Almost graduated. Okay, now what?

Wondering what my first job will be while traveling around Switzerland. Photo: Prerna Chaudhary

I'm writing this blog from a train in Switzerland. I'm waiting for my exam results, I'm finishing up a few final assignments, and I’m working on taking one item off my to-do list: this blog.

One thing I’ve noticed about this journey is that it seems to be a quest for meaning. It seems as though everywhere I go, someone asks me "what do you do?" For someone who’s almost ready to start working, that’s such a heavy question. What's that first job going to be?

I’m not the only one who’s struggling with that question, of course. The friend in whose place I just slept feels the same. He's a medical doctor, so the answer seems obvious for him: doctors work at hospitals, right? But it turns out he too is searching for what he really wants. With the hope that a new environment will bring forth new experiences and growth, he’s considering working in other countries or cities.

Where do I want to go?
For me, the main question is what do I want to do. What can I really do, after all these years of studying at the university? Perhaps a better question would be: in what direction do I want my life and career to go? (Too) often, the easiest option is to just go with the flow. You go from secondary school to university, where a Master's degree follows the Bachelor's, which possibily culminates in a job or a PhD. Although the options presented to us may seem rather limited, they can be overwhelming. What's the alternative, then?

This past week, I met a woman who spent her entire life in the village she was born in, in the Alps. If you ask her what she does, she’ll startle. She used to work in a ski shop, then she went to the post office. I also met another woman, who grew up in Hawaii. She moved to Brussels on a whim and then moved to France. At the age of 40, she decided to go to university. That's quite a different approach to life.

I wonder what those two women have in common. I can’t find an answer right away. The only thing I can think of is that they both have something different from my own experiences. My Swiss friend and I wonder: is there more than this? Is there something that pushes us to keep looking for new experiences, so we'll continue to acquire new skills and develop ourselves to function in different ways? Or do we just stop learning after our studies?

Lifelong learning
I cannot help but think about how popular it is these days to pursue further education. Even so, that just doesn't attract me. They're mostly two- to three-day courses that you get a diploma for in the end. Is it even worth it?

Lifelong learning also comes to mind. An idea that attracts some and drives away others. Is there room for life-long learning? I don’t see many educational activities for adults at our university, but I know they do exist. Is that just not fashionable?

What is it, really, going to university? Can you get a degree by yourself, from home? Sometimes it seems that way (the way some courses at university are set up, you’d almost think that’s the programme’s intention). That also brings to mind the image of the diploma factory. The university can turn from a space for learning to a space where exams are applied. But that also has its limitations. Grades are more important than human insight and creativity. After all, to measure one’s skills, you need an objective metric that can be turned into grades. Whether the grade can actually summarise what someone can do is a different question entirely, of course.

What do grades tell you?
Having spent a few years in academia, I must admit that I don’t know what I can and cannot do. I tend to view my grade as proof of the extent to which I can do something. Still, I’ve noticed that a grade doesn’t tell me much about what I can and cannot do, or could do in a new environment. A five would show me that I can’t do something, and a six that I’m at least capable. What’s the difference between these grades? In one year’s time, will I even notice what I can or cannot do regarding a specific topic? Has someone who gets a perfect grade really mastered the course? Are they any better than someone who gets a two, when both have put in time and energy into the course? I was going to argue that the person who gets the perfect grade masters that what the teacher requires, and the one who gets a two may have also learnt something, but possibly not what the teacher wished to teach.

I ask myself whether this approach hampers students’ creativity. Is that coveted 10/10 grade comparable to not following one’s own interests and a more creative interpretation?

Should I look at the things I did when I creatively interpreted a course mysef? The moments I decided my grade was less important than my interests? Or in the courses where teachers gave me the room to do so?

Nevertheless, a tricky question: “What will I do?”