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An Open Letter to Grads Who Don’t Have Jobs Yet

Dear grads,

You’re my friends. You’re my former classmates. Just a month ago, you were me.

You graduated from college. Maybe it was last month. Maybe it was last year or the year before. And yet you’re not working at a full-time job you love in the field you wanted to during your college years. You haven’t found your stride yet, but all around you, it seems like everyone else has. Every time you go online, you’re bombarded with photos of your fellow alumni attending work conferences, apartment shopping, complaining about laundry—and other adult things you feel left out of.

The truth is, we’re all at different stages in our lives. When we leave high school is probably the last time we’re all on the same track. Because after that, inevitably, some people don’t go to college. Some attend community colleges. Some take time off, volunteer in AmeriCorps, travel abroad. Some jump right into working. There are so many differences—both planned and unplanned—in the directions our lives take from those around us.

And, especially if you felt like we were all on even footing just yesterday, it can be overwhelming. Your best friend in the world has a killer job that she’s always talking about. Another friend is getting married and buying a home. Someone else you know just got their master’s degree. You sometimes kind of feel like your life is a meme, to be honest—like you’re that person watching everyone else grow up, and the hardest decision you made today was, “Should I eat cookies before dinner?”

I’ve been the person who sits in jealousy, wondering how she hasn’t caught up. I’ve also been the person who was the object of these feelings. I’ve seen both sides, and let me tell you: they’re not all that different.

Two weeks after graduation, I got my first job offer. It was at a fun start-up company in the city. My friends were all in awe that I’d had such an easy time finding a cool job after college. What they didn’t realize was that I was commuting about two hours each way, because I hadn’t yet moved out of my dad’s house. I had no time to research apartments because I was exhausted—so I ended up with an apartment I’m not 100 percent pleased with. The start-up I was working for was a fairly new company, so I worked a lot of hours to save up for apartment expenses, and started freelancing on the side. Almost all of my summer was spent working, sleeping or commuting.

In the fall, the start-up wasn’t able to keep any of its newer employees, and I began my reign as someone feeling left out. Everyone else I knew who’d gotten a job right out of school was still working there, while I was applying frantically to everything, trying to explain away why it had ended so quickly. I ramped up my freelancing to full-time, but some of my projects were sporadic and, as an extrovert, I really missed going to an office and being a part of a team. 

Throughout all of this, people still thought of me as successful. I deftly avoided those “What’s next?” questions because I had so much going on. I was freelancing for major magazines and going to grad school full-time. 

It’s been a year since I graduated now. I can’t believe it, to be honest. It doesn’t feel real. Like many recent college grads, I don’t feel like I’m enough sometimes. It’s a very competitive job market, although it seems to have gotten better since the major financial crisis. So even when I was doing my absolute best—taking graduate classes, completing an internship in my field, applying to full-time jobs, freelancing and volunteering—I never felt good enough. 

In the year since I’ve graduated, what I’ve realized is that recent grads are doing our best. There are so many insidious stereotypes and way too many negative articles about our generation in the first place—that we can’t get jobs, that we don’t even want to work, that we’re lazy and entitled, that we live at home with our parents forever, that we’re a stain on society and the economy.

If you’re a recent grad and you haven’t found the job yet, that’s okay.

Getting started in your career is a little like dating. You don’t always get it perfect on the first shot. If you’re in your first or even your second job out of college and you know it’s not right for you, don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s completely okay if you’re working in retail, customer service, or in any job that just doesn’t feel right or perfect. It’s okay to freelance, volunteer, intern or take a job you don’t love to pay the bills.

In the year after graduating, I never thought I’d feel this way. I never expected to lose my confidence and to feel unsure of my next steps. Throughout high school and college, I’d always been sprinting, more like catapulting, onto the next thing. But the world after college isn’t always like that. I never stopped trying, even on the days when I got nothing but rejection emails from full-time jobs I really wanted, or on days when I was exhausted coming home from class after a long day of working on-site for a freelance client.

Take the challenges as an opportunity to show your creativity.

After graduation, you may find yourself (or already have found yourself) feeling lost, especially if, like me, you knew what you wanted to do during college and this is the first time you’ve ever felt uncertain about something. You may try hard and not get the job you wanted. You may be rejected from graduate school and need to wait and re-apply. You may be working as a waitress, cashier or customer service rep and feeling like you’re underemployed and not using your talents. Or you may be working a grueling job you hate because you’ve heard it’s the stepping stone to launch your career, Devil Wears Prada style.

If you’re doing any of these things, or so many others, you’re already taking on an extreme challenge, and you’re showing how creative and determined you are. You don’t have to be working full-time at your favorite company to be doing well. All you have to be doing is your best. And by taking risks and finding new ways to gain experience and make it work, you’re only showing how great you are when placed in a challenging situation. And that’s a great skill to have for when you do land an amazing position at your favorite company someday.

The most important thing to remember is that this is temporary. You’ll probably look for a job again someday, but next time, you’ll be looking with more experience, and with a lot more under your belt to leverage in your favor. There’s nothing as straining as figuring out your career for the first few years, but by sticking it out and taking it in stride, you’re getting over the worst part already. 

Alaina Leary is an award-winning editor and journalist. She is currently the communications manager of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and the senior editor of Equally Wed Magazine. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Healthline, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Boston Globe Magazine, and more. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife and their two cats.
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