Pop Culture
Apr 30, 2008, 06:24AM

Five Foot Three

One year removed from graduation, the college-bred expectation of planning your whole life seems less useful than ever.

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At the start of my senior year of college, I felt really confident about the future. I needed just two more psychology courses to earn my bachelor's degree, and had secured a solid research position for the fall semester, studying relationship and identity formation among freshman roommates. I spent weeks searching every college website for open research jobs and compiling lists of every mental health facility from D.C. to Chicago to L.A.-any place that would be a good resume builder. I knew which graduate programs best matched my interests, what it took to get into each one, what I would write about for my dissertation, even the kinds of classes I'd eventually teach, once I'd earned my Ph.D. I was all set, ready to enjoy a final year on campus and happily looking forward to graduation.

But then, one day, I completely changed my mind. Researching freshman roommates turned out to be really boring. The only jobs I could find were in rehabilitation-something I'd done throughout college and had no interest continuing in the future. All the top clinical psychology programs required impressive math GRE scores, and numbers were never my strong suit. But more importantly, I kept sitting up, night after night, writing short stories when I should have been reading about clinical research ethics. As graduation approached and everyone around me drew closer to determining the course of their adult lives, I had no job prospects, and no plan for my future.

This past weekend, the University of Michigan's Class of 2008 graduated. It has been one full year since I sat on the field at Michigan Stadium with 5000 fellow graduates and listened to one speaker after another tell us how much we would achieve in the future, how we were all poised for immeasurable success. One year since I threw my mortarboard into the air and watched it fall and hit the girl in front of me square in the head.

There's a certain expectation that once you graduate from college, real life begins. The four-plus years you spend in an undergraduate program are like a slow-motion version of reality. In Psychology, they call it Emerging Adulthood: a time where the trivialities of adolescence have gone to the wayside but the harsh truths of adult life have yet to be discovered. A time where responsibility is comfortably sandwiched between continued parental support and the ability to stay up drinking until four in the morning with very few repercussions. But at 22, you shouldn't have to know what you'll be doing at 45. It's absurd that we're expected to go from eating Easy Mac for dinner four nights a week to suddenly saving money for retirement. It is hard enough to attend all the classes necessary to get a degree that's depreciated to the value of a high school diploma, much less decide how you'll apply that degree over the next five years to put yourself on the path of achieving the success that some graduation speaker thinks you're more than capable of.

I moved to Baltimore about a month after graduating. My fiancé got a job and, having no prospects of my own, I followed him. I spent two months unemployed, sleeping until noon, writing during the day and slowly setting up our apartment. I took a job working in substance abuse research, and I figured that if I changed my mind about psychology, it would be good to have more experience on my resume. But as it turned out, heroin addicts weren't any more interesting than college freshmen and every working day felt like a slow, painful struggle. I applied to everything, interviewed to be a receptionist in a veterinary office and ended up taking a temporary position at a law firm where I spent eight hours a day putting medical records in reverse chronological order and once got yelled at for getting up too often to get a drink of water. And now I have this job, where I get to write a weekly column and pretend that I know something about being an adult.

It feels like the right path; working for two or three years and building up a writing portfolio. In the evenings, I'll slowly begin studying for the GREs, maybe teach myself how to read and write French again. When I feel like a worthy candidate, I'll apply to Master's programs for writing and move on from there, if necessary, to get a Ph.D. It's the same basic idea as my senior year plan, just a different subject. But writing isn't like psychology; it takes a thicker skin than I may be capable of having, a determination that I'm usually too tired to muster up. Plus, sometimes I still feel like psychology is right for me. I'll watch a movie or read a book, or see Britney Spears' face plastered across the cover of a magazine and think of how I'd love to be working to help change public misconceptions of mental illness or help improve the quality of life for depression sufferers. To do that, though, I'd need to be working in a research position, or as a personal care assistant in a mental health facility.

The difficult thing to accept is that every decision you make throws one choice out the window. Every opportunity you take closes you off to three or four other possibilities. It starts in college, or even before then, when you choose a school, and before that when you decide how hard you'll work in certain subjects, whether or not you'll study for the SATs. It all adds up to determine how desirable you'll be for potential employers and graduate school admissions officers. If I had worked harder in math and science, I could have majored in biology and seriously considered becoming a doctor. But I'll never be a doctor now. The only biology course I've ever taken was one about AIDS, where we inexplicably read a book about Mad Cow. If I had majored in English, I could have gotten into more upper-level writing courses, been building a writing portfolio all along. But I decided too late what I wanted to do; and honestly, I'm still deciding.

The truth is, life doesn't suddenly begin when your mortarboard hits some poor girl in the head. Nor does it end if you aren't quite sure what the future holds for you. Who knows what I'll be doing five years from now, but I'm not especially worried about it. I'm only 23 and it's only been one year since graduation. And besides, I've learned the most important lesson I'll ever need to learn, one that I pass on now to all those who graduate this year and step out into the working world: putting medical records in reverse chronological order is the most painfully boring job on Earth.

  • Many, many years removed from graduation (and having my mortarboard fall off my head as I was reaching for my diploma - an omen?) I am still trying to figure out what the hell I'm doing. Funny thing is, I didn't really have a focus in college, and I didn't have a defined career path, but unlike many that did, I still have a job with benefits that doesn't suck every minute of the day, and I have true job security. So there's just no telling. I figure that not knowing exactly what you want to do just leaves you open for that many more opportunities, but I could be wrong.

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  • As a sophmore I'm dealing with this issue right now. I have to declare a major by junior year and then there's no going back. what if someday I want to be an artist, or own my own business. I'm hoping I'll realize someday that I can do whatever I want, and that whatever I chose to concentrate on when I was 20 won't determine the rest of my life. I'm too young for that pressure. But I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

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