What I Wish I Learned at University

When I started university in 2009, I was pretty clueless, so I relied on academia to make me into a real grown up, teach me how to make all the dollars, and help me find meaning in life. I did everything by the books: worked hard on my grades, took a year off to see the “real” world, spent some time in Asia, then sub-Saharan Africa, obsessed over Sergio, then over Emergency Sex, then got a scholarship from a graduate school that specialises in churning out aid workers by the hundred and moved to Geneva.

Next week will be one year since I finished grad school and waved formal education a blissful goodbye. With the anniversary approaching, I thought I’d share three things I learned in the past 12 months while trying to work through the big old mess of professional expectations, career progression pressures, and self-doubt I was left with after two years in Geneva. These little personal discoveries I made may sound obvious to some but hopefully will help others as they helped me in reconsidering my professional trajectory and improving my well-being, sense of self-worth, and outlook on life in general.

Risks are frightening but necessary

It took me four months to get my first job offer after grad school. Every day for those four months I wrote tailored CVs and cover letters, tapped my networks, and pestered recruitment teams through direct messages on social media, taking full advantage of that free LinkedIn Premium trial. Still, weeks went by, dragging away with them my self-esteem, yet nothing happened. Imagine my excitement then, when after months of soul-crushing job hunt, I finally got that first job offer. It was truly brilliant and… it was short-lived.

The more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me that the job description was making my insides churn with dread and boredom, and that the salary offered to me was nearly £10K less than what I hoped for. My common sense pushed for me to take the offer nonetheless. It was a permanent and salaried role in my field, with a young, fast-growing, woman-owned company that had a distinct start-up feel about it and a hip office space in Marylebone. Who says no to their first job offer in central London?! You’re not allowed to do that, not right after grad school, not at 24 and with thousands of dollars of student debt. Besides, all my peers were snatching up hot jobs one after another, and I felt a strong sense of FOMO setting it.

Yet, every time I tried to imagine myself in this role, my stomach dropped, so after a weekend of non-stop agonising over my decision I called in to reject the offer. I felt like I was letting everyone down: myself, my family, the bloody company. Was I making a mistake? Was I being too picky? Was I going to be stuck unemployed for another four months or even longer? I was so nervous that I had to type up my rejection and speed-read it into the phone to the company’s CEO, apologising profusely as I went along. But as soon as I hung up the phone, a massive burden lifted off my shoulders. Instead of feeling defeated, I felt energised and even more driven to score a dream job, which I did a couple of weeks later.

The trouble is that the traditional “get the grades – get the degree – get the job” path so many people followed in the past doesn’t really work anymore. Having any job simply doesn’t cut it for many people, yet the education system still largely teaches us to follow the opportunity rather than follow our passion and gut. If I saw more examples of the latter throughout my education and got more reassurance at uni to get a job I love, not just any job that pays the bills, maybe that experience would have been less painful or could have been avoided altogether.

You can create your own path

It’s a little baffling, to be honest, how little I thought about what I really want to do in life despite spending years studying within one field and strategically planning several steps ahead. It wasn’t until I was out of the grad school rat race that I had the time and space to stop and think.

Even though I was lucky enough to do my bachelor’s in the U.S., where students don’t have to decide what they are going to study until the third year of university, I still felt the pressure to look like I knew what I wanted early on. In grad school this pressure multiplied exponentially. The unspoken assumption was that if you chose to study something at the postgraduate level, you must be certain about what you want. This may have been true in the past but today many people go into postgraduate studies shortly after finishing their undergraduate degrees, not leaving ourselves much time for quality professional soul-searching and figuring out what makes us happy. Even if we do take a break, it’s often too short: I went back to school after only a year because I just couldn’t get a proper job without ticking off that Master’s degree box.

But what if your interests evolve? What if you get to that first dream job and find yourself at a loss about what to do next? That’s exactly what happened in my case, and because I lacked role models whose career progression resembled what I wanted to do and tools that would help me create this career, I felt disheartened, stuck, and without a purpose.

What got me through this quarter-life crisis were the works of creative and passionate women writing and talking about their experiences in building non-traditional, unique, and meaningful careers that they dreamed up for themselves. I am yet to find someone who had gone down the path I want to take but to be honest, I’ve stopped looking. I realised that all along I wasn’t searching for someone whose career path or achievements list I could replicate. Rather, I needed reassurance that it’s OK to not have a plan, and more than that, that it is absolutely necessary to try new things, play with different options, and explore alternatives to the traditional career progression that we’re expected to follow.

It’s not about the job

Finally, the most important thing that I wish I learned earlier is that it’s not about the job. It doesn’t really matter what job I end up doing as long as it is meaningful, multifaceted, and sustains the lifestyle I want to have. In a way, going for generalist and liberal arts degrees rather than highly specialised ones was an accidental blessing, as I’ve inadvertently given myself enough room to manoeuvre to accommodate my ever-changing interests and passions.

What matters more than the job is the life we want to build: the kind of people we want to be around, the family we want to grow, the hobbies and passion projects we want to nurture, and the way we want to spend our days and evenings, our weekends and our holidays. Defining more clearly that big picture for myself must be one of my proudest achievements since I graduated. I don’t have all the small details figured out yet but that’s not the point. What makes this such an exciting adventure are all the uncertain, uncomfortable, and unpredictable bits in between.

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