Graduation is approaching for a large group of students, including the writers of this article. While for some, the idea of being free from school and not having to write 16-page essays anymore is exciting, for others (perhaps for the silent majority of us), this time is nerve-racking and anxiety-driven. 

University students rarely gather to reflect on the factors related to graduation that keep many of us awake at night. But if it brings anyone comfort, we can assure you we are all thinking about similar things. 

Not knowing what to do next is common. It is quite rare for someone to know exactly what they want to do with their life and have a clear path. For those of us grappling with ongoing existential crises, this period is particularly draining as we ponder what to do with our lives. 

“Will I find a job? Do I apply for grad school?”

To help ease your mind, we have listed below some ideas that many of us are likely grappling with. In doing so, we can find solace in the shared realization that none of us truly have it all figured out. 

Firstly, a lot of graduating students may struggle with having identity attachments to their university majors.

Letting go of our student identities might seem harder than we thought. After being in school for years, if not for the majority of our lifetimes so far, the idea of becoming a full-time working adult is terrifying. And to make matters worse, let’s be honest, most of us don’t even know what to do. 

We are compelled to choose what we want to do for the rest of our lives when we apply to university. How are we supposed to know? 

Something we wish people told us back then is that the majority of people don’t end up working in their field of study. But now that we are past that, there seems to be an unavoidable sentiment of attachment to our majors. And to make matters worse, we continue to hear the same question over and over again,

“So, what are you going to do with your degree?”

Believe us, if we knew, we would not be writing this piece. But, although we all are anxious, let's rest assured that truly, as cheesy as it is, we don’t need to have it all figured out. And no matter what you studied in university, you’ll find your passion one way or another. 

Of course, in practice, this is difficult. As students, we are being bombarded with expectations, mostly coming from our families and the outside world. We often sit and ponder, looking at Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list and wonder, “How did they do this?” We wish we knew the answer. But after being in university for four years, let’s instead take this time of graduation as a pathway into a new chapter where we get to discover ourselves and our passions.

Where do I go next? 

Upon finishing your university degree, you might find that you need some time away to think about what you want to do. 

The first thing many of us think about when we enter our last year of our undergraduate degree is going to graduate school. Grad school might work for some people who are 100 per cent sure they want to continue their academic studies in a given field. Yet, going to grad school right away can be problematic. 

For one, it requires some level of certainty. While you don’t have to be fully enlightened about what you want to do for the rest of your life, having some idea would not be a bad thing. Although, in some cases, it might not be as expensive as acquiring your undergraduate degree, going to grad school still requires some level of funding that not all of us have. If we are to spend more money on something we are not certain about, perhaps it is a better idea to take some time away to figure it out.  

On the other hand, academic burnout is real — very real. Getting some time away, perhaps working for some time, can grant us relief or a sense of clarity. This might not work for everyone; some of you will want to go to grad school straight away, and that is okay, too. But just keep these things in mind before applying.

On the line of working, it will certainly help you figure out what you want to do and what you don’t. If you plan to go to grad school, working in a related field might be a good idea to see if that is something you want to continue studying. But you might be surprised to find that many people don’t go to grad school after they start working. 

Travelling is also a worthwhile endeavour if you have the means to do it. It also allows time to pass between the academic burnout of being in school for the last several years, and a change of context can clear the plate for new ideas and perspectives. 

However, as worthwhile as travelling can be, this option is not open to everyone, and in the case of student permit-holders, planning your life around bureaucratic timelines that define when and where you need to be is an additional consideration.

Things may be even more wacky for graduating international students.

For international students, the question of where to go after graduation might be a particularly difficult one to answer. Many of us come from “developing countries” that don’t offer many opportunities in the way of jobs or academic pursuits, which made coming to Canada an attractive option. Throughout our time here, we’ve heard of the different routes towards a permanent residence facilitated by studying for a degree here. However, it feels like in recent years, immigrating here for the long term is not as easy as they made it sound. 

When we first arrived in Canada, as international students, we had heard that finishing a degree and finding a job after graduation were all the conditions necessary for securing residency. Yet, as the years have gone by, we’ve looked more closely into the process, and there are various steps and conditions to the immigration pathway that we hadn’t been previously aware of. Of course, we’re in an ever-changing world that is becoming increasingly globalized as we speak, which means different immigration policies must be put in place as economic and social contexts change. Still, it does prompt one to evaluate how feasible it is to leave one’s country behind. 

Global political and economic instability in the world is also a reason for uncertainty and anxiety post-graduation. Looking for a job at this time is proving to be a hard task; despite the low unemployment rate, recent graduates have reported that landing jobs presents a long and often unfruitful challenge. This can be particularly demoralizing because the months after graduating can be an unsettling point in your life where you’re vulnerable and unsure about how to apply the skills you learned in university in the “real world.”

Looking for jobs or places to live in a financially and politically chaotic time can make you feel like you’re unprepared for the struggles of the real world.

We might hear our parents and older relatives say that “back when they were our age,” they already had two jobs and were paying their mortgage. Not to demerit their hard-earned achievements — their time came with struggles of their own — but acquiring property these days is a completely different story than 20 or 30 years ago. If you live in Canada, you have probably heard about the housing crisis. Rent prices are outrageously high, and buying property is out of the question for most young people starting their careers. All of this is to say that on top of the stress and anxiety that comes from going through a big life change like graduating, thinking of the future might feel particularly dreadful. 

For many, starting university was their first taste of true independence and self-autonomy, but taking these issues into account, moving in with your family or friends might be the soundest financial decision whilst you take the next steps of your life. Recent data from the Pew Research Center shows that 52 per cent of young adults lived with at least one of their parents. This makes sense when you consider the fact that securing a job in this day and age can take an average of six months, and the cost of rent seems unjustifiable. 

Of course, moving back in with parents/relatives is not everyone’s first option. Once you have experienced a truly independent livelihood, it can seem like a step backward, but the reality of the situation is that post-graduation life is particularly complicated right now, which explains why so many have resorted to this option. 

All in all, the fear of graduating is completely justified. For many, it’s the source of considerable uncertainty and perhaps the official beginning of an adult life. Letting go of your identity as an undergraduate student, deciding where you want to take your life, and dealing with others’ expectations of you is hard enough. On top of that, we are living in a post-pandemic world that has seen technological revolutions, housing crises and job scarcity; it’s okay to be scared. You’re not alone. 

That being said, there are many things to look forward to. Despite all the great things that university offers, it’s not always conducive to a flexible lifestyle or a lot of free time. You might find that when your academic responsibilities are over, you have much more time to reflect and work on yourself. 

I’ve had many friends and relatives say that once they graduated, they had the best years of their lives figuring out the person that they wanted to be. If anything, it’s a time when you can reap all the benefits you gained while in school, the growth and resilience that came from all your hard work.

It’s important to plan for the future, but don’t neglect the present moment and how much you deserve to celebrate yourself for all your dedication and perseverance. 

You might look back one day and give yourself a pat on the back, but also remember to acknowledge the younger version of yourself that took a step forward in this direction; remember to thank them, too.