How do I help my friend through her fears about graduating?
March 26, 2015 4:28 PM   Subscribe

My friend is graduating in 6 weeks from college. She is usually really animated and bubbly, but I was hanging out with her yesterday, and she mentioned in passing that she's thinking about going back to college for another major (she is currently getting her second major after her first didn't work out for her), but she's iffy on whether her dad will let her or not.

She's a math major, and she said that while you'd think that math would be a great major for the real world, there is very little out there for her because she has never taken a marketing class or learned any programs or anything. She said that she has very little that is marketable to the real world.

She said this in a light 'haha' way, as we were waiting to jump in the college river. For whatever reason, I kind of joked back that I don't know what the hell I'm doing either (I don't. I'm a Psychology major who's a senior.)

It was a light conversation. I've never known her to be anxious about anything... she always seems like the happiest person in the room. So for whatever reason, I didn't think much of it.

But I had this sense through the night that she was really pensive underneath that cheerful exterior. I texted her after she had left and asked if there was anything wrong, perhaps if she's worried about her future. She texted back that she's really scared and anxious about her future.

I reassured her that I'm always there for her, and I'd love to help her.

The problem is, I have no idea how to help her. I'm in the same position and haven't found it out for myself! I can listen, but that won't change her situation. I don't want to see her go through the same quarter life crisis that I know all to well.
posted by ggp88 to Human Relations (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Does her college have a career center? If so, she needs to head over there pronto! It's tempting to just keep going back to school when that's what you're good at. The career center can help connect her to companies and internship opportunities. Lots of companies love to recruit through campuses, and while she's still a student, it's a good idea to start taking advantage of those connections. She could also ask some of her department professors what other alumni with math degrees are doing.
posted by quince at 4:42 PM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

In the meantime, she needs to stop digging.

Education is a wonderful way to improve yourself or to prepare for a career. However, it's a very expensive and awkward way to put off making decisions about your future.

Going back to school because she doesn't know what else to do is virtually guaranteed to be a mistake and unless she's wealthy or on a very generous scholarship it's one that can have decades-long financial consequences that will greatly complicate her post-academic life.
posted by Nerd of the North at 4:59 PM on March 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

Is there any way she could take a couple of useful classes over the summer? Learn some programs, make herself more marketable? It would be a hell of a lot cheaper than completing a new major, and she doesn't even have to do it at her current school -- if she has a bonafide degree from Fancy Math Department U, employers will almost certainly assume that she got all of her training as part of that degree.
posted by Etrigan at 5:05 PM on March 26, 2015

I know that this sounds flip, but the the best solution for lacking real world experience? Getting real world experience.

College is great, I highly recommend going there once, or perhaps even twice, but it doesn't offer real world experience. Anyone who didn't figure that out the first, or even the second time around, isn't going to find things any different the third time around.

Here is the thing, most people don't know what the hell they are doing when they graduate college, even if they pretend they do, even if they believe they do. Most have a better idea after a few years of slugging away at it, provided they slug away at it, rather than hiding from it in grad school, or other avoidant behavior.

Being scared and anxious? perfectly feelings reasonable for someone about to graduate, particularly someone (and there are many) who don't have a good sense of what to do next and/or haven't already worked or done an internship relevant to a possible career area.

Probably none of this helps you or your friend.

What might help though is to think more about where that fear and anxiety comes from.

What dreadful experiences seem likely in the 5 years after graduation? Being attacked by wolves? Savaged by zombies? Ripped apart by mortar fire? Watching everyone you love die? Becoming a rich madman's pet worm? Suddenly realizing you are the next Adolf Hitler and being unable to stop it? Watching QVC for months on end without blinking? Months-long bouts of constipation followed by weeks of explosive diarrhea? If so, the first stop is probably therapy and medication. More likely though, is some uncertainty, some disappointment, some frustration, maybe some frowns, or even harsh words from a supervisor, or co-worker, or customer, or client. Not having money for something. Learning how to change a car tire... Its all shit that people who had no idea what they were doing when they were getting out of college have managed to muddle through. Along the way, there are new friends, pleasant surprises, new discoveries, flashes of insight and understanding. Oh, and, unfortunately, occasional bouts of diarrhea and/or vomiting, but they usually pass in a day or two.
posted by Good Brain at 5:27 PM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

The thing about math majors is that, by and large, no one hires them for the specific things they learned as math majors. They get hired because they know how to figure things out and are perceived as smart. (You know what's awkward? Going to a career fair as a math major. Companies either don't want to touch you or think you're the greatest thing ever while you're surrounded by people with carefully prepared elevator pitches, resumes full of internships and whatnot, but you're the most desirable one.)

The problem is that you essentially have to summon enough ego/arrogance/self-confidence to believe that you can figure out how to do whatever random job, then apply for it and watch while everyone's terribly impressed with your math major aura, while you're feeling terribly unqualified because you have no actual marketable skills.

Basically, if she wants something vaguely math-y, she should be applying for anything with the word 'analyst' in it unless it's obvious she's unqualified. Banks, consulting firms, logistics companies, etc. My understanding is that to be competitive for entry-level actuarial positions, you need to have passed the first exam, but studying for that is an option for the summer if she doesn't find anything she wants. If she's taken a statistics class or two, she's qualified for a bunch of jobs with the federal government (assuming you're in the US). If she hasn't, it's a heck of a lot easier to take 6 units over the summer or the summer and next fall while working some crappy job than it is to do another degree.
posted by hoyland at 5:41 PM on March 26, 2015 [12 favorites]

I came here to say more or less what hoyland said. If she can read, write, do research, read information and then explain it to folks who haven't read it, organize information, have reasonable people skills, then she can do just about anything she wants that's doesn't require specific technical knowledge (she's not going to be a nuclear engineer, for example, or a licensed social worker.) [Can you tell it's advising season in my parts? I'm saying this approximately 10 times a day right now.] Does she know any statistical software at all? SAS or SPSS or other such software will make her more attractive to employers, and the basics of SPSS are relatively easy (if you can use Excel, you can use SPSS, though interpreting what you get out of it is the hard part. I can't speak to SAS, we're an SPSS shop). Even if she doesn't, though, it's not the end of the world - see above.

If she's not sure what she wants to do for that first career job now, that really is fine. There is nothing wrong with tutoring math, doing test prep (Kaplan is always hiring), working at summer camps (and now is hiring season), or slinging coffee while she figures out what's next to pay the bills. Our admissions counselors at my school have degrees all over the map. It's not hard to learn the very basics of small business bookkeeping (real accounting is a whole other beast). Etc.

Going back to school to get a second degree (third? If I'm reading what you wrote correctly) is a lousy way to figure out what you want to do next, and expensive and time consuming. If she's really dead set on another degree, that couple of years would be better spent getting a masters (though she would be better off figuring out in what, first; if you're going to sink the time and potentially money, depending on if it's a field that's typically funded or not, into grad school, then it's helpful to be sure of what you want to do.) Yes yes yes to the suggestions above re: career center and asking the departmental advisor what alums tend to end up doing and job fairs; y'all's tuition and fee dollars are paying for those services.

In the end, most of us are going to do more than one thing in life (yay for the new economy). There is nothing wrong with applying for a bunch of stuff, seeing where she gets hired and what sounds good, trying something from there, and if it sucks after a year or two... moving into something else. Skills are lateral. Activities coordinators at nursing homes can be juvenile probation officers with a little training, tutors can decide they really like teaching and get certified to teach, etc.
posted by joycehealy at 6:03 PM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Like the others said, personally I think she'd be better off going out into the world a while and getting some experience. She sounds kind of like I was in college, very unsure of what exactly to major in or do, constantly changing majors (transferring schools too in my case!). Going back another time around isn't going to help that, but more life experience might.

Also is she talking about getting another bachelor's (it sort of sounds like it)? Because she might as well just go straight for a master's or higher if she's already finished undergrad.

On the more practical side, it may be tough to pay for too unless dad foots the whole bill. It's out there, but financial aid goes way way down once you finish your first undergrad. I had a really hard time just paying for an extra year and ended up having to take out my only loan to cover it because the grants/scholarships dried up after the customary 4 years. And once you reach a certain age (24 I think?) the FAFSA no longer considers parental income except under some circumstances, so that can be an issue too.
posted by Kimmalah at 6:27 PM on March 26, 2015

If she wanted vocational training, she should have done a PharmD. But what she has is a degree which qualifies her for a wide range of entry level positions. Under no circumstances should she get a 3rd undergraduate degree; if she wants to hide out in academia forever, she should go to grad school.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:46 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you guys so much. I'm going to synthesize all of your suggestions into one and share it with her. It's going to be very sad to see her go, as she's the first female friend I've ever had, but I want her to have a good life. I certainly don't want to see her saddled with debt.

I was thinking of suggesting that she use to teach herself some programs like SAS and SPSS, and to take some summer classes at a community college about marketing and analysis.

What are some jobs in mathematics? The first interesting things that come to my mind are market research and working with big data.
posted by ggp88 at 7:04 PM on March 26, 2015

I don't know what jobs math majors get, but...

Never go to grad school or get a degree beyond your bachelor's unless it's required for a job you want. Don't just stall around racking up debt in grad school so you can avoid working for a few years and don't know what else to do and you're good at school. Then in a few years you have a master's or PhD and still no work experience and you REALLY need a job to pay off all those loans.

At some point, everyone has to start looking for jobs. And math major or not, almost everyone out of of school is going to have a hard time finding work of any sort. Yeah, it's going to be rough and I can't really reassure her or anyone, other than "I hope she can live with her parents for awhile while she job hunts." From what I see here, it's rough going. But grad school stalling (and I don't know who's going to accept her for a third bachelor's!) can end up being a big problem years later--it puts off the issue and racks up money you can't pay off. She'd be better off just applying for whatever she can qualify for when she sees it listed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:35 PM on March 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'll also say that being in school not only costs tuition, but lost wages (even if initially low). She may not get a first job right away, but that will likely always be the case. Better to get it over with than delay the inevitable!

I have a degree in fine art, and a totally unrelated day job (that I like and pays well) that didn't exist for until a few years ago. I graduated from college over ten years ago. Lots of random jobs in the middle. :)
posted by jrobin276 at 10:21 PM on March 26, 2015

I second what hoyland above said. Math majors are often very desirable simply because they are perceived as "smart". At my previous HR company there was a recent math major who graduated from a top school as an intern there. Usually interns come and go, but they really wanted to keep this guy only because of the fact that if he came from that school and majored in math then he must be "smart". Nevermind the fact that those skills were not at all applicable to any position in the department.
posted by manderin at 10:52 PM on March 26, 2015

Everyone feels anxious and scared when they graduate college, unless they have a job lined up already (I knew basically no kids in that situation). This is normal.

The best thing she can do for herself is intern somewhere where she might be able to work her way up to a real paid job. The thing is, most of the people I graduated with had stupid, vague majors like English and history. I think many of them now have jobs totally unrelated to those majors. It's about experience and showing you can do shit in the real world. Tell her to get an internship. She doesn't have to do it alone -- use your college career center, reach out to professors, ask family friends, etc. to help you land an internship. I'm sure there are plenty out there for her in accounting or technology or data research or something. Frankly, it doesn't have to be about math if she was involved in other hobbies or has other skills/interests. An internship is the best path to a job, especially when you have no work experience. I personally just called a place up while I was in college and said I wanted to inquire about interning -- I interned there and it later became my first job, luckily.

Loading on more debt for the sole purpose of avoiding tough decisions or a little uncertainty isn't a good game plan. She'd be better off spending the next 1-3 years working her way up at a job and building work experience toward a career than she would be going back to school some more. Plus, she will make money instead of lose money by gaining real world work experience instead of getting another not-thought-out degree.

I would strongly recommend you start doing internships your senior year too, OP.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:10 PM on March 26, 2015

There ARE paid graduate programs, so I don't think saying "don't go to grad school, you'll just go deeper into debt" is a bit of a misnomer. Be CAREFUL about grad school, and don't just default to 'more school = better'.

I wouldn't be in the career I am unless I went into grad school (a Masters in Geological Engineering, if it matters), and I graduated with zero student debt because it was a paid position in the sciences. (It really, really doesn't pay well, but you can survive perfectly fine. I went to the pub, bought games, lived the student life. Really not that bad.)

Since I had an engineering degree, I could have certainly got a job out of school. My industry is fairly cyclical though, so it wasn't an amazing time to go into the workforce. Given the cycle has 2 to 5 year ups and downs, I decided instead of aggressively looking for work and dealing with that anxiety, I would do a Masters in my area since...well, I was comfortable and I had a good relationship with my supervisor from some summer work.

I was able to really push my own interests into my degree, and personalized my experience to my strengths. Right about the time I was graduating, one of the technicians on campus was retiring, and I happened onto that job because - no lie - "you're good at computers and you did some of this stuff during your masters, right?" and my entire hiring committee knew me from being around for 6+ years. Now, a few years down the line, I have a strong set of practical skills and fairly comfortable that I've gotten over the 'scary' hump and I have that 3-5 years I need to slot into jobs.

However, while I use some of the base knowledge that comes from my Bachelors and Masters (I need to know how geology works to better assist the students I work with), the vast majority of my job I learned as I went.
posted by aggyface at 7:23 AM on March 27, 2015

What are some jobs in mathematics? The first interesting things that come to my mind are market research and working with big data.

- "business analyst" or "data analyst" (in searching for a sample job listing, I found my company is hiring a junior business analyst--I won't link it here, be me-mail me if you want it to show to your friend as a sample because it screams "recently graduated math major"): need to know Excel and possibly SQL (which is easier than Excel), plus knowing how to make a PowerPoint. It depends on the job whether they'll care more about Excel or SQL; here's one to prove to her she's at least qualified; Statistical Data Analyst -- Entry Level; basically I searched Glassdoor for 'analyst entry level'. ("Data scientist" probably lives in this category, too. It gets used for jobs wanting a PhD and jobs she's qualified for.)
- actuary--website brought to you by the Casualty Actuarial Society and Society of Actuaries, who govern the profession in the US; pays well to very well, good work life balance, math majors who didn't become actuaries think it sounds tedious (else we'd all have become actuaries and make a ton of money)
- anything in the national security/intelligence apparatus--NSA for example; there are also private firms doing intelligence stuff
- banking as a broad sector, though I didn't find a good example; at any rate banks have a lot of "___ Analysts" (Wells Fargo has a bunch posted but they all want one year of experience. My guess is she's supposed to ignore that and apply for those anyway.)
- supply chain/logistics (often framed as wanting business majors, but worth a shot anyway)

When I was a kid, the public library has a whole bunch of books called "What can I do with a degree in ____?" I want to say there was a math-specific one, but it may have been lumped in with science or something.
posted by hoyland at 2:21 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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