Sometime over the course of your time as a student, you’ve probably encountered this: A well-meaning friend/acquaintance/teacher/auntie/barista asks so, what’s your plan for after graduation? Perhaps you answer with pride and certainty, or perhaps you feel a sinking sense of anxiety and impending doom which you express through a meek I’m not sure or Maybe go traveling? Or some such confused statement or question. Or maybe that’s just me.
I’ve been a fine arts student off-and-on for eight years, first as an undergraduate and now as a graduate student. If I had a dime for every time someone asked me this question, I’d probably have a comfortable savings that would make my impending graduation from my Master of Fine Arts program fairly comfortable. And while this question used to fill me with the sinking doubt of the unknown that awaits post-grad, I’ve come to new appreciation and understanding of this question (and perhaps this transition out of student life). Briefly, here’s what I’ve learned over the past eight years:
- It’s not a race. For a long time I looked at the prospect of graduation as a sort of finish line to life. I felt like once I passed it I’d start my “real life”. While graduation was a definite milestone, and the pace of my life certainly shifted when I began working, in hindsight it was kind of anticlimactic. I don’t necessarily think this was a bad thing, in fact this was almost a comforting realization—that I had in fact already been living my real life all along, and that my it’s going to include all sorts of various milestones big and small.
- Be honest. I used to feel that if I didn’t have an answer to this question, it somehow spoke to my general state of motivation and success. This lead to me floundering for various responses that didn’t really speak to where I really stood, but instead were aimed at appeasing the assumed expectation I felt pressure to live up to. I was answering in the way I thought I was expected to answer. How exhausting for everyone involved. Here’s what I do now: I’m honest. Sometimes I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do, and other times I second-guess myself. I try to answer accordingly. What I see now is that everyone’s been there, and no one’s going to judge you for being uncertain of your exact career/life trajectory in relation to your degree finishing. A bonus of being able to honestly answer this question is that others may have had similar experiences—another chance to make connections, exchange ideas, and support each other along the way.
- Embrace where you are, right now. This might sound wishy-washy, but it’s an important point. This is indeed your real life, and there will be busy periods that require a lot of energy and dedication and often end with some tangible form of pay-off (ie. a diploma hanging on your wall), and there will be periods that will be quieter, or slower, and that may end in less tangible forms of payoff, or in you deciding to change your path altogether. Fear not, none of this is a waste of time. Sometimes those quieter times offer a world of growth that is necessary before embarking on the next period of intense exertion. Over the past decade I’ve been a full time student, I’ve worked and gone to school at the same time, I’ve travelled for extended periods of time, I’ve been unemployed and employed and am now studying again. What sometimes seems like an insurmountable task or a period of limbo, I later remember with a lot of fondness and appreciation—none of these periods were particularly better than other ones, just different.
In closing—the next time you feel those pangs of anxiety or dread at the uncertainty that can follow graduation (or the completion of any grand task, really), take a breath and try for compassion for yourself and your unique path.
You’ll get where you need to be, in the meantime try to enjoy the ride.