With the holiday season quickly approaching, so too is the season of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and your nextdoor neighbor asking you The Question. You know what I’m talking about. The Question is seared into every Thanksgiving turkey. The Question is baked into every Christmas cookie. The Question pops out of champagne bottles at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The Question: what are you doing after college?
As if your past college semester wasn’t hard enough, now you have to respond to The Question with a polished answer that will assure your family that aren’t wasting their tuition money and that you, a wayward college student, have mapped out your future with intention and precision. The Question is especially daunting for freshmen, who, upon their first visit home for the holidays, are bombarded by it for the first time. What do you say? How are you supposed to know where you’re going after college if you’ve only just got there? How do you stitch together all the books you have read, essays you have written and tests you have studied for and shape them into a career?
Step One: Take a deep breath
Most of the time, people ask The Question because they care about you and are interested in your academic journey. Others ask The Question because they are nosy. Either way, don’t let The Question be a trap. It’s not quicksand. It can’t hurt you if you don’t let it. Take a deep breath to center yourself and collect your thoughts. If there are holiday desserts nearby, grab one quick and offer one to whoever asked you The Question. This should buy you a few crucial seconds to come up with an answer.
Step Two: There is no such thing as a wasted education
Remind whoever is asking you this question that the point of college is to learn and you are learning a lot! The Question can be jarring to those of us who have no idea what we want to do after college. Whether you changed your major six times or can’t decide between consulting or cooking classes, chances are The Question has frozen you in your tracks and forced you to confront the overwhelming number of career paths in front of you. Don’t panic. The point of going to college is to explore new disciplines and to consider what life would be like in any one of them. Personally, I have taken classes on medieval literature, social media, diseases, astronomy, and modernist poetry. At first glance, these classes have little to do with one another but the point of taking a variety of classes is to benefit from a diverse education. All learning is valuable, whether or not it lines up neatly into a flashing arrow that points you to a post-grad job.
You never know what class, lesson, or book you will use in your future career. Feel free to take The Question as an opportunity to move the conversation towards what you are studying now rather than what your future plans may be.
Step Three: Dream big
If someone is asking what you plan to do after college, why not shoot for the stars? Tell them you want to be an actor, physicist, entrepreneur, professor, athlete, or artist. Sometimes, discussing your ambitions helps to make them a reality. What’s something you’ve always wanted to do? Become a vet? Work for a production company? Plan a political campaign? You don’t have to apply for that dream job today, but by voicing your greatest ambition you can see a clearer path from dream to reality.
If your conversation partner disagrees with your ambitions, smile, nod, and redirect your comments to the weather and how good dinner smells. The sad fact is, sometimes our families don’t support our career choices. I’m a writer pursuing an artistic life and the arts are condemned for being competitive, over-saturated, and, worst of all, low-paying. Why would you throw away four expensive years of college to become an artist? Couldn’t you go into consulting now and think about writing later? I’ve received plenty of pushback on my decision, and once a well-meaning uncle told me that my writing can always be a “hobby” in addition to my “real job.”
Comments like this have forced me to pause and reflect on the choice I’m making. I know that being a professional writer means I will not earn a lot of money, I will have to fight hard to get a job in a highly competitive field, and it may be a long time before my writing “takes off.” Frankly, these things scare me and I have considered pursuing a different career. But, I simply can’t imagine doing anything else. I love to write, and anything you love is worth doing. As I get closer to graduation, I’ve noticed that most of my friends, even the ones going into engineering and marketing, are just as scared as I am. This is an odd comfort because if we’re all intimidated by the future, if we all fear we won’t make enough money, then why not risk it all to do something we love? When you find what you love to do, it will guide you, feed you, and push you through any adversity.
The holidays come and go as quickly as the college semester itself so don’t fret. You can expect to be faced with The Question at some point on your visit home, but it doesn’t have to be as daunting as it seems. At its core, The Question is an opportunity to reflect on all you’ve learned at school and imagine a way to use it in the future. I believe in dreaming big and staying true to your intellectual passions. Face The Question with courage and I promise it won’t sink you. And remember, the holidays are about family, food, and fun. Worst case scenario, grab a second helping at dinner and rest easy knowing that the future is a mystery to everyone and you might as well enjoy the journey.