Campus Life

The senior-year question

What are your plans after graduation?

You’re a senior. As for your job search, let’s just say you haven’t landed yet. You just finished your last class before spring break, and your mind is already drifting toward your last-ever college vacation. You’re walking through Stratton with a Darwin’s coffee in hand when you run into your freshman-year advisor. It doesn’t take long before that dreaded question pops up: “So, what are your plans after graduation?”

The comforting mirage of spring break fades away, leaving only the open, empty landscape of your looming, undefined career. This senior-year question lurks in conversations with peers, professors, and parents. Considering how often you’ll have to respond, why not try to get some value out of this exchange? Turn it into an exercise that will help you both get clear on what you want after graduation, and draw acquaintances into your brainstorming process.

For many, the default response to this question is to deflect — to list a few concrete options for next year (even though there’s a good chance you’re not sure what you really want to do). Consider Stephanie, an Economics major. Stephanie responds to this question, saying: “I’m applying to management consulting firms, business schools, and might take the first actuarial exam.” Stephanie has listed well-prescribed options for her future, which shuts down the opportunity to explore what else she could do.

Listing potential jobs or programs isn’t the only way to answer this question. Instead, Stephanie could respond in terms of her interests. In the field of collaborative negotiation, interests are defined by why you want what you want (i.e. your needs, motivations, and aspirations). Imagine instead if Stephanie answered why these three options appeal to her. She might say: “I love an analytic challenge and solving puzzles in groups, and I really value having the opportunity to mentor others. I have some ideas, but what professional paths do you think might be good for me?”

This is a scary way to answer the question, in part because it’s more personal, and because it sounds like Stephanie doesn’t have a plan. Still, by addressing what drives her, Stephanie opens up the conversation far more than listing three options would. By doing this, Stephanie invites the questioner to help her brainstorm.

Since we are all in the habit of thinking in terms of options, a professor or parent might quickly identify a new job or profession that meets Stephanie’s interests. Instead of receiving constant feedback about what she’s already thought of (consulting, business school, and the actuarial world), Stephanie will elicit new suggestions. She may never have considered becoming a policy analyst, say, if her cousin hadn’t suggested it.

This question not only brings others into your brainstorming process, but also presents an opportunity to get clear on your interests — to think through why you want the jobs you want. Thinking in terms of interests can be incredibly difficult, especially when it comes to something as important as your career. Unfortunately, interests are not always obvious: they need to be drawn out, discussed, questioned, framed, and reframed. To answer this question in terms of your interests, you’ll need to spend some time identifying them. Challenge yourself to reframe your list of options into a list of interests.

Try this simple exercise to capture your interests. Start by creating two columns on a piece of paper. Label the left column: “Options,” and the right column, “Interests.” In the left column, list all the jobs or programs that appeal to you, no matter how weird they may seem, or how far outside your comfort zone. After you’ve listed all of the options, move to the right column and write out why each one appeals to you. What need does it fulfill? Why does it motivate you? How will it fulfill your aspirations?

Keep your list of interests on hand, whether it be in an app on your phone, on a small note card, or in your mind (you are a senior after all). Find a way to keep these interests on the top of mind. Next time someone asks you the ominous senior spring question, consider answering with your most important interests and see where the conversation goes.

Justin Wright is CEO of Habitus Incorporated, and Cara Bigony is their lead writer. MIT Spouses and Partners Connect sponsored Justin Wright along with Carly Inkpen, Tad Mayer, and Israela Adah Brill-Cass to teach a four-part MIT course this past IAP based on their forthcoming book, Own the Job Hunt.