May 27, 2015

You’ve Graduated! Now What?

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

In the beginning of the spring semester, I asked students in my senior seminar class to write down one word that describes how they are feeling about graduating and then to share those words with the class. Although some students displayed words that I was expecting such as “excited,” “ready,” “pride,” and “relief,” many students were not so giddy about graduating. These students held up signs that read “conflicted,” “nervous,” “confused,” “indecisive,” and one of my favorites, “screaming internally.”


Photo courtesy of the author

It’s understandable that students are experiencing this range of emotions. Graduation—whether it’s from high school, college, or any other institution—involves what sociologists call a status passage, the process through which we move from one social position to another. Sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss developed this concept from the anthropological term rite of passage.  Whereas a rite of passage may signal a transition from one stage of life to the next, such as childhood to adolescence, a status passage is more focused on the specific context and social location because status is often used to demarcate some sort of social rank.

Like rites of passage, a status passage often involves a ceremony to signify the individual’s transition from one phase or location to the next. But unlike rites of passage, status passages also require other individuals to legitimize the change in social position. For example, age is often associated with certain rites of passage. Turning eighteen in the United States is often viewed as a rite of passage into adulthood but this age-related transition is not dependent on others for it to happen. In certain legal and social situations, you automatically become an “adult” on your eighteenth birthday.

On the other hand, graduating from an educational institution requires that one is granted a degree. In order to achieve this status passage, one must meet all of the expectations that others have established. You do not become a graduate simply by reaching a certain age. Instead, you need to jump through a variety of socially created hoops such as degree requirements, minimum grade point averages, senior projects, and internships or volunteer experiences.

Because status is a social location, moving from one position to another requires action on the part of others to help or hinder, as well as certify or verify, the individual’s movement. Most status passages have gatekeepers that determine when an individual is ready to move from one social position to the next.  And as is often the case, gate keepers have power and they may use this power to enable or constrain an individual’s transition.

For some students, the status passage of graduating cannot come soon enough as they are ready to experience new social positions and new types of corresponding social roles.  For others, the idea of leaving the familiarity and comfort of one situation and being thrust into an unknown reality is a bit overwhelming. These contrasting feelings are clearly borne out in the signs the students in my class held up in the beginning of the semester.

When individuals are involved in a status passage, they are usually also simultaneously experiencing a role exit—what Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh called the process of becoming “an ex.”  When you graduate college and become an “ex-student,” you no longer have to follow the norms and behaviors that were required of you in that role. Indeed, it’s a strange feeling when you wake up one day after graduation and realize that you may never have to write another term paper, take another final exam, or even read another book (although this last point seems like a travesty to me).

Although the thought of leaving behind the rigors of academic work may sound liberating, we shouldn’t forget that those going through status passages and role exits are experiencing a potentially radical change in their identity. This change is especially acute for those graduating from college as they leave an identity that has influenced their life, maybe even defined who they are, for as long as they can remember: that of being a student. After one brief ceremonial walk across a makeshift stage, that sense of self is about to change. It’s no wonder some students may be “screaming internally.”

The reason why the status passage of graduating from college is potentially anxiety producing is because unlike other shifts in one’s social position, there is not necessarily a clearly defined status and corresponding role awaiting the individual on the other side of the stage. In many status passages, you transition from one clearly defined position to another: for example, single to married, or cashier to manager. When you graduate college, and someone innocently asks you “Now what?” you may not have any clue as to what’s next. If you can no longer claim to be a student, and you don’t have any definite short-term plans, you may ask yourself: “Who am I?”

Knowing about the social processes that are involved in these life-course transitions might be interesting sociologically but they may not relieve the feelings of angst and uncertainty that engulf students going through this change.  Last year, I wrote a post, “Sociological Advice for Graduates,” that offered some guidance for students experiencing this process. Although that post did not specifically talk about status passages and potential feelings of doubt, it did offer some words of encouragement for exerting your agency and forging your own path. And that’s a key point to remember.

The upside of moving from a clearly defined status to a more nebulous one is that you can play an instrumental role in shaping what it is you do next. You have the capability to act, to set a plan in motion, and to begin carving out a niche for yourself. Whether you go to graduate school, pursue a career, travel the world, or move back home and just lay low for a while, you should be “directing your own development.” As suggested by the signs my students made, this new found freedom may make you feel both pumped and indecisive but regardless, it’s your freedom. Own it, embrace it, and utilize it!


Nice read


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