If you are a college student readying to embark on your senior year, then whether you know it or not there is a serious life stressor heading your way. It is big, unavoidable, and can cause significant distress, marked by persistent and diffuse unease that, at times, borders on bouts of panic or depression.
The life stressor is known as a major life phase transition or, in this case, the changeover from student to young professional navigating through the wider world.
Major life phase transitions are sprinkled throughout the lifespan, and carry a stress load of abrupt change, demands for autonomy, and high stakes (success or failure).
To help facilitate a successful outcome on the “work life” piece of this transition, I will discuss some principles from the clinical literature on problem solving, proactive coping, and cognitive therapy that can help guide an adaptive approach and thought process around this particular life challenge.
First, reframe the vague problem into a concrete goal; shift the question from, “what the hell am I going to do after graduation?!” to “I need to identify, pursue and obtain a reasonably decent, if not high-quality, next step in my professional life.”
Note the phrasing. Using a range (“reasonably decent to high-quality”) and the term “next step” sets the stage for flexible thinking and fair expectations. Every goal contains a finite number of healthy options. In this case, there are at least three:
Graduate school, an entry-level job in a preferred field, or meaningful “see the world” programming.
Now, every student falls along a continuum of career commitment and certainty, which reflects the best-fit option. Thus, while there is no “correct” or “perfect” spot, you do need to introspect enough to know where you fall on this spectrum, or at least have a rank order of preferences.
Be aware of the madadaptive options available to you at the start of the academic year, namely avoidance and externalization (“this issue will figure itself in time” or “I’ll push it off till after I graduate and cram for a job as if it were an exam.”).
Once you select one/multiple healthy options, the next is to engage in committed action.
Whether it is graduate school applications, entry-level job hunting or travel, there is legwork and preparation that must be approached. A balanced mindset is useful – be focused and relaxed.
Behaviorally, this translates into a well-paced routine of bite-size effort. Imagine that this “successful preparation for post-graduate work life” is an extra course that you have to take throughout the year; consider it pass/fail in nature. Schedule in a concrete amount of time every week (e.g. 1 to 2 hours) and start concretizing the tasks (it starts with research and studying and ends with application writing and interview scheduling).
It is advisable to self-impose this extra workload, so that you can adaptively engage in the psychological coping technique that you will be utilizing most of the time – “letting it go.”
That’s right; most of the time, the healthy response to moments of work life worrying will be to “let it go” so that you can engage in more immediate life demands like coursework, and mindful enjoyment of daily collegiate routines.
To genuinely and effectively “let go” of the worriment when it enters your mind, requires that you genuinely be able to fall back on such notions as “I’m tolerating my anxiety and working hard on this issue.
The persistent effort is key to the reduced worry - see the double-edged sword?
The final step is more meta-attitudinal. While it is healthy to be emotionally invested in the outcome, know that your first professional feat is not life-or-death. Further, the anxiety that you will sporadically feel as this topic cycles in and out of your mind is inevitable – you don’t have to like it, but you do have to begrudgingly accept it. And while the angst is not a signal of legitimate danger, it can feel threatening and promote a sense of paralysis. Bear in mind that anxiety is merely a wave of temporary discomfort that, with some awareness and intention, can be channeled into motivation to execute on the aforementioned principles.
Finally, hold some optimistic compassion for yourself. What looms is the beginning, not the end, of an exciting journey. And as you move through the unavoidable discomfort and rejection be gentle and forgiving during your internal commentary. It will help you thick-skin criticism when you are doing the best you can, and tune into and modify your responses when you need to do better.
Dr. Jeremy Clyman earned a master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology (PsyD) from Yeshiva University. He completed three years of doctoral-level clinical externships in neurocognitive assessment, couples and family treatment, and cognitive behavioral for adolescents, adults and older adults.