is going to get you a job. It will likely be the culmination of multiple such efforts. I will tell you one thing I did that absolutely worked in my favor though. I always sent a thank you note. Believe it or not, my current boss said the note and photo I sent her after our interview was the icing on the cake to choose me over the other applicants she was considering.
Maybe it seems cheesy, maybe it is. Don’t care. It is important to put that extra, personal, humanizing touch. Especially after an interview, but it’s even a good habit to be in if someone just goes out of their way for you. Professional communities can be small, people will talk. Eventually you will be known. What do you want to be known for?
Truth bomb #3: You’re not alone!
Looking for work can really beat the crap out of your self-esteem and sense of purpose. During my hunt, I was finding that if I came by in person, I was referred to the website. If I called, no one wanted to talk. No one wanted to know my name, and I often felt less like a person and more like a number. On the rare occasion that I got a job interview, they could be brutal. I’ve never been a very formal person so I feel my least authentic self in formal wear (for instance, the fancy power-suits my mom let me borrow for interviews.) I don’t have a very competitive spirit either. So, this dog-eat-dog (on a fun side note – did anyone else think that phrase was “doggy dog” for much of their life, or was that just me?) job market was blowing my mind.
Now, I doubt “you’re not alone” is what you want to hear in regards to the number of people applying to the job you want. But! I must tell you that I sat in many rooms with my pearls and power-suit on, looking at what usually felt like an intimidating sea of people much more “together” than me. Only to find out later, most of those people were just as terrified and hungry-for-work as me! So, if you should find yourself feeling unnerved by the “competition” any time soon, maybe remind yourself that they’re people too, and probably just as freaked out as you are.
Another thing to consider: asking for what you need from your people (aka friends and family). This time last year, I was so frustrated with my dad and stepmom. I would come to them in true panic, only to have them smile and practically pat me on the head. In their minds, they could clearly see where I was headed (a job, financial stability, being well adjusted) but I could not. If you can relate to this at all, you are not alone! I went through it. Your folks and established family members probably went through it. I see now that I didn’t have the insight of what I was experiencing, let alone the language to describe it. So, if in the next (however long this period is going to last) you realize people are not picking up what you’re putting down, speak up for what you need! Tell someone you love and trust – in whatever words make sense to you – “I have no idea what’s going on. I am scared out of my mind. Can you please come be scared with me for a minute? It’s lonely here.” Vulnerability, man… it can be scary, but also incredibly powerful.
Truth bomb #4: Let it go.
A few months post-grad, I was feeling defeated, deflated, and doubtful. I decided it wasn’t fair of me to put so much financial burden on my honey. So I began lowering the bar of what kind of job I was looking for. Searches went from “Public Policy Analyst” and “Mental Health Therapist” (yes I am a Therapist with issues, I’m sure you’ve heard of us) to “Entry-level Researcher” and “Case Worker.” I then lowered it again and again until there was no bar left. My last full time job – on a high school education alone – I had worked my way up to being a Project Manager at an Engineering Firm. Now, with Master’s degree in hand, I was having trouble finding anything and I was pissed!
Anger seemed to lead the way to transcendence though. I had resisted and resisted where life was urging me to go. Even though I had been going through the motions of doing all the “right things” – I had been resentful. In my heart, mind, and spirit, I was kicking and screaming and thrashing. Then it happened. One day I let it go. I stopped trying to push the river and let it take me. Soon, that simple acquiescence would yield an impossible amount of wisdom, opportunity, adventure, and joy! Before that happened though, I had to…
Truth bomb #5: Make that cheddar!
While my professional job search never stopped, I needed to start bringing home some money, fast, and was willing to take almost anything. I started applying daily to jobs such as dish washer, housekeeper, and pizza deliverer. To my surprise, these jobs were difficult to get as well, since I didn’t have any recent experience.
Right before I went to apply to fast McDonald’s and gas stations, I got a job delivering subs. In spite of the next couple of sentences, this was actually a pretty cool and interesting experience. Yes, I cleaned toilets in between deliveries. Yes I was required to wear a conservative amount of black for much of the day… outside… in the Florida, summer heat. And yes, I frequently got yelled at for things beyond my control by douchey, young, business dudes. But…
Truth bomb #6: The world owes you nothing.
This job had some serious existential benefits. My dad was a self-made man, one of those bootstrap types. He put himself through Columbia University by working three jobs in NYC. However, he also saw how difficult it was to do and realized that not everyone can do the things he did. He raised me that a job is a job and to respect any person doing an honest day’s work. I thought I was already pretty humble, but being in this kind of role at my stage in life bestowed even more humility on me than I had prior.
Additionally, I got to see a new side to my city and its inhabitants. I had been living in Orlando most my life, but in my short time as a driver, I learned of 100s of places I hadn’t previously known existed! I got to notice people’s patterns, make the day of many individuals with a simple smile (or maybe it was that their lunch had arrived? Either way, many people were happy to see me), and I got to intimately peek into a little part of countless people’s lives. How many people can say that?
Truth bomb #7: You’ve probably been busting it for a long while. Is a little down time, really the worst thing that could happen?
This one didn’t dawn on me for a long time, but the truth was, I hadn’t had a job as easy and free of responsibility as making deliveries… literally, ever! In college I was a hard working math tutor, before that, I put every ounce of my energy into my shitty project management job, and before that, my jobs all tended to be very busy and demanding. Thankfully something clicked, and like the first few weeks of unemployment, I began using my time well again. I started volunteering at an agency I hadn’t been able to serve at in a couple of years. I read every day, discovered new and delicious kinds of tea, and soaked up the Florida sun several times a week in the lawns of my favorite coffee shops. I also taught myself some new and interesting things, like how to meditate and cook new cuisines.
Probably the most important thing I did during this time though was to go to therapy. I had seen many a Therapist in my day, but for some reason, it just never clicked. Despite the fact that my mom is one, I wanted to be one, and many friends of mine did it for a living – in the privacy of my own mind, I feared I’d never find one that I authentically connected with, personally. Alas, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears” was a very apt phrase in my case. Out of nowhere, I was connected with a wonderful, gentle, and generous woman who accepted what I could pay her (VERY little).
I don’t know if it was the right time, place, or person, but I felt like “this lady totally gets me and I finally feel safe sharing all my nonsense.” In short order, she helped me move through some terrible things which had been causing me great pain and holding me back. On a side note: I don’t want you to doubt your mental health or anything, I’m sure you’re each fabulous and well adjusted… but in case you haven’t heard, therapy isn’t “just for crazies.” Never ever feel weird about seeking help if you’re having trouble moving through an issue or transition, or if just need a little extra support!
Truth bomb #8: Lady Success finds those easiest with least attachment to what she’ll look like (aka be open minded!).
Finally! I got a job offer to be a Mental Health Therapist! So, how did happen? I took what I thought I was looking for and turned it on its head (again and again and again.) In my spare time, I had been applying to every job I could find in every industry I was passionate about (public policy, mental health, community organizing) and some that I had little-to-no interest in (law enforcement, the military, setting up new Steak N’ Shakes.) I also applied in small, remote parts of the country, which didn’t particularly appeal to me either, but I figured, “what the hay?” One of those remote places was Kotzebue, Alaska: population 3,300. I had one phone interview, and a month later, they offered me the job. It took some time to get everything sorted out, but my honey and I moved to Alaska on October 1st, 2013 – a little less than 6 months after graduation.
By the time we moved, I had been going for therapy twice a week for about three months. I had transformed my relationship with my mother (we are now closer than we’d ever been in my adult life). I finally got around to reading one of my brothers’ favorite books, “Infinite Jest” (it was every bit as good as he’d been saying for the last 10 years!) I built a wealth of new coping skills for dealing with stress and anxiety, and was using them daily. With the sign-on bonus from my new job, I was able to take a “good-bye tour” and visit cherished loved ones in NYC, Boston, and Philly. I also made every delicious moment count before I left the place I’d lived and loved for most my life: Orlando, Florida.
When all was said and done, my fiancé and I (surprise! We got engaged after deciding to move to AK together) packed up or sold all our earthly possessions, had one hell of a goodbye party, and left to start our new lives in Alaska. This is truly a dream job for me. I travel to villages even more remote than ours (most the villages in our region only have about 200 residents, few jobs, high poverty, and some don’t have access to running water.) I go there to serve and provide support & mental health services (another perk: in the process, I get to see much of this majestic state of ours!)
I was recently told by a Professor from UMass that I might get to help her conduct research here. Once a month I am on-call for a week as the acting psychiatric authority for mental health emergencies at our hospital. People I went to school with who keep tabs on what I do tell me that I get the best clinical experience out of anyone in our program. I also have tremendous freedom in my job to do things I used to only do in my spare time, like health education and community organizing. Oh, and p.s., my dress code is basically whatever I want, including jeans and tee-shirts! (Shwing! No more power-suits!)
In my actual free time, I pursue my passion of writing, mentor teens, watch movies with my honey, go hiking, try to catch the Northern Lights, and I am teaching myself the local language, Inupiaq. My fiancé and I are learning how to fish and hunt, and I’m learning how to make my own clothes. When it gets warmer, we’ll be able to pick berries, go camping, see our first dog-sled race, and get closer to the mountains (which I can see from my office window every day I’m not travelling). By the end of the 2014, my partner and I will both have paid off our student loans and probably have saved more than we would have been able to in the next five years, had we stayed in Florida. We’re planning our wedding and all the crazy trips we hope to take (Japan, India, and New Zealand to start) which I didn’t think I’d get to do, if ever, until retirement.
Truth bomb #9: Life is hard. Endeavoring to find a fulfilling job is a part of it. Don’t you DARE give up!
My life is sweet beyond measure! But what if I had continued to fight the direction life was obviously pushing me toward? I probably wouldn’t have gone to therapy. I might never again have had the combination of time, health, and lack of responsibilities which allowed for that kind of emotional work. I might have never known the sweetness that was waiting for me in a relationship with my mother. Or what if I went the other way, resigned myself to delivering food, and stopped applying to jobs? Or had become so bitter that my brightness no longer shone in interviews?
Do I want you all to fail at finding work in your chosen professions, being forced to deliver food and go to therapy? OF COURSE NOT!!!! (I mean, if the shoe fits, knock yourself out.) But I want you to be extraordinary! I want you to achieve everything you set out to and for you each to shine crazily bright! However… it is a weird time in the world and job market right now and you need to know that. If you don’t already, you also need to know that for every job you apply to, there will probably be at least a dozen other well qualified (or better qualified) candidates.
You need to know that the next little chunk of your life might not be the smooth-sailing you’ve hoped for. You might have a killer resume, experience for days, and still not be able to land a job doing anything remotely close to what you want, and that that’s okay. I went through grad school with some truly stellar individuals. Almost a year later, many of them have not been able to find work in our field. Does this speak ill of them? Absolutely not. Life is not what happens to us, it is what we do in spite of what happens to us!
Truth bomb #10: You CAN make this time count!
Be bold. Be brazen! Be optimistic! Life is good and surely you will, in fact, land on your feet… sooner or later. BUT! Be realistic. Be okay with things “not going to plan.” Know the market. Explore all the many possibilities available to you! Try to change your perspective of what post-grad is going to look like and stay open to the many ways it COULD look.
When you need the money, take a job doing whatever. Use the time to work on yourself, teach yourself a new language or skill, or volunteer! Hold your people near. Rely on them! Don’t be afraid to let loose and vent your frustrations when you have them (you will most likely have them) AND KEEP APPLYING, even when you want to give up.
Make yourself an applicant that authentically shines, and eventually people won’t be able to ignore you. Most importantly, whatever the months or years that follow graduation look like for you: just go with it. You never know what the road ahead will look like or what you’ll experience along the way (in fact, many people have only realized their dreams… in the pursuit itself.) Maybe your path will be paved with gold, like you hope. Maybe it will be paved with horse manure, like you fear. It can all lead to greatness if you keep trudging, and it’s all good. Best of luck to you.