When working with adolescents, I often say to them that it was much easier 100 years ago or more when you were told, “Well, your father was a farmer, so you’ll be a farmer.” For women it was become a mother or have a career, don’t hope for both. And career usually meant teaching small children or nursing. Men whose fathers were physicians, attorneys, or other professionals might be guided or even forced into the same path. People didn’t travel too far from their homes, especially those with little money, and there were no opportunities to open your mind to other people and other experiences.
More recently, in my own lifetime, while we were not necessarily forced into taking over the family farm, there were still many gender roles that were firm and set. In 1986 I was accepted into a prestigious engineering/science school. It was about 10% female. My grades were not good enough, to be honest, but I had a good SAT score, so I have a feeling they let me slide, needing more females in the school. I didn’t last, but made many great friends in the two years I was there. While there are more women in STEM fields today, it is still a male-dominated area. On the other hand, my chosen field of psychology has become predominantly women over the past few decades. I started college in an engineering program that was 10% female, and got my PsyD. with (in a class of about 20) only three men.
It’s nice to have choices and have the whole world at your feet, but it can be stressful. You may not want to be a farmer in your heart, but it is certainly easier to just have someone tell you what you’re going to do with your life. Going to college, picking a major, changing a major, transferring schools, taking a leave, coming back home, taking a gap year, working for awhile, going back to school . . . these are all possible sources of stress. But how wonderful to end up doing what you love to do.
So, my tips to the new graduates when it comes to your next steps:
• Yes, you need to do something with your life that is practical and pays the rent. But that need not be what everyone around you has done or expects of you. What did you love to do as a child? Can those interests and skills become a career? What are you drawn to?
• What coursework do you most enjoy? I switched to social sciences when I realized I liked reading the psychology textbook more than I liked doing my calculus homework. Believe me when I tell you that engineers just have totally different brains. All the guys I know from back then would much rather do differential equations, would rather integrate and derive, than read about Freud. Oh well, we can still be friends.
• If I had a nickel for every teenaged boy who says, “I can never work behind a desk, that’s so BORING” I’d be a very rich woman. Yes, most people, especially idealistic and restless young people, want to do something more exciting than what they perceive is done behind a desk. I sit all day and I love my job. My god, people tell me their secrets. What’s better than that? An attorney spends his day writing proposals, orders, documents, and briefs. He finds the clues and the loopholes and the places where a case can turn. A software engineer is allowed to be creative all day long in front of a computer screen. You can work “behind a desk” and still be stimulated. We don’t have to all climb utility poles or tour with rock bands.
• The more education you get, the more you can mold your career to what you want it to look like. Do not be afraid to get more education and training. The more training and experience you have, the more you will be able to do the aspects of your job that you enjoy and walk away from some of the ones you don’t. For example, a lawyer or doctor in private practice may take EVERY referral when she is starting out, and then as her reputation grows and she has more work than she can take on, she can focus on the type of cases she enjoys most. I like teenagers. Some people don’t. So, send them to me, please! A lawyer friend of mine does mostly matrimonial/custody cases, but needs to leave about 20% of his practice for things other than that, because family law can be incredibly draining, with cases dragging out years, and terrible cruelty between the spouses. We can do this because we have enough training with enough various skills to choose what we want to do. I have training in divorce/family mediation, neuropsychology, and psychopharmacology. One of my friends worked for the VA for 35 years and specializes in PTSD and other anxiety and trauma issues, so he can pick and choose that work if he wants. Your vet may specialize in certain kinds of animals, your contractor may be an expert in carpentry but not plumbing, your landscaper may do magic with roses. Within each job there are areas of interest to investigate.
• That being said, don’t expect to walk into a dream job without paying some dues along the way. I’ve taught at just about every local college, but now can choose the classes rather than taking an assignment I’m not crazy about because I need the money. My handyman has grown his business into a contracting business, and while he might still do some grunt work for his oldest and favorite customers, he contracts out some of the little things to others so he can focus on big ticket and more creative jobs. But when I met him, he owned nothing more than a paintbrush. Then a van. Then put a logo on a t-shirt. And so on. If you go into the corporate world you will surely have to be at an entry level position for awhile and will sometimes be the one making coffee, staying late, collating copies, and working on the weekends to learn, prove yourself, and gain skills. You should never accept abusive circumstances or situations where labor laws are violated, but be a team player and do it with a smile.
• Save some money and travel. Don’t buy that latte every morning. You don’t need a new phone, put that money aside for a plane ticket. See the world. I had the best lasagna ever my last night in Rome (and you should know I’m half Italian, so I know lasagna). In Athens, unable to read the menu, we were escorted back to the kitchen where two little grandmas were stirring pots and preparing food so we could see what our choices were. In Bora Bora a man chased me down the street with a mango, and in Papetee I photographed young Polynesian girls giggling over young Polynesian boys. Go to an Indian Reservation here in our own country. Let yourself feel the sadness, poverty, and illness while you take in the beauty of the Painted Desert. Bike ride in Acadia and marvel at how much it looks like our own Rockefeller Preserve (same designers). Go to places like Detroit, which has lost 2/3 of its population due to economic crisis, and see how people are living there now, in our own country. And see how people are trying to put it back together. Road trip and sit with the locals at local eateries. I went for biscuits and gravy in Kentucky and ended up talking about property taxes (my sob story won, Kentucky has nothing on New York taxes). I slept in a building shaped like a beagle in Idaho. Don’t go to Venice to go to the Olive Garden, please! You don’t have to eat lamb’s brains or crickets or anything totally weird, but for all that is holy and right, don’t go to a chain that you can go to at home. The only time I had agita in Costa Rica was after a roadside stop at Papa John’s! I can’t stress enough how much traveling opens your mind. I know it’s hard when you’re young, I certainly didn’t do much travel in my 20s, but make it happen. Road trip it and stay in cheap places. Go to the civil rights locations in the south and stop into Sun Studios to learn about American music. Stand where Martin Luther King stood for the last time and see where Rosa Parks waited for the bus. Go see what the Alamo is all about (not much, but the River Walk is cool). If you’re as crazy as I am, take the Tube to the neighborhood that the Who came from, just to see what it was like (quaint and working class). And visit the Phallological Museum in Reykjavik, because why not? Admit you’re about to look that place up.
Whatever you choose to do, the world is yours for the taking. Onwards and upwards (just don’t worry about those speedbumps and potholes along the way)!
Barbara Kapetanakes, Psy.D. practices psychotherapy in Sleepy Hollow.