After my degree... I stared into the abyss

Cork city based freelance writer ENYA O’CONNELL had a whirlwind of emotions after graduating, during lockdown. She noticed how unprepared she and others were for the ‘real world’
After my degree... I stared into the abyss

There is a crying need for upfront, accurate information for university students on the realities of the job market they are considering, says Enya. Picture:Stock

WHAT do you want to be when you grow up?

Better pick carefully, because your Leaving Cert is in a few months and the application form that ‘Determines the Rest of Your Life’ is due.

Order them by preference from one to ten. You’ve never met anyone who has done Forensic Criminology? Well, if you like CSI it’s probably the same. Sorry, I’m out of luck, don’t know anyone either. Did you work in the morgue in Transition Year? No? Well too late now, may as well put it down. And maybe Spanish, since you do like going on holidays to Malaga.

Thus proceeds the conversation with the invisible influence of ‘society’.

Granted, nobody told me these things per say, and I am lucky enough to have supportive parents always reminding me that ‘nobody ends up using their degree anyway’, but nevertheless the pressure remained. Because what else is out there? For most teenagers their idea of the grown-up world is a life-sized Playmobil city. Be a doctor, work in hospital. Be a lawyer, work in law firm. Like movies? Make movies! Simple.

There’s a list of colleges, and their courses, and a little spreadsheet of the points you need. Each course has a handy little description and the next four years of your life laid out for you. And you’re 17, so four years may as well be an eon. There’s usually a vague list in the corner about where graduates end up, but who cares.

And why would you think otherwise? Most students walking into college have had their whole lives structured for them, in a nice line of preschool, school, university, and work. 

‘Job’ is a hazy cloud in the future, but something you’ll know more about by the time you toss up your square cap on the university lawn.

We hear success stories left, right and centre — either seeking them out, or reading the stories plastered across media. Persevere, be the underdog. Look at J.K. Rowling. Broke for ages then made a billion off writing. Be her. Be the next David Attenborough. Own a lab, cure AIDS. Sure, the chances are remote, but you’re special and you’ll make it. You just have to try!

I learned about survivorship bias in the second year of my Zoology degree, oblivious to how it was about to wreck my self-worth. In short, we see those who ‘win’ and get their childhood dream job, not the silent majority who drift into other paths.

Enya O'Connell.
Enya O'Connell.

I remember a careers talk in second year for Zoology students. It was a group of people who had zoology-type jobs, explaining what they did. Damn, were they cool. People were out in South America, setting up monkey sanctuaries, running zoos, using fish sonar, editing big-wig science journals.

But that was five people, out of a university that graduated 30 people per year, in a country that has more than ten different versions of a similar degree. There’s just not enough stable jobs in the monkey saving sector to go around. But they didn’t really mention that, they just said to network and volunteer.

But the fact remains that for many fields of work, you can work hard, be talented, network, volunteer for 1,500 unpaid internships, work for exposure and still not get a steady job. That is a real risk. Just like how only one in a thousand turtles make it to adulthood.

Reality only set in when I was close to graduating. 

After hours of trawling through summer internships and job applications, I banged out my frustrations into Google and uncovered a flood of people venting to others about the hardships of a job in wildlife and the environment. I knew it was flimsy, but I didn’t know it was masters-degree-working-at-Starbucks flimsy.

I don’t feel cheated. Those people at the talk weren’t lying, they really did get those cool jobs. They worked hard. And the organisers didn’t have bad intentions. There was nobody trying to scam students with a dream.

But there is a fundamental problem in many university courses where the content of classroom lectures and the realities of a workplace do not match. ‘It’s all shift work’, my friend who just started working in pharmaceuticals told me one night, ‘nobody tells you this in college’.

Students are taught by academics, so most of their career advice is limited to academia’s quirky world. 

There is a crying need for upfront, accurate information for university students on the realities of the job market they are considering. 

Career services are helpful, but they can’t know the details of every specific field of every student. In my case, I just didn’t know anyone who was a zoologist before picking it. It’s a STEM degree, I thought, can’t go too wrong.

When I updated my CV as graduation approached, I realised how little I really had. There was a lab internship. Project management skills. Fairly good French. But no ‘experience’. Reading job listings was like eavesdropping on conversations I wasn’t invited to. This wasn’t written for me, I thought, over and over again. Why hadn’t I networked more, or learned this software, I should’ve chaired a society! My degree was chump change.

And almost all my classmates felt the same. I went online and there are hoards of people that seemed to be reading my mind. We were all approaching the end of our degree, or freshly graduated, staring into a great abyss.

Why is this so universal? Should someone have told me this, I wondered, was there someone to blame? Was it myself, for not researching enough, for trusting that studying for four years would do? Was it universities and the pyramid scheme of academia? Or society, for pushing a narrative to ‘follow your dreams’ and ‘do what you love’ despite the inevitable practicality of job markets and hiring firms? I still don’t know.

I graduated amidst covid, and felt a guilty relief that everyone had their lives frozen. I was drowning in the abyss of uncertainty. 

I dreaded seeing others progress while I stewed. I had become imbued with cynicism, plagued by questions. What is giving up, and what is being smart? What is failure — being broke with no reward, or being rich in a job you hate? Why is LinkedIn so obnoxious? In the panic I froze these thoughts for another year and did a Master’s, where I remain today.

I don’t regret what I did for my undergrad. I really loved it. I love learning all the things I now know even if I’ll probably never need to recite the paleontological history of dinosaurs. And I don’t think it’s ruined my chance at ever having a stable career. I know a guy who did computer science who run charities to give kids wheelchairs. People who did economics and now slosh around rivers. Maybe I will end up designing National Geographic’s front cover, or tracking wolves across Siberia. But I might not and that’s ok. Changing your career direction because you don’t want to work countless hours unpaid is not a cop out.

I just wish I knew more. I wish there were people who told me what was coming. I wish I knew it was ok to change track, that it’s not giving up. 

I wish I could just hear someone tell me that your degree and career aren’t your self worth. And that the future is exciting.

Because the despite the abyss, for the first time my life is not neatly laid out by someone else. It is full of things I could never imagine.

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