What comes next? Students grapple with answering the life-shaping question

Anna Landsverk


Spring break may have just ended, but students already need another break.

Luckily, the next long weekend is only two weeks away. Unluckily, it may not be as relaxing as we might hope.

“So, what do you plan to do after graduation?”

“What field do you want to go into?”

“Have you found a job yet?”

“Where do you plan to live?”

“Are you going to graduate school?”

These are frustrating questions without easy answers, especially for seniors. Even in high school, students are pressured by relatives, teachers, friends and parents to decide their future while managing their classes and work. Freshman Megan Schellack remembers being asked what she was planning to do all too well.

“When I was deciding (what to do after high school), yeah, I got that question a lot—like every day—from people who’d already asked me,” Schellack said.

It was especially irritating for her because her plans were in flux.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had my mind made up in May, and then I changed my mind in June,” Schellack said, adding that another friend even changed her plans in August before the start of the academic year.

For college students, this interrogation can be even more difficult, as it is not a short-term decision like where and whether to pursue higher education. Graduate students face that choice again, but many will look beyond the narrow scope they might have used to look for an undergraduate program. And with application deadlines inching closer, it can be hard to fit everything in.

“Now that I’m a senior, I have a lot going on,” physics major Aidan Shafer said. “A lot of things are due right now in this time. I still have to take GRE tests and some general tests to even get into most grad schools. It’s a lot more than I ever thought.”

Plus, even though Shafer plans to go to graduate school, he still gets the dreaded question of what’s next.

“(I hear it) more and more the older I get. I really should’ve put more time into thinking about that,” Shafer said. “I’m probably going to grad school. I don’t have any place picked out yet. I don’t have an exact plan set up.”

For those not attending graduate school, the entire world is opened up as a possible destination. That can be overwhelming and can create a lot of individual fear and panic.

“It’s so deeply personal to everybody,” said Troy Nellis, the Director of the Career Development Center. “People will have panic for different reasons.”

When it comes to career planning and job hunting, Nellis said that while there is not a “magic bullet” to erase the fear students may be feeling, the first step is to delve into that fear and find out why it’s there.

“First, define the panic. What do you have anxiety about?” Nellis said. “Is it that you won’t do good in this profession because you lack a certain skill set? Is it anxiety-inducing because you’re going to have to be interviewed and have your career planning organized? Identify the source of the panic and why you feel that panic, and then work toward strategies to alleviate that stress.”

While many seniors and juniors may feel there’s a cartoon anvil hovering over their heads just waiting to crush them, that is not true. There are still opportunities to get resumes reviewed, mock interviews scheduled and LinkedIn profiles created. Nellis pointed out that while students frequently procrastinate on career planning and job searching, it still works out.

“Absolutely there’s time,” Nellis said. “Generally, for most majors, if you’re graduating in the spring, you’re going to have time rolling into early May where there’s still going to be time to get your stuff together and maybe get that June job.”

However, he warned that waiting too long could seriously reduce the amount of job opportunities out there.

“The reality is that the sooner you’re prepared, the better opportunities that you have. It’s the law of diminishing returns,” Nellis said. “I would say within a month of your graduation, if you haven’t done anything, you’re starting to get to the too-late stage.”

Regardless of where students are at now, it’s also important to remember that even though that question—what comes next—may be annoying or stress-inducing, people usually don’t ask it to be rude.

“I think people are generally curious about your life, and they want to know what’s going on, and the most relevant thing to you right now is college,” Schellack said. However, she added, “I can definitely see (getting annoyed by the question) because there are other things going on in your life besides college, and college is probably the most stressful thing going on in your life, so you probably don’t want to talk about it all the time.”

So, if during the break, Great Aunt Susan asks for the third time what in heaven’s name you’ll do with an English major if you are not going to teach, resist punching her in the face—she’s just trying to show that she cares. Most importantly, it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” Chances are, you’ll figure it out.

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