Career Starters vs. Grad Students

In the first years out of college, a great divideand often some envyloom between those who take jobs and those who head for grad school

In the first years out of college, a great divide—and often some envy—loom between those who take jobs and those who head for grad school

This past summer one of my closest friends moved just a few blocks away on the Upper West Side. We envisioned meeting up for frequent dinners at local haunts and taking regular walks in Riverside Park. Six months have passed, and we've seen each other a grand total of once—and that was for a rushed, last-minute meal—although there has been no falling out or fight.

I've been baffled by this—even though I know at least half the fault is mine—and have been trying to figure out how a friendship that survived different high school cliques as well as colleges on opposite coasts could somehow stall when seeing each other only means walking two blocks down the street.

People have suggested that the frenetic pace of New York City may be partially to blame, but I think it's more likely a result of the different paths we've taken. A student at Columbia's MFA program, my friend is often working on an assignment over the weekend when I want to go out, and she is ready to unwind on a Tuesday night when I'm already in bed because of an early-morning meeting the next day.

Self vs. the Company

In fact, I've come to believe that in the first few years after college, the greatest divider isn't different interests or the number of zeroes on one's paycheck. It's based on the decision to start a career or go back to academia for another degree and the different mindsets that accompany those decisions.

There are certain, almost inevitable, changes in one's thought process and approach when he or she is now paid to complete a task rather than paying to receive an education. Also, days are often much more regimented, and consistency becomes more important than the ability to cram.

Young hires are almost always beholden to company policy above all else. The end goal is less about self-actualization than about selfless action on behalf of the company.

Students, on the other hand, generally have at least some say in choosing their classes and/or the time of day and surroundings in which they prefer to do their work. So students, with more power over their day-to-day destinies, have it great by comparison, correct?

It's easy for someone like me to think so, but of course that's not necessarily the case. This was pointed out to me when I got to comparing situations with an NYU graduate student who spent two years working in the nonprofit world before starting at NYU's Wagner School of Public Service last year.

Time Management Differences

"The challenge is remembering how to deal with so much unstructured time," she says, citing the unexpected challenges in making the transition from a task-oriented workplace to a classroom where assignments are doled out days in advance. "You have so much time. You putz around and you're not productive."

A master procrastinator myself, I definitely learned how to be a more strategic planner when I joined the workforce. I didn't have a choice. In college, my last-minute scrambling might have resulted in a mediocre grade on a paper. But I realize that in working at a well-regarded national publication like BusinessWeek, a single instance of careless fact-checking could translate into a glaring mistake.

I have to confess that more than once, I've fallen into the trap of thinking my grad student friends must be coasting, based on my sometimes selective and rose-colored recollections of my own college years. Meaningful—at least at the time—4 a.m. discussions, spontaneous road trips, and attending afternoon lectures clad in pajama pants are all that I seem to remember of college.

Two-Way Envy?

Based on my highly enjoyable, but admittedly sheltered, undergraduate experience, I may unfairly dismiss a return to school as a reprieve from the real world and a convenient excuse to act like a dilettante. However, considering the intense pressure many of my grad student friends are currently under—juggling high-level course work with stressful summer internship searches and paying sky-high tuitions—I wouldn't exactly say they were lounging around the Ivory Tower.

And it wouldn't surprise me if they occasionally experience a flip-flop version of my own dismissive envy. I bet they sometimes wonder how much easier it would be if they only had a single full-time position to worry about, instead of the stress of balancing multiple classes with casting an eye toward securing an internship, interviews, and employment. The truth of the matter is, whether we are students or full-time employees, don't we all secretly want to feel that our schedule is the toughest?

Instead of playing the "who's got it tougher" game and resenting each other's choices, we should realize there are advantages to having friends who don't exactly understand where we're coming from. When a student wants to celebrate a good grade or vent about a setback, it can be far easier to talk to an outsider than to a classmate who may be a wonderful friend but is truthfully also a competitor.

And perhaps this same student will show a more sympathetic appreciation for the working woes of his or her friend than another 9-to-5-er who might succumb to the temptation for one-upmanship: "You think your co-worker's bad? You should see Tina in accounting.…"

Compassion Wins Out

I'm actually finally going to have the chance to see my good friend in the neighborhood in a couple of days. She's having a birthday gathering at her apartment—which I haven't yet seen—and I'm even trying to figure out a time to take her out to dinner next week to celebrate.

Will it actually happen? I give it 50/50. Right now, her evenings are jam-packed with lectures, events, and grading papers for an undergraduate course she teaches, so we haven't yet set a time. I could grumble, or even nudge her into nailing down an actual day, but it doesn't seem fair considering I've done my fair share of bowing out of tentative plans in the past because of my own work obligations.

And who knows? I may someday find myself back in school, frustrated when a seemingly pushy friend can't quite grasp that I can't just shut down my computer at 6 and magically be free. I don't want to have to think to myself that pushy, nonunderstanding friend was once me.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.