Lost After Graduation: 3 Ways to Create Identity

By Mercedes Lubbers on July 24, 2020

A quick Google search for “graduated college” pulls up suggested finishing lines such as “now what” and “no idea what to do.” Clicking on one of these suggested finishers, or even simply moving forward with a “graduated college” search reveals a slew of articles from numerous websites showing that many of us have no idea what we want to do once education is no longer our path: we are, essentially, lost after graduation.

We have created and supported our identities and sense of achievement on the concept of education—certainly a noble endeavor—but who are we if we’re not students?

Image of colorful confused people sitting in a circle around a question mark


Unfortunately, college graduates often don’t have an answer to this question. Degree in hand, they find themselves dropped into the world of professional expectations, few job prospects, and a nagging void that whispers, “something’s not quite right”. Few are lucky to end up in the field they pursued their education in, and what we learn is that the degree we chose and spent four plus years studying, ultimately, doesn’t matter.

This expectation related to the importance of a college degree held in direct contrast to the reality of employment after college, creates a form of cognitive dissonance; our beliefs or behaviors do not match our realities, causing mental discomfort. Cognitive dissonance can lead to uncomfortable feelings such as guilt, shame, embarrassment, and even frustration. Some of us may seek relief from this discomfort by engaging in distractions and ineffective coping methods such as substance use, overworking, or continued education to avoid the inevitable.

There are, however, healthier ways to overcome discomfort and find a sense of self in the process.

1.     Get to Know Yourself

One of the main instigators for cognitive dissonance and mental discomfort is that we are, essentially, lying to ourselves! We tell ourselves that our actions are matching our beliefs or values, but can’t shake the unease that resides in our chests. If you want to ease this discomfort, you’ll first have to dive in deeper and ask yourself the uncomfortable questions.

  • “What am I actually interested in?”
  • “What circumstances, lifestyles, hobbies, activities, actions make me happy?”
  • “In a perfect world, what would I love to be doing?”
  • “What level of discomfort am I okay with?”

2.     Identify the Problem

After getting to know yourself, you might have uncovered new information that shines a light on why you’re experiencing discomfort. Maybe you’ve realized that you’re spending more time working because you feel unfulfilled in some aspect of your life. Or perhaps you have a hard time identifying hobbies and interests outside of education or work. Whatever it is, you should be able to identify the main source of your unease.

 3.     Change What You Can

After getting to know yourself, you might have uncovered new information that can help you to move forward. It’s important for us to identify what it is we can change and to what extent. Unfortunately, leaving a career or an educational path simply because it makes us unhappy is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Some of us will have to work jobs or finish degrees that don’t correlate to our beliefs because we need money to live or we’ve invested too much; however, this doesn’t mean we’re destined to remain perpetually in discomfort!

Overcoming cognitive dissonance and creating a firmer sense of self is rooted in developing control and self-appreciation. Find the aspects of your life that you have control over, whether it be picking up a new hobby, reaching out to friends, or changing your beliefs to align with your current actions and behaviors—this last one is even more important for those of us who can’t leave an unfulfilling job or circumstance.

You don’t have to live an unhappy life or walk around with a void in your chest; we’ve only got one life to live, so let’s find ways to enjoy it while we can.

Mercedes completed her Masters of Education in Learning and Instructional Design in the Summer of 2020 and earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Language & Literature in the Fall of 2017. She hopes to either earn her Doctorate in English or add another Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling someday soon. Mercedes has written for Spine Magazine, advises undergraduate students, and is reigniting her passion for writing.

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