…by Laura / from Ireland/ MSc Science Communication and Public Engagement / 1st Year
Final year of your undergraduate degree is the year when everyone around you starts asking “what next?” – what is the next step in your life? What will you do with yourself in just a few months’ time? You’ve completed school. You picked something to study at university – but for a lot of us it was just kind of assumed that we would do that. Now you’re faced with a decision you are given far less guidance on. It’s up to you. What do you actually want from life? Why did you pick what you studied for undergrad? Where is that going to lead you?
And for most of us, the more people ask us “what next?” the less of an answer we have for them. We start panicking. We start questioning every decision we ever made. We start doubting ourselves more than we ever have before. Picking something to study at university was just deciding what to focus on for a few more years of our education. But now it suddenly feels like the next step is deciding what we really want from life, and the next step we take will define what the rest of our life will shape into.
But here’s the thing. It absolutely does not have to. The law says we become adults when we turn 18, but we all know that’s not actually true. Undergrad is an extra three or four years of childhood for most of us. It delays us actually making any more major decisions for ourselves for quite a while. And it’s not like, during those years of undergrad, we were constantly being given advice as to where our studies could lead us. We were being given a whole lot of theory, and – unless our degree included an internship – very little practice. So how exactly are we supposed to know what we want our life to shape into any more now than we did when we started? No my friends. The time has simply come to try things out.
Of course some people do know. Some people have had their life figured out since they were five years old. They have a plan and they are sticking to it and they don’t seem to doubt themselves at all. But most of us do not have this plan. Or we have a very vague plan that needs a lot of filling in. And the only way to figure out how to fill in the blanks is to try something. Anything. And then try something else. One baby step at a time. Get a part time job. Apply for anything that seems interesting. Move onto a full time job (the first you get offered after being rejected thousands of times). Keep applying for more things while saving a tiny bit on your current job. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by what it currently looks like until you stop exploring new options. So don’t stop. Pick something and then keep looking.
What did I try as my first next step? The one that is impermanent by definition. (There is no getting stuck for life in this one.) The one that kinda delays adulthood by a little bit more again. That’s right: further education. But hopefully, this time, with a little more practice thrown in.
Three and a bit years into my undergraduate degree, I had completely forgotten why I had chosen to study environmental science. It took my mother sitting me down with a cup of tea and re-enacting for me a conversation we’d had back in my last year of secondary school, for me to put it back together. I had been quite an all-rounder in school, which meant that my father had thought I should study science because “I had the brains for it” and my mother had thought I should study History and English because “that was what lit me up from the inside”. She thought I would be miserable studying something I wasn’t passionate about. But I had had a teacher in school who had been adamant that what the world needed most of these days were people who could understand science while also being good communicators; who could write in a coherent and engaging way, or who could present complicated topics clearly and inspirationally, while also being scientifically minded.
This idea embedded itself in my mind. I was good at science in school. I was also good at English. I liked teaching and enjoyed putting together presentations. Maybe this was the thing for me: a combination of science, writing and teaching: a way to use my love of writing and teaching in what seemed like a particularly worthwhile way. But first, I needed to get a science degree. I needed to immerse myself deeper into the scientific world. This was the argument with which I persuaded my mother to let me study General Science at Trinity College Dublin. But by my last year, I had got so lost in the process of keeping up with my course that I had completely forgotten why I was there to begin with.
I had found General Science, and then Environmental Science, which I specialised in for my last two years, really challenging. I had been thrown, so early on, by how stupid I felt in lectures and tutorials, that I questioned every year whether it was worth me even trying to move on to the next one. Maybe this was too hard for me. Maybe I wasn’t as good at science as I thought I was. Even now, having graduated with a first class honours, I feel like an absolute impostor claiming to be a scientist. So when people began to ask me in the last year of my undergraduate degree what I saw myself doing next, I felt the tears well up inside of me. I wanted to scream that I didn’t know, because I certainly couldn’t do anything with my degree; I certainly couldn’t be a scientist. Even if they gave me a diploma, even if they told me I had done a good job, I knew with absolute certainty I would never feel like someone who deserved to be called a scientist. But did that mean I had wasted four years of my life on a degree I lacked the confidence to do anything with?
My mother looked at me in confusion when I told her about all this. “But Laura,” she said, “I thought your plan had always been to be a science communicator.” And in that moment I realised I had forgotten why I had chosen to study science in the first place. Yes, I had realised. I didn’t need to feel like a scientist. I just had to feel like I knew enough about science to understand what scientists did and to communicate it to people who didn’t.
I knew from a friend that at least one masters in Science Communication existed in London, and a couple of google searches told me where else I might apply. And so, I decided, that was going to be my first next step: a practical Masters that gave me actual experience in the field, that showed me what the work of a Science Communicator actually was, so that I could decide whether that was what I actually wanted to do, and, if so, where I might want to apply for my second next step.
Here in Edinburgh, the Careers Service is really worth trying out. Whether you have no clue where to start thinking about what you’d like to do next, whether you need pointers about where to look, or even if you do but aren’t quite sure how to proceed because of applications, CVs, cover letters or interviews, there is someone you can talk to there who will give you advice and calm you right down.
Life after undergrad is a one-step-at-a-time process. Thinking about it any other way is a sure-fire path towards a multitude of panic attacks. The next decision you make does not have to be THE decision. It just has to be the first attempt at SOMETHING. Don’t keep searching for hours and days and weeks and months trying to find the perfect thing. You won’t know it’s perfect until you try it. So try the first thing that sounds like you’d be able to give it a go. And then keep looking.