In a few ways, finishing my degree felt like a non-event. I celebrated after I submitted my last assignment, of course I did, but nothing really happened. There was no graduation ceremony, just me waiting for three weeks for an email to say I had been successfully awarded my master’s degree. That was it.
It was strange because I had achieved something monumental. In the days right after, at the start of what would later become my gap year, I was exhausted (and slightly hysterical), but that passed soon enough. Even after I got my degree in the mail, nothing truly felt different. The transition from student to graduate had happened, and yet everything seemed the same to me—it was like my mind hadn’t got the memo and I was just waiting for the next semester to start.
In hindsight, it wasn’t really surprising that I would feel like that. It took a good month for me to actually comprehend that I had been in school since I first started. I had been a student my entire life.
And now I wasn’t…
The problem was that I still felt like I was, and I still thought like I was.
As the new year started, it became more and more apparent that after 19 years as a full-time student at some level, my brain was hardwired to think in a certain way. It also became very obvious that this mindset didn’t compute with my life post-study.
Like many creatives, I’m sure, I didn’t stumble straight into a job or an internship after graduating, and I knew that my next steps were learning about the industry, finding a job and starting my career. But being a student was all I had ever known—it was one constant throughout my life—and without that, I did struggle.
I felt adrift without the rigid structure and readily provided everything that was the reality of student life. Part of my mind was still waiting for things to happen to me, for my next steps to be provided and outlined. I wanted to be given a starting point and an idea of what to do because the alternative was having to face the slightly terrifying reality of having nothing, of losing this part of my identity and being thrown into the ‘real’ world without a clue how it worked or how I was meant to find my way in it.
I was waiting for answers to fall into my lap, just as they always had. That was what I wanted. But life doesn’t have study guides or semester outlines. These were now things that I had to figure out for myself, and for the first time in my life, I had to do it without safety barriers.
I treated it a bit like a research assignment, falling back on what I knew best, but in doing so, I encountered another delightful new side-effect of being in school for as long as I could remember.
As a student, it turns out that I had a particular view of productivity. I understood what being productive felt like and what a productive day looked like, and it just did not apply to a post-study world.
Especially in the last two years of study, a ‘productive’ day for me meant sitting in front of my laptop for eight hours and working the whole time with minimal breaks. And that worked… when I was in university and I had enough coursework to sustain that every day of the week.
But in my post-study life, even with my pseudo-research assignment, that was definitely not the case. I had been unconsciously pushing myself to replicate the same level of momentum that had carried me through my degree, and even though it wasn’t remotely possible, I had been getting stressed and anxious whenever I felt like I was ‘failing’ or ‘wasting time’.
I struggled for a while because this was the only type of productivity I knew and suddenly this mindset wasn’t just unsustainable, it was detrimental. It was a harsh reminder that parts of the mental transition from student to graduate hadn’t happened for me yet. I realised I had to redefine what ‘productivity’ meant because my new normal had gone from runaway train speed to a much slower pace.
However, this meant more than just adjusting from having to do ten ‘productive’ tasks every day because of deadlines to possibly only two. I had to truly understand and accept that there would be lulls, slow moments, breaks and even times when I might have nothing to do at all. My ‘productive days’ were never going to look like they once did, they couldn’t, but that wouldn’t mean I was wasting my days or my life away. I wasn’t sabotaging myself or my future if I wasn’t running myself into the ground.
Accepting this new style of productivity was a big change, and it took a while for it to sink in that just because something from my post-study to-do list (like setting up job alerts) took 20 minutes on my computer rather than three days, but that didn’t make it any less worthwhile. It still counted as being productive, just like keeping on top of my laundry or doing the dishes still counted as productive because there was more than one type of productivity.
That was one of the biggest transitions for me, this complete mental change to how I planned and worked throughout my day now that I was a graduate without any of the high stakes or strict deadlines I was used to. Only having short tasks to do was practically foreign, but it did force me to accept that there was more than one way to have a fulfilling day.
There were many reasons that I decided to take a gap year after I finished university and it wasn’t just because I didn’t immediately find a job or an internship. It wasn’t purely because, after two degrees and 19 consecutive years of studying, I deserved to have a break, a year without pressures or deadlines.
I took a gap year because going from student to graduate was one of the biggest transitions of my life, particularly for my mental state, and I needed to figure out how to function, how to think, without the steady push of education driving me along. I needed the time to stand still so I could try and get the student out of my brain and unlearn far too many bad habits.
I struggled and I stumbled and I slipped back into old patterns and it took a long time and a lot of effort, but eventually, my mind got the memo.