The Post-University Blues: On Finding My Way After University

Looking confused post-graduation

I don’t know about you, but my year after university sucked.

While all my classmates had these grandiose plans – offers to join finance firms, teaching positions in Europe, and admission placements in graduate school – I was clueless.

The truth is I never felt a strong sense of direction during my four years in university. It seemed that everyone around me knew they wanted to go into medicine and cure diseases, pursue law and fight for the rights of the helpless, or chase after their PhD in order to become university professors. Meanwhile all I heard in my future were crickets.

I chose to follow a degree in Humanities and German Studies because that’s what I was drawn to. People and cultures fascinate me, and a degree in Humanities meant that I could pick and choose courses from different fields without having to commit to one specific branch of study.

My undergraduate schedule included classes like Islamic architecture, German literature, contemporary Latin American studies, abstract drawing, the Religious Reformation, and whatever other random class piqued my interest. Sure, I completed the requirements for natural and social sciences, but aside from that, there was no clear underlying thread.

So what did I do after I graduated?

Nothing.

At least nothing that meant something to me.

I wish I had taken a chance on my dreams sooner.

I knew I wanted to live abroad ever since my first year of university when I first came across a poster advertising TESL/TESOL certification classes.

That was the magic ticket to find a job overseas and experience life abroad – Europe, Asia, the Middle East, wherever!

However, even though the idea had been brewing in my head for years, I wouldn’t act on it until 10 months after graduation when I was completely miserable.

The thing about graduating university is that sometimes it can really mess with your head. You see your fellow classmates doing what is deemed successful, you see them applying to graduate programs, and then you start thinking ‘hey, maybe I should be doing that too.’ 

So that’s what I did. I decided I would have a year off and that the following September I would go to graduate school because that’s what others were doing.

And so I got into school…in England.

You know what happened next?

Even after I had written my letter of intent explaining what I hoped to accomplish during my graduate studies, even after I had gained admissions to a competitive program, and even after I had my student visa already stamped in my passport (a pricey $500 commitment!), I still kept browsing for teaching jobs overseas!

Now that should have been the first red flag showing that my heart wasn’t really in grad school.

While I was supposed to be apartment hunting for my future ‘student flat’ online, I would often catch myself looking at teaching placements in Spain, the Czech Republic, or Argentina…

My coworkers would ask me, ‘So are you excited to be heading off to England soon?’ and I would respond with, ‘Yeah, I guess…’

This was usually followed by a quizzical look of ‘what’s-wrong-with-you-girl-how-are-you-not-more-excited-to-be-moving-to-England?’ and then I would try to salvage the conversation with something like ‘oh, the excitement hasn’t hit me yet, that’s all.’

But when was the excitement going to hit me?

It never did.

Three weeks before I was supposed to be flying out to England, I decided I couldn’t do it.

The breaking point came when my dad asked me how the apartment hunt was going and I stormed off in a fit of tears. It was a simple question, yet inside of me that’s when I knew I wasn’t going.

I had been silencing my desire to experience life overseas through teaching for far too long, and I couldn’t pretend any longer. So the same day I decided I wasn’t going to grad school, I began applying to teaching jobs – EVERYWHERE.

I ended up in Korea.

Resumes and cover letters flew off to far flung places across the map. Skype interviews were held at 11pm at night with schools in Thailand and Japan, but in the end, Korea was meant to be.

Some of you might be thinking, ‘Geez lady, what a stupid move. You turned down grad school in the UK to go teach kids English? Way to climb up the corporate ladder’ but the thing is my heart just wasn’t in it. I had spent months trying to feel pumped, and at times I thought I was ready to commit to further schooling, yet in the back of my mind there was a little seed of doubt that I couldn’t ignore.

I’m not saying it was easy. 

The months following that decision were pretty brutal and I often wondered if I had made the right choice. It would take another 6 months until the right job overseas came along, my work visa was finally approved, and I hopped on that flight bound for Seoul. But in the end, it was worth it. Even on my first day in the country when I was staying in a dodgy love motel while I waited for my apartment to be ready to move in, it felt like the right place at the right time, and I was able to breathe a sigh of relief.

A year and a half after graduation from university I finally felt like I was on the right track.

I am not saying I will never go to graduate school.

I would love to go to graduate school! I have always been very academic and I enjoy attending lectures, researching topics, and preparing for presentations. I would very much enjoy going to school in the future, but until I figure out what it is I want to do, I will keep writing, travelling, and perhaps even teach again.

My advice to recent graduates?

Don’t get yourselves into something you’re not quite ready for just because that’s what everyone else around you is doing. If your dream is to attend grad school then by all means go, but don’t lock yourself into thinking that there is only one path.

Your post-university year is a time to explore.

Sure, you’ve got yourself a nice little piece of paper in a fancy mahogany frame, but how about going out there and trying something you’ve always wanted to do. What have you been dreaming about on those boring winter mornings when the professor just keeps going on and on in the lecture hall.

Are you thinking about backpacking Eastern Europe?

Are you thinking about joining the Peace Corps?

Are you thinking about volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Costa Rica?

What is it you want to do? And then give yourself a year to do it.

You really have nothing to lose, and in the end, you might just find the direction you are looking for.

33 Comments

  • Love it. Very wise, very true, very to the point. And also, I could just kiss you that you put “Backpacking in Eastern Europe” as one of the choices. Because that is what did it for me.
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  • dallas says:

    Awesome, Audrey. Thanks for sharing that.

  • I so wish someone had given me this advice before I went to law school! I agree that there’s this crazy pressure to choose what we want to do with our lives right after college and the truth is that at 21 or 22 years old, some of us don’t fully know ourselves yet. I’d encourage everyone to take a year or two “off” after undergrad to just travel, volunteer, and work in order to figure out where their hearts are calling them.
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  • I completely agree. I did find that direction in Korea but then I went back to Canada. Now I’m thinking of heading back to Asia because that was where I felt the happiest.

  • Sam says:

    I identify so much with this, Audrey. My post university experience was very similar. I had no idea what I wanted to do either, and I even started the process of applying to do a PhD…just for something to do. Fortunately, I realised pretty quickly my heart wasn’t in it. So, I got a random job (at a travel books and map shop), saved up and travelled in Asia. In China, I met loads of people teaching English as a foreign language, so when I got back to the UK, I decided to do the training and it just felt right!

    I think pretty common to feel this lack of direction after university, but people just don’t really talk about it, perhaps because it’s somehow not socially acceptable to feel like this. Thanks for talking about it!
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  • Jessica says:

    I can definitely related to this feeling. I was so certain I wanted to go to medical school for the majority of my undergrad, but when I neared the end, I realized that it had just been nothing but school since I was 4 years old, and I needed a chance to explore the world beyond that. I’m so glad I did because it gave me the perspective to realize that med school would never have been right for me. We have to make so many decisions about our future when we’re so young, so I think that taking a gap year (or longer) either after high school, or university, is the best thing a person can do. It gives you a chance to slow down a little and think about what you really want.
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  • Amanda @ Adventure Year says:

    I’m glad to see this post today. I’m finishing up my last year of college, even though I technically should have graduated this May. I’m seeing all of my friends move onward and upward and I STILL have no clue what I want. No clue. And it’s driving me bonkers! Thanks, though, for reminding me to explore. That’s what I’m after anyway!!
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  • Katie says:

    Thank you! I used to feel like something was wrong with me because I lacked the direction and ambition that my college friends seemed to have, but I’ve realized that wanting to travel and explore possibilities is ambitious and admirable, too. I think a lot of people feel the same way you did about not being where they want after school, and I wish more people had the courage to act on those feelings and do what they really wanted! I have definitely been feeling lost since graduation and am finally about to spend a year working in New Zealand. I have no idea how this will help with my “career” interests, but who cares?? I’m sure it will give me some direction, and it’s just what I want to do! Wish it hadn’t taken me so long to stop comparing myself to my more “successful” friends.

  • Hogga says:

    great advice!
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  • Ashley says:

    An awesome post. Very thought provoking one ones desires.
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  • George says:

    studying was just not for me and finishing my degree was a real struggle, all I wanted to do was travel and it’s still all I want to do, I’m not quite with where I want to be but I will be soon.

  • Maria says:

    Kudos to you Audrey for following heart and gut.

  • This Battered Suitcase says:

    I was really lucky in that I did know what I wanted to do when I finished university – I wanted to travel. I literally left within a week after my last exam, and never looked back.

    I find that I went through what you’re talking about more recently though, in my late 20s; in the end, I had to follow my heart. Ironically, it is taking me to England to do a Master’s degree!
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  • Beth says:

    Great post! I totally agree and can relate.

    I graduated with a degree in East Asian Language and Culture (which is basically worthless haha) … I had no idea what I wanted to do. As all of my friends started accepting job offers during our last semester, I decided I would start applying to teach English abroad.

    This year has provided so much clarity and I have now figured out what path I want to take. Now that I’ve figured it out, I am much more excited to start applying to grad schools.

    And who knows… maybe someday you’ll still end up going to grad school in English 🙂
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  • Excellent post, hit the spot right on. We graduated from college about a year ago and it feels as if we aren’t moving on with life like “how it should be”. It does take some determination to follow your dreams amidst your peers moving up the corporate ladder, but we believe that staying true to it will eventually pay off. So we’re trying to start up an internet business, which we actually already put off for quite a while, and probably going on a 6 months slow travel in New Zealand at the end of the year.

    Loved how you ended your post. All the best to finding your way! (if you have not already found it)
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  • Sometimes it does take a little misery to push us to the edge to know for sure we are doing the wrong thing… and still sometimes once we’ve changed paths, we don’t know right away that we are doing the right thing. I appreciate your honesty! And I know you will be brilliant wherever you end up. Hey, maybe you and Brenna will end up in London together!
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  • Cole Van Horn says:

    I believe wholeheardedly that you are right. I felt that weirdness about graduation as well. I was just going to go on to grad school to get a Ph. D., and hope to be a professor even though I knew it really wasn’t what I wanted to do.

    Then an oppurtunity came up to go work for a university ministry for two years and I took it. Best decision I ever made (despite the fact that I lived well below the poverty line). I have never felt more satisfied doing anything else, and by the end of the two year term I was able to leave that job with a sense of peace knowing that I had made a difference and had a blast doing it.

    Now I’m in your boat. I leave in exactly a month to teach English to University students in China. I know that this is something that will really fulfill me as well. No, I won’t be making money like my college roommate who went into the oil business, or the people I know who are going to be engineers, but I love other cultures, I love people, and I love living outside what is considered normal.

    All this to say I hear you loud and clear, and totally buy into the year off after college to figure life out. You’ve got it together I think. Not in the traditional American, or in this case Canadian, Dream, but rather in the do what you want because it’s what you love way. I’m with you all the way!

  • nicole says:

    I feel like everyone goes through that. It’s like a void that you feel after you graduate wanting to know what the steps are to continue and succeed in life. It’s totally normal, I think. And when you feel it and react, it gets your bootie in gear to do what you love.
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  • Wow, I really needed to read this. Thank you!
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  • Abby says:

    You remind me of my little brother! It was such a different time when I graduated… All of his friends were applying for jobs while living at home. He ran for China to teach English. One thin lead to another, and now he is making an impressive salary playing poker and traveling all through Asia and Africa. What a life! I am so proud of you!
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    • Audrey says:

      That’s awesome! Good for him on taking the unconventional route and building a life he loves. That’s not a bad way to travel around the world. 😉

  • Very true! I really regret not having had a gap year after I finished uni. I did it almost 10 years later, but when you are 30 it is called a career break. The desire to go away (even though I actually moved from Germany to England after uni), was growing inside me for all those years. I was so relieved when I finally decided to go. I just wish I had done it much earlier.
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    • Audrey says:

      I think gap years are such a great idea when you’re lacking direction and looking to figure out ‘what’s next’. Unfortunately, the trend hasn’t really caught on Canada (I always hear about Aussies and Europeans taking a gap year, but no Canadians!). I think so many young graduates could really benefit from it.

  • Kyle says:

    Thanks for sharing. It was an excellent read and made me think back to when I was experiencing a similar situation. I realized I wanted to go visit/live in Korea since my senior year of university. I had never visited Korea before and being a Korean-American adoptee I really wanted to experience the culture, find my birth parents and take everything in.

    It wasn’t the easiest thing seeing classmates and friends accept offers in their related fields of study, and it certainly made me second guess myself. With that being said, I realized that I knew the answer all along. I had the summer to relax and 3 months after graduation, finally made it to Korea. I have been here since 2009, and have loved every day of it.

    As you alluded earlier, doing what you feel is right is the most important thing. Even if that decision seems strange to others, always trust your instincts. It seems that it turns out positively most of the time. 🙂

    • Kyle says:

      Also, it seems like you had a really great experience in Korea. I came across your blog from the videos with you and Samuel. I really enjoy watching them and they are quite entertaining. Do you ever think the two of you will return? Anyways, good luck to the two of you and hope you fun adventures continue! 😉

    • Audrey says:

      I’m glad to hear that your decision to head over to Korea turned out to be the right one. It sounds like you ended up just where you needed to be. 🙂 As for Sam and I returning to Korea, we don’t have any immediate plans to move back for work, but we have talked about visiting sometime next year. There are days when we miss it there.

  • Mark says:

    Very interesting story, I admire your progress in life and that you followed your heart. Well done 🙂

  • Rodrigo says:

    HELL NO. I disagree. Youve had 22 years to figure out who you are. Want to explore the world to get to know yourself better? Study abroad, do an internship during the summer, get creative. Remember that after youre done with college, you got to get paid in order to eat..unless you have mommy and daddy providing (not everybody is as lucky as you). Once you are hungry and need money to eat, you will figure out who you are really fast. My advice is: you have until your senior year to “discover yourself”, after that..get hungry…get the best entry position you can. That year after college is crucial, it gives you an edge towards success. “Discover yourself” during those years and a bunch of people will have an advantage over you…life is tough, you got to compete against a lot of people, you cant afford taking time off. Man up and remember that after graduation, you are depending on yourself. Dont starve, strive.

    • Zoe says:

      1) A lot of companies prefer graduates who are well-traveled and have interesting life experiences to talk about, rather than someone who has just spent 3 years studying for a degree. Fair enough if you managed to get internships/work abroad in your summers then you may not need to take time out after uni, but not everyone did.
      2) I agree that gap years are only really feasible if you have a stable financial background. You don’t have to be rich, but having a middle-class family who can give you a roof over your head while you find a job is the bare minimum.
      3) You are assuming that “success” is doing well in your career. Many people may become depressed and regretful if they don’t take time out to explore the world and try different things before settling into the 9 – 5 routine. If you are offered a placement on a prestigious graduate scheme which incorporates international travel and/or other amazing experiences then it would be wise to take that, rather than taking 2 years out to teach English. But these kind of graduate schemes are *extremely* competitive and most graduates would be lucky to get any job let alone a job which allows them to travel.

  • Daniela says:

    Couldn’t relate to this blog any more perfectly! I am a recent grad and I have been feeling so pressured to start either my career or grad school next! I see all my fellow peers starting grad school or doing other “big things” with their lives and I’m feeling left behind. I definitely would like to go to grad school, but still have no clue what I would like to go for. With these mixed sentiments and pressure, I have just recently applied for the Peace Corps. I love to travel and love the idea of helping others. I see this as an opportunity to buy me some time to figure out what it is I really want to do, experience something new, and just grow in a new way. 🙂

  • Donna says:

    I am having this issue. Except I am finishing my second year in university and I’ve realized that I don’t like my program. Although at this point, it’s too late to switch into anything else, and even if I did switch, I wouldn’t know what to switch into.

    This article gives me some hope!

    Thank you,

    Donna

  • Emma says:

    Thank you so much for putting this out there.

    I’m in a bit of a rut at the moment, recently graduated in July and moved back in with my parents, which is super tough because we’re adapting to each other again and it’s sparking many an argument. I’ve also just signed on in search for work (don’t know if you get that in America, I’m in the UK) which has killed off any sense of pride I should have right now from completing a degree in the subject I’m most passionate about. Volunteering in things I’m not really too fussed about. Friends have gone off and are all doing their own thing, all either employed or in further education, mostly doing something amazing with their lives. I have absolutely no idea what I am doing here. The only thing I am happy with at the moment is my boyfriend, who has another year left at university, and has just come back from an amazing cruise and has been to so many places which I would only dream of. And yet I keep expecting that to end sometime soon because I’m so damn miserable.

    I keep thinking about taking that leap and going abroad for a while to do something. No idea what, just…. something. At the moment there are 2 things that are stopping me: 1) no money. 2) leaving behind what seems to be the only happy thing in my life right now – boyfriend.

    I’m Looking forward to the next few months where I will get so miserable, I’m going to just chance it and do something amazing. Again, thanks for writing this. It’s given me a lot of hope for my future more than my parents, boyfriend or anyone else has so far.
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