An open letter to students graduating in a pandemic

Strategise to start your professional journey. But, in the process, do not forget that this doesn't have to be a sprint race. Eliud Kipchoge also has an Olympics gold medal, just like Usain Bolt.

Updated: May 28, 2021 11:45:26 AM UTC

Abhik Choudhury is the chief strategist & founder, Salt and Paper Consulting. He is also a visiting faculty of Advertising & PR at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. You can reach him at abhik@saltandpaper.co

Graduating-in-Pandemic
Image: Shutterstock
In the early two decades of the 20th century, kids had it especially rough—World War begins, institutions close down. Right after, Spanish Flu creeps in killing millions which is followed by the great depression with no jobs in the market for the youth who survived the near impossible.

A century later, kids of today are facing the greatest crisis of the 21st century yet. It has everything from back then except for war, that is if we don’t count the global vaccine poaching and hoarding as one. Of course, like so many people have mentioned since this pandemic began—we have the luxury of digital life through which we can work, learn, communicate with friends and entertain ourselves while in isolation.

The other side of the coin, however, is the impossibly low resources and incredibly high competition compared to back then when the population was less than 2 billion to the 7.8 billion today. That means after a crisis of this scale, the recession and the economic and social instability will be that much accentuated.

While no one is spared, one of the lesser-focused burdens is on the students, who now with their virtual education will start their virtual jobs in an era where their super seniors would be, in some cases, eyeing the same position and/or package to survive rather than being laid off. These freshers need to be far more strategic with their choices that, if planned methodically, can bring cryptocurrency returns in a world stuck in fixed deposits.

First, a personal note to all students Academically, these last two years unanimously have been a nightmare for the graduating batches across the world. Virtual lectures, virtual projects, virtual teamwork and even virtual graduations. All this while so many of your loved ones are running helter-skelter for a bed, medicines, and oxygen—sometimes for weeks on end.

We, your predecessors truly cannot fathom what it takes to evolve with such restrictions right at the precipice of starting your professional journeys. But let me tell you a secret—the fact that you still finished the course to the best of your ability already makes you a force to be reckoned with.

Every professional comes across a life-altering crisis once or twice in their careers and their decision and composure then mould the destination they are headed towards. You at this age are fighting a seemingly never-ending global crisis for a whole year with impeccable patience. Trust me when I say this, the professional crises of the future that your batches will have to deal with will feel like a cakewalk—hold onto that silver lining.

I’m sure every educator in the world would say this to you personally if they could—We’re so sorry you have to go through this and so very proud of the way you are handling yourself.

I hope these suggestions will help you plan your life a little better:

Upskill in niche subjects that elevate your demand in your industry
Parallel to your college or right after you finish it, shortlist two upskilling courses that will make you more relevant than your peers and seniors who have graduated in the last two years. India has over 50,000 higher education institutions, if you simply calculate the number of graduates in the pandemic and compare it with the terminations in the same period, you will have a clear idea why now more than ever just your college degree won’t cut it. This is not to demotivate you. For also know, the brunt of firings happening in senior positions is much more than at entry-level jobs because of unviable return on investment in the present circumstances. But if you want to work in your favourite company, show them how future-ready you are.

Here are some good certification courses from Coursera. All the major universities have opened their online courses to the world today. If you’re pursuing social sciences then this free course—‘Child Protection: Children's Rights in Theory and Practice’—from Harvard will come in handy with Rs 7,000 for the certification if you need it. Have you majored in Economics and now want to enter the field of in-depth research? Try this introductory three weeks free course from MIT—‘Qualitative Research Methods: Conversational Interviewing’ with just Rs 3,600 for the certificate. As per the future you envision in art, finance, culture, business, technology, communication to science, there is a super niche course hidden on a dozen pretty good education platforms from FutureLearn, Udemy, Udacity to the completely free Khan Academy.

Break out of the myth of perfect profile
One of the major reasons why freshers feel disheartened is not getting that ‘perfect’ company, profile, city or package and many wait months in the hope that once they land 'it', all their troubles will vanish. I have two questions for you to introspect:

a) You’re young, at the threshold of starting your professional journey, without actual on-the-job experience in a few different categories and companies. How do you know what your life’s calling is? Barack Obama was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. Sundar Pichai was a management consultant for two years before joining Google. Daniel Ek used to design websites and ran an online advertising startup before founding Spotify. The more wonderfully sprinkled your early years are, the better will be the chances of you being successful later in life by using all those myriad experiences in the orchestra of your career. At this stage, try any profile that excites you. Every category today spans out in two dozen branches connected to the same tree. Eventually, irrespective of the profile, what you learnt in that stint will make you shine far brighter and in the process, you will truly find your calling.

b) At the start of your career who do you think will train you better? A multi-billion dollar firm with no scope of mistakes for trainees and junior executives who are expected to surgically do what they are told or a comparatively smaller global firm that will allow you to experiment and collaborate with other internal teams to evolve? Multitasking in early jobs is highly recommended. It helps you navigate profiles with more flexibility in the future. Learn literally everything you can in the first four to five years and then keep getting promoted by leaps and bounds in your favourite global brands in the next twenty. And if you were looking for some guidance with the tweaking of your resume—this should help. (ProTip: Articulate cold emails to a potential employer, whose work you really admire, works far better than two dozen emails to a generic - jobs@company.com)

Have fun—to live a fulfilled life you need to start by living it fully
Do. Not. Stress. Yourselves. To. Sleep.

It’s absolutely okay to be waiting for an opportunity for four months in a pandemic. If you want to be an art designer, use that time to make unique illustrative posters of your favourite movies or if you’re a coder, get some ideas from Github and code that wacky idea of a virtual dating game in that period. These portfolio additions will help you in the years to come. Start working on your inimitable personal brand—actively blog and find interesting mediums to show your talents. Raw passion is criminally underrated in modern tick-box job profiles. Remember that Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick or Quentin Tarantino have never walked inside a film school.

The more fun you have with what you do, the more evident it is to your future employers the sheer passion and brilliance you bring to the table. If you want to be helpful right now and volunteer to verify Covid-19 links all day with your friends in place of focusing on daily job interviews like your other classmates—it’s both superbly admirable and okay for your career. With everything that’s spiralling around, you want to watch Netflix for three hours a day, read thriller novels, doomscroll social media or bake your heart out in the kitchen—honestly, it is wonderfully okay too. You won’t have the comparative luxury to do all these in the next decade with the constant need for financial stability at your corporate job or running your own startup. Please don’t put pressure on yourself right now that you forget the only rule that matters—in the end, everything we do is to be happy in life. If you barter that for anything at all, what’s the point of anything at all? Please invest in yourself and your skills, but don’t voluntarily and mindlessly participate in the race. You don’t have to be Usain Bolt to win, you can be Eliud Kipchoge too and reach the same destination. Is the Gold won for 100M and Marathon different? The beauty of your life story is right there—in embarking on exclusive and unique journeys that make you who you are.

My friends, I say this from personal experience, the greatest lessons are bookmarked outside boardrooms. You’ll be just fine. If history has taught us anything, the ones who use strategy and patience to face overwhelming odds almost always come out of the tunnel with pride and greatness. Just ask Singapore that has the world's second most powerful passport after getting independence barely 50 years ago. Look at JK Rowling, who rose from living off government welfare to becoming the world’s richest author, or check out AirBnB, the $100Bn hospitality brand, that started at the cusp of 2007’s Great Recession. You are meant for great things and no crisis can change that.

The writer is the chief strategist & founder of Salt and Paper Consulting

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