Should I Take a One-Year Dream Fellowship, Or a Great Job Offer From a Private Company?

I graduate from college in May, and I need to choose between a really good job offer from a private company and a fun, barely-paid one-year research fellowship abroad. This fellowship has been my dream for three years, and while I don’t want to work in academia as a career, it would basically be a post-graduation working vacation on the university’s dime. As I go through that application process, I’ve been interviewing around for management/HR type jobs, and got a really great offer from a company — almost too great. The benefits are amazing: profit-sharing, health care, tuition reimbursement for grad school, and a salary that is basically double what I expected to make right out of school, allowing me to aggressively pay down my $25K in student loans. It’s the kind of job I want to have when I’m looking to settle down and start a family, but right now seems like leaping too quickly into Proper Adult Life.

My heart says fellowship, but my brain says job; I’m afraid that when I come back from the year abroad, my resume will seem out of date and I’ll have to settle for underpaid admin work instead of this foothold into corporate management. What do I do? Should I follow my dream? Bite the bullet and start repaying my loans? Am I immature for feeling stifled by this offer? Can I ask to defer my offer so I can do the fellowship and have a job waiting for me when I return? — Cold & Confused in NYC

This question very much relates to my post from earlier today about Time vs. Money. Should you take the practical, well-paid job, or the less practical three-years-in-the-making dream fellowship abroad that will end in a year and leave you job-hunting again?

First off, yes, you should definitely ask the company if they can defer the job offer for a year. If you can finagle a want to keep your job offer and do your fellowship abroad, this will be the ideal solution.

So, what if the company is unable to hold the job offer for you? Or what if the company says they’ll defer the job for you and then scraps the position while you’re off on your fellowship? Is a one-year dream fellowship worth giving up a steady job with great benefits?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. And I can’t say that one choice is more right for you than the other. Besides the $25K student debt, I don’t know what your specific circumstances are.

What I can tell you is that when I was in my twenties, so many of the things I thought I wanted turned out to be things I actually didn’t want at all. I thought I wanted a big salaried job in the business or law or pharmaceutical fields, when it turned out that I wanted to make a living doing journalism. I thought I wanted a comfortable, quiet life in the suburbs, until I found myself in the city. I spent my early twenties doing a lot of moving from city to city, figuring out what I wanted to be doing, and where I wanted to be doing it. I spent a lot of time on the phone with my mother, who questioned every decision I made, and a lot of time sitting in living rooms with friends drinking cheap beer while we second-guessed our life choices.

I’m 30 now, and if I could write a letter to my 21-year-old self, I would say, “Have faith in your abilities.” I would say, “On your darkest, hardest days, remember how resilient you are.” I would say, “You have yet to learn this yet, but don’t dwell on lost opportunities — there will always be more.” I would say, “When you can, take chances.” I would say, “You have time on your side.”

I did have time on my side. If I, at 24, listened to everyone who told me how difficult it would be to make a career out of writing and to give up and go to pharmacy school (which is what my mother wanted me to do), I would not not be where I am today.

Here is something you don’t have to do: Take a job right after college because you don’t think you’ll ever get a job offer like that again. Here is what you do have to do: Figure out how you’re going to pay your bills and build the life you want to have if you don’t take that job.

This job offer? There will be other jobs like it. This dream fellowship abroad? I don’t know what it entails, but if it’s swimming with sea turtles on the Greek island of Zakynthos, you can figure out a way to replicate that too.

Would taking the dream fellowship and then having to hustle a little bit in some underpaid admin work while you search for a better job be the worst thing in the world? If you really think so, take the job. Some people like having a sure thing, and that’s okay. Figure out how to replicate that fellowship later.

If it’s not, if you can see yourself doing the fellowship and then hustling your way into a job after, go do that dream fellowship. Take advantage of your youth while you still can.

Have faith in your abilities. On your darkest, hardest days, remember how resilient you are. You have yet to learn this yet, but don’t dwell on lost opportunities — there will always be more. When you can, take chances. You have time on your side.

Photo: Amanda