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Stop Asking Others What They’re Doing Post-Grad

By Jennifer J. Li, Contributing Opinion Writer
Jennifer J. Li ’19 is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at Harvard Kennedy School.

Nowhere is safe.

Not the yoga studio when I’m wiping down my mat beside my friend. Not at brunch before our drinks arrive. Not in a two-minute conversation on JFK Street with someone I haven’t seen in a year.

All anyone seems to care about asking these days is: “What are you doing next?”

Every time someone asks, my heart pounds and my mind swirls. I don’t want to let people down. So I shrug my shoulders and silently hope that the conversation will move on. But inevitably, the conversation continues and the next question is: “Well, do you have an idea of what you want to do?”

I’ve gotten really good at changing the topic.

For friends in the same boat as me — jobless — we can commiserate when these interactions happen. But it’s a bit awkward sharing what I’m thinking about applying for, especially when it’s with a friend who has similar interests. I’m caught between wanting to support them and being faced with the reality that there’s usually only one position available.

For friends who have a job lined up or who are already working, you can see the hesitation in their eyes before they muster the courage to ask about post-graduate pursuits. Sometimes, they’ll preface it with: “Yeah, I’m not sure if I can ask, but…” In a one-on-one conversation, it’s less bad to ask. But that doesn’t mean you automatically should.

When in doubt, just don’t.

Especially not in front of a group of friends or another social setting.

For friends in industries like consulting and banking, which recruit in the fall — on a way too early timeline, if you ask me — congratulations on your fancy-schmancy offers. I am happy for you, but please be cognizant that most people don’t know what they’re doing yet.

Everyone’s on their own timeline. In fact, there is no timeline for finding a job after graduation beyond a stupid societal standard we’ve created. The assumption that you should know exactly what you want to do and where you want to be months before Commencement is an unrealistic expectation that only amplifies an already stressful time. The pressure to find a job, amongst other life things, can be overwhelming, and the question of “what’s next?” can unintentionally exacerbate that stress.

Trust me, I’m aware that graduation is two months away.

I know people who inquire about post-graduation job prospects generally want to help and do not intend to cause stress. Sometimes, discussing potential job options with trusted confidants or even strangers can be helpful.

It can be beneficial to bounce ideas off others when I initiate them. They might say: “It sounds like you’re really interested in doing X. I know someone doing X, too,” or: “Have you considered Y? I think you would be a great fit.”

It’s important that everyone has an outlet or at least feels comfortable talking about their post-graduation aspirations with someone. No one should suffer in silence.

There are ways to offer support to both friends and acquaintances without accidentally shaming them for not having a job offer.

Instead of asking: “What are you doing after graduation?”, consider: “What’s been occupying your mind lately?” Give people the space to share what they want to discuss, when they want to discuss it.

If jobs come up, try responding: “I’m happy to act as a sounding board if you ever need,” or: “How can I help you find your ideal job?” Offering support and understanding can be much more meaningful than simply asking the question that adds to the stress and pressure already felt by students.

If you slip up and blurt out the dreaded question, remember that “I don’t know yet” is a perfectly acceptable answer. Move on.

If you’re really curious to know how my job search is going: It’s going. I’m applying for positions that interest me, but I’m not applying for everything left and right just to have a job — and I recognize that this approach comes from a place of privilege. I’ve also applied for a couple of fellowships, but I’ve either been rejected or I’ll find out in April.

Right now, I want to make the most of my last semester. I have a thesis to write, readings to complete, and friends to see. Frankly, job hunting is not at the top of my priority list.

You might not be pleased to hear this, but it’s the truth. After years of taking exams and checking Canvas for assignments, I just want to sit and breathe. A little bit of nothing can’t hurt.

Rest assured, I promise that finding a job is at the back of my mind. I imagine the same holds true for others who don’t have a job yet.

But in the meantime, please stop asking about it.

Thanks in advance for your support.

Jennifer J. Li ’19 is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at Harvard Kennedy School.

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