Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor at Boston University and the author of Lost in Shangri-La.
I taught my last class of the semester the other day. Inevitably, my students — all of them journalism majors and most of them seniors — hijacked the lesson plan to vent their hopes and fears about what awaits them after graduation.
This happens every December, and each year I do my best to calm and encourage them, to let them know it's OK to be worried but it's not OK to despair. I give them what I've come to consider my pre-commencement address.
By May, they'll be overwhelmed with advice, distracted by pomp and circumstance, and exhausted from Senior Week. Any wisdom from whichever celebrity speaker my university invites to graduation will waft over them and be carried away by the crackling sound system. If you ask me, six months before we stamp them fully assembled is our last real chance to get them ready for what's next, to advise our smart, hard-working and in many cases privileged students how to duck, tuck and roll when they jump into the world with the parachutes we've helped them sew.
So when the final class of the fall semester turns to the future, I give them practical advice about the ways of getting hired and then succeeding in journalism. More important, I tell them some hard truths about life.
First, I tell them to imagine a ladder whose bottom rung is about 6 feet off the ground. That's the reality in most fields, where the perks — be they prestige, excitement, money, or best of all, meaningful work — attract more applicants than there are jobs. It's always been this way, I explain, and they should embrace it rather than complain about it.
Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor at Boston University.
They'll either need a leg up to reach that first rung or they'll have to develop the strength — that is, the experience, the skills, the drive, the desire — to pull themselves up on their own. I'm a big fan of that second approach, having lived it. But I also tell them to take a boost onto the ladder if it's offered, without confusing what they've earned with what they've been given.
Then I tell them to spend the last semester of college weaning themselves from the good life and the safety net many of them enjoy — professors and university support staff who care about their development and well-being; friends nearby and available at all hours; flexible schedules and relatively small consequences for a missed assignment or a missed class.
I tell them that outside of a small circle close to them, don't expect people to care; to use this time to steel themselves before they start their job searches in earnest. I tell them to accept the fact that being overlooked or underestimated is part of life. That someone else will get a job they deserve or think they deserve. That they'll face anxieties about money, and about love, and about where to live, and about whether they chose the right field, and about whether they're good enough or smart enough or tough enough to succeed.
Last, I tell them to keep in touch, because I know how good they are, and how much the world needs them, even if no one knows it yet.