By Olga Kingsbury, Career Coach and Jiabao Gao, Clinical Mental Health Counselor, University of Utah Counseling Center
Career uncertainty is one of the leading causes of stress and mental health challenges. Coupled with other life struggles students may be facing like academic distress, financial difficulties, and personal relationships, the uncertainty around getting a well-paid and rewarding job that would eventually evolve into a successful career, becomes a great life stressor that may negatively impact students’ mental and physical health. We all live in the culture of overachievement, and not knowing exactly what you want to do with your career, can be perceived as a failure. It is not surprising that students may feel lost and anxious when facing such an unrealistic expectation to have their career trajectory figured out by the time they graduate.
In the Career & Professional Development Center we believe in continuous exploration of rewarding careers. It is totally ok to not know what career you want to pursue even if you are graduating in a couple of months. We also put student holistic wellness first and believe that taking care of your mental health is the foundation for becoming a thriving a professional.
CPDC invited Jiabao Gao, Clinical Mental Health Counselor from the University Counseling Center, to share steps to handle and overcome career uncertainty.
- Acknowledge the struggle
Try to understand what triggered it. As a new graduate, it is very easy to feel lack of confidence. Before finding the right solution, it is helpful to identify the trigger of distress. For example, you may feel anxious if you have been feeling stuck for a while and not sure what you need or want for your future; or you may feel that there is a mismatch between your major and your future goals and, therefore, lack of motivation; or something specific: “I don’t like my current job/internship.”
- Accept anxiety with compassion
It is common to feel anxious to secure the first job in your professional journey. Instead of avoiding anxiety, allow yourself to sit with anxiety for a while before turning into the problem-solving mode. Sometimes in difficult situations (e.g., COVID-19 pandemic) many things are not under our control: the job market, economic conditions, and people competing for the same types of jobs. These factors may not always match the effort and time we put into job searching. Take care of your emotional mind with kindness instead of pushing yourself hard or harshly criticizing yourself. Talk to your friends or imagine if you share your struggle with them, how would they respond to you?
- Explore what is driving your anxiety
Ask yourself “What’s happening that perpetuates my anxiety?”
Notice the pattern and develop alternative thoughts. Take a moment to imagine the worst outcome noticing the thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations that accompany it. For example:
“I sent tons of resumes but only received a few interviews. I started to lose hope. I won’t get any job because I am not good enough” or “I am a failure”.
Acknowledge how that would impact you as who you are and how you feel towards yourself in the worst scenario. Assess how likely the worst scenario is going to happen.
“If it did happen, what would I do?”
Think whether your family would support you if you didn’t get this job. Do you need to prepare for some savings or consider an alternative plan (e.g., moving to a different location or moving in with a friend, etc.)?
- Clarify and validate what you need
Ask yourself “Does the place I want to work at match my values and needs?”
If job security and income level are your top priorities, you would look for jobs that provide the most financial security and stability. If you are open to a more progressive work culture, you may want to work for a startup.
- Start planning
It will help to improve your sense of competence and feel prepared. If you want to get a job secured when you graduate, maybe you should get an internship in a related field during your senior year. To prepare for that, you can start planning: talk to a professional working in that field or research internship descriptions to learn what background and experiences are preferred. Join a professional association or forum in the field you would like to know more about.
- Connect with someone
Team up with a person who shares the same goal with you. It can be a lonely and uneven journey to do all of this work by yourself. If you find another person with similar goals, you can share useful information and provide emotional support to each other. Seek support from friends, family or your partner.
- Ask for help
Seek professional advice from the Career & Professional Development Center. The Career Center provides excellent resources to explore careers and get you prepared for an internship or a job search. Talk with a counselor about your anxiety at the Counseling Center. Sometimes it can be hard to find a person or space to process your emotions and express yourself without any judgment.
At the University Counseling Center, we value diversity, acceptance, and compassion. We provide a variety of services including individual and group counseling.