As a child of University alumni with multiple degrees, my focus growing up has always been on school.
Every step I took in high school was toward the goal of getting into college. My logical next step, then, as an English major beginning my senior year of college, would be to go on to graduate school. “Are you taking the GRE?” my relatives keep asking, unaware that my parents have already given up hope of that happening this year and are instead focused on another question: “What will you do next year?”
I answer them truthfully: I don’t know. I still want to go to school again in the future. But I am currently unsure what kind of graduate degree I might want to pursue. My parents decided to go to grad school to delay the real world, but I am making the opposite decision: I want to try out the real world in order to delay grad school. When I do finally go, I want to have a better sense of what it is I want to do. And so, even in an economy where jobs are scarce, I want to take a gap year.
“Shouldn’t you do something career-oriented?” my parents say, as they try to buy me interview suits and ask if I have checked out the Career Center. Yes, if I knew for sure what kind of career I was looking for. It isn’t that I haven’t found things I love while in school. I’ve spent the last few years as a writer and editor for the Daily, interned for various publications and taken interesting classes. But nothing has settled the uncertainty I feel when I think about graduation.
United States Department of Labor statistics estimate that people change careers an average of 10 times before the age of 40. While I’m hoping that I won’t feel the need to go from job to job that many times, it’s that luxury I’m searching for — the ability to change my mind. So much emphasis is placed on deciding on a career as an undergraduate that there’s very little information for someone who wants to try something she has never tried before.
There are the usual options: Teach for America, teaching abroad, the Peace Corps. I may apply to all three. And there are the usual career paths for each major. For example, as an English major, career websites suggest I may enjoy a career in publishing, marketing or teaching. I may try to find a job in a field like that. Or I may throw a dart at a map, pack up my belongings and go. I want to take advantage of the flexibility of youth, take the chance to move around, and work a low-wage job in order to see new places and meet new people.
For the first time in a long time, I have no idea what my next step will be. And I know what you’re thinking. Poor, naive college student — wait until she graduates and realizes there are no jobs. Point taken. But all of my focus on education forces me to realize that no matter what I do or where I go, it will teach me something about myself. Maybe all I will learn is that I should go right back to school. But at least I will know for sure.
Emily Barton is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.