Life Skills: For the uncertain grad

JP Allen ’11 initiated the Arts Runoff series and spent Winter and Spring ’11 as a MiddBlog Lead Editor. He is currently in the thick of a year stint on NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Speechwriting team, where he was placed through the New York City Urban Fellowship. He will be giving a Professional-in-Residence session Friday, January 20th from 2 to 4 at CSO to talk about Urban Fellows and life after Midd. Stop by anytime! Read all the Life Skills posts.

At this point last year, I had no idea what I’d be doing at this point this year. I applied to short-term fellowships and jobs hoping to test some of my interests empirically (and save some cash) before investing in graduate study. It was a great plan, except that I had no idea how it would feel when I actually arrived at my next step.

Most during-college career advice centers on getting into jobs or schools or programs—but what happens once you’re in? Especially if you’re thinking of a fellowship or fixed-term tour of duty instead of grad school or a typical open-ended job, the moment when “what next?” becomes “what now?” is a tricky one.

Here’s a quick guide to what I’ve learned about working a real job that’s sometimes not exactly a real job—to help uncertain Middkids decide, and to help “program participants”-to-be prepare themselves.

#1: Defining your job is part of your job

Maybe it was because I was the first Urban Fellow to work for Speechwriting, but I felt like my office had some trouble figuring out what to do with me. I was thrown into an extremely busy group and given an ambiguous job title. The luck of getting to do more than menial tasks in my first “real job” was balanced by my uncertainty about what actually was appropriate work. Even over four months in, I still actively offer to take on much of the work I do. Learning to firmly but respectfully gain responsibility and define one’s role may occupy a bigger piece of your consciousness than you think. But if you can do it well (I’m barely starting to), it can help immensely, because those ambiguous situations are exactly the ones where you can change things, or move forward yourself.

#2: People and access are part of your salary

Positional ambiguity has advantages. A huge one: important people aren’t always sure where I fit into the system and may therefore be surprisingly open to contact and discussion with me. I am the youngest person in my office by seven years, and the most inexperienced by at least the same amount—and yet here I am, having conversations every day that make me amazed and thankful to be working where I am.

It won’t last: budgets in City Hall are rightfully tight, and my chances of being re-hired are slim. But the more I learn, the more people I talk to, and the better I understand the career worlds with which I intersect, the better prepared I’ll be to do more of the same or do well at something different. You may have less job security (and less money) when your fellowship ends, but you have the chance to spend some early time avoiding the grind of being at the bottom of the ladder, and that has its own benefits. (For an entirely opposite experience, talk to a paralegal at a big law firm.)

#3: Your hobbies are part of your portfolio

Even though it was never part of the job description, City Hall definitely had a use for one more Spanish speaker. And to my surprise, my experience with theater actually helped, too—some Mayoral events need staging, after all. In an ambiguous job situation, you may have more freedom to work across disciplines and try side projects, because your role may be less determinate than those of the people you work with.

#4: Work like you could be promoted, fired, or paid overtime

Because in at least some programs, none of those things will happen. It’s easy to justify the cost of grad school as an investment, and it’s very easy to feel good about getting paid—but a fixed-term job or fellowship is an unusual mixture of both. Like college, you have something of a margin of error. Unlike college, your work isn’t graded (or praised, typically, for that matter), so margins of error are much harder to calculate. In programs like these (and the Watson is the most extreme example), the solidity of the stipend and the variability of the job description can conflict with each other. Self-motivation will be invaluable. (I’m still working on that—I certainly turned this post in at the last minute. Editor: Correct.)

Final thoughts
Do I now know what my interests are? Do I know where I’ll be a year from now? Do I know what I’ll study in grad school? No. In many ways, I’m even less certain than I was a year ago. But what I’ve learned about myself in a “real job” setting, combined with the supportive and stimulating exposure to a fantastic group of Fellows, combined with the newness of a gap year, combined with a solid work experience, has made this a decision I wouldn’t take back.

So when considering a fellowship year-or-two, manage your expectations and expect to go a little crazy—but think about it.