Students often ask me what to do after graduation. They want to do intellectually engaging work that helps people. Should they apply to law school or work abroad? Teach or try consulting? Although the details depend on the individual student, the core of my advice remains the same: do the hardest thing.

Many students mistakenly think about their professional careers the same way they have thought about their academic careers. They want to find the subject that interests them the most and at which they excel. But most students do not have enough data about themselves or about career paths in the real world to make a reasoned decision based on subject matter alone. Also, many Yale students are genuinely passionate about many issues, and for good reason.

If you are one of these students, don’t worry. You should think of your career choice not as a single, one-time-only decision, but rather as a series of small, stepwise decisions, made one at a time.

At each decision point, all you need to do is find a job that pushes you outside of your comfort zone to add a skill — a “tool” to your “toolbox” — that will help you grow the most. If you want to learn to work in high-pressure situations with people who come from backgrounds unlike your own, then it does not matter if you are teaching in an underfunded high school or working in a refugee camp — all that matters is that day in and day out you are working as hard as you can on your interpersonal skills, your efficiency, your grit. Mastering these skills will help you land a new job in a different substantive area at a higher level of responsibility. You can switch fields many times, and eventually work towards a job that combines your substantive interests with the skills you enjoy using the most. In other words, the best route is often is a zigzag.

Resist the temptation to pre-define yourself, to put yourself in a box. Sometimes students say to me, “I am the kind of person who is analytically strong but not that creative.” Sometimes your self-perception is well-founded, but often it is not — it’s just fear. What you were good at in college at age 20 does not indicate what you’ll be good at in the real world at 28.

The first time I went to a prison to give a “Know Your Rights” presentation to a group of 70 or so immigration detainees facing deportation, I felt like a fraud. My Spanish was far from perfect and I had started learning immigration law only weeks before. After several years of work at top corporate law firms, I had “directly represented” on my own only one client before. Why would these men want my legal advice? Within a few weeks, I was good (not perfect) at the job: mostly because I didn’t have a choice. There was no one else to advise unrepresented detainees; it was me and my friend or no one. Years later, I represent children, draft and advocate for legislation and teach at Yale. Different subject matter, same skills. And believe me, after working in a prison, nothing I do at work seems too scary to handle.

As I learned from taking on a job I didn’t feel quite prepared for, it’s crucial to take risks. Many students I teach are risk-averse. It’s really hard not to be perfect. And in high school and college, it is possible to work hard enough and to avoid enough challenges to make it through without failing in any real way. All you have to do is choose your courses well and stay up all night. Post-graduation, this strategy of being perfect will hold you back.

Indeed, the best times to take risks are when you are young and aren’t yet responsible for taking care of your children or aging parents — when the costs of failing are relatively low. If you have an idea for a startup company or want to go abroad to do something borderline crazy, you have a right to be scared, but you should probably do it anyway. It is easier to sleep in a tent in the wilderness when you are 22 than when you are 40.

Preparing to leave Yale is frightening. It can be tempting to look for a straight and narrow path, to shy away from risk and ambiguity. This strategy may have worked well in the past; after all, you made it to Yale. But as you prepare to leave, start to practice something. Practice looking your fear in the eye, taking a deep breath, and doing the hardest thing. You will make loads of mistakes, and then you will do great.

Alexandra Dufresne is a lecturer in Ethics, Politics & Economics and Political Science. Contact her at alexandra.dufresne@yale.edu.

  • theantiyale

    “enough data about themselves or about career paths in the real world to make a reasoned decision based on subject matter alone.”

    Life aint this simple. Sometimes events intervene, contravene, supervene.

    I wound up moving to Vermont of necessity in 1985 and have been here ever since.

    (HAPPILY).

    PK

  • truth seeker

    I love this. I wish I had an advisor like this in college, when I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and, in many ways, still don’t…

    I agree that the times that I’ve taken risks and reached for new experiences have been the most enriching of my life. As I didn’t go to an Ivy, I can only imagine that at least some students at Yale are petrified of not being amazing, but having the courage to not be amazing can lead to incredible, life-changing experiences. I hope at least some of Ms. Dufresne’s students take her advice; it is perhaps the best advice they will ever get.

  • Cathy Huang

    What a gift you give us with your personal anecdotes and plainclothes adherence to this advice. I hope the senior class reads this and has the opportunity to meet you before we scatter. It’s funny how the caricatures of stern, conservative, and distanced professors at Yale dominate our conversations nowadays; every thesis adviser has the highest demands,and every lecturer is forgetful when it comes to “posting the slides.”

    But truth be told, the Yale faculty keep me grounded amidst self-centered “activities” and the lockstep of the real world we know is outside the classroom. Conversations with professors like you, my formal and informal advisers over the years, and my dean are restorative, real, and remind me that a life is made in the most unexpected series of triumphs over failure. My professors’ belief in my abilities are what solidified my convictions to make a difference in an inner-city classroom next year, to pursue a crazy research project, and to grapple with the hardest prompts of all—the yucky ones where we have to gouge our insecurities and leave them strewn about.

    It is frustrating for me to witness how office hours go unnoticed on a syllabus, and even more so when I realize that time with such brilliant people won’t be blocked out for us in a few short months. How can we encourage a more organic faculty-student relationship not built on email exchanges? I hope everyone who reads this sits down with a professor, perhaps in the class they’re floundering in most, and candidly asks: “How did you get here? What do you struggle with the most?” Because the answers, as this column can attest to, are always eye-opening.

    • AB

      That’s some expert brown-nosing. Bravo.

  • Chris Zheng

    Professor Dufresne is beyond amazing. By far the best post-grad advice I’ve ever had.

  • cogitoergognome

    This guest column was both unexpected and perfectly on point. Thank you, Prof. Dufresne, for telling me something I desperately needed to hear at this exact time. I hope I have the courage to take your advice.

  • Dawn P

    I wish I had an adviser like this in college, too. Great column, Prof. Dufresne!

  • Alexandra Bigler

    Appreciate you pulling the conversation up to a higher level…instead of recent grads worrying about what offers to take, etc, you’re bringing them back to the more important principles of decision making–not what do they want to do, but who do they want to be?

    Something I’d add to your article is to stress further that the job itself doesn’t matter–what matters is how open you are to learning and growing from your experiences. True, you’ll learn a lot whether you’re teaching in an underfunded high school or in a refugee camp, or running a start-up, but even those options are intrinsically cool and interesting. If you’re truly open minded to the lessons life will hand you, then you’re going to grow immensely doing almost anything…working retail, mowing lawns, cooking fries, etc. The external drivers hardly matter, as the key to learning is ultimately inside yourself.

  • highstreet2010

    Great article, but let’s look at the other side.

    If you want to write articles in the YDN encouraging others to take risks, you should probably go to a top law school and then work in corporate law for a while. Preferably with no time off like our author here. Then once you are set you can lay back and talk about how saving Africa is more important than saving Goldman etc. etc. academia is soo hard, but the important thing is top-tier law immediately.

    “It’s really hard not to be perfect.” – Oh so you didn’t want to be perfect because it’s too easy. Honestly it’s easy to be a Chicago Law grad making millions, but it’s another thing to help impoverished people suffering in refugee camps and/or in prisons. What’s really tough is doing something that you’re a) not good at and b) don’t care about, because it’s easier to sleep in a tent when you’re 22 than 40 and we all can afford to sleep in tents for a while while we figure out our path in life.

    What a great message to send to everyone that doesn’t get that easy offer from the firm of their choice! It’s not hard to be perfect, you just failed at it, everyone can get a choice of a corporate job if they want it! Why didn’t you take risks and succeed like the rest of us?

    “They want to find the subject that interests them the most and at which they excel. But most students do not have enough data about themselves or about career paths in the real world to make a reasoned decision based on subject matter alone.”
    “You can switch fields many times, and eventually work towards a job that combines your substantive interests with the skills you enjoy using the most.” – Is this not directly contradictory? Don’t worry about working in a field that you enjoy and in which you excel based on your experience to date, you can eventually work in a field that you enjoy and in which you excel, after bobbling around for a while and ignoring your best data?

    ‘After several years of work at top corporate law firms, I had “directly represented” on my own only one client before. Why would these men want my legal advice?’ – How much did you make per hour giving legal advice at said firms? Isn’t this question absolutely ridiculous? Oh I only used to get paid $300 (500?) per hour for my legal advice at a top firm, why would these convicts want to talk to me?!?! Really I can’t comprehend this such a risk by them XD DAE take risks?!?!

    Isn’t the crux of the matter what a ‘hard thing’ is? Is working at JP Morgan 80 hours a week easy? Is going to Harvard Law and saving imprisoned refugees easy? Isn’t the hardest thing joining the marines and putting your life on the line? Is it being an ER nurse? Is being a google engineer easy? Is being a ski bum in the Denver winter easy? Is the moral of the story just to do whatever it is that you think is hard?

    Personally I think being a faculty member is pretty hard. It’s pretty hard to become a bank CEO. It’s hard to be a professional athlete. But those careers don’t involve sleeping in tents in the wilderness or eschewing our priveleged past (as scrappy gym rats working on our grit). They don’t require you to go through some cleansing of the soul where you can talk about how righteous your choices were. Absurd. Do you what you do, what you are good at, what you love. If you want to take a risk do it by all means, but realize that going to law school is a risk or trying to be a professor is a risk just like being some sort of saint to the prison population is a risk.

    You will make mistakes no matter what it is that you do, even if it is ‘easy’ by our authors standards, and then you will do great.

    • str2014

      It appears that our esteemed commentator doesn’t quite understand what the author’s getting at. Perhaps it’s more about knocking down the facade that we’re all perfect than the literal, word-for-word phrase that the commentator is so keen on misunderstanding. What’s really, really tough is hiding behind a username online and making personal attacks on a person who’s worked hard to advocate for children and immigrants. I’m quaking in awe.

      Or perhaps it’s tough because, as our commentator would have use believe the author wrote, we can’t all afford to sleep in tents and take time off. Not quite the point either. Necessity is necessity. I’m glad you’re offended for me and people who may have to support their families after graduation. Now do something about it other than moan and groan about a writer who does care about the people she worked with in prisons and has worked with since. If you know her and have problems with her, bring it up. Don’t troll anonymously at 3 a.m.

      Convenient not to consider context. Westboro Baptist Church has nothing on your literalism. Not her nuanced words: “Many students…” “Most students…” “Many students…” “If you are one of these, don’t worry.” This op-ed isn’t intended to be harsh on people who have their entire lives figured out. Congrats. Yippee. It’s addressed to the rest of us who feel the need to be perfect at all times, who believe that we have to know exactly what we’re doing out of graduation. That we’re abnormal and lacking otherwise. If you don’t fall into this category, then this op-ed isn’t for you, not because you’re not worthy but because you don’t need it.

      This paragraph was written more or less incomprehensibly. Pass.

      The moral of the story is to push yourself. Not sure what happened to the idea that authors should probably get the benefit of the doubt in case they don’t word things to our liking. Not sure why it became acceptable to skewer a writer for your inability to grasp the concept the writer describes.

      Finally! A couple sentences we can agree upon! Alas, you miss the point (yet again, I might add) in the next few sentences. Those careers, fair enough, don’t require those things. And they are hard. But if they aren’t for you, then why cave into the pressure to become something you don’t want to become? The only way I can imagine your reading as having any valid explanation is a complete misunderstanding of college culture at Yale–a complete desire to read this absolutely as having no context whatsoever–and a complete and utter blindness to the pressures that the rest of us–who don’t get our comfy offers from consulting firms or financial institutions first semester–feel as we’re about to graduate. You can’t have it both ways and feel offended for the rich and poor over advice to think critically about who you are and who, rather than what, you want to become.

      Professor Dufresne is a professor and lawyer and was, at some point, the hope of detained immigrants who sought a better life and, whether for better or worse, got caught. It’s a risk to leave the corporate world and take a massive cut in your paycheck. You think about the opportunities to buy that nice house you may have missed, and you take a shot in the dark.

      Why you feel the need to undercut a good op-ed with personal jabs, interspersed with inane commentary, confuses me. You’re fighting a man of straw. And you’re coming out in the dirt.

  • Ross Mukasey

    Let’s not kid ourselves. The ‘hardest thing’ for almost any circumstance is one that involves competition at the highest level, with the highest relative pay, with the highest amount of work. This means an analyst position at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey, Harvard Medical School, NASA Astronaut, Olympic swimmer, heck, let’s throw in Teach for America in there. It is in these types of high pressure positions do you really start learning about yourself, what you’re capable of, and most importantly, your role in society. Advising Yalies to go on volunteer vacations or be ecotourists is not only a disservice to society in general, but also to the students themselves.

    It’s one thing to be ‘interested’ or ‘passionate’ about issues, but it’s another to actually make substantive, significant contributions to these issues. Yale grads are in a special position to do the latter. If working in refugee camps is their thing, they should’ve just gone to public school like Berkeley or UCLA. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with being troops on the ground. All I’m saying is that Yalies have a pretty good chance of becoming a millionaire by 30. Imagine how many peace corp volunteers a Yale grad can support if he/she made the personal sacrifice to become a hedge fund manager.

    The choices you have at 40 is decided by the choices you make at 22. It’s easy for a Blackstone VP to join the peace corp at 40, but it’s almost impossible for a peace corp volunteer to join Blackstone at that same age. These highly competitive positions are often only available to graduates at schools like Yale. And for the most part, there are specific and time-sensitive steps that must be taken to acquire them. I don’t think you realize that opportunities are lost when you take the ‘zig-zag’ route through life. I suppose it works if you want to write a book on finding yourself, but if you wander in the woods too long you’re likely to get lost.

    For the most part, Yalies have found success because of discipline, focus, and being exceptional in a handful of things. They have a flair for competing with the best and winning against the best, that’s why they were accepted to Yale. Enticing Yalies to seek out this ‘YOLO’ lifestyle diverts them from this recipe that brought them success in the first place. I think it would be more useful, and refreshing, if you were to advise Yalies to secure the most prestigious and competitive jobs available, and orient themselves towards a position of money, power, and/or influence. It is perhaps the only way we can ensure that pet projects like schools and refugee camps get funded in perpetuity.

    • str2014

      For God, For Country, and For Yale. Not For Mammon. Keep that in mind.

      Yale students are in a special position to become leaders in whatever fields they enter, not just in making tons of money to finance others. The names inscribed on the walls outside Woolsey and Commons make that very clear, along with the living testimony that Yalies across the world provide every single day. Not everyone at Yale should have to become an investment banker to fulfill an unfortunate and misguided elitist fantasy where public school kids go to the “lower” places, places designated as such because society determines they are “lower.”

      And there’s a big difference between YOLO and discovering yourself. The point of the liberal education isn’t to educate you to become a hedge fund manager, however many Yale students do and without knocking them in the slightest; the point is to free one’s mind.

      Yalies, find the ways (and if they’re jobs, great) to make a difference in the fields you enter, and remember that these “oh the market reflects true value and doing anything less shows you aren’t worth it!” commentators would probably also posit that the men and women of Yale who have given their lives to the service of their fellow human beings lived and died in vain.

    • str2014

      Also, pet projects? Seriously? A school is a pet project? A refugee camp is a pet project? Disgraceful. And disappointing, I suppose, that you’d view things that are so crucial to the lives of other human beings as mere pet projects that Yale students get to work on; that by extension you’d view those individuals’ lives as people who don’t deserve our time and attention, with whom we ought rather to relate on a checkbook than face to face. Shame on that mentality. Let those who seek the greater good through wealth do so earnestly and with steadfast devotion, and let those who seek the greater good in others do the same.

  • Laura Murray-Tjan YLS 99

    Working as an investment banking analyst is not difficult, my friend, it’s just tiring. It’s a very easy way to make a lot of money if you are willing to swallow your ego and sacrifice your personal life. I worked at McKinsey & Company after graduation, and I assure you that the challenge of consulting work pales in comparison with the challenge of representing detained immigrants before weary judges and backlogged courts. I have been representing immigrants since 2001, and the challenges to my intellect and endurance have been far greater than any of the many private sector jobs I have held since graduating from college in 1994. You will discover one day that your statements below are simply incorrect.