The Clarity of a Muddled Post-Grad Decision Making Process
By Meghan Reilly
When approaching my senior year fall term, when applications for grad schools and many jobs were due nearly a full year ahead of time, I asked myself what I wanted to pursue after graduation. My first thought was that I didn’t want anything! I mean, I knew for sure that I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer, but it felt like somehow there weren’t many other options. Of course, now I know better, but in my panic, I pictured myself getting locked into a long-term commitment like law school or an office job with no end date. From this, I was able to discern that I simply could not commit to anything long-term. That was the first step, painful though it might have been.
I had always been interested in the idea of a post-grad ‘gap year’ of sorts, so I applied to four one-year fellowships in my senior year fall term. This may not sound like a lot, but I had to go through internal reviews and interviews and stressful essay-writing sessions, all while juggling classes, thesis, and all of my other activities and involvements. I had initially been determined to apply exclusively for things in China or Chinese-speaking countries, since I felt pressured to continue to pursue my “useful” major of Chinese instead of Classics. And then, a curveball was thrown into the mix.
I hadn’t even considered anything Classics-related until my department nominated me for a Classics fellowship. I was humbled and honored, and also extremely excited at the idea that someone might pay for me to go to graduate school for Classics. Was it what I had originally envisioned for myself? Certainly not, but I couldn’t turn down the chance to apply for such an opportunity, especially one that would allow me to pursue my “first love and real interest,” as one of my professors put it. While I didn’t get the fellowship in the end, I still found myself increasingly open to the idea of pursuing Classics and/or further education of some kind. It was clear to me that my ideas for post-grad had begun shifting.
As a side effect of applying to the Classics fellowship, I applied to and got into Oxford to do a year-long Classics program. Everybody, and I mean everybody, insisted that I “had to” go. I was told that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that it would open so many doors for me. People were well-meaning, of course, but in the back of my mind was the knowledge that I would have to pay 45k or more in a single year, potentially double my debt from undergrad, and emerge from the year with an even fuzzier vision of my future path than I had before.
I kept getting stuck on an idealized view of what my life could look like during that year: I pictured rich academic discussion, beautiful libraries, nights out on the town with new friends. But, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I and those around me weren’t being super realistic. One professor painted me a better picture: days where I wouldn’t leave the library, breakdowns galore, and yes, an amazing and rewarding experience in the end, but one that I might have to pay off over the next ten or fifteen years. She encouraged me to consider all angles, not just the good ones.
“Are you burned out?” she asked. I scoffed. Of course! Yet the idea of taking a year off seemed like too much. After all, Oxford, the Oxford, doesn’t allow deferrals. I would have to reapply, and I kept remembering how stressful my fall term was due to applications. Even worse, I still hadn’t heard back from Fulbright. Oxford, for nearly two months, was my only real option, and the pressure just kept growing and growing.
I was so nervous that I would have to accept Oxford simply for lack of other options, that I applied for a job. This was a great job with a three-year commitment, a free Master’s, and good pay. It seemed like a dream, and I got an interview the day after I applied. Things were looking up, because that same day I received word that I was a finalist for Fulbright. My world was righted again, and I was back on track with options galore. Yet with these options came the familiar stress and fear that I would somehow make the wrong decision.
Once I had the Fulbright, I realized that it was my first choice. It offered what I had wanted from a post-grad experience: a year abroad, a chance to better my Chinese language, an opportunity to teach in a classroom setting, cultural learning, and more. Everything was perfect, except for the fact that the coronavirus set a huge wrench in these plans, as Fulbright has since effectively reduced the grant periods of nearly all 2020-2021 grant recipients.
I will now only have six months maximum to teach and explore Taiwan. This wasn’t what I wanted! And yet, I know with certainty that actually, it is. I was extremely unhappy that COVID-19 could affect my post-grad plans this significantly, but also knew that I would rather have 6 months in Taiwan than no time at all, or a year at Oxford, or anywhere else. Luckily, I found out before I had accepted, so I took the necessary time to think this over, complain to friends and family, and grieve for my halved grant. In the end, I felt the utmost clarity that this decision was best for myself.
Throughout this entire process, I was heavily influenced by the picture-perfect post-grad ideal. I felt constant pressure to know exactly where my life is going, despite my understanding that you can never truly know. I actually ended up turning down the “perfect” 3-year job opportunity because, despite all of the amazing benefits (including a year deferral for Fulbright), I realized that it wasn’t a good fit in the end.
As I get closer to my graduation, I am more and more eager to take a break from academics and rest, relax, and then get started on planning for my year after the Fulbright. I am hoping to approach my journey with a more open perspective, with the understanding that I don’t “have to” get a job or attend one of the most prestigious universities for an expensive degree, and with the knowledge that I have the rest of my life to pursue a career so I can afford a few years (or more!) to explore.
I anticipate going through this exact same decision-making crisis again in the fall as I consider the GRE and all of my graduate school and scholarship applications. I will be looking at Oxford again, but this time in a better frame of mind. In fact, I am already working on applications for a fellowship internal review process at my school. It seems like I am constantly putting stress on myself with all of these applications and short-term commitments. But in the end, this is what I need for myself right now. I want the ability to change my mind, to adapt and pivot, and explore different possibilities.
Although it took a lot of work to get to this point, I’ve come to realize that there was no wrong decision in the end. Making these decisions in the middle of a pandemic certainly added to the stress, but also came with the realization that a lot of things are out of my control and that I can only do the best that I can with the information and skills that I have at the time.
It was a struggle to get myself to understand that not going to Oxford this year doesn’t mean that I can never go in the future. I had to work through the feelings of anxiety that came with the promise of several months of no work and living at home after graduation due to my reduced Fulbright grant. In the end, I came to understand that I should not commit myself to someone else’s ideal post-grad experience, and if the next few years of my life don’t follow a particularly traditional or conventional path, then that’s all the better for me.
About the author: Meghan Reilly is a senior double major in Classics and Chinese with an Economics minor at Union College. She is passionate about working with underserved populations and accessibility to education. Meghan loves learning languages and traveling, and has recently started baking and crocheting on a near-daily basis.