Feeling Lost After Graduation? Make a Map

The other day, my wife and I were visiting her grandmother to invite her to our upcoming anniversary party. She had not been to our place yet, so she asked for directions. Naturally, she took out a pen and paper, and scribbled down notes as I described the specific streets and landmarks that would guide her to our house.

It felt like an ancient practice, but it reminded me of the trips I took before I got a smartphone, before I got used to a comforting voice telling me where to turn, when to change lanes, how to pick the fastest route. It is not as easy to follow a handwritten map as it is to listen to Waze or Google Maps, but with a little sense of direction, a decent helping of navigational intuition and a dash of adventurousness, it can make for an enjoyable drive.

The path from kindergarten to graduating college was, largely speaking, mapped out for me. My education was structured, orderly and progressive: It maintained certain rhythms and patterns, it built upon past knowledge and students within its walls could depend upon its routine. While college added new levels of complexity (e.g. living away from home for the first time, having the freedom to choose a major, planning a class schedule, investing in work, relationships, extracurricular activities, etc.), I took comfort in its relative predictability. It was as if a very specific destination — graduation — had been typed into a GPS: While each student’s course may vary, the system is designed to get all of us to the same place.

After college, however, is not as simple. You’ve graduated — now what? Do you only apply to jobs that pertain to your major? Do you pursue the lucrative career, or the aspirational dream? Do you move to a new city? Do you move back home? Do you apply to grad school? Suddenly, the navigation system that was so reliable back when you were headed toward graduation is no longer useful.

For many new graduates, the post-college road can be full of unexpected twists and turns. Since I graduated college in 2013, I have held four different positions in three different industries. This wasn’t the plan. Upon graduation, I worked for a campus ministry I had joined as an undergraduate. I loved the job, but I couldn’t see a future there because of the low pay and poor benefits. A change in location and one master’s degree later, I took a position outside my major field for the sake of financial necessity. I hated it.

Along the way, I had to ask myself: Am I able to sacrifice to pursue personally meaningful work, or do I need to consider something more practical and stable, even if it’s boring? Different answers at different points led me to a variety of workplaces. Plus there were other considerations, like workplace culture, employer-employee dynamics and ever-shifting living situations. Looking at those factors together, it’s no wonder we have a tendency to hop around. Sometimes, the road can feel aimless, confusing and uncertain.

This is where thinking about navigating your career with an old-fashioned map can be helpful. With a GPS, you’re directed how to get from point A to point B. But when you open a map, you can get a better sense of what’s around you. The answer to the question “Where are you going after college?” does not need to be a specific destination; having a general sense of where you might like to end up is probably more effective. If you are looking for a future in nonprofits, or in finance, or in higher education, then you will know ahead of time what kind of landscape you will be navigating.

It can be easy to get lost in the middle of living life, so look down the road a bit and identify the signposts you need to pay attention to. These could be goals you want to work toward or milestones you want to pass or maybe values you want to guide your way. For example, I have made it a principle to avoid working for companies that have a bad track record with respecting work-life balance, because at the end of the day, they will not help me get to the kind of life I aim to live.

Finally, and this may be the most important: Trust your navigational intuition. We have all been there, where you get to a fork in the road, Google Maps has failed you and some little voice in the back of your head is saying, “I think I should have taken the right turn two miles ago.” In life and on the road, you should probably listen to that voice.

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Ian Caveny is a contributor to The Edit. He graduated from the University of Chicago’s master’s program in the humanities.

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