7 Secrets to Make Adjusting to Life After Graduation Less Scary

You don’t have to face the unknown unprepared.
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You don’t have to face the unknown unprepared.

In the time around graduating from undergrad or graduate work, we feel the thrill of freedom and pride for all of the hard work we've accomplished over the past several years. Until this point, we've prepared as much as we can for that "next step," whether it's moving to a new city, a job that awaits us, or a new opportunity we've yet to discover.

As the highs of graduation fade though, uncertainty and anxiety can set in. Facing the "real world" can be exciting, but it can also feel scary. As we embark on this transitional phase, the changes can feel empowering and overwhelming at once. We may be saying goodbye to familiar faces, a unique place, and a routine that we will likely never experience in the same way again, as well as a track that has so far been pretty straightforward.

Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Michigan, Vicki Hays, comments in U.S. News on post-graduation blues, saying, “I think it's much harder actually leaving college than it is coming to college. For most people, they have not been without the structure of organized education ever in their lives." When this academic phase ends, we often feel at a loss in spite of the great adventures that lie before us. To help navigate these uncharted waters, here are seven tools to cope, backed by research and experts who've been there.

01. Accept your changing identity.

Since childhood, education is a huge part of your identity. Now, whether you have post-graduation plans or are still hunting for your next endeavor, it can be hard to find where you’re meant to be and how to get there. You have to prove yourself all over again in a new setting to new people—you must, in a sense, reinvent yourself. Acknowledge the reality of this challenge. Keep reasonable expectations about what you can achieve.

Psychologist and psychotherapist Tiffany Miller advises graduates to "be realistic about what jobs are out there [and] how far down on the totem pole are you going to have to start before you work your way up.” You certainly can hit the ground running at your new gig, but don’t be frustrated or disappointed if you don’t hit your stride from the beginning. In Malcom Gladwell’s bestselling book Outliers, he illustrates how studies have found that it takes about ten years or 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a skill, whether it’s playing an instrument or running a business. So have patience with yourself.

02. Stick to your routine.

Amidst the inevitable ups and downs, even the smallest habits can help you stay grounded. For the Harvard Business Review, Sarah Green Carmichael looked into what made certain "geniuses" successful. For the likes of Jane Austen, Soren Kierkegaard, Pablo Picasso and more, Carmichael says, "A routine was more than a luxury—it was essential to their work."

Find a ritual that you can rely on day in and day out. For me, it was my morning workout routine and healthy eating habits. Knowing that every morning I would get up, go for a jog, and do some moderate ab or arm workouts allowed me to start my day doing something familiar—no matter what lay ahead at work or in my personal life. I also knew I could rely on my typical food schedule, which gave me one less thing to stress about. Maybe you formed a particular routine during college that you can keep up, or maybe it’s time to start a new one. Try one of our favorite healthy habits to start in your 20s and 30s.

03. Scale back on your plate.

In college, you’re used to juggling many different responsibilities throughout the week: classes, friends, clubs, internships, dating—you name it. We become used to moving at lightning speed and multitasking. But when you land a full-time job, your day-to-day will likely be more focused on, well, work. You likely won’t have the flexibility to meet up with friends in between classes, your vacation and sick days are limited, and you’ll have one “subject” instead of, say, five. 

Along with a new degree of freedom, post-grad life comes with a distinct risk for burnout. Rachel Charlton writes, “A recent study published in the International Journal of Stress Management revealed that 90 percent of burned out workers met the diagnostic criteria for depression.” So don’t get annoyed or feel bad if you don’t have the same energy to head out and do something after work or if you can’t take on as many responsibilities as you did while you were in school.

04. Pick a passion project.

Set aside time to do the things you love. Hold your passions close as you work to define your post-college self. Through any turmoil or transition in your career, education, or relationships, saying “yes” to a project or opportunity that fulfills you will keep you close to your core values.

Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project, believes it is essential for happiness. Because not everyone finds a career path that speaks to their passions (and especially not right away), it’s important to find an outlet elsewhere. She writes, “I’ve become convinced that one of the greatest supports to a person’s happiness is passion—whether for musical theater, video games, constitutional history, camping, stamps, shoe-shopping, teaching English as a second language, or whatever. When you’re in pain, it can be a refuge, a distraction, a solace.”

05. Get enough sleep.

Sleep seems optional in school. As the meme goes, “Sleep, good grades, or social life: pick two.” Post-graduation, I’m faced with an early morning and a long workday, no matter how little I sleep. And when you’re overtired, every mishap becomes exaggerated. According to Professor Russell Foster, a neuroscientist and head of The Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, waking up after five hours or less of sleep is cognitively equivalent to being drunk.

In Arianna Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution, she advocates sleep as the solution to help us through personal crises to bring more gratitude and effectiveness to our lives and careers. She asserts, “The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep.” She also writes, “Sleep deprivation results in higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol the next day. And many of the genes affected by lack of sleep are involved in processing stress and regulating our immune system.”

In fact, a 2011 study by the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that REM sleep helps us deal with emotional stress. The lead researcher Els van der Helm wrote, “This research shows that sleep plays a crucial role in emotional processing and opens the doors for therapeutic avenues.” Get enough sleep to maximize your productivity and positivity during this tumultuous time—just one in a series of big life changes to come!

06. Keep your support network close.

Upon graduation, it can be harder to stay in touch with family you FaceTimed with everyday or friends who you regularly saw in your room, dorm, or classes. Stay close to those who value you just because you’re you—not because of your contributions at work or otherwise. 

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants with greater perceived social support had lower levels of stress and depression. It’s also worth noting that the quality—not the size—of the participants’ social networks mattered most. Focus on nurturing deep relationships, even if you just have a few. These are the people who will encourage and support you through good and trying times.

07. Turn your uncertainty into opportunity.

Proactively choose to take a positive outlook on the challenges you come across. Realize that any turmoil you feel is natural, but focus on the opportunity areas. Remember, true happiness is a result of personal excellence, not professional prestige or praise. 

Julia Hogan, LPC, reminds us that we're wired for "negativity bias," or focusing on negatives over positives. Don't overanalyze your situation. Are you struggling to grasp complex concepts on the job? View it as a learning opportunity and seek out advice if you need it—you'll have a new skill set under your belt before you know it. Swimming in grueling job applications and facing rejectionThe most successful people enlist their network to ask for feedback and help when they need it. Melody Wilding, LMSW, a licensed therapist and Professor of Human Behavior at The City University of New York, writes for the The Muse, "Try this: When you’re interested in or turned away for a position, follow up with the hiring manager to ask how you can improve for the future." It may take some time and very hard work, but who knows what exciting role lies ahead for you?

Dream big, new grads. Remember, people do this every year. You’re not alone. This transition will become your new norm, a step in taking your next change with even more confidence and grace.

Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia Photography