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Statistically, the “most educated group in America is Black women.” And yet I, a Black woman, and my other highly educated Black women friends, often lament about how we have no idea what we want to do with our lives. We often talk about how education did not prepare us for our careers and how time feels stacked up against us as we transition from school to work to the desire to start families.

I feel mostly lucky in these conversations because I have managed to accomplish a college education, a postgraduate Juris Doctorate and rack up three years of early career experience as a lawyer in two different states — all before turning 25. While I may not fully know what I want yet, I know a lot about what I do not want. And I will be out of my early career zone by the time I am ready to start a family.

Why is it that years of higher education and internship experiences are not doing a good job of preparing people, especially Black people, for the early career world?

I’ve often said that early career feels especially vulnerable because there is such a knowledge gap between those who have been there a while and some control in decision-making, and those who come in bright-eyed and ready to go into doing something they feel only somewhat equipped to do. There is a realization that longevity creates a different kind of access than skill.

In addition to this separation of worlds, I think the education world and the career world are often disjointed ventures. Higher education tends to ask the question, “what do you want to know?” While building a successful career asks a completely different set of questions, such as:

“What do you want to do?”

“Who do you want to do it with?”

 “Who do you want to pay you to do what you want to do?”

This leads to people who have spent lots of time, energy and money learning things with a huge disconnect, when the knowledge of a craft and the practicing of a craft feel like completely different experiences. Even those like me who have the socio-economic privilege of being able to afford providing free labor to organizations in the name of internships may still find the intern and the staff roles to be a completely different experience. The compromise then becomes highly educated people asking themselves the question, “what do I want to do about what I know?” Then only a few brave (and financially privileged) ones will go back to the drawing board, think outside the box and ask themselves the big question of a building a successful career: “What do I actually want to spend my time doing?”

For those who finally make it through that hurdle and find work they want to be doing, with people they want to be doing it with and a compensation that works for them, another level of challenge emerges if they are a person of minority race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. It is challenging to navigate the power dynamics that surface with each of those identities, each with their own flavor of micro-aggressions, and there is often a lack of organizational support and mentoring to navigate them coupled with an expectation to be a model minority for the privilege of being granted access into a space that “your people” typically do not get access to. 

Often the combination of all of these hurdles lead to high levels of burnout and professionals exiting industries prematurely. So many industries are missing out on the contributions, the labor and the innovations of smart, capable Black people because support isn’t provided for its early career people.