Zoom interviews, grad schemes, and existential distress: final year fear

Sarah Shortall explores the anxieties of post-college life

The academic year is coming to a close – daffodils bloom, lunchtime picnics draw in the more audacious seagulls, and there will soon be a fine stretch in the evenings. The air is thick with nostalgia, while sighs of “Ah, trinners… woe is me,” waft through the upper floors of the Ussher where fourth years do their final footnoting, referencing, and spell checking.  This is it. There remain but a few weeks – enough time for a victory lap of the Pav, a final weepy scroll through StellaSearch, and the misty-eyed realisation that you loved the Buttery dinners all along. 

Parting from Trinity is like a painful, but amicable, breakup. A breakup with a partner who cost you several thousand euros each year, drove you to mild alcoholism in the first year or two of your relationship, and maybe (definitely) left you with a bit of an academic god complex.  But nice memories all the same. 

Before long, this rose-tinted lens will be shattered by the questions of some well-meaning relative: “So what job are you going to do now?” As if I chose a literature degree for its employability prospects….  

If anxiety over graduation has been causing you sleepless nights, breaking down your options into pros and cons can provide clarity. So let’s weigh up the three paths that (most) graduates choose between:

Straight in the Deep End: The 9 to 5

Feeling a touch of existential distress?  No worries, that void will soon be filled with cover letters and Zoom interviews. A navel-gazing young grad can learn a lot from, say, a career aptitude test.  Find out if you are: A. a team player! B. a natural leader! or C. a great communicator! The slightly more intense management consultancies and law firms will have you do a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test to find out whether you are a thinking person or a feeling person, whether you’re more into judging or perceiving, etc. Job hunting is a trial of willpower. Your inbox is full of rejection emails, the LinkedIn recruiters aren’t taking the bait, and the Big Four have all said that you’re just not their type. In this situation, all you can do is press on. It can take 3 or 4 months of applications to get one decent offer (I can’t cite this, it’s just something that employed people say).

“I am starting to get more notifications from LinkedIn than I am from Instagram.  This must be what your twenties look like”

Once you have secured a post it might happen that after four years of 8-contact-hour weeks, your new 9 to 5, soul-sucking grad scheme will be jarring.  Entering the workforce today, you’ll find, on the one hand, a surfeit of ‘bullshit jobs’ (a term coined by anthropologist David Graeber, describing the absurdist modern proliferation of pointless bureaucratic jobs – pen pushing, box-ticking, middle management) and on the other hand, enormous competition for these roles, as educational investments become more and more financially costly.  In an especially bleak turn, I am starting to get more notifications from LinkedIn than I am from Instagram.  This must be what your twenties look like.  

The current generation of grads, however, might be doing things a little differently. Kim Kardashian put it best when she said that “nobody wants to work anymore.” If you are of Generation Z, the iGen, a post-millennial, a Digital Native – or however you want to put it – you might recognise yourself in this.  Disillusioned with a corporate lifestyle, uninspired by the new secular cult of overwork, and queasy at the thought of an Excel spreadsheet, you could join the ‘anti-work’ movement (the subreddit r/antiwork currently has 2.8 million members) and take the coming year to ponder your next move.  As a fourth year about to leave the fold of university, symptomatically, you might be feeling less girlboss and more girlrest, or girlrot. 

… emigrate?

A common experience of the Irish university graduate is waking up three months after graduation and finding that half of your friends have emigrated. The paths that lead from Dublin to Sydney, London, and the States are well-worn. You might spend a year in London and come back with a faux Cockney accent and some lovely notions to match, innit. East London is awash with ‘Irish in London’ types, gone over on the ferry if they are traditionalists, ready to return home in five years to be accused of having become West Brits.

Taking a year to travel and “find yourself” is a popular option for the young graduate of means.  Slow travel is one way to mitigate the environmental damage inflicted by such forms of mass tourism as the ‘Ten European Cities in Ten Days’ model of backpacking.  Slow travel emphasises lingering in a place and travelling overland to get there. My most memorable holiday was not the whistle-stop tour of European capitals I took after the Leaving Cert, but the summer months of 2022 that I spent working on a vineyard in France. I found the job on Workaway, was told by email to simply “arrive in time for the harvest,” and took my time getting there by a combination of walking, hitchhiking, and cheap regional train lines. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of running off to France for three months, but if you are considering taking a year to travel, doing it slowly can be incredibly rewarding.  

Avoidance and Denial

“Further study seems to mean less academic enlightenment and more Pot Noodle dinners in the library and falling asleep with your face on your keyboard”

If all else fails, do a procrastination masters. It might be a comforting notion that no matter where you go, Trinity will always be here. That said, academia is not all glamour.  I can tell you from where I am sitting right now in the 1937 Reading Room that further study seems to mean less academic enlightenment and more Pot Noodle dinners in the library and falling asleep with your face on your keyboard. Which comes first, the PhD application or the insanity? As the Trinity motto says Perpetuis futuris temporibus duraturam – ‘It will last into endless future times.’ That sounds, suddenly, like a threat.   

There is no final word on what happens after graduation. Once you have four years worth of work in the form of a scroll in hand, your friends will scatter around the world and you will have to choose a direction. Whether you choose to jump immediately onto a career track, do some travelling, or continue to study, no decision is definitive, and a little uncertainty is both scary and exciting. In any case, there are still exams to be gotten through, aren’t there?