Tough Transitions: How I Dealt When All My Post-Graduate Plans Fell Apart

To say it was hot out was an understatement. It was mid-afternoon in late July, and the sun was shining at peak strength. I was standing in the parking lot of my sister’s apartment complex feeling sweaty but accomplished. I had just finished moving the last of what felt like 100 (but was really only about eight) fully packed suitcases, boxes, and blue Rubbermaid containers from my sister’s second floor walk-up apartment to my car on the far side of the lot…alone.

The author at her graduation from Brown University.

“It fit!” I said out loud, breathing a sigh of relief, although no one was around to hear me. I had stubbornly insisted on packing my car myself, even though my sister and brother-in-law had offered to help me when they got home from work. I couldn’t wait. I was too anxious — bubbling over with an uncomfortable combination of fear and excitement.

I was leaving the next morning to drive from Pennsylvania to Texas, where my eight containers of belongings and I would start a new chapter.

I had graduated from college just two months prior and struggled so much in the weeks that followed. It was 2009, the worst job market in recent history (even The Wall Street Journal ran an article about “The Curse of the Class of 2009”), and I had left my beloved alma mater without a job, a place to live, or any actual plans. While my sister had kindly offered me a temporary place to stay, I felt desperately alone.

Now, after months of frantically applying for jobs both before and after graduation, I had finally secured a position as a college access counselor with a nonprofit in Dallas. Hating winter, despite always having lived in the northeast, I was elated. Goodbye snow, hello southern sunshine!  

Just then, my phone rang, bringing me back to the present moment. A Dallas number. I quickly answered.

It was my new boss. The organization had lost the funding for my position. They might be able to hire me in October, but there was no guarantee. “We’re sorry,” he said and hung up. Stunned by the news, I leaned back against the newly packed car and sobbed.

Entering post-grad panic

While I’d been struggling before, a new kind of panic hit at this point. In the moments after getting the call, the reality of my new situation sank in quickly. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a guaranteed place to live after the next day, and I’d spent all the money I had on preparing to move to Texas. In my excitement over receiving my first ever sign-on bonus, I’d used it all as a down payment on a car, and now had no way to make the monthly payments.

I was overwhelmed, stressed, and, quite frankly, scared. But while my specific situation may have been unique, my feelings weren’t.

“Change causes us to feel a variety of emotions, including but not limited to stress, excitement, anxiety, fear, sadness, anger,” says Cori Reed, M.A., a licensed professional counselor and behavior specialist.

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“Because [graduating from college] is one of the biggest transitions one will make, it is common to see elevated levels of stress,” Reed adds. “Depending on one’s field and the job market, some may find it difficult to find employment. Others may not know what they want to do. And even if you are settled in what you want to do and have employment, you are now potentially facing ‘real world’ stressors like bills, student loan payments, and housing payments for the first time.”

Reed’s comments really resonated with me, as these were many of the things I was struggling with in the months following graduation. Looking back, I wish I’d known how common my feelings were. Knowing that I wasn’t alone likely would have lessened the shame that I felt on top of it all.

Figuring it all out (one step at a time)

Piece-by-piece, I started to put a plan together for moving forward. I set small goals to help myself move ahead without becoming even more overwhelmed. Breaking the long list of what I needed to do into chunks helped me get through this stressful time.

Once my sister and brother-in-law agreed to let me continue renting their spare room, I decided to focus first on finding a job, second on finding an apartment, and third on figuring out all the rest.

Gun-shy from my failed attempt at moving cross-country, I decided to look locally for jobs and within two weeks landed an interview for another counselor position with a college access program in a town nearby. Fortunately, they wanted someone to start right away, and I soon began settling into work and looking for an apartment.

I found a place to live relatively quickly and was ready to start tackling step three — all the rest. In college, I was very social and always committed to several activities at once, typically bouncing between my jobs as a res life office assistant and tutor on campus, planning events for my sorority, and writing for the student paper all in the same day. Wanting to maintain this on-the-go lifestyle, I saw establishing a new social life and finding groups to join as my next step.

When at first (and second, and third) I didn’t succeed

I quickly realized that my apartment complex didn’t offer much in terms of socialization. A grunted “You gonna be done with that soon?” in the shared laundry room was about the most human interaction I got.

So, I decided to look elsewhere to satisfy my social itch.

The town I’d moved to was more insular than anywhere I’d lived before. Suburban bordering on rural, it was full of people who had lived there their whole lives, and I didn’t know how to break in. Community group Facebook pages and events weren’t as popular as they are now, so I searched around on meetup sites instead. I found a community service group and decided to attend an upcoming meeting.

It did not go well.

The website said guests were welcome, but when I showed up, they asked who had invited me. They let me stay, and I sat uncomfortably as they recited rehearsed pledges. I hadn’t realized it was such a formal affair. Towards the end, they made me stand as a visitor in front of the group of 40+ people and asked if I wanted to be inducted as a new member. I managed to squeak out an “I’d like to learn more first” before bolting out the door and never looking back.

Learning to cope

Already feeling vulnerable, I took my failed socialization attempt very personally and sunk deeper into feelings of loneliness and, admittedly, depression.

I was living alone in a new place, had dim prospects of the vibrant social life I longed for, and was fighting feelings of loneliness every day. Outside of my mental health, my physical well-being started to show signs of distress, as well. My limited cooking skills became apparent, and I felt silly even attempting to learn when I was only cooking for myself. I developed unhealthy eating patterns, gained weight, and spent hours wondering how it had all come to this.

A few months later, I decided I was sick of feeling depressed. With the encouragement of a few close friends, I decided to make a change. While I was initially reluctant to admit I needed help, I decided to see a therapist.

Looking back, it was the right choice. “Generally, if you’re having difficulty functioning in your day-to-day life, it’s a good time to reach out to a professional,” Reed says.

While it took a few attempts to find a therapist I was comfortable with, it was a great outlet. It helped to talk through the self-doubt that had accumulated in the months since graduation and gave me a greater feeling of control over what would come next in my life. My therapist pushed me by asking a variety of follow-up questions when I would express feelings of being stuck or having anxiety about the future. These ranged from seemingly simple things like, “Why?” to more challenging concepts like goals and what other paths I could take to reach them if things didn’t work the first time. Having my therapist challenge my bleak outlook gave me hope that despair wasn’t my only option and forced me to problem-solve instead of dwelling in it.

Talking to a therapist was so helpful, in fact, that I wished I had gone sooner. Unfortunately, I’d been held back by my belief that seeking out help was only appropriate when you were at your worst. Reed confirms that this is a common misconception.

“It’s always beneficial,” Reed says. “There’s no concrete timeline for when to seek professional help. Mental health professionals are trained to work with clients with a variety of needs, emotions, and concerns. If you feel like you might need professional support, definitely reach out. We’re here and happy to help.”

Looking ahead

While it wasn’t always an easy path, I followed the advice of my therapist, which Reed echoes.

“Take time to plan. Think about what your goals are and the steps you need to accomplish them,” she says. “Take care of yourself. Eat healthy. Exercise. Get sleep. Continue to follow a doctor’s advice regarding self-care and medication.”

I started by setting small, achievable goals. I joined a gym, researched healthy cooking techniques online, and plotted out personal and career goals. I signed up for a local graduate-level class in community psychology and began building a new circle of friends by taking steps like inviting classmates out for drinks after class.

It wasn’t easy by any means, but I tried to keep things in perspective. I reflected on other times of transition, like leaving home for college, moving to New York City for my first summer internship, and living with a host family while studying abroad in Spain, and reminded myself that I’d overcome what felt like insurmountable challenges during those times, too.

The small goals I set for myself years ago put many changes into motion and continue to impact my life today. After my first graduate-level class, I enrolled as a full-time graduate student, taking classes most nights after work to earn my Master’s degree. Having this degree opened up many more opportunities in the education field and, ultimately, helped me transition to a position in the corporate world, as well. One of the classmates I was nervous to invite to happy hour later became one of my bridesmaids and continues to be one of my closest confidantes today. And my cooking has progressed far from steaming bags of frozen veggies to being confident in testing out new recipes for my family and our friends at dinner parties.

Giving myself grace

Perhaps most importantly of all, during this time I learned to be gentle with myself when things don’t work out the first time.

When the first therapist I met with made me uncomfortable, I canceled my next appointment and tried again somewhere else. When my apartment complex continued to feel like a bad fit, I broke my lease and moved. When I was overwhelmed by the size and eagerness of the community service group, I looked for more intimate gatherings of classmates where I felt more able to build a social circle.

Allowing myself this grace and granting myself do-overs helped me focus on making positive change, instead of wallowing in my current state. To begin with, I worked hard every day to change the way I spoke to myself. A perfectionist to the core, I often had to remind myself (and sometimes still do) that having to learn new things and ask for help isn’t a sign of failure, but of self-awareness, determination, and strength. And that successfully adjusting to a new phase of life was easier with a holistic approach, which meant practicing self-care — both mentally and physically. This meant that each day I could assess where I was without judgment, step further away from post-grad stress and fear, and begin to build a life I was proud of.

If you or someone close to you is dealing with depression, you don’t have to go it alone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers a website and HelpLine that provide information on symptoms of mental health conditions, treatment options, and can help you find local support groups and services.

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Sara is a writer, educator, and marketing professional living in Pennsylvania. She's a fan of all things travel, organizing, and self-improvement.