Around the fall of the last year of his or her degree, a graduate student’s mind begins to wander. The effect is barely noticeable: a fleeting thought about potential jobs here, a procrastination-driven web browse through a career site there. But as the fall progresses, and the dreaded Thesis approaches with alarming speed, reality begins to set in, and we are forced to face the obvious: our imminent entry into the Real World.
For so many of us, the Real World is a mythical place, like Atlantis but decidedly less cool. To the timid grad student, it seems as though the Real World is a place where naïveté and scholarly innocence go to die. Sure, we are locked in the lab, sometimes for 12 hours a day, weekdays and weekends, but we still have flexibility, a flexibility that work world cannot afford us. I am not saying that there is nothing to look forward to when we exit the grad school bubble – being paid a real salary is certainly high on that list! – but there are real worries that set in as well. Many grad students, myself included, have been in school since they were 5 years old. We have become accustomed to the comfort of knowing that we still have time to figure our lives out and that we are on a set path for X more years. As monotonous and frustrating graduate school can be, it is still something that most of us are doing by choice. Our successes, however far between they may be, are always worth the toil and will eventually lead to the coveted degree. The work world, on the other hand, is an unknown, and this question mark scares us.
But should it really? A large part of the fear that we have of leaving grad school is that we do not what to do next; the options that we have with the degrees we have obtained seem hopelessly limitless. So how should we begin to figure out what comes after this chapter of our lives has closed?
Guidance centers are a great way to kick-start this search. CaPS (https://home.mcgill.ca/caps/), the career planning service that McGill offers to graduate students, has a great library of resources on internship and employment opportunities as well as graduate and professional school information. In addition to this, the service organizes fairs and offers career workshops and one-on-one counseling that can really help pinpoint your areas of interests and narrow your search. Networking websites, such as LinkedIn, can connect you to people with similar educational and vocational background, allowing you to access information that can lead to thousands of individuals and potential employers. Attending mixers, networking events, conferences, meetings and symposiums organized by businesses in your. Networking certainly takes time and practice – for most of us, is not something that comes easily, and it can be quite difficult to promote oneself without feeling a bit silly. But it pays off, and so many people have met employers and collaborators by the grace of a simple handshake. And finally, those around you – supervisors, committee members, PIs and post-doctoral fellows in your field – are a rich and accessible resource that you should take advantage of. They have a wealth of personal experience that they can draw upon to help guide you towards a job suited to your unique set of competencies, and can give you first-hand information on the steps that you will have to take towards attaining you career goal.
So in the end, The Real World really shouldn’t be a scary place. As graduate students, we have a plethora of skills and accreditations that make us attractive candidates for jobs in a surprisingly diverse spectrum of fields. Leaving the safety of the academic world isn’t something that comes easily, but it’s a natural progression, and one that (I can imagine) will come willingly once we have reached the winding-up phase of our degrees. Because indeed, grad school is about giving us the tools to move on the bigger things, and how we choose to use those tools is our prerogative. Being proactive and addressing the issue calmly and methodically is the key to a successful ascension from student to working professional, and this knowledge should, and will, ease the anxiety that comes with mention of the Real World. From this point of view, doesn’t the question mark look a little friendlier?