Upon graduating from college this past May, I found myself standing at a crossroads. I am the type of person who loves structure, but for once I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t even know what my next step would be.
During college, I had debated over whether to pick a practical, career-oriented major or to follow my passion, and had ultimately picked English since it resonated with me. Instead of leading to a defined career, my major left me with multiple possibilities. I just didn’t know which option to pursue.
To say that I was confused about what to do next would be an understatement. I would consider law school one week, and the next week I would think of getting an MFA in Creative Writing and would start short-listing schools to apply to. For a while I even considered getting an MBA.
After feeling stuck and aimless for a while, I knew that I had to start with something. Over the past few months, I’ve dabbled in multiple fields, including taking on a legal internship, doing part-time freelance writing, and becoming an Instructional Assistant. I’m still not sure what my long-term plan is, but I’m starting to appreciate the fact that I can explore so many different options. Here are some things that I’ve learned that have helped me along the way.
1. Develop a career trajectory
I’ve found that it’s helpful to look at examples of career trajectories in different fields in order to get an idea of what to expect. One way of doing this is to conduct informational interviews with people who work in your desired field. If possible, try and find a mentor to guide you. I personally talked to many lawyers, teachers, and writers, and was able to get a better sense of what their respective careers entailed. Reading up on career infographics (ones that condense all the relevant information about a career path) really helped me understand the requirements for different jobs, as well as the expected career track and job outlook.
Keeping in line with this, it’s also helpful to test out a potential field on a smaller scale. As I struggled to decide whether I wanted to go for an MFA, one of my friends suggested that I enroll in a local writing workshop as a way to determine whether it would be something that I found helpful and constructive. That would give me an idea of what to expect without having to commit to a two or three-year program right away.
2. It’s completely okay to have a non-linear career path
I’m trying to accept the fact that career paths don’t always have to be linear. In Pakistan, which is where I am from, people have a more focused approach to choosing a career and are less likely to switch across different fields. Even the education system is different from that in the United States: instead of having the option to explore majors while in college, high school students choose their field of study at the very start. Most of my Pakistani friends went straight to medical school or law school after finishing high school. Their paths were more clearly defined. While there are lots of benefits to having a more structured education, I feel that the American system worked well for me since I was able to explore multiple majors in college before realizing what worked best for me.
It is great to have structure and a goal to work towards, but it is also important to keep an open mind and seize on opportunities even if they are unconventional. A career doesn’t have to progress in a linear fashion — instead, it can have detours and diversions. It’s also okay to switch to another career path: I know many people in their forties and fifties who have started over in a completely different field. The job that you take right after college does not necessarily define the rest of your career.
3. Don’t compare your path to others
Upon graduating, I thought that I was alone in my uncertainty and that everyone else had it all figured out. A lot of my friends who had studied engineering and computer science in college went on to get high-paying jobs right after graduation, while the rest went straight to law school or medical school. On the surface, their lives looked so put together. As a result, I was quite surprised when I talked to one of my friends in medical school and found her expressing similar concerns of uncertainty. Almost everyone I talked to was nervous about entering the real world after more than a decade in a structured academic environment.
I realized that I am not the only person who is nervous and that it is okay if my path differs from that of my friends and classmates.
4. Acquire employable skills
Even if you’re not sure about your desired field, there are certain skills that will be useful across different industries. In such a technology-driven age, it’s helpful to have basic coding skills and a certain amount of tech literacy, even if you don’t have an engineering background.
People can make use of online education and certification programs to develop such skills, which would give them an advantage and help them integrate more effectively into the workforce. Such programs are geared towards helping individuals develop practical skills. Coding boot camps are another valuable resource.
5. Ultimately, do what you find meaningful
In a family that consists mainly of doctors, I am the only liberal arts major. I sometimes feel inadequate about my field of study, especially since many South Asians consider law, medicine, and engineering to be superior to other careers.
However, I don’t want to choose a career simply because it is more prestigious. Instead, I want to choose something about which I am passionate. I have always loved writing, which is why I am determined to pursue it further.
While my path is still uncertain, I’m glad that I have the opportunity to explore different fields and do work that I find meaningful. It doesn’t have to be scary; it’s an adventure!