The Challenging Transition From College to the "Real World"

 I went to college and worked in Dallas, Texas, where I lived for the first year of my professional life. Long phone calls on the way to and from work are one of the things I remember most about that era. It turns out that a lot of my friends felt as if they were on an island all by themselves. Despite everyone's best efforts, some participants found it more challenging than others to be supportive over the phone.

For me, every day was a challenge. One has to learn to navigate the world on their own. There weren't enough people there. To add insult to injury, every emergency expenditure (car repair, medical bill, etc.) felt catastrophic. The weight of the cosmos appeared to be bearing down on me as if I had just been born.


Before graduation season rolled around, I spoke with a therapist and some friends who had gone through post-graduation depression to get a sense of what might make the transition from school to "the real world" especially challenging and what advice they could give to graduates to help them through it.

people walking in the street rushing to their destinies
People rushing to work

Do people ever feel down after graduating?

While it's important to recognize and celebrate graduates, the transition from youth to maturity isn't always easy. Those who have struggled with mental illness before graduating from college may find this to be especially true.

"The stress that the transition to young adulthood triggers in young people and their circle of support can exacerbate pre-existing mental illness," writes the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which does not recognize post-graduation depression as a mental disorder.

But it's possible for anybody to feel down after graduating: "Post-graduation blues are a normal occurrence," says John Smith, an expert on business and entrepreneurship. Once we finish our time as students, we lose the sense of identity, direction, and responsibility that we gained during that time. After finishing school, we are thrown into the real world and expected to make rapid decisions about our futures. If we immediately enter a career with all the associated learning, structure, and responsibility it entails, the impact may be mitigated. A person's sense of well-being and sense of purpose might be negatively impacted if they do not have a job that they like and that provides them with security and satisfaction.

It might be stressful to try to find a job after graduating from college.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson begins, "Here is a history of work in six words: from jobs to professions to callings," which sums up the difficulty of the job search in a single sentence. I think that young people are more susceptible to the stresses of job hunting since they are still forming their identities after college and aren't sure what they want or need from a career.

Sergio Pineda, a longtime friend of mine and a recent master of psychology graduate, told me recently about his struggles with depression upon graduation from university. "I usually hear tales like, ‘Oh, man, I got a degree in English and right now I'm a freaking archaeologist,’ or whatever," he added. "But going through that process—to get to the position you'd want to be in—there's a lot of difficulty.

After finishing my bachelor's degree in psychology, I realized that I was only qualified for the lowest-level entry-level jobs. After finishing graduate school, I was put in a situation that was different from what I had been used to. Where I was was essentially a little town. You'll need to be creative if you want to utilize your master's degree in psychology in a field that doesn't require a license. Meanwhile, I had clocked in almost six years at Home Depot. I was briefly discouraged since my degree didn't help me get any jobs. It's easy to feel like a loser with a graduate degree and no plan for using it.

When I was feeling down after graduating from the University of Arizona, I turned to Jack Alexander, a friend and fellow Wildcat. What we do with our lives is supposed to define us, he added. This is no longer how I feel.

By reframing "work" as an activity that helps me pay for my desired lifestyle, I have attempted to separate my livelihood from my identity. This realization came about as a direct consequence of my pursuit of a profession that would provide me with the freedom to choose my destiny. Or I could try to figure out how to spend more time doing what makes me happy and being with the people who matter to me the most.

people clustered in the street making it hard to move
People clustered in the streets going to work 

The importance of social structure increases after college.

Depression after college graduation may be linked to the disintegration of social networks. The initial version of this essay was written over coffee with my brother Gabe, who shared that the lack of pre-existing connections was the most difficult aspect of his after-university relocation.

Because there are so many systems in place to help you succeed, making friends at college is a lot easier, Gabe added. According to the author, "After you graduate, you're on your own to build up all your social contacts," which is a talent that many individuals lack since they haven't had the opportunity to practice it.

Johanna said, "There is an innate sense of camaraderie amongst us students." It's not only the "next professional step" that many of us are seeking when we leave college; we may also be searching for a new community and set of friends. When we move back home with our parents or other relatives, we are faced with the same challenges of family life, including the inevitable tug-of-war between our developing feelings of independence and the longing for the more reliant ties we had as children.

The dispersion of Jack's friends had a tremendous effect on him. He reflected on how welcoming and easy it was to make friends among students in his first two years of college. Everyone wanted to make friends and collaborate on different endeavours. When we were all still very young people trying to figure out how to get by in the world, I made some of my best friends.

Our close-knit group fell to pieces once everyone graduated and went on. It was like beginning again, and I missed the people who had been a part of my life and helped form my identity. I graduated feeling like I'd lost touch with who I was, and it was a long, arduous trip back to discovering who I am. It didn't return until I found genuine, trustworthy, caring, and supportive connections outside of school.

colleagues holding hands and working together
Employees demonstrating happiness in a workspace

One's occupation does not define them.

When trying to figure out what to do with your life, it's important to remember that your career choice has little to do with who you are as a person. It's better to do the job you love than the work you can persuade other people you love to do suggests an essay published in The Atlantic in December 2016. This may seem obvious, but if you're anything like me, you'll stay in a position that seems great on paper but is making you miserable until you can figure out how to get out of there.

Because of the unhelpful, early emphasis on what we want to be when we grow up, it's easy to confuse your job with who you are. When we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they are "forced to define [their] identities in terms of work," as organizational psychologist Adam Grant puts it in an editorial for The New York Times.

In a survey on workplace wellbeing conducted by Indeed in 2022, 86% of respondents claimed they were personally influenced by the state of their workplace. Fair pay and opportunities for growth and development are important, but so are supportive coworkers and a happy outlook on life overall. Try to get a job that will enable you to do meaningful work and also provide you with time to develop your interests and passions outside of work.




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