How Do We Make Our First Career Decisions?


XYZ will be starting work at Google. Or Facebook. Or any of the names which have almost ceased to exist as brands, for they are ubiquitous in our everyday lives. When such status updates appear on your feed, how would you react? Chances are, you click the ‘wow’ emoji if not the ‘like’. I did, as did many others. But how do you feel inside? How do you make sense of yourself, in relation to this friend or acquaintance who used to breathe in some of the air you breathed out?

To answer this universally is a meaningless exercise, since our responses certainly vary depending on our moods, personalities, social positions, and relationships with the newly-minted others. Yet patterns do often exist, and at my position in the life course – student nearing graduation into the workforce – they may indeed be quite common. Because it’s in the school-to-work transition that the symbolic papers we share with many of our peers must be shredded into multiple and divergent paths.

Given the uncertainties of a first career decision, it’s natural to want to look for reference points. The Google and Facebook employees-to-be scream at us, as do doctors and lawyers and those entering the Big Fours and Fives in specific industries, to do better. Or at least, to secure a job that is not at high risk of being used as a counter-example. If we cannot be ‘cool’, then at least we hope to have a respectable career.

What is respectable, then? The word ‘respect’ already takes on a relational quality. You may see great meaning in a job, which makes you respect the occupation. The government may insist that every job is a good job. But neither your personal beliefs nor national campaigns can dictate how the particular others around you regard the occupation, at least initially. And we know this very intuitively. Who wants to face the music at social gatherings of aunties comparing their children’s occupations, then kindly comforting the supposedly inferior party?

With just a semester left, I finally begin to sense occupational status as a spectre casting shadows over my first career decision. (I’m slow, I know. I like to think I chose to be.) What if the most fitting jobs I find are low-paying, low-status ones, at least relative to my graduating peers? Will they be worth the questions my family and friends ask? Will I withstand the questions thus elicited of my self? Will I justify them as mere stepping stones to something more socially esteemed? I have no answer at hand, nor judgment, but an acknowledgment:

Our decisions are never completely our own.

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