After four years of rigorous classes, hard work, and late nights spent in the library, graduation marks the end of being an undergraduate student and represents a gateway into long-awaited adulthood. For some college seniors, however, receiving a diploma opens another door — one that leads to fear, anxiety, and stress over finding a job.
The pressure to nail down the perfect job by graduation day can be daunting and stressful. As a graduating and jobless senior myself, I know firsthand how it feels to walk among your friends and peers of the past four years knowing that some will slide gracefully into “real” adulthood, while others (like me) will become the kind of post-college adults that every student fears: the ones without a plan.
But here’s the thing that no one tells soon-to-be graduates: it’s okay to be one of those people! In fact, it can actually benefit your career in the long run.
As it turns out, not having a job (or a firm career path) could even put you in better shape than some of your employed peers.
For one thing, the burden of finding a “perfect” job and starting a dream career straight out of college is not only unrealistic — it’s unhealthy. Research shows that the pressure of trying to identify a “career calling” is linked to less self-clarity and choice-work salience (how important you perceive your job to be in your life), as well as greater discomfort and indecisiveness.
In fact, one study found that college seniors who were determined to find the perfect job ultimately ended up with lower job satisfaction, and experienced more negative emotions during job searches than students who set the bar a little lower.
“The higher your expectations, the more disappointed you are by everything you don’t enjoy about a job. When you’re aiming for nirvana, there’s a bigger gap between what you want and what you get,” Adam Grant, Ph.D., organizational psychologist and author of Originals, says on his podcast WorkLife. “Besides, most entry-level jobs aren’t designed to be fun. So, recruiters often try to paint a rosy picture of the job to entice you. Extensive research shows it works — but then it leaves you less productive and more likely to quit.”
So, if you avoided the stress of finding a dream job, good for you! And if you experienced job-search stress but still haven’t found the role for you as you approach graduation? Don’t worry — you might just have saved yourself from more worry later on.
Moreover, jumping straight into a job (especially if you’re passionate about it) without strategy, structure, or open-mindedness runs the risk that you’ll close yourself off to opportunities that could be more suited to your skills and interests.
“The thing about passions is that we often settle on them when we’re young. The danger is getting locked in. Most of the time, our early passions are not the best guide to our later careers,” Grant says. One study found that when people followed what they perceived to be their passion, they “put all their eggs in one basket,” thus closing themselves off to potentially better options, and failed to accurately anticipate and work through challenges that came along with their job.
So, how should you go about creating a life after graduation?
“When you compare job prospects, it’s easy to get caught up in the immediate factors: salary, benefits, location, and signing bonus. But you shouldn’t see a job as your objective. Your goal should be starting a career,” Dave Boyce writes for Fast Company. “This might seem like semantics to you, but switching your mindset from getting a job to establishing your career changes everything.”
In other words, strategize for the long-term, not for the immediate fulfillment of being employed, or for what you think is your absolute perfect job right in this current moment (since that may well change). Instead of expecting your first job to be perfect, figure out strategically where you think you will want to go, and how you can best set yourself up to get there.
That might mean accepting an entry-level position that isn’t exactly what you want in the short term but will teach you, and will value your time; or it could mean taking a short break after graduation to decide thoughtfully who you want to become. If you keep your goals in mind and your eyes open for opportunities, you can craft a career that does fulfill you — and avoid getting stuck in the first job track you find, potentially consigning yourself to a path veering towards burnout and disappointment.
As one of my professors once said: “Don’t leap; take baby steps to get where you want to go.”
To all the recent and soon-to-be graduates who still don’t have a plan, don’t stress — we have to take baby steps to find our footing.