You're graduating from college—congratulations, that's awesome!
This is an exciting and scary time in your life where you have to make huge decisions and support yourself, possibly for the first time ever. No pressure; you just have decide what to do with the rest of your life and then make it happen. NBD. Maybe you're not graduating yet (or ever) or you graduated a few years or even decades ago. I don't know your life. There isn't a right or wrong time to reevaluate your career choices. For the sake of the story, let's say you're currently graduating from college. What's next?
You're doing the senior scramble to get a job lined up for after graduation. You contemplate grad school every time you receive a dismissive "Thank you for your interest but..." email response, which is to say you think about it a lot. You are currently working whatever job you can to keep from living in your childhood bedroom as offered by your well-meaning parents.
There is inevitably someone in your class with a killer paid internship at a firm in New York or L.A.; their smug face haunts your dreams. You are bombarded with the helpful axioms "do what you love" and "follow the money" simultaneously, two things which are decidedly not mutually inclusive. You could be chasing a lifelong dream or you may have no idea what you want to do next week, let alone in five years. You are only one of many facing the future from the quickly-evaporating security of higher education, which is part of the problem; it also means you're not alone.
Every college senior goes through a similar panic come final semester of their graduating year, and I hate to be the one to tell you, but this may not be the last time you feel this way about the impending doom of your future. Whether it seems like it or not, you have several choices; the trick is to find the one that is most appealing to you.
Not to put any more undue pressure on you or anything, but it’s pretty self-explanatory: if you don’t get a job, dream job or otherwise, you will not be able to pay for the things you have come to enjoy in life, like housing and food. Probably not your ideal situation. If nothing else, you could live in your parents’ house until you find your next step, but you really don’t want to be that guy ten years from now.
2) Grad School
Furthering your education could guide you to the career you want or maybe don’t yet know you want, or it could help you discover that academia is where you always wanted to be in the first place. If you love school and don't have financial limitations holding you back, consider becoming a professional student and see where it takes you.
If you happen to already be in possession of actual marketable skills right out of college, congratulations! You likely were not an English major. You managed to spend your college years exploring the world beyond libraries and bars. (Note to self: find a combination bar/library ASAP.) With these skills in hand, you can create your own work without dealing with the hiring or training process involved in most entry-level jobs and with minimal overhead, thanks to the beauty and vastness of the Interwebz. There are a lot of how-to guides out there about the steps to becoming a freelancer if you're interested.
Freelance work can be very freeing and simultaneously very terrifying. Your livelihood depends on finding work on a regular basis and at times that is much harder than at others. As a freelancer, you are responsible for your own success and failure more than ever before. If you don't like being told what to do and think you'd be great at being your own boss, freelancing could be amazing for you.
It could also lead you into debt and consistent joblessness to the extent that people—your cute girlfriend's parents, for example—may start to suspect that "freelancer" is actually code for "unemployed". Unemployed isn't cute. (See also: #1)
Freelancing can be very tough and the fantasy of "no rules!" can be very misleading. Do your research about what freelancing is really like before starting out. If you're really interested, I would recommend getting some experience under your belt and trying a few work environments before (or while) you start building a freelance business. A company will hire you at a higher starting salary if you have relevant skills and require less training, and you’ll be able to put reputable work sources on your resume if you decide to start freelancing independently. If you do freelance work on the side of your main job, having two sources of income can be great; just make sure you’re not violating any non-compete agreements you may have signed, especially if it's the same kind of work.
4) Corporate America
Corporations get a bad rap sometimes, but they have their place in the world and plenty of people are happy working at one. If you decide to take a corporate job, you will most likely benefit from great pay, vacation days, sick days, a 401k, and many other cushy adult job perks.
The negative side effects of most corporate jobs are tedium and frustration with bureaucratic inefficiencies. You will spend a lot of time completing work that takes longer due to the use of outdated but required processes, work that often does not get appreciated, utilized, or even looked at by another person. You may also end up working for a place that is fine with kicking you to curb after a few years; the same company that hires a hundred kids out of college can hire a hundred more to replace you as you become more expensive with years of experience. You will possibly have a cubicle and do scut work for a boss who isn't nice to you, at least until you become that boss and get an office and some minions of your own to abuse. That might be fun and worth it in the end, though, and if you can stick it out or you have the right skills starting out, you could make good money and ensure you have a job for years to come. If you want to be one of many in a crowd and are content embracing the daily grind to get by quite comfortably, then a corporation or a smaller version could be a great fit for you.
5) Small Business Startup
The difference between a startup and what I'm calling "corporate" generally lies in the size, lifespan, and structure of the company. Startups are young, small, and usually built by passionate individuals doing things their own way, which is rarely the easy way starting out. It requires a lot to start your own business and I'm not going to sugarcoat it: working at a startup company is, at times, total madness.
It will be a lot of work, frequently a lot of different kinds of work. You will do things you don't always like, though this can very easily be said about every job you will ever have, which I think is why they call it work. Day-to-day life at a startup is often semi-organized chaos as you jump from project to project and scramble to get efficient processes in place and details finalized so everything doesn't fall apart halfway through completion.
However, those same complexities mean that you have the opportunity to hone your skills like a boss—some skills you already have and some you haven't even heard of yet. You'll learn more and faster out of necessity, because if you don't do it, no one else will and it has to be done right now. This will make you a more well-rounded person and a better employee, and it will almost certainly lead you into more varied and interesting career paths than you imagined for yourself.
That being said, hard work is hard. This seems totally obvious, but you may forget when offered a cool office environment and shiny, happy people who want to hire you. It will come back to bite you when you're working at 10 pm on a Sunday or you realize at 3 am that you forgot to finish something very important. Nothing worth doing was ever easy; often things that are not necessarily worth doing but still have to get done will be very hard as well.
This diverse, fast-paced, and stress-inducing work style is also probably more likely to kill you before age 45*. It’s possible you will become a caffeine addict, discover that whiskey improves all things, and pick up an assortment of unhealthy habits, such as yelling at inanimate objects (mostly things on the Internet), waking in a cold sweat in the middle of the night after dreaming of Excel spreadsheets. These symptoms will vary wildly depending on your field of work, but you get the idea. If you think you can handle those things, this is an option for you. If you are not sure you can handle those things, this still may be an option for you. If you are afraid of having to switch jobs in a few years, if you're wary of not knowing what you may end up doing each day when you head into work, if you're worried about being comfortable, those may be signs that you should work somewhere that challenges you in those ways.
*no science or math was used in the determining of this statistic
I don't want to give the impression that the startup environment is like the Wild West. There are rules; sometimes it just takes a little time to get those rules well-established when a company is growing rapidly from a team of one or two.
You should still expect to get paid and be treated like an adult—if one or both of those things turn out to not be the case, leave immediately (unless that's what you signed up for, I guess). The daily grind at any job can feel repetitive and meaningless, but when you're one of just a few at a burgeoning company, you have the rare opportunity to witness your work directly contributing to meaningful change, either for you or for a client, often both.
There are few things more rewarding than seeing positive results of your labor. Taking a job with a small startup is a risk that can pay off in a variety of rewarding ways; just make sure your risk is mitigated by verifying that you're accepting a position at a legitimate company.
Choosing an Adventure
There are many different types of jobs and work environments, far beyond those listed here.
Some people get lucky and find what they love right out of school, but even if you land your perfect job at a great place immediately, chances are good that you will switch jobs or even careers a couple times throughout your lifetime. If you are at all like I was in college, you have no idea what is best for you and you are crumbling under the pressure of picking a job or career path that will determine the type of work you do for the rest of your life.
My advice: don’t let anyone put that pressure on you, including yourself. Each decision you make immediately post-college can feel weighty and final. I promise it will not be the end of the world if some of these choices don’t exactly work out. Don't let crippling indecision hold you back from finding a job that fits your personality and goals.