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Marks My Words: The dread of what’s ahead

“So, what are you doing next year?”

It’s the question that strikes fear into the heart of every graduating student. Well, not necessarily. But it’s probably the most frequent question directed towards soon-to-be grads, and not everyone is thrilled to hear it.

There are generally three kinds of responses after this question is asked.

First are the people who know what they’re doing. Some of them know it so well that they don’t even have to be asked. You innocently say something like “Are you excited for graduation?” And in return you get, “It’s a little bittersweet, but next year I’m consulting at McKinsey!”

Even when actually prompted, the answer comes confidently, comfortably, often excitedly. After all, the people who know what they’re doing have few worries. Some of them signed their contract months earlier, and they’re genuinely eager to begin working at a new place.

But this category is reserved for a certain kind of future employment: jobs at places that people know about. There are the names like Microsoft, Google and Facebook for CS kids and JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs for the finance-inclined. The political science-types head off to the White House, the State Department and various three-letter organizations. If you’re predictably unconventional, you do a start-up. And for every major, there’s Teach for America.

Then there’s more school, which includes scholarships like the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright. Or maybe you’re heading off to another university for a law, business or doctoral degree. Med school? That sounds good too. All of these things are logical next steps after Stanford because, like Stanford, they’re recognizable, big names.

So when, as a graduating student from Stanford, your next destination also has an impressive title, your response will be pretty well received. And you’ll speak out with gusto because, well, it’s gratifying to elicit a few “oohs” and “ahhs” from people when you tell them what you’re doing after graduation. “Wow, you’re working at Apple!” or “Congratulations on the Peace Corps!”

The next category is those people who have a job lined up, but it’s not the most recognizable. They’re working at a smaller company that hasn’t quite caught the public eye yet.

“Hey, what’re you doing next year?”

“I’m working at [insert name of company no one’s heard of except its 15 employees]!”

“Oh…right. What does [insert name of company] do?” The other person may already be losing interest, but they have to stick it out at this point. You respond, and they nod knowingly and trying to look excited for you. But because they still have no clue what this company (nonprofit) is or what it really does, this excitement can only go so far.

And so you find that these students are a little less outspoken about their future careers. If they know that a simple “What’re you doing next year?” will require a lengthy explanation, they won’t say anything unless asked. Having to describe your future job, and subtly justify why it’s worth your time and interest takes energy.

It also comes with some judgment. When someone hasn’t heard of the place you’re going to work at, you risk getting that vaguely disappointed look, the look that silently says, “Why isn’t this Stanford grad working at someplace I’ve heard of?”

Then there are those who still don’t know what they’re doing next year. Maybe they’ve had a few rejections from their top choices, or maybe their job search process started a bit late. For them, the repetitions of “So what’re you doing next year?” become more and more painful each time.

Want to make their lives easier? When someone answers the question with, “I actually don’t know yet,” there’s no need to gasp in shock. There’s also no need to flood the person with a series of job recommendations and pieces of “advice.” And they won’t feel better if you say something like, “Oh! Don’t worry, I know a whole bunch of grads who didn’t have a job until months after graduation! You’ll find something.”

No, that’s not comforting or helpful. If you really want to help, actually offer to help. Ask about their interests and try to connect them to a promising opportunity. Is that more than you wanted to do? Then there’s no need to dwell on the topic. The student in question won’t mind if their looming unemployment isn’t the subject of conversation.

And as for students: If your future is still undetermined, you can always spice up your answer to the question. Say that you’ll be taking some time off to travel (to your home). Or that you’re going to take a few months to finish your book (after you start it). Or that you’re going to found your own company (a job-seeking service for yourself). The questioner will get the point, and hopefully they’ll move on.


Want to ask Miriam what she’s doing next year? If you must, email her at melloram “at” stanford “dot” edu.