How To Become A Grown Up

Trying to figure out how to become a grown up? Want some solid adulting advice? Just trying to figure out life after college? This post-college advice will help!

Dear Sarah,

I’m currently in my third year of undergrad and I feel completely unnerved. I’m studying Communication Studies and am second guessing myself. My passions and interests are so varied (education, public advocacy, public health) that I’m feeling pulled in so many directions.

Will my degree be enough to land me a job after graduation? Can I survive working at a non-profit that pays approx. $2? How do I find the resources to network and find jobs? Do I have the courage to move? How long should I wait for grad school? What do I want to study in grad school?

How do I get the good paying job that fulfills my pay-it-forward needs? Will I ever have the time/money/opportunity/courage to travel/move abroad? How do I get where I really want to go? What do I really want?

Oh, friend. This? This is a million dollar question.

How To Become A Grown Up: Short Answer

You won’t wake up one day with all of the answers. Nobody has it all figured out. Even if it seems like they do, they don’t. And that’s okay.

How To Become A Grown Up: Long Answer

Your degree does not determine your life or your job

Unless you go to a technical college for hair dressing or welding or radiology, your bachelor’s degree is mostly a piece of paper that proves you a) can write papers and make supporting arguments b) are responsible enough to start and finish four years of education.
I know some very successful people who didn’t finish their bachelor’s degree. I know a million people who are not working in the fields they went to school for. Really, I know approximately 10 people whose jobs are vaguely related to their bachelor’s degrees.
My cousin has a degree in philosophy and works at a bank. One of my best friends has a degree in political science and works in marketing. Another friend has an MA in theater and does real estate evaluations. Working in the field you went to school in is practically the exception rather than the rule!
More than your degree, your work experience, personality, connections and work ethic will help you find a job. If you’ve got a few good internships, knowledge of the appropriate software, a friendly demeanor, and a buddy in the company, it probably won’t matter if your degree is in underwater basket weaving – you’ll be in.

Related: how to network with style, substance, and soul.

You will find a job you like (eventually)

It would be totally, totally awesome if you landed a job making $37,000 a year doing PR for the Red Cross right out of college.

That probably won’t happen.

But you can make it more significantly more likely! See if your school can hook you up with a pertinent internship. If they can’t, take a little initiative. I got my first job out of school by literally typing the word ‘creative’ into and calling every company listed and asking if they had internships.

Find out which software is used in your field and learn it on your own. Find related volunteer opportunities. Call people who have the type of job you want and see if you can job-shadow them or do an informational interview.

Even if you do all of these things you might end of taking an unpaid internship in your field and waiting tables. You might become a personal assistant for someone in your field. You might land your dream job and discover that it’s totally not your bag.

Finding a career that you really love and working your way up that ladder is a slow process. I interned and worked in PR/marketing/event planning/journalism for several (misguided) years before I succumbed to my genetic destiny of teaching. Eventually, I landed a job that I loved; it has took me four different teaching jobs to get there.

I think it’s important to realize that no job is a total waste of your time, especially if it’s in the field that you know you want to work in. You can always learn new skills, network and volunteer to be on committees.

Trying to figure out how to become a grown up? Want some solid adulting advice? Just trying to figure out life after college? This post-college advice will help!

If you manage it wisely, you need less money than you think 

If you want to work at a non-profit or teach at a charter school or travel the world, you’ll need to be careful with your money. But here’s the thing about money: if you’re careful, you probably need less than you think you do.
I earn approximately $2 and have pretty significant school debt, but I still managed to live in a nice neighborhood, in a one bedroom + office apartment on my own. I own my car, I travel, I wear (what I shamelessly consider to be) cute clothes and I pay off my credit card every month.
I can do all of these things because I make sacrifices elsewhere.
Nearly everything I own is second hand; I rarely eat or drink out; my apartment is super cute but the size of a breadbox and I earn extra money from this blog. I find it’s a lot easier to make these sacrifices when I’m doing it for a really tangible reason. I can’t buy $200 boots because I’m saving up for more travel. $200 is probably two weeks of travel in India.
When I think about it in those terms, it’s a lot easier to stomach. I’m sure you can do the same thing! If you’re passionate about your job/saving for grad school/buying a house you’ll be amazed what you’re capable of once you’re committed to that goal!

Related: How to live a champagne life on a beer budget.

Don’t go to graduate school unless you’re really, really sure you want to

Many of us (myself very much included here) go to graduate school when it takes us more than a few years to find a job that we really like. Or maybe the professional world isn’t quite shaping up how we imagined and we were always good at school, so why not go back? Or everybody we know is doing it and, dammit, I’m totally as smart as they are! I want a Master’s!

Dude. Here is my incredibly mercenary advice. Do not go to graduate school unless:
a) the school is paying you to go
b) you are really, really, really passionate about the topic you’ll be studying
c) a Master’s is required for the field you work in and you are 100% sure that you want to work in this field for a long, long time

I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school because I love doing ‘programs’ that have a beginning and an end and give me a piece of paper when I’m finished. Also, I thought I’d spend all that time engaging in witty banter in coffee shops with people who wore wool sweaters and scarves. Really? Grad school is really, really hard work, it can be quite expensive and it will completely consume those years of your life.

Now, I’m glad I got my Master’s; it’s made me a better teacher, opened doors for me and I had a great time in New Zealand. That being said, I know approximately a million people with MAs in English Literature who are working at Barnes and Noble and substitute teaching.

Or people who could have gotten to the same place in their career simply by spending those two years climbing the ladder and gaining experience rather than spending all that money on an MBA.

I would never discourage someone from expanding their education, just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

You don’t need super human amounts of courage; you only need enough courage to take one step

Traveling the world alone, moving to a new city where you don’t know anyone, starting graduate school – these are all scary, scary things. And, sure, they require courage! But luckily for all of us, you don’t need super human amounts of courage. You only need enough courage to take one little step at a time. Click To Tweet

If you would have told me in 1998 that I would find the courage to move to New Zealand on my own, where I knew no one, and complete a Master’s degree there, I would have turned around to check if you were talking to the superhero behind me. Because that business sounds terrifying, y’all!

But here’s the thing: you don’t need all of that courage at once.

You need enough courage to check out a copy of The Lonely Planet at your library. Maybe a week later, you can work up the bravery to google “tourist visas + Thailand.” Then you need to find the wherewithal to email your cousin who spent a year teaching in Bangkok.

See? Totally doable! Don’t think in terms of “I am going to travel the world, alone, for one year.” Think in terms of “I might go look at backpacks at REI.”

You should also know that you are so, so much braver than you think you are. I have been in ridiculous situations that I look back on and wonder why I didn’t have a nervous breakdown (what’s up, getting from Santori, Greece to San Remo, Italy on my own, using six different types of transportation!)

But you know what? While you’re in the midst of doing said scary thing, you will simply put one foot in front of the other and make it happen because you have no other choice. Weeping on the steps of the San Remo train station at 1 a.m. because there was no one there to meet me wouldn’t have accomplished anything. So I found a cab, found a hotel, and then found my group the next morning.

Trying to figure out how to become a grown up? Want some solid adulting advice? Just trying to figure out life after college? This post-college advice will help!

You’ll figure out what you want slowly, one step at a time, after taking several detours

I have worked at a million different jobs – resort social director, receptionist, home healthcare, PR girl, event planner, newspaper writer. I have had multiple long-term relationships – with a golden boy, a charming punk rocker, a hipster nerd, an outdoorsy adventurer. I’ve lived heaps of places – rural Minnesota, urban Minnesota, uber-urban Asia, out of a backpack, semi-urban New Zealand.

I could easily look at all these jobs and relationships and places as failures – jobs that didn’t fit, men who weren’t right for me, cities that didn’t work. But instead, I try to leave each of these situations thinking that now I’m one step closer to knowing exactly what I want.

Now I know that I need to live somewhere that has a Target. I need a job that doesn’t require sitting in front of the computer for eight hours a day. I need a gentleman friend who can entertain himself and take initiative.

Life is a game of trial and error, right? You probably won’t luck into your dream job/relationship/life on your first try. Try heaps of things! You’d be surprised how far the process of elimination can get you!

You’ll get where you want to go slowly, one step at a time, after taking several detours

Knowing what you want is a huge part of the battle. And now you’ve sussed out that you want to live in a large coastal city, date a driven, outgoing person and work in marketing for a non-profit. Congrats! You are officially half way there.

But getting what you want, in any avenue in life, is a slow process. Maybe you’ll find work at a non-profit but it won’t be in marketing. Or maybe you’ll find a marketing job at a giant corporation. Or you’ll find the job you love in a tiny town that does little for you. No situation is perfect, but that doesn't mean you can't learn something from it. Click To Tweet Keep working towards something that’s a better fit for you.

It’s difficult when we see people who seem to have it all. But it’s worth remembering that
a) they probably don’t, in fact, have it all
b) if, by some miracle, they do have it all – it’s probably taken them a lot of hard work and time to get it

Oof! That’s a small novel! But I want to hear from you! What advice would you give our intrepid college student? How did you ‘become a grown up’? 

P.S. “I hate my city and my job. Now what?

photos by stilRichard Tilney-BassettAlejandro Alvarez, and Maarten Deckers // cc

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  1. Sophiegoose

    This series is really so great! As someone already past this in their "quarter life", its funny to think back about how I felt graduating from college. Sometimes I think I feel the same way about things! Life's and adventure, right?

  2. Emma

    This was really nice to read, since I am graduating in 11 DAYS! And because I won't have a masters degree, my job options are pretty limited. Guess I will just have to deal with working part-time jobs until I can find something that pays a bit more.

  3. Kate

    I loved this the first time, and I love it even more the second! Everything you say here is so true and spot on.

    Every time I have thought "this is it, I am an adult" I have been wrong, and thank god for that 🙂

  4. Courtney

    I happen to know that philosophy major banker cousin of yours. 🙂

    My husband is currently working on his bachelor's degree after 15 years in the IT industry. He's been getting along fine but the degree is going to open a lot more doors for him…even in unrelated fields, as he may wish to pursue. I keep reminding him of this every time he questions his field of study. So even "adults"…those with a career, a mortgage, and three kids…can have these questions. And what you've said is still true for them.

  5. Grace

    I graduate on Saturday so this was great timing. I'm someone who overthinks EVERYTHING. So even just getting a part-time job is a hurdle!

    Nothing really to add but just wanted to say how excited I am about this series.

  6. Chelsea

    I love this series! This girl's list of one million questions is basically what runs through every recent graduate's minds!

  7. Melissa

    So true about managing money. New boots or travel? I'll take travel any day!

  8. Camilla Peffer

    I've always thought university degrees where just accessories. Necessary accessories, but embellishments for resumes nonetheless. I've been told countless times that recruiters barely even look at university transcripts! I might as well just make my own from the University of Hakuna Matata (it means no worries).

  9. Eternal*Voyageur @ Venusian*Glow

    I think that in Europe your degree does determine your work, unless you are self-employed. I think that degrees and certificated are much more important here than in the US. If you want to change your field of work, you end up having to go through another vocational training (which may not necessarily be a bad thing).

    • chinelo sylvia

      It’s like you know my state of mind now.
      My brain is scattered around. I don’t know what to go for.

      I have a degree in my mother tongue language.(Igbo language). I am now a house parent/matron in a secondary school. I don’t know where to go from here.

      I was teaching but left the work as the pay is not taking care of my needs.

  10. Becky Hunter

    I'd add that in looking for your dream job, doing internships, etc, know what your values are and stay close to them. It's not worth compromising on – though perhaps it can take time to find out what those are.

  11. apa essay example

    I'm glad to see a few more local (to me) places! Let me know if you're interested in a mini travel guide to Toronto and area!

  12. ML

    Sarah, your advice about graduate school is really, really good and I want to shout it from the rooftops! (All of it is great, but this in particular resonated with me). I went on to my MA soon after my BA, and while I gained the luxury of time to consider literature and made some friends who are irreplaceable, I definitely also partly did it because I wasn’t sure how to move forward without going into academia and doing what I saw my professors do. After finishing school, I had to forge a path forward outside of academia anyway, but this time with the baggage of debt despite generous fellowships. That debt will follow me for a long time even though my pay down plan is aggressive…it’s just a lot of money! (And during it I met and I married someone who also owed money…it happens.)

    I echo your advice and urge the letter writer to know what they are getting into and certainly not to go just because they think it will make the path forward clearer by default…many times it will not, and can even constrain their future options by adding additional financial obligations before they know what kind of life they really want. I always tell people it can wait; my mom got a master’s degree around the same time as me and she was in her fifties! She had a clear objective, is working in her desired field now (for better pay), and it was a good investment. It wasn’t too late to reinvent herself then, and she had the benefit of knowing exactly what she wanted to do and how graduate school would facilitate her goals.

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