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Executive Education

After Graduation: Should You Work—or Wander?

Rebekah Bastian

Congratulations! You’re about to become a college graduate, and the world is your oyster.

Or is it?

Many women enter the career phase of their lives believing they’re supposed to know where they’re going—and that there’s one right path to get there. This belief is dangerous because it sets us up for disappointment, for feelings of failure, and, worst of all, it can close our eyes to opportunities we never imag­ined.

Just image yourself in this story:

You’re in your final days of a dual communications and math degree, you’re 99.2 percent certain to get your diploma, and you have choices laid out in front of you. Sure, you may only end up making eighty-two cents for every dollar that Andy—your on-again-off-again boyfriend—will make, but you have an amazing group of friends and big aspirations for making the world a better place.

That said, there have been an uncharacteristic number of pep talks in your life lately. There was the, admittedly, moving pre-graduation speech from the alumni who started his own global shipping company. Then the slightly less moving—but more predictable—lecture from your mom about paying back student loans and using birth control. And finally, the most exciting (and most buzzed) “pep talk” from your BFF about the possibilities ahead.

Your BFF Sam is trying to talk you into traveling the world with her. Honestly, that sounds amazing, and you know that the number of college graduates who take a gap year is rising, so crazier things have definitely happened. And you know there are some opportunities for teaching or work­ing short-term jobs, so it’s not like you would be entirely without income while seeing the world.

At the same time, the combination of your college debt and an unexplainable urge to prove yourself as a “career woman” is whispering in your other ear.

Even with some sort of international job, you wouldn’t be paying down your loan’s principal at all, so you would be coming back to even more debt. There’s a career fair on campus tomorrow and a stack of edited resumes on the peeling Ikea desk in your apartment.

Sam pops in just as you’re contemplating this. “Want to grab a drink, spin a globe, and figure out where to jet off to, girl?”

What do you do?

The Facts

Did you just freeze and think, “What should I do?” The truth is, there’s no universal right answer. Just look at the facts:

There are many post-college paths. In a recent survey, the paths out of college were pretty evenly split: 35 percent of people jump straight into their career after college, 32 percent take up to five years to get their career started, and 33 percent spend closer to ten years—or more—getting going.

Your path might include a gap by default. Even if you want to leap into the workforce, it may take a while before your plan takes hold. Despite record-low unemployment, the average new graduate spends 7.4 months looking for that first job.

Now let’s go back to our story. How have your two choices panned out?

Choice 1: A year of adventure with Sam. You wake up to the sound of Howler monkeys. Even after seven weeks, it still takes you by surprise. You and Sam have been staying with neighboring host families in southeastern Costa Rica and teaching grade school English and math through a year-abroad teaching fel­lowship. Sure, it pays very little, but for the moment, it’s just enough to make ends meet.

Of course, this is doing almost nothing to address your student loan debt or the experience that will be relevant to your future career. But you’re having the most fun and eye-opening experience you’ve ever had.

With daily practice to improve your rusty high-school Span­ish, along with the training the volunteer program provided, you feel equipped to teach the eight-to-twelve-year-olds in your classroom. You can’t help wonder who is really benefiting the most from this experience.

In the evenings, you and Sam often go dancing at one of the reggae bars. It’s on one such night that you end up chat­ting with Eddie. He’s from Argen­tina, but lives in Puerto Viejo now, and is doing research on the mating habits of sea turtles. You hit it off instantly, talk into the night and, after a short-but-heart-stopping good-night kiss, agree to meet for a beach hike the coming weekend.

Thus begins your Costa Rican romance.

Not bad, right?

Now let’s look at what happens if you chose, instead, to go to the career fair.

Choice 2: Landing your first real job. You knew your first “real” job wouldn’t just fall in your lap, but you didn’t quite expect just how far from your lap it would be. You’ve spent months and increasingly sleepless nights sending out resumes, networking coffees with third-degree connections (like your father’s college roommate’s wife), and LinkedIn stalking anyone with a manager title.

Then one morning, you awake to an email alert from your high school English teacher’s cousin. It turns out, her friend is hiring a website content editor for a large bank. Although it’s not what you pictured as your dream job, it does sound way healthier—and more in line with your com­munications degree—than the night bartending you picked up.

Three weeks and two phone calls later, you find yourself explain­ing to a hiring manager named Pete why you are passionate about financial institutions as a means toward human empow­erment. Pete seems to be eating it up. He says he’ll get back to you in the coming days.

That evening you go out with a few friends to the local Taco Tuesday happy hour and recap your interview. You’re going on about how excited you are to pour yourself into a job you love, and how difficult it is to find meaningful employment, when a woman at the next table turns to you and says, “I’m actually hiring an office man­ager. I can let you know how to apply if you’re interested.”

It turns out the woman, Stacey Allen, is the executive director of a nonprofit that trains Seeing Eye dogs. That sounds much more meaningful to you, and you exchange contact info with Stacey, promising to follow up in the morning.

Somehow, soon enough, the unthinkable has happened: you have gone from zero job pros­pects to two job offers in the course of three weeks. You’re now back to: What do you do?

There Are Many Right Paths

There is no one right choice you need to make—no singular path that you need to be following. Each decision you make will teach you new lessons, provide more opportunities from which to build strength, and, hopefully, each will open your heart a little further. And remember, no matter how exciting or painful an outcome, as long as you are alive, you will make it through. Your life awaits you.

Now go out and blaze your own trail.


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Rebekah Bastian
Rebekah Bastian is the author of the first interactive choose-your-own story for millennial and Gen Z women, Blaze Your Own Trail: An Interactive Guide to Navigating Life with Confidence, Solidarity, and Compassion. An author, mentor, mother, vice president at Zillow Group, and CEO of OwnTrail, Bastian speaks and writes on the complex life paths of women and creating social impact through technology. Rebekah Bastian is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. She can be found on Linkedin.