You Need Help: You Just Graduated From College and Everything Is Awful

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you seek advice and we try our very best to give it.

This has traditionally been done by way of individual Formspring accounts, Autostraddle’s Tumblr and a Formspring Friday column, which has all been very fun and insightful. But, because Formspring has a character limit and we’re wildly optimistic w/r/t our time-management skills, we thought we’d go one further and let you use our ASS private messaging to share advice-related feelings, too.

For more info on sending in questions, see the bottom of this post. Now let’s get down to bossing people around on the internet! Today we’re gonna talk about what happens when you graduate from college without a job or knowing what your life is going to look like.

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Q: I graduated from a great school a little over a year ago. I’m depressed, unemployed, and living with my parents. I don’t know where to go from here or how to get there. They don’t prepare you for this as a possibility. They don’t prepare you for failure.

A: Okay, a few things first! I’m so sorry you’re depressed, and that you’re feeling lost and helpless and unhappy. I remember graduating from college and how it was sort of awful, because Life was supposed to start afterwards but it turned out that Life after college was a lot like Life before college except I was broke and terrified. I mean I was mostly those things in college too, but this time the stakes were much higher. The first order of business, I think, is to let yourself feel bad for a little while. I think that for a lot of people in this position, it feels like it’s a little ridiculous to be unhappy  — after all, you have a college degree, don’t you, and parents who you have a good enough relationship with that they’ll help support you? Isn’t it a little self-centered to feel bad about that when so many other people are also unemployed? Well, it’s true that a college degree and a (at least marginally) supportive family are privileges, and there are other people who don’t have them. But reminding yourself that other people feel worse isn’t really a good way to make yourself feel better, and telling yourself that you shouldn’t feel bad when you actually do doesn’t really help either. So: give yourself maybe one week from this point on to feel bad. Cry, obsess over what you’re going to do with the rest of your life, look up all your exes who have jobs with TFA, lock yourself in your bedroom with a bottle of wine and watch Tiny Furniture by yourself (it’s streaming on Netflix!).

And then, after your allotted week, stop. Or at least do your best to (while forgiving yourself if you still feel bad sometimes, because that’s what depression is, and also see above re: telling yourself you shouldn’t feel bad). Because here’s the thing: I know you’re thinking of this as failure, but it’s not. This is your life, it actually really is. And deciding that your life hasn’t really begun until it looks exactly as you planned it would mean that you’re going to let a lot of your life just happen around you while you wait for the real thing. The key is to recognize that this is the real thing, and then take charge of it.

So: start making moves. You need to do something with your days and with your time. What exactly those things are is up to you, I guess, but it sounds like looking for a job is a good place to start. (I don’t mean to imply that you aren’t already looking for a job, but it seems silly not to mention it, you know?) Set a goal, and decide to apply to at least one job a day, maybe two or three if you’re very ambitious. Apply to everything, even things that you don’t think you can get, everything from hostessing to production assistant-ing to dogwalking. The idea is to become the best ever at applying for jobs, World Champion of cover letters. Get reference letters from old employers and professors if you haven’t yet. In the meantime, work on becoming a genuinely awesome person to employ. It sounds sort of stupid maybe, but think about starting a blog where you talk about career interests or your industry of choice (if you don’t have one already). People our age are sometimes hindered by not having a lot of “real job experience” in their industry, but if you have a really smart and well-written blog to point potential employers to where it’s clear that you’re well-informed and know what’s up, that’s a big plus.

Also, you didn’t mention loans or a specific money situation, but let’s go with the worst-case (and likely) scenario that you have crippling student loan debt and therefore attendant masses of vague but very threatening Money Anxiety at all times. It’s also very possible and even likely that you’re not sure what your exact financial situation is, because it’s terrifyingly easy to graduate from years of schooling with huge debt without anyone ever having told you exactly what it is. So: even though it maybe seems like the worst possible thing in the world and also something you can Totally Put Off because you’re probably still in a grace period, do yourself a favor and look into your financial situation now. How much debt do you have? Is it subsidized or unsubsidized? What payment plan will work best for you when you do have to start repayment? Will that answer change based on whether or not you’ve found a job? Are there some loans you should pay down as soon as possible and some that don’t accrue much interest and so can wait longer? I know it’s super scary, but in my experience knowing and having a plan is always less scary than not knowing and not having a plan, and when it comes to large sums of money, surprises are never good. Trust me on this one: worth the time and Xanax!

It’s important to have a life outside of job applications, though! Unemployed people also deserve to have fun, and hobbies, and friends. Make a list of a dozen free fun things to do in your area, and make plans to do all of them with friends or family. This is a great time to investigate (cheap!) hobbies that you’ve always wanted to get into. Canning! Needlepoint! Nunchucks! Learning Sanskrit! Even outside of college, and even without a job (for now), you can still do really awesome things that are meaningful and enjoyable to you. Having purpose is important for being happy, and it’s easy for us to conflate “purpose” with “work;” so if we don’t have work, we feel totally without purpose. But purposeful play and fun is a thing that exists, and the joy and satisfaction that comes from a really fulfilling hobby can be fantastic.

Lastly, hey, neat, you’re living with your parents! Obvs in some ways this is rough. Sometimes your parents are annoying! It’s hard to find time alone! You worry about whether they can hear your vibrator through the walls! For real though, it’s totally possible for resentment to build on both sides. You can start to take out the fact that you have to live with them on them, and they can start to roll their eyes at your being around all the time, etc. Which sucks, because feeling like you’re sixteen at home again on top of your unemployment and debt is probably pretty awful! So before that happens, take charge of things and decide that you’re going to try to take this opportunity to make your relationship with your parents better, not worse. What are they like as people? What are you like as a person, now that you’re (mostly) all grown up? It’s a neat chance for each of you to actually get to know those people, and to develop a relationship that is based on common interests instead of just common DNA. Ask if everyone can make dinner together once a week! Invite them to do things with you! Not everyone wants to be friends with their parents, and that’s okay. But at the very least, it seems like a good goal to be in a better place with your parents after moving back in than a worse one.

Above all, remember to keep perspective: that no matter what happens this year, it will ultimately, in the long string of anecdotes and joys and sorrows and tequila sunrises and BBC miniseries that makes up your life, be a brief moment. No matter how bad the year after you graduate from college is, it is going to be The Year After You Graduate From College, and will be followed by many other years, which is both a good and a bad thing. But no matter how dismal it seems now, don’t discount that this could still be your year.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 759 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    If you need a hobby, consider learning a programming language. And then start looking for programming jobs. There are more jobs than people in a lot of computer oriented companies.

    Maybe it’s not your thing, but it’ll provide some cash while you find your thing.

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        I’m currently learning programming now as a student. It’s more time consuming than anything else as it’s a different way of thinking. But I do support the statistic that programmers are needed. Have you tried going back to your school and seeing if their career services can help you out? Sometimes things change with time, hopefully your situation will for the better.

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        I did this! This is what I did when I had this problem. I learned web development, enough to read a little code, then I worked as a data entry person for a while, then I learned to customize a very popular Document Share/CMS for business (way easier than it looks) and now I’m employed.

        This works best for about four hours a day while unemployed, with pre-existing desire to pick things apart. Start with Ruby or Python, they’re super friendly. Visual Studio is, I believe, free at the moment. Go go go!

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          yes yes do it

          and, depending on where you live, there may be awesome intro classes aimed specifically at women. (Not that you need that, but it does add an element of awesome.) Look for stuff like PyStar, PyLadies, Boston Python Workshop, Midwest Python Workshop, RailsBridge, …

          oh, just say where you live and I’ll look up what’s cooking near you.

  2. Thumb up 3

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    I’m still in school but I’ve never been stopped from giving advice on subjects i’m completely unqualified for so:
    Every break or time when i have been looking for employment/internships/etc and had nothing to occupy my time, I started going to the gym every day so at least I had SOMETHING to say to my dad when he asked what I’d done all day. It’s helpful, because people think exercise is “productive” and also, endorphins!

  3. Thumb up 1

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    So by the time I didn’t have a job two months after I graduated (B.S. biochem), I had to start working at Target. Nothing spurs you to find SOMETHING else to do like a soulless retail job. (actually the photo lab was kinda fun).

    That being said, I applied to grad school and that’s where I will be for years and years, in which I don’t have to worry about jobs cause I have a stipend. Yes, I’m still kinda poor, but it’s more than I made at Target!

    So, if you’ve been thinking about grad school there is no time like the present. Some programs will give you a stipend AND pay your tuition, if you’re lucky (depends on what you’re studying).

  4. Thumb up 6

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    I’d say this is pretty perfect advice. The only thing I’d add is to limit your screen time. If the only thing you do in a day is stare at the computer and drool for seven or eight hours, you’re going to end up in apathetic hole that might be hard to get out of. The false sense of productivity isn’t really that rewarding, that next season of tv will still be on Netflix tomorrow, and tumblr isn’t going to vanish in the next 24 hours.

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    I come from the year-out post-grad generation as well, and my advice is: network, network, network! This kills two birds with one stone – while you’re out there trying to pretend you’re not feeling All the Feelings about being unemployed, you can be doing activities that you love and possibly connecting with someone that could land you a job. Fortunately, when I graduated college I was able to find a job (surprise: through a friend!) but it wasn’t what I wanted. I was a receptionist at a yoga studio. But you know what? The manager bailed and I ended up learning HTML and running their website and marketing and doing lots of important manager-y things while gaining loads of experience. I worked there for a little under a year and a few months ago started my Big Girl Job, but I make extra money on the side continuing to do their marketing and website! No job is too small, and every job and interaction is an opportunity.

    You don’t have to apply to a million jobs a day, but definitely read A LOT of material on how to customize cover letters and resume for each position. Work smarter, not harder. Each application should be a labor of love that caters towards how you fit into what they’re looking for. It’s all about how you sell yourself, people! Not like that. (Definitely like that.)

    Real talk: I was super depressed about my receptionist job, and I wanted to start gaining some real work-applicable skills. PR interested me, so I started volunteering at a horse rescue with their PR team. One of the girls- a seasoned PR veteran- took me under her wing, loved my enthusiasm, and put my resume on top of the pile at her company.

    Just remember: action cures fear!

  6. Thumb up 1

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    What do we always need, no matter how little money is circulating around in the economy?

    Food, clothes, sex, and medicine.
    Pick an industry, any industry….
    Restaurants, fashion, porn (I suppose?!), docs/research?

    Thats what I’m doing. Hope it won’t fail me :/ hah.

  7. Thumb up 2

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    I’ll be finishing up my gap year from college and will be heading to grad school this August. Gap year sucks and is overrated.

    But I agree with the other suggestions: Volunteer and take any job that comes your way. Employers prefer people with real work experience. Just learn how to positively spin what you learned on the job.

    After graduating I had trouble finding a job – but a month and dozens of applications later, I found a mindless temp job that was relevant to my political science major. And the position also gave me customer service, proofreading, phone and database experience.

    I used these newly acquired job experiences – combined with past volunteer work teaching kids – to help land my current summer job helping and supervising teens at a non-profit.

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    Oh man, reading this brings me back to early June last year…I too was depressed and trying to deal with moving back in with my parentals (although without a college degree, because I dropped out after a year or so of trying to wrestle my mind and soul into wanting to study things I didn’t really want to study)

    It truly sucked at first, and I was so disappointed with what was apparently supposed to be my life that I spent a good few months just trying to ignore EVERYTHING. Also going through a really shitty drawn out breakup didn’t help much, especially as I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because of CLOSETS umm.

    HOWEVER, I do have a point with this, and that point is that when I finally got myself out of my numb life-ignoring black hole for 5 minutes one day, I sent a mail to a temp agency place and they had a one week-job for me. That one week led to 2 more months which led to a year, and also made me realise what I actually want to do with my life! So. Even a horrible temp job can be a complete life saver, or at least something that gets you out of bed in the morning (not in the late afternoon) and motivates you to take showers and eat food sometimes and all that other stuff that people do all day instead of refreshing Tumblr 5x/min. Doing small every day things that I couldn’t actually fail at is what finally got me out of depression! Also I get along stunningly with my mother after this year, which is as unexpected as it is awesome. Miracles happen.

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    I don’t know whether this will help you feel better or worse, but even for those of us who found a job in our chosen field right out of university (raises hand), things don’t always turn out the way you expect. I ditched that job after a year because I hated it and spent the next 10 years or so floating around trying to figure out what to do with myself.

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      Found a job in chosen field right out of university (raises hand), hated said job, became depressed, and quit after one year (raises hand again), also hated living in NYC, decided to leave all friends and family behind and move to Madison, WI to try something new/get a fresh start/embark on a great adventure (raises hand enthusiastically!!!)

      I leave on Monday =)

      Anyway, I think what Rachel said about keeping perspective is most important of all. Life is full of ups and downs. You’re at a low point right now, but think about the last time you felt truly happy and fulfilled, and then think of a time before that when you felt horrible and defeated and it seemed as though things would never improve. It will get better, just as it did that last time. It always does. Just remember that, don’t lose hope, and hang in there!!

  10. Thumb up 1

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    Thank you. My girlfriend already went over most of this two days ago as I was freaking out, depressed and crying, and I’ve slowly been attempting to get my shit together, but it’s always good to hear it again.

  11. Thumb up 4

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    Autostraddle is never not relevant to my life!
    I didnt get yet another job today and I was really starting to feel it. I cried for like 5 hours on and off while thinking that i was a total failure and that my classmates who are getting tv and feature film jobs as actors, national tours of musicals and dancing on broadway probably thought i was a talentless shit. I so needed to read this today and i am now feeling so much better.
    OTHER PEOPLES SUCCESS DOES NOT EQUAL MY FAILURE
    I havent even found time to audition yet because im still looking for a day job, so it has nothing to do with my talent. My classmates love me and if some of them really think that then they are just jerks. but thats fine. its just fine. right? my actual facebook status this morning was “life after college sucks. everything is awful” i should check autostraddle before facebook from now on.

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    Definite commiseration on the fact that this part sucks – it absolutely does, but Rachel’s advice is fab. (Especially the part about making sure that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking of life as a thing that’ll start later.)

    The only piece that I’d add is to check out craigslist for possible internships / volunteer opportunities / work trade situations – they don’t help out financially, but some of them can lead to jobs, new skills, or other good things. I had 1 internship become a great part-time job, and a work trade resulted in my learning basic web design, which has been a great job skill, and looks shiny on a resume.

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    Gawd, this is making me feel rough. I just finished 3 wkd ago and have been offered a job in Oregon, but just made the difficult decision not to go because I don’t feel prepared to move from Michigan to Oregon exacty yet knowing I won’t be happy out there. Someone please tell me that I’m not crazy…

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    Such a good and accurate read. I’m in my last year of school, and I anticipate not getting a job when I eventually graduate in December (there are only so many teaching positions in southwest BC). It kind of blows when you hear about people who graduated before you from the same program and aren’t able to do what they want to do. At the same time, there’s this part of me that just wants to travel after graduation; it’s not at all realistic, but sometimes I just want to point at a world map and buy a ticket to the next plane that goes there. I want to live out of a van for a month in northern Canada and visit used book stores in Belgium and work at a bed-and-breakfast in Ireland. My friend, who is a few years older, has reassured me that this is just a quarter-life crisis that I’m going through. He survived it when he was my age so he’s pretty confident that I won’t go insane and do all these things I threaten to do. I’m thankful for school in this sense because it has kept me pretty grounded so far. Once I graduate though, that might be a different story, haha.

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    This is so common it’s crazy. I am trying to power through it myself after leaving grad school last year and it’s been so tough, but I know people who have lost partners and fallen out with family/friends in the stress of it all, really lost all sense of themselves. All you can really try and do is to stay calm and set your efforts to MAXIMUM.

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    I got laid off for the first time in my fifteen-year work life just a few years ago. I had a sense that things were going down hill at work and had prepared my finances beforehand. I was in good shape, especially compared with some of my co-workers, and told myself this was an early birthday present as my boss talked about the modest package I’d receive. My exit interview: Don’t worry about me – I’ll be using my freedom to write a novel – May I dance on the way out the door?

    After a month of being at home by myself, I was repeatedly cycling through the “stages of grief” – anger, self-pity, anger, depression, anger, etc. And making it all seem so much worse was knowing that I had accepted my pink slip with a sincere thank-you, and had then burrowed head first into a deep depression anyway.

    This wasn’t the first bout of depression I’ve had in my life, but it was the first where I could point to a well-known pattern of emotions in the wake of a specific event. Knowing that the depression I was experiencing was part of an established ‘normal’ reaction to misfortune was vital to finding my way out. The more I dwelt on this fact, the more I was able to reason myself away from the cycle of negative emotions. And after a while I started writing my book (not the one you’re reading here).

    So remember that panic, fear and self-doubt are normal reactions to unemployment; in fact, they’re practically reflexive reactions. But that also means that they should disappear on their own, given some time. Keep that in mind as an antidote to the kind of thinking that reinforces those negative emotions.

    And don’t become a hermit in your own home. It seems like the correct response to unemployment: “I don’t have a job, so I can’t afford to have a life.” But it wrecks your ability to interact with other people, and will cause ‘Unemployed’ to become an identity instead of a temporary condition. Force yourself to get outside of your home and your head.

  17. Thumb up 1

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    Networking is one of the most important skills that you’ll need for the rest of your life. As well as assertive persistence, confidence, and wearing the loudest shirt possible to an interview while still retaining a professional appearance.

    I think one of the oddest ways I landed an amazing internship was from making out with my friend’s straight roommate whose mother just so happened to be the head of the collections department of a very well known Bay Area modern art museum.

    Another really cool connection was getting an odd gig on Craigslist helping set up sound and stage equipment for a puppeteer. She didn’t pay me much, but she fed me and took me on all these fun car trips for her gigs. One day, I showed up to her house and found out that her husband was a storyboard artist at Pixar.

    If you’re on the shyer side, I’d definitely recommend getting a job that allows you to constantly interact with a variety of people. It helps boost your confidence as well as your social skills.

    Set up and commit to a schedule for your job search. M-F 9am-1pm for example. After that, don’t even look or think about your search. Go outside, have fun, do free things. Exercise.

  18. Thumb up 0

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    I’m also experiencing the post-grad slump. My last year of college, I was SO PUMPED to graduate, move to Chicago and start my fabulous adult life. A year and a half later, I’m back with the ‘rents, still in Michigan, working at Target. Although I hate working retail, I’m glad I at least have that to keep me occupied.

    It does get better and I feel like I am a lot closer to a post-grad career than I was a year ago. It helps to stop limiting yourself to only dream-city locations. The more open you are to working anywhere, the easier it can (sometimes) be to find a job.

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