Jeremy Côté

Academic And Life Plans

If you’re a student, you know that your immediate future is more or less planned out for you. Sure, there’s a little bit of freedom in what you do, but most of your life is already set.

When you’re in elementary school, the plan is to then go to secondary school.

When you’re in secondary school, the plan is often to continue on in higher education.

But when you’re in university though, things begin to change.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate what is coming, because nothing feels different in the moment. After all, you still see your life in weekly chunks, separated on a larger scale by semester and grade level. When one is done, a new one begins. It’s easy. It’s familiar.

However, by the time you get to the end of your undergraduate studies, decisions have to be made. Do I continue on to graduate school? Do I try and get a “real job”? Do I take time off in order to explore my own interests?

These are all important questions to ask. The problem is that you should be asking them way before you are about to graduate.

But we don’t do this. Instead, many of us wait until the last moment, and then start spiraling into an existential crisis before reacting in a knee-jerk manner and choosing what’s comfortable. This hardly seems like the optimal path.

I’ve done this. I completed my whole undergraduate degree in physics without really taking the time to sit down and think about what I wanted to do. Instead, I repeated vague ideas to myself in the hopes that this would be enough. I lulled myself into a false sense of security, and when the time came to really choose, I simply chose the default option because it was easy.

Don’t get me wrong: I lucked out and found myself in an amazing place. That being said, I’m also honest enough to admit that I didn’t take as much time to think about this as I should have before the moment to choose came. It worked out for me, but not because I planned things out.

This is an area that I felt was severely lacking in my education. Going to school isn’t just a bubble that you enter when you are young (typically) and then leave to pursue “real life”. It’s the foundation that affects the rest of your life after. You can always switch what you are doing, but there’s no question that the time you spend learning and gaining an education informs what you do later on.

Therefore, it seems clear that spending some time thinking about what you want to do later on is worth it.

I never had this. From what I can recall, my department didn’t spend time sitting down with students and discussing their futures. (Or we did, and I didn’t know about it.) We just stuck to physics. This is unfortunate because there is so much at stake here. Plans for your future shape your life, so it seems obvious that this would be a top concern of the university. And yet, I didn’t see this.

I’m not complaining that the university is solely responsible for my lack of planning. In fact, I take full responsibility. I just think that there is a huge opportunity to be had within the university system for students who don’t know what they want to do.

This is particularly relevant for someone like myself, who does not have family background within academia. As such, I didn’t have someone who could guide and advise me on what I should do, and I didn’t have role models within my family to see what life as an academic would be like. I still chose to go along this path, but there’s no question that I was doing it “blind”.

By having university policies that require that students get mentoring from teachers and perhaps even from graduate students, this could help students plan their futures accordingly.

I don’t want to just focus on undergraduates here though, because my point is much broader. When we are in school, we are often told what to do. Our job is to comply and do the best we can. Thinking about our future isn’t exactly necessary, so we tend to not do it. We then get to these junctions in our lives as graduation nears, unsure of what to do.

What if instead we spent time each semester reflecting on where we wanted to go?

I’m not only talking about academic plans. You don’t go through academia in a vacuum. Just as important are plans about life, your side interests, family, and what a “good” life looks to you. These should work in harmony, but more importantly, they should be clear.

If I asked you, right now, what plans you had for your life, I’m betting that you would freeze up and mumble something about how that’s a very deep question that you can’t answer in two minutes.

Fine, but can you answer it at all?

I think it’s crazy that we lead our lives without having a plan written down. And I say this in the kindest way possible, because I don’t have a plan yet. Just thinking about this makes me want to laugh at the absurdity.

How am I supposed to get anywhere I want to go if I can’t even clearly define “want”?

If you’re a student who is reading this, please ask yourself this question: Where do I want to go with my life?

Education is like relaxing in a tube going downstream. You don’t have to do much other than make sure you don’t hit any rocks. The rest is decided for you.

However, the river ends at some point. When you get there, a new choice has to be made. This analogy breaks down when we remember that our choices have to be made before we reach that endpoint, which means it’s pretty stupid to start considering what to do ten seconds before you reach the end. Instead, you want to have a plan in mind already. Then, you don’t have to panic when the river ends. You can simply execute your plan.

This is what I hope more students do with respect to their lives and education. This includes both during their time studying as well as how to transition from being in school to living their lives. I think it’s crucial to have some sort of plan. You don’t have to map out every milestone in your life, but you should be able to do better than freeze up when asked about your plans.

I’ve been terrible at this for so long, it’s embarrassing. That’s why I’m writing this piece. I want to encourage students to think about their future, because it comes much sooner than you expect.

Don’t wait until graduation. Give yourself the gift of proper contemplation and ponder what you want from all aspects of your life. It’s much easier to get to somewhere you like when you have a destination in mind.