Scott Allison, a psychology professor at the University of Richmond, spent part of his gap year after college working at a restaurant.
“I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do until a pivotal moment happened,” Allison said.
“As I was mopping up the vomit in the men’s room it occurred to me: I’m now 100 percent sure I need to go to graduate school. I went from being sort of sure to very sure in that moment.”
Many students struggle with this decision of where to go and what to do after college. The choices seem apparent but daunting — graduate school, a job, or a gap year — which is the right path?
Many UR professors recalled being in this situation and had some advice for recent graduates.
“It’s hard, especially when college is supposed to be the investment that pays off with a job,” Elisabeth Gruner, associate dean of the school of arts and sciences and associate english professor, said.
When asked about their mindsets after college, many UR professors agreed that graduating college can be a scary time.
“Right around graduation I was sort of scrambling for a job,” Jory Brinkerhoff, associate biology professor, said.
Gruner shared this sentiment.
“There were absolutely moments where I was not at all confident,” Gruner said.
However, many professors said this fear shouldn’t dictate someone’s career choice.
“Don’t make panicking about this force you on a path that you aren’t going to enjoy,” Hugh West, associate history professor, said.
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But, Neil Ashworth, professor of management, said that taking a job just to have one is not a wise decision.
“If you take a job just for the money then you are going to be a slave to that job no matter what it is,” Ashworth said.
Gruner got a job with a magazine after college. She described this job as terrible.
Gruner soon left the magazine and applied to graduate school, working as a temp in the meantime. She recalled having dinner around this time with some family friends. They said to her, “I never thought you’d be a secretary.” But, that didn’t bother Gruner. “Just because this is what I’m doing now doesn’t mean this is who I am,” she said.
Gruner knew she had a plan and was working her way to a career she truly wanted.
“Terrible jobs aren’t the end of the world," Gruner said. "You learn from them, even if all you learn from them is I never want to do that again."
“In a lot of ways I think that you shouldn’t expect to know what you want to do at 21 or 22 because there’s so much out there that you haven’t experienced yet,” Brinkerhoff said about taking time to find the right career. “My advice would be to explore. … As long as you’re finding something that makes you happy and is at least partly fulfilling, I think you are doing the right thing.”
Rick Mayes, political science professor and co-coordinator of the healthcare studies program, also advised exploring one’s interests, especially through internships and volunteering. Mayes explained that he didn’t know what career he wanted after college, so he used internships and other opportunities in the hopes that eventually one would click.
“I was a massive mad sampler,” he said.
He compared finding the right career to a buffet — sample each food until you realize you really like something, he said. “I think everybody’s kind of waiting for that aha moment of ‘Oh I like this and I’m ok at it,’” he said.
Mayes also said that internships allow employers to test out possible job candidates. “They are kind of like speed dating,” he said. “Most organizations want to do a trial run with you. So many internships become the feeder for entry level positions.”
He advised to approach internships openly and ready to explore, but also seriously because if a company sees value in you, they will train you in the skills needed to work for them.
“Do them and do them with great respect and intensity," he said. "Find a way to make yourself valuable in any capacity."
Assistant Marketing Professor Jeffrey Carlson also advised taking risks during this time.
Carlson had a job offer after college, but turned it down. “It was not easy,” he said.
Carlson felt it was better to explore other options than commit to a job he wasn’t sure of.
He said taking risks can be hard because you don’t want to deny any opportunities. But, if he had stayed in comfortable positions, he wouldn’t have learned more about himself.
Carlson also shared the philosophy that led him to where he is today: “Don’t be afraid to leave something behind to try something new.”
Sometimes, Carlson said, exploring your interests and trying new things brings you back to passions that you developed throughout your life.
“You try things out and some of them aren’t the right thing for you and some of them you come back to in different ways too,” Gruner said.
Ashworth knew as early as seventh grade that he wanted to teach, but he didn’t realize at the time the he would end up pursuing that career. “Ironically, I ended up where I wanted to be back in the seventh grade,” he said.
One universal piece of advice from these professors was that after college your goal should be to find a job you love and want to do.
Mayes described the right career as something that you could spend five hours working on that was actually enjoyable.
“That was work that didn’t feel like work," Mayes said. "That’s a good sign."
Allison’s final piece of advice was to have self-awareness when trying to find a career —awareness “of who we are and what we can do to become better.”
Contact writer Melanie Lippert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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