A brave new world: Why moving beyond university can precipitate crisis

As students approach the completion of their university education some are excited to enter the “Real World”. Others are in no rush to “move on” – perhaps out of fear or uncertainty about their future, anticipatory nostalgia, or a keen awareness of what a uniquely special time the university years are.

University really can be a tremendously special time. Thousands of energetic, big-dreaming, hormone-charged, young adults for whom alcohol and pot are still exciting new adventures, all living away from home for the first time. An intellectual commune housed in a mixture of historic and state of the art buildings where the only people over 30 are the professors. Pretty much everyone is in the same life stage: one of possibilities, ambition, learning about oneself, the world and one’s place within it. It’s understandable why some students are in no rush to move beyond this life stage.

All of this being said, it’s understandable why some students are eager to move beyond their school years. Most students nearing the completion of their university years have never not been students. Yes, most of them will have had several summer jobs, but these were mere intermissions in the student play that had been running for their entire lives.

They are ready for a change. They’re ready to not be broke anymore. They’re ready to no longer have homework. They’re ready to start building their own lives. They’re ready to close their last textbook, submit their last paper, hand in their last exam, and stare blankly at a boring professor for the last time. All of this is entirely valid.

It’s hard to fully appreciate or understanding something when it’s all you’ve ever known. In the weeks and months after graduation, lifelong students who had previously only dangled their feet off the dock take the plunge into a brave new world. The Real World. Some of them will struggle as they come to realize for the first time that despite having spent 2 decades in training, they apparently never became strong swimmers. What some of the same students who couldn’t wait to take the plunge would give to go back…

Why Leaving University Can Precipitate Crisis

Student culture and Real World culture are staggeringly different. When you’ve really only ever been a student, it’s easy not to notice the culture you’ve partaken in all these years. In many ways, student culture is a womb, whereas Real World culture is the wild.

Who are you?

In student culture, you are special. You are unique. You are the responsible, ambitious person who made the prudent choice to go to university, and you will be rewarded for it later. You are developing. You are taking advantage of opportunities to learn and grow. You have written many papers, learned many things, completed many projects, demonstrated much knowledge, made the occasional astute philosophical observation, perhaps won many awards, worked in labs, held an impressive internship or two. You’ve got a great world of possibilities ahead of you. You’re reminded of it when you look down at your university t-shirt, which reads “University of X: Great Minds for Great Futures”.

In Real World culture you’re an employee. An entry-level employee. Why entry-level? Because you haven’t done a damn thing. You’ve gone from the top of the academic heap to the bottom of the Real World deck. In the Real World you’re not special and you’re not unique – well, you might be, but nobody really cares. Just do your job, alright?

What’s it all about?

In student culture, it’s all about You. In school, it’s about you picking your majors, you picking your classes, and you learning about things that interest you. It’s true that you may not like every course that you take or every assignment that you do – particularly pre-university, where there is much less student choice. But implicit in everything that you are asked to do in school is the idea that it’s all for your development. You may not like learning this, but it’s good for you to know this. You may disagree and think that in fact it’s not good for you, it’s a waste of your time. But nevertheless, right or wrong, it’s for you.

In Real World culture it’s not about you. It’s about the customer, the boss, or the bottom line. It’s not that you don’t matter, but you’re no longer the top priority. Far from it. It’s not about you. Remember that. After all, you can be replaced.

What else is it all about? As I wrote in Part Four of The Grad School Gospels, “in school – grade school, high school, university, professional or grad school – knowledge for its own sake and good writing are explicitly valued and rewarded.

In the working world outside of school, what is rewarded is what makes or saves money. If what you know, can do or can write does not prepare you to contribute more to an organization’s effectiveness than another applicant, an employer might politely nod and commend your diligence, intelligence and accomplishments, but that’ll be about all the reward you get.”

Where am I going and how do I get there?

In school culture one is met with well-defined problems with clear paths. Grade 6 leads to grade 7. Elementary School leads to Middle school. Middle school leads to high school. High school to university. Studying and working hard, paying attention in class, and getting additional help when you need it leads to better grades. Better grades lead to better universities, better chances at awards, and a better resume. For the student being raised to go to university, the road map and routine are usually pretty straight-forward. That’s not to say that there aren’t potential stumbling blocks. Some students have great difficulty identifying a career goal or an academic passion. Some will struggle with motivation. Others will work their fingers to the bone but still not make the grades they need to reach their goals. So it’s not that the road is easy. But for many, the path is fairly cleared laid out for the most part, rough terrain notwithstanding.

School also offers the sense of security that comes from knowing that you’re probably on the right path. When you’re in grade school or in high school, you know that you’re doing what you should be doing – kids and teens go to school. That’s just what they do. If you’re a university student in a field that you are fairly committed to, you can be comfortable in the knowledge that you are on a good path. Education is everything, you’ve always been told, and you’re at the highest level of education that you could be at for your age. So you’re golden. Even if you’re not certain about your major, you can at least know that you’re in a dignified place for someone of your age group. You can also take comfort in the knowledge that you are pursuing something that has always been put on a pedestal by your parents and teachers: a university degree.

In Real World culture, things are very different. Whereas school tends to be comprised of well-defined problems, the Real World tends to be much more ill-defined. What job should I take? What if I don’t get many options to pick from? When will I be eligible for a promotion? Do I even want a promotion in this company or industry?

Progress, change & rest stops

In school culture there is an ongoing sequence of progressive stages. Again, passing grade 6 leads to entering grade 7. Doing well in high school leads to getting into university.

In Real World culture things aren’t so orderly or dependable. You don’t get promoted every September if you’ve performed well, for example. Opportunities for promotions come when a position becomes available. Whenever that is. And unlike in school where there is no rule that a certain number of students must fail each year, a job posting is a zero-sum game. If you get the job other people don’t, and vice versa. What is more, you may get to a point where there is no further room for promotion. Unless you change jobs or companies, you may be in 9th grade forever…

In school culture there is variety and change. You take several classes simultaneously, each one with different professors and classmates. Every 4 or 8 months you begin taking all new classes. New subjects, new profs, new classmates. You also get a summer break (not to mention Christmas Break, Reading Week and a lot of other holidays.

In Real World culture you may well be spending all day everyday in the same place with pretty much the same people doing pretty much the same thing. For months or years. Things will change here and there. Your job or tasks may change. There will be some coworker turnover. And you will get the occasional breaks here and there – a few days over Christmas, the odd holiday here and there, and your cherished 2-3 weeks of paid vacation days. But all-in-all, your daily, weekly, seasonal, and yearly experience will be much less dynamic than it was in school, and you will have far fewer breaks and far less general flexibility. And whereas high school is 4 years and university another 4, work is decades.

Tolerance for error

In school culture one exists in a sheltered, supportive environment that has a high tolerance for error. If a student is struggling to pick an academic path or do well within their path, help is readily available. If they flunk a course, they might get a chance to do a make-up test. Worst case, they take the course again. Frustrating, but not the end of the world. If they suddenly establish a goal that requires grades much higher than theirs currently are, that’s addressable, too. When high school students apply to universities, the grades that matter most are those for 11th and 12th grades. So even if they didn’t try that hard in the first few years, they can redeem themselves later. And if they need to take a few summer courses or stay an extra semester, not the end of the world. If a university student decides they want to go to graduate or professional school but don’t have the grades for it, again, it’s the later year grades that matter the most and it’s more than acceptable for a student to stick around for a 5th year to further improve their GPA or pick up any additional courses they need. If they need to take a year off somewhere along this path – perhaps to give themselves the time to find a passion or direction – they can. There are far more embarrassing and difficult situations in life than delaying the completion of one’s education by a year and staying with Mom and Dad a little longer while in one’s late teens or early 20s.

In Real World culture, you don’t get flunked. You get fired. When you were in school, your parents wouldn’t have thrown you out of the house for flunking your Math class. But your landlord will throw you out if you can’t pay rent. Most work place mistakes don’t end in people getting fired, but the fact that it is a possibility can make things much more tense. Further, nobody wants to be viewed as not being good at their job. I’m not surprised when I hear of studies reporting that many people find starting a new job to be one of the more stressful experiences a person can encounter in regular Western world living.


In school culture students receive a lot of feedback. Positive and negative. When we study and work hard, we get better grades and better report cards. We get a positive nod when we give a good answer in class. We also get less than satisfactory marks, incompletes, fails, academic probation and other such sources of negative feedback when our performance warrants it.

In Real World culture many workers lament that they rarely receive feedback about their work unless they’ve done something wrong. Of course not all jobs fall into this category. Working as an Occupational Therapist, I am tremendously lucky to regularly receive genuine positive feedback (e.g., from patients and family members).

The caste system: Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, Epsilons….

(In school culture) When you are 20, being a university student is a very dignified social position. You are at the highest level of education that one can be at at that age.

Image(In Real World culture) When you leave university, however, there’s a good chance that you will not be getting a big fancy job. You may get a very good entry-level job in your field. You may also have to take a job that is not in your field, from which you will hopefully work your way up – or simply bide your time until something better comes along. As you step into your new digs and get increasingly familiar with this brave new world, you may find that you are falling into a new social classification. You are no longer a 20 year old University Student. You are now a bank teller, an employee at a call centre, a receptionist, an entry-level something-or-other, or a new engineer. You are increasingly aware of the single most common question people ask a new acquaintances after “What’s your name?”. I’m not even going to say what it is, because you already know.

What you do for a living is not only what you do for most of your waking hours now and for the next 40 years. On its own this one factor will often play as much of a role as everything else in your life combined in shaping how you live, where you live, who you associate with romantically, fraternally and incidentally, how you carry yourself, how you dress, how you speak, what you speak about, who you defer to and who defers to you.

The schoolyard, with its hierarchies and cliques, prepares us for this sort of social pecking order. But the schoolyard comes with many built in reset buttons. Each time you go to a new school or enter a new class with new classmates you’ve got an opportunity to re-establish yourself socially. You don’t have a pre-determined categorization of “bank teller” that follows you wherever you go. Sure, you get tagged with other labels – “Black”, “Tall”, “Gay”, “Christian”, “Hot”, “Chubby”, “Vegan” – but these don’t disappear in the Real World.

When you put it that way…

It’s a big change. You go from being special and unique to being replaceable. Instead of it being all about you and all about knowledge and good work for its own sake, it’s now all about what you can do to improve the bottom line, impress your boss and satisfy a customer. You go from a clearly delineated upward path that the whole of society is telling you is The Right Path (i.e., school) to a massive world of potential career avenues, some open to you, some not, each with its own internal culture and ladder, and each ladder being far less predictable and dependable than the academic ladders you’d gotten used to. You’ve gone from a dynamic system with regular changes in subject matter, tasks, location and peers to one that may remain largely static for years on end. You may have gone froImagem a system that provides plentiful positive and negative feedback to one where positive feedback is relatively scarce. You’ve gone from a place where everyone is in pretty well the same boat as you – i.e., same life stage – to one where you may be working with people who share little in common with you aside from walking on the same piece of carpet and using the same copy machine. You maybe a 25 year old single person working in an office where the average age is 43 and most of your colleagues are married with children. You go from a place with a remarkable tolerance for error to a place that can leave you penniless if you don’t play your cards right or are in the wrong place at the wrong time (e.g., a recession). Whether you like it or not, you take on (or are saddled with) an identity that will follow you for the rest of your life pretty well wherever you go. You are making choices that will significantly shape and set the tone for the rest of your life. And you’re doing it in a down economy!

In earlier times when people were raised by their families and grew up to work with their families, things were probably a lot different. And even today, perhaps the transition is often not as tough for people who have strong familial and/or religious communities. But in a largely secular society where families tend not to be as tightly nit as the once were and people work outside of the family unit, the transition to full-fledged adulthood can bring about a radical culture shock and realignment of one’s personal and social identity, social circles, interaction patterns, daily activities, living conditions, and overall life path.

Several years ago I read Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner‘s book Quarter-Life Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties. This book brought to light the sorts of challenges discussed here and the consequent anxieties, fears and despair often experienced by people in this life stage. The book is important not just because of its content but because it draws attention to and gives voice to a fairly new type of suffering that many people have been suffering the last decade or two, but that few had been talking about. Indeed, I went through a very rough quarter-life crisis myself several years ago. Like many of the people discussed in Robbins and Wilner’s book, my suffering was made worse by my misguided assumption that most of my peers were doing just fine. The post grad years can be tough years. Very tough. Those who encounter crisis-level struggles during this period are far from alone.


The Grad School Gospels, a series of posts on grad school culture, frequent misconceptions about the value of many graduate degrees, and mental health within graduate school. The series uses the story of a former professional baseball player as its background.

University Education: Why the Lack of Accountability? A folk behavioural economic analysis of why university instructors can get away with cutting the sorts of corners we would never allow anyone else to get away with.

This News Year’s, Resolve to Stop Chasing Happiness, a post on striving for wellness through wisdom and mastery.


5 thoughts on “A brave new world: Why moving beyond university can precipitate crisis

  1. I seldom leave a response, however i did a few searching
    and wound up here A brave new world: Why moving beyond university can precipitate
    crisis | Death By Trolley. And I doo have 2 questions for youu if it’s allright.
    Is it only me or does it look like some of these responses come across as if they are left by brain dead folks?
    😛 And, if you are writing at additional social sites,
    I would like to keep up with anything new you have to post.
    Would you list of every one of all your public pages
    like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

  2. Yes, this summarizes the exact type of culture shock I am experiencing. I went from a gooey-eyed 4.0 college student who was just so enthusiastic to be learning new perspectives and concepts for the sake of knowledge and enlightenment to a lost, depressive twenty-something who spends about 1/3 of her time stressing over money, 1/3 trying to find a job that pays more than $8 an hour, and 1/3 crying due to the realization that she can’t win in this new world. I would totally seek out a therapist if I had the money for it, but The Real World (TM) has made it perfectly clear to me that I am not deserving of enough money to afford rent and non-Ramen food, never mind money for health care.

  3. This article “A brave new world…” speaks volumes to me. I went through many years of University life; two degrees, a masters, a PhD and postdoctoral research, and this article nailed the culture shock. By the time I finished my postdoctoral work, I was dying to get a “real job”… that is until I got the real job. Having had so much freedom to explore, head down rabbit holes, and think out side the box for so long, the shock of being stuck in an cubical, doing the same thing for 12 months straight, and never being allowed to think out side the box was a seriously depressing.

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