Hindsight on the Lifestyle Shift from College to the "Real World"
I took some time to scan my old posts to find loose ends I haven’t addressed. In the process I encountered a post I created while researching over summer and staying in an apartment near campus. I was struck paralyzed by grocery shopping and amused at the prospect of cleaning my bathroom. I had no problem with it but living in a dorm with a cleaning staff didn’t present many opportunities to perfect the art while taking classes.
Later I more directly compared my experience living in dorms to living in my apartment. This was from June of 2011. It’s been a year since and there is much to add to the topic. I also promised a more holistic perspective "soon" and it turns out "soon" is just about one year later. Who’d have thunk it!
The dominant impression of difference is time. Let’s think worst-case-scenario for college: 4 lab classes with 3 55-minute lectures per week and a 3-hour lab once a week. That’s approximately 24 hours of time. My professors used to say for every hour of class time an ideal student will spend 2 hours of out-of-class time. For an "easier" major that may be overestimating while for a "harder" major it can easily be underestimating but it is reasonable enough for the sake of discussion. Now the total time related directly to school is 48 hours per week (12 class, 24 out of class, and 12 lab). Just for completeness let’s add another 12 hours for any research endeavors and other miscellaneous academic pursuits.
That’s 60 hours total. Keep in mind that this is an overestimation based on Duke’s system. Very few people if anybody takes 4 lab classes in one semester, for example.
The most fair comparison for strictly academic hours in college would be commitments in the "real world". The first is my job. I’m expected in at 8am and I can leave at 5pm. There’s an hour lunch in there somewhere if I choose to use it. So far that’s 45 hours. I am going to include here time I have to spend grocery shopping, cooking, and otherwise running errands because I would prefer to be doing other things. Personally this comes out to about 5 hours in a given week, but that’s because I avoid or minimize as much as I can. My cooking times, for example, can be as low as 15 minutes for a given evening. And on top of only having to shop for one person I streamline my grocery trip as much as possible.
A total of 50 hours.
Thus it seems more time is available in "the real world." Bear in mind this is my experience. Depending on work circumstances this comparison may be different but for me I definitely have more time in "the real world."
While at first more available time is a blessing it is rapidly filled with commitments. This happens in college too but the main difference is in the nature of the commitments. In college, everything wraps up neatly on a weekly, monthly, or per semester basis. The problem set I have to do? Completed in a week, graded in another, and while that’s happening I have another to work on. The lab report? Next month. The class? Done at the end of the semester. There is a constant sense of completion, of progress, and accomplishment. Not so once outside of the academic world. I have a job that is indefinite in the length of its commitment working on projects that have tasks taking up months for deadlines and goals that are years off. I don’t get an A+ for making a delicious meal nor do I get a pat on the back for showing up to work. I’m not guided but for the most part am expected to be able to guide myself, asking questions as necessary and completing assignments and tasks as soon as humanly possible. This is jarring for a young adult coming out of a system that breaks things up into guided chunks after something around 18 years.
Learning to find success in the "real world" as a result is tough. I think most people are trained for sprints to succeed and then thrown into a world where it takes endurance and patience. There are fast paced industries but even there a single project’s scope is often larger than anything experienced in college. More importantly, without constant feedback on successes and failures and the obligation to complete relatively tedious tasks the sense of accomplishing fades and rediscovering a sense of progress takes time.
Access to Passions
Furthermore, after college access to luxuries becomes more difficult. When I was in school living on campus going to the gym was easy, spending time with friends simply required walking out my door, and I could find a million exciting things to do within a 5 minute walk from my dorm room. Your mileage on this will vary depending on circumstances like if you didn’t live on campus or if your college had less of a residential mindset than Duke did, but for me transitioning into the "real world" from what was essentially a walled garden was difficult. I have more time now but doing anything I love takes more thought. If I want to go to the gym I have first get a gym membership and then drive to the gym (my apartment complex doesn’t have a gym). If I want to practice my instruments I have to find a way to practice outside or practice at a time in my apartment when it doesn’t bother anyone, which can be impossible when I have other things to do in those times like tutor. I want to volunteer at local schools but I work from 8 to 5 (at least!) so I can rarely help in the actual school portion that I am interested in. Compromises everywhere and hard work just for fun.
The Little Things and the Big Things
I would argue that as a whole, taking what I’ve said so far into account, school felt more care-free. I worked hard, I had fun, and I learned a lot but never did I have to worry about causing millions of dollars of damages in a project because I was off on a design by tens of thousandths of inches.
Oh! And I forgot one big thing! My family treats me much more adult now. It’s been developing gradually but now with a steady income and evidence that I am in many ways a relatively independent human being I’m told more problems and issues the family is having. This can be somewhat jarring after many years of being kept in the dark to some degree but it’s also empowering to know what’s going on and potentially help out.
The “real world” feels heavier due to having easier access to available information. Each successive level of schooling – elementary to middle to high to college – slowly removed layers of difficulty in having access to information. Now, there is a confounding variable here of the Internet but let me tell you something, there’s a world of a difference in following a presidential campaign as a middle schooler, a high schooler, then an idealistic college student, and now a legal adult in the “real world” paying taxes, needing insurance, paying rent and otherwise handling many more things for myself than I had to otherwise.
College or the Real World?
If I could choose freely between the two I think I could choose the experience I have now. It’s certainly not as easily fun as college life was but I thrive under the responsibility and freedom when I’m on top of my game. Every once in a while I get overwhelmed but that’s not enough to give up on adult life.
College is great but I did not have enough talent to feel I was making contributions to the world. I was learning but not creating. As a working engineer (acknowledging that my college education helped get me here) even if I make no great breakthroughs I can reason that every project I complete contributes a little bit to the world.
I worked hard in school and with a little help from serendipity I have a job I enjoy and learn a lot from. The salary is such that I can afford certain luxuries that make life better. I don’t simply mean being able to buy things.
The biggest luxury my work situation affords is being able to freely automate most of my payments. For my vast student loans, car loans, and other bills I can set up auto bill-pay and not have to worry about it. I do monitor it so I don’t miss any errors or oddities that come up but without having to constantly remember to actively pay bills the load on my mind is lessened. The college analogy is having a homework but getting to automate it.
My apartment is larger than my dorm and is harder to maintain. For about 5 months I basically had the same amount of stuff as I did in college just spread out over many more rooms. In time my material possessions began to build up so now I have a legitimate full apartment to maintain. I can get very stressed out with messes so ultimately the higher maintenance means it’s harder to remain stress free.
I haven’t mentioned cooking much yet. In college I had a meal plan that included “food points” I could use at merchants on campus or even off campus for delivery. I never had to cook until I first lived in an apartment by myself. I’m still not an excellent chef by any means but I’ve assessed my needs and desires to cook most efficiently for me.
Hopefully this covers what you’re curious about. If you have any more questions ask in the comments and I’ll get to them! (Hopefully in less than a year…)