by Lauren Avery, ’15
For many of you reading this, college graduation may seem too far away to worry about. If you’re still a prospective student, you’re looking forward to enjoying the thrill of being independent in a new place, and if you’re a current student, you feel like you will be a student forever.
I’ve felt this way for all four of my undergraduate years, and even as a senior, graduation was never on my radar. I’m currently studying abroad in Beijing, and trying all of the different varieties of dumplings has been enough to keep me occupied for much of the semester. Recently, though, my mom was discussing my family’s travel arrangements in Ithaca during commencement weekend.
“This time next year,” she said, “you’ll be out in the real world! How exciting!”
A view of Libe Slope
That moment was when the reality of my impending graduation hit me, and I can’t say I’m ready for it. I can’t fathom saying goodbye to Cornell, and the term “real world” gives me the shivers. What on earth should I do after I graduate?
To me, the only options for post-graduation activities were finding a job or going to graduate school. From there, graduate school was broken down into law school, business school, getting a Master’s degree, or getting a Ph.D. What path should I choose? What does my undergraduate degree from Cornell prepare me for? Would each choice determine what I did for a career for the rest of my life?
The answer, thankfully, is no. In the job market, lateral movement within one field and complete jumps into different fields are possible. As for graduate school, while it is true that you should be fairly comfortable with being a doctor if you go to medical school or with being a lawyer if you go to law school, the boundaries are not as rigid as you might think. Individuals from all academic backgrounds can pursue rewarding careers in academia and in research.
Still, deciding upon a path after graduation is not the same as being an undergraduate student. Think about when you decided on an undergraduate major, or, if you have not yet declared, think about how you chose your intended field of study. If you’ve done your research, you know that changing majors at Cornell is not only easy and common, but expected. I myself have gone unofficially through four completely different majors. As an undergraduate, you are not expected to know definitively what you want to study, and that’s okay. One of the main purposes of your undergraduate career is to allow you to explore many academic opportunities and find what makes you happiest. One of my favorite things about Cornell is that undergrads can take courses in whatever field draws their eye, from cognitive psychology to Quechua.
Cornell’s Arts Quad, the home of the College of Arts and Sciences
Once you are graduating, though, the expectations are slightly different. Having chosen a field of study at your undergraduate institution and studied it thoroughly for anywhere between two and four years, most employers and graduate schools expect you to have somewhat of a better sense of what you want to do. In job interviews, this manifests itself in the ubiquitous “where do you see yourself in five years?” question, and for graduate school applications, it forms your Statement of Purpose.
“How will I know what to answer when they ask me what I want to do?” you might ask.
You’ll know. Trust me, you will. You might not know exactly what law firm you want to work at or which corporation offers the best benefits, but all of those semesters as an undergraduate you spent exploring, learning, and maturing will point you in a direction. It might be unexpected or completely different from how you started as an eager young freshman, but you’ll have direction. You’ll have a sense of what you want to do, and, more importantly, why.
For me, since I had declared my CAPS major, I had always had a vision of me being a professor, discussing Chinese-American relations from a podium in a lecture hall filled with students. The more I researched possible options for me post-graduation, the more academia seemed to suit me. As someone who could happily be a student forever, graduate school made me more and more excited. I decided to apply to a few doctoral programs, and I should hear back in a few months. If you had told my freshman year self, still seriously considering being a pre-med Astronomy major, that I would graduate as a CAPS student, go on to earn my Ph.D., and be happy about these choices, I wouldn’t have believed it.
The reason that I am sharing my experience on the A&S Ambassadors Blog is to urge you to start thinking, right now, about where you see yourself in 5, 10, and 15 years. Don’t be unwilling to change this goal over the course of your undergraduate career because you will grow and develop as a student, but just begin to think. As an undergraduate, there are so many resources and people available to support you and guide you through the process, but you are the only one who can choose what makes you happy.
As you know from undergraduate applications, planning the next chapter of your life takes a great deal of hard work and diligent preparation. It’s never too early to start thinking about what makes you happy, not what makes your parents happy or what makes you the most money. Before you know it, you’ll be wearing a cap and gown at your convocation. As you reflect on your undergraduate experience and everything you saw, did, and learned, you’ll want to be able to look to the future not with certainty, but with confidence about the adventures that lay ahead. This confidence about being ready for the “real world” is what makes your precious undergraduate years so valuable, and even if it feels farther away than you can comprehend, you’ll get there, I promise.