Overview: Psych student Maddy Slegers takes on uncertainty as she finishes up her undergraduate and honours experiences. From those experiences she derives 5 tips for tolerating and even thriving in the face of end-of-degree uncertainty. Reading time ~ 10 minutes.
As you come toward the end of a degree, you may feel excited for what the future holds, proud of your accomplishments over the course of many years of study, or, if you are anything like me: terror.
As someone who has always had a plan, finishing up a Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) without any certainty about what I would be doing the following year was a challenge. Honours year was a lot: trying to learn so many new skills at once, being surrounded by brilliant (and lovely) peers, and being reminded that clinical psychology is highly competitive by everyone from admired lecturers to well-meaning shop assistants that asked, “isn’t it really hard to become a psychologist?”
I began to ask my friends studying other (non-psych) degrees how they were finding their final years of study. In doing so, I realised that what I was experiencing wasn’t a phenomenon exclusively related to the bottle-neck psychology honours students face, but something third- and fourth-year students across disciplines are confronted with as they complete their final years of undergraduate study.
The students I spoke to, who were in business, mathematics, physiotherapy, engineering, and all kinds of other degrees, all had a similar concern: what was next? They were worried about job opportunities, getting into post-graduate study, and whether they would be good enough for the career they wanted. And many of them were finding that this uncertainty was interfering with their mood, keeping them up at night, and ironically making it more difficult to perform at their best, limiting their ability to secure future job and study opportunities.
You may be at the end of your degree yourself and relate to some of these challenges. Or maybe you have just started and are already feeling the pressure to know what is next. Whether you know what your next step is and are worried you won’t get there or you have no clear path and are feeling unsettled, in this blog post I want to share some strategies that helped me get through similar feelings last year. They may not all work for you, but I hope that by giving even just one a go you might be able to meaningfully improve your ability to tolerate uncertainty, like I was.
1. Maintain a routine
One of the best things I did during this uncertain year was maintain a routine. This included the simple things (which sometimes get ignored during stressful times, when we need them most) like regular sleep hours, time to move my body, and remembering to have regular nourishing meals. It also included more specific things like listening to certain music before beginning the workday and utilising different study spots depending on the task I was doing (e.g., I saved Sturt campus for the “you really need to write” days).
Although maintaining a routine might sound boring, in my experience, it enabled me to say yes to more fun in my time off and gave me a sense of autonomy and control when I really needed it. You might want to spend some time thinking about how an ideal weekly routine would look for you.
2. ‘Even though’ Journal
Although I have never been able to maintain a regular journaling habit, I found that on days that I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, this strategy helped me a lot. All you need is a spare notebook, a piece of paper, or even the notes app on your phone. Write a sentence with the stem ‘even though…’ and then list everything you are thinking and feeling.
For instance, you might write:
‘Even though I don’t know what I’ll be doing next year’ or ‘Even though I feel like an imposter’.
After listing these, write another list of things that you do know.
‘I know that I am loved by my friends’ or ‘I know that I enjoy listening to music’.
They don’t have to be big things; it might be something small that you know you enjoy. The point is to acknowledge the challenges you are facing and then refocus your mind on what you know about yourself and the world. I found that it was helpful to make my ‘I know’ list at least twice as long as my ‘Even Though’ list.
3. Healthy comfort items
When you are feeling stressed about the future, it can be tempting to engage in behaviours that are rewarding in the short-term, but that can often undermine your self-confidence in the long-term. Maybe you make unhealthy changes to your diet, like overeating or not eating enough. Or you procrastinate assignments or tasks with the latest bingeable TV show.
When this happens, it is important to be kind to yourself, noting that this is a normal reaction to a difficult experience, but also that you have the power to recognise these behaviours and change.
One way I tried to change some of my less-than-ideal habits last year was by keeping a list of healthy comfort items. These will be different for everyone, but they should include things that make you feel secure, grounded, and motivated to try again. My list included items like a candle, my Oodie (which I probably wore every day in the two weeks before my thesis was due), and some photos of loved ones. Whenever I would become distracted by a habit I was trying to kick, I would redirect my attention to one of these items for support instead.
4. Find meaning
While this is a more abstract strategy, I found it was one of the most effective.
No matter what you choose to do in life, there will likely be uncertainty, anxiety, imposter syndrome, and setbacks. The question is, are you willing to welcome these feelings and challenges to pursue your goal?
Looking back at the reasons why I chose to pursue my degree helped me to see that tolerating these feelings was worth it. I reminded myself that I could choose another path if I wanted to, or I could acknowledge that what I was doing was difficult but meaningful. I had autonomy over my life.
Sometimes when focusing on broader life-meaning felt too much, I focused on finding meaning in my current situation at the most specific level: namely, learning strategies to cope with uncertainty so that I could share what worked for me with other end-of-degree students (hence this blog post).
Maybe meaning for you might be acquiring a new skill so that you can share it with others. Or it could be learning to embrace challenges as an exciting (although sometimes daunting) part of a meaningful life. Regardless of what you choose, you can use this broader or specific meaning to help keep you motivated and engaged when the future is unknown.
5. Challenge assumptions
Finally, I found that challenging some of my own assumptions was crucial to keeping grounded and positive in the face of uncertainty. One of these assumptions was that not knowing for sure what will happen means that bad things will definitely happen. Of course, this assumption is clearly untrue, but it is amazing what kinds of thoughts we accept as fact when we feel under pressure.
Maybe you have made a similar assumption, or something totally different. Either way, it is important to identify what we are thinking and whether there is any evidence to validate it. Even when your thoughts are correct (e.g., it is highly competitive to have the kind of career you want), it can be helpful to think about how you would cope in the worst-case scenario. If the worst-case scenario happened, would you be upset? Of course. Would everything you have in your life suddenly disappear, along with you? Of course not. I found challenging these assumptions strengthened my belief that I could cope no matter what happened with my study and career aspirations.
I hope this blog post and these strategies are helpful to you now and in the future, allowing you to refocus on what you have control over and what truly matters in your life. Any time working on your ability to tolerate uncertainty will not be wasted. Although end-of-degree anxieties are unique, as we have been reminded of in the COVID-19 pandemic, life will always be full of unknowns. The sooner we can learn to tolerate uncertainty, the better.