When I had newly finished my bachelor’s, my mental health started going down the drain. I was not particularly sad about undergrad coming to an end, quite the opposite, I was actually pretty content with leaving. Then, however, the job hunt began… I don’t even call it a job hunt anymore, at this point I call it job-begging – but more on that later. When I talked to a close friend about my worries and the mental funk I was trapped in, he said, “Oh, you’re having a classic case of the post-academic blues.” The what now? And how come I had never heard of it being a thing?
Let me break it down. I have been an academic (over-)achiever my whole life. I had a little dip during puberty when I actually thought I had to define myself through male attention instead of academic validation (ew) but have been back on the “Anything less than ‘A’ means I am an absolute failure” train ever since I started undergrad. So, that breaks it down to more or less sixteen years of working for grades, feedback, and other people’s approval. It meant feeling validated and valued through academic successes. More than anything else, it meant having a clear structure. A weekly structure of classes, lectures, and assignments being due. A semester structure of knowing when things would get stressful and when they would be more relaxed. The knowledge of where I would be next year and sort of what I would be doing. I knew that I could be on my a-game if I just put in the work.
Coming out of academia after so many years and with such a toxic, high-achieving mindset, it felt like being dumped from a relationship and losing everything that ever made me as a person. As if starting the job search in itself was not enough, the post-academic blues made it even worse. I was missing the intellectual stimulation I had previously had on a daily basis and had my main channel of validation break away overnight. I also had to realize no matter how established you are at your university in comparison to other students, the second you enter the job market that does not necessarily matter anymore. There are thousands of universities in the world, so there is an incredible amount of students who graduate thinking they are one of the best in their degrees. This does not even take into account how many jobs are given out based on university name or pure nepotism, completely disregarding all the hard work a student might have put in during their undergrad.
People are saying the job market is thriving and open for hiring right now, but in my experience it has not been. Many places are hiring mid-level and senior positions. Entry level positions seem rather rare though, especially having graduated in a social science, like me. For me, the job search has been extremely frustrating and discouraging because I am simply not used to that much negative feedback. In academia, negative feedback meant that my work was not good enough (in my toxic mindset and with massive imposter syndrome that equaled I was not good enough). The feeling of being a failure has been additionally exacerbated by being called a “boomerang child,” the concept for children who return home to their parents’ house after having left for university. Really rubs it in how you did not get anywhere, doesn’t it?
When you get rejected from a job application, it most of the time does not mean that you were not good enough. Sometimes you might have been filtered out by a simple AI program because your resume did not show a specific key word. Maybe the recruiter did not like how you phrased your cover letter. I have heard from HR professionals that sort out applicants because they live in the wrong city (meaning not the immediate city the job is located in). So, while a hunt is considered something in which you have options, the job search for entry-level out of university does not seem like that, it seems more like job-begging.
Recruiting is much more subjective than judging processes in academia, so we cannot apply the same expectations for ourselves that we used to have in academia. For me, that means having to fight the spiral on a daily basis. If I let the spiral win, I think about how I have not gotten a job within the past six months of applying, I think about how my degree is worthless, and therefore I am. I think about how that means I have never achieved anything in my life and how I have never been successful, so why should anyone hire me. The self-destruction is so real, people. It is hard to switch from academia to job search, to rethink expectations we set for ourselves, and to change how we define our personal successes. But it is even harder because no one really talks about this being a thing, although once you start asking, people are clearly going through it.
I cannot claim that I have overcome my post-academic blues or the situational depression that has come with it. I can, however, share some of the tips that have helped me a little bit:
1. Find something in which you can create new ways of progress and validation.
Grab your workout mat, throw on a pair of sneakers and get sweaty. Or don’t, and do something else in which you can set goals and gradually become better. I have HATED working out my entire life. Once I found myself in a really bad place after graduation, however, I realized that forcing myself to work out on a daily basis and slowly feeling the strength build up gave me a feeling of satisfaction, achievement, and therefore pride. It has made me realize that there are more things in life I can achieve than good grades and academic awards.
2. Join a group of like-minded individuals to discuss your interests and stay intellectually engaged.
For me, it was one of the best things I have done since graduation. I graduated with a degree in international relations and a personal focus on feminist politics. The group I joined is made up of other young women who are studying or have studied in the same field and share my interest in feminist peace-making. Not only has it been intellectually stimulating, it has also opened up entirely new opportunities that I had not known of before joining this group.
3. Reach out to your professors and let them know you are having a hard time.
For me, my professors had such kind words when I told them about my struggles. Once the job rejections start rolling in, it is so easy to feel like a failure and disregard everything you have achieved. It is helpful to talk to the people you consider authorities and hear them say that you should be proud of your achievements.
4. Talk to friends and family.
This seems like an obvious one, but I still cannot stress enough how important it is to share your struggles. When friends and family know about your sorrows, it is easier for them to support you by offering advice, giving pep talks, or sometimes even keeping an eye out for opportunities for you.
Finally: it is okay to have trouble with leaving academia. An important, formative part of your life is coming to an end. Whether you return at some point to academia or not, it is normal to feel a sense of loss and having some trouble re-orienting. That does not mean you will never adjust, let alone never figure out your next steps in life. Some wonderful advice one of my professors had for me during one of my self-destructive crusades: success comes in many forms. It does not have to come in the form of a job or career. Success is the impact you are making in your life, which comes in so many more forms than a 9 to 5.