Life after university – a road to uncertainty

“What are your plans for after you graduate?” – I am asked, again and again. “I’m not too sure yet,” I answer, “I’m keeping my options open”. But the truth is I’m still looking for options, and the existential anxiety is getting harder to ignore with each step closer to the end of my degree.

Unlike some of my fellow uncertain students, I did not choose the master’s option simply to gain an extra year of figuring my life out. I enjoyed my undergraduate degree, and could see myself continuing in the direction of academia. Little did I know that a few months into this new degree, I would bitterly be regretting my decision. In my experience, a master’s is not a way to ‘gain time’, but rather add a—stressful and intense—year to the pile of uncertain years leading up to working life.

As much as I recognise the privilege which an Oxford degree represents, it seems that this golden key is not as magical as some would say. Having stepped into university with no clear professional plans, I fell into a brief spell of dreams of working in academia, and set aside internship applications which seemed irrelevant to my professional plans. However, I soon realised that investing my time in a PhD with no guarantee of securing a place in the academic labour market was a dangerous game to play for someone who hadn’t explored other potential options. Sifting through career opportunities, my limited professional experience now weighs me down in job applications where employers all seem to expect a portfolio of internships or previous work experience—which the free spirit that I was considered a corruption of my principles, and hence never built.

“As much as I recognise the privilege which an Oxford degree represents, it seems that this golden key is not as magical as some would say.”

“Chill out”, my friends tell me. “You’ll be fine”. The problem is that I am anything but a ‘chill’ person, and the anxiety card is one my brain is always ready to flash, plunging me into an inexplicable dread of the future and the unknown road which lies ahead. What if I don’t find a job, or at least not one I enjoy? What if I’m not good enough? What if, what if…? Other times, the fear is replaced by demotivation: “What’s the point of trying? I’ll just receive another rejection.”

A few dream jobs stand out in this hazy, anxious mess. But their competitive nature is yet another reminder that my chances are slim on a market dominated by experienced, driven applicants. Journalism? – I stand against people whose CVs boast internships at the BBC, Bloomberg, or The Times. Think tanks? Come back when you have three years of work experience in this sector. NGOs? Congrats on securing this competitive six-month internship, did we mention it’s unpaid? Good luck paying rent!

According to research conducted by the Pew Research Centre, Gen Zs (as someone born in 1997, I seem to be at the border between this generation and that of millennials, although the line is debated) are a depressed lot, who have less fun and worry about the future. Seems about right. But stereotypes aside, many would agree that as the job market fluctuates with changes in the economic and social fabric of society, navigating the world of employment is not always (or ever) a piece of cake.

“…with changes in the economic and social fabric of society, navigating the world of employment is not always (or ever) a piece of cake.”

So herein lies my angst: on a competitive job market with rising demands for experience, having one (or two) degree(s) is no longer enough to protect you from job prospect uncertainty. Combine that with typical existential-crisis-like symptoms of not knowing what it is that you see yourself doing, and the future looks bleak. Having said that, most problems have a solution, so do not let the pessimistic picture I have painted thus far offset you from finding one.

Overcoming this fear of an uncertain future is not an easy task, and one I have yet to master. But having outlined all these obstacles, it’s safe to say that many of them lie in our own minds. We’ve all heard of negative self-fulfilling prophecies, impostor syndromes, and the like, but we too often forget that the harshest judges tend to be ourselves. Like the deer who freezes in the face of a car coming at him, fear can be paralysing, impeding us from thinking clearly as we allow feelings of anxiety to overwhelm us. But as psychologists have repeated time and again, the mind is a malleable thing. Positive thinking will not solve everything, but it may well be a crucial step to being proactive in thinking about ways to figure out the future.

And if all else fails, I can always fall back on the gap year cliché of mindful soul-searching on the beaches of Thailand or the mountains of Nepal. Although I’d have to start with a salary to afford the flight. Finding a job seems to be in order after all…

Photo Credit: TinTin12