Van Life: How to Avoid a Post-Graduate Existential Crisis

Blog Audio

It’s day three of the road trip — bitterly cold this morning. Valentin’s coaxed his mop of hair under a woolly hat with some Medusa-esque results. I’m on the passenger seat, two jumpers, one blanket deep, as we drive to the Großer Alpsee, a lake in the Allgäu Alps in South Germany. The novelty of van life keeps catching me off guard. We have nowhere we need to be. This is the longest I’ve been away from a desk this year; my emails are developing abandonment issues.

This time last year I was writing a poetry dissertation in a student house, accompanied by some persistent wallpaper fungus. The desk had been constructed by a sadist with the aim of preventing procrastinatory coffee-breaks. Its slide-out tray in the footwell slowly grated your thigh like a blunt mandoline if you tried to escape. I was writing a narrative poem about cave people, so this happened frequently.

That autumn, I’d visited a nature reserve with a friend of mine from the physics department. They’d been baffled by my dissertation: “But what are you going to do afterwards?” (a question BSc students seem to enjoy asking the Arts and Humanities.) Living in a bubble of spears and salt flats, I realised I had no idea. Christ, I had 350 lines about loin cloths to my name. The blank space of a life post-university was a distant alarum on the horizon – the sound of the void.

Post-Graduate Existential Crisis

Finishing university is much like watching ITV’s The Masked Singer — you never think it’ll happen to you. For post-grads having spent the best part of their life proceeding along the educational tramline, the prospect of finishing a degree and having to blag your life from there on in, is disconcerting. I can only liken this to your Sims character mastering the chef profession and then being rudely turned into a vampire by your sister when you weren’t looking. It’s the felling of all structure and security, a new direction – confusing and anxiety provoking. Finals year was revealing. As the end approached, my course mates braced themselves in what I initially assumed were their own individual ways. On further evaluation, I realised the majority fell into three main acts of desperation:

  1. The Emergency Masters
  2. The Carousel of Optimists
  3. Running into the Void

The Emergency Masters

Meaning no disrespect to those who actually require an MA, the “Emergency Masters” is the act of applying for a last-minute masters programme in want of a better idea, in short, prolonging the void or the educational equivalent of driving a train to the end of its track and then jumping out to keeping laying down more sleepers in front of you. This is a popular choice, perhaps because it can be achieved in one UCAS application and a recycled essay from earlier years when your brain was less fried. Putting off the inevitable comes at the price of another year slogging through smugly named JSTOR essays and a healthy lump of debt.

The Grad Scheme: A Carousel of Optimists

For those with more imagination, there is the carousel of optimism. Now the carousel of optimism starts with a grad scheme — on paper, a deus ex machina, designed like a giant, extended hand ready to catch disorientated graduates as they plummet into the void.

Mark from Sussex finishes his PHD in neuroscience and celebrates with a grad scheme at a thimble factory. When questioned, Mark argues: “Well, it’s a carousel placement so one of the departments I will work for is bound to need a neuroscientist.” Three years and 12 departments later, Mark remains in market research.   

Without shitting on the many fantastic, entry-level employment opportunities (of which there are many) the typical application process is only mildly more attractive than unemployment. From winter through to graduation, I watched helplessly as coursemates entered a series of soul-sucking endurance tests.

The typical grad scheme application begins with a written statement, which explores who you are as a person. They tend to be thorough; you might be required to detail the width of your left earlobe, or what you did during your time as a foetus. (While floating in the womb, you could enhance your employability by learning Python, Mandarin or how to turn off ITV’s The Masked Singer.)

On passing this bureaucratic hurdle, I see more and more students subjected to the recorded interview, which must surely win the prize for the most soulless way to hire a human being. For those who don’t know, candidates are asked to sit in their homes in front of a recording device and answer a series of questions into the literal void. This recording is then passed on to recruitment to be dissected. I’ve heard tales of algorithms and key words wiping out a candidate’s chances before their tape even reaches another human.

In Yorkshire, Lola presses record too early. Her response to, “Evaluate the meaning of life” goes beyond the 1-minute time limit, meaning the recruitment team caught her finishing off a tin of spaghetti hoops but not her ontological speculation on what it means to be conscious.

Further probing weeds out the remaining few. This is often through an assessment day, which is thought to be the inspiration behind Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.

A group of wannabe “envelope manufacturing assistant quality improvement managers” are locked in a white-walled cube to work as a team, sealing a dozen letters using just their little toes. Behind a one-way mirror, a team of experts ready the popcorn and decide who they think would do the best on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. This candidate will get the job.

Running into the Void

And then I come to my fellow men, the post grads who run blindly into structureless existence. Living in a van and freelancing to afford food and gas, I think I’m alright without a structure for a while. Not having the framework of a 9-5 can feel purposeless, it’s a lifestyle that lacks security, and I’d kill for a proper toilet, but I want this — a slower, simpler way of living.

Yesterday was exactly that. We spent the day just sitting on Einstein (the mountain, not the physicist.) It’s one of the smaller peaks in the Tannheim range in north Tyrol, but at 1866m, is still a bit of a climb. The novelty of using my body instead of my brain hasn’t yet worn off.

Climbing Mount Einstein

On the summit, the town of Tannheim looked like a scattering of Playmobil or Lego builds, red-roofed farms dwarfed by an ever-encroaching mass of pines on either side of the valley.

The view from Mount Einstein
View from Mount Einstein

We sat there in the sun, the kind you can feel in your bones, eating Rittersport chocolate out of a freezer bag. I had to think of Dad doing home office work. He would be in the kitchen with one of mum’s spatulas, sleeves up, poking about in a machine that the factory had lent him for chocolate experiments. There would be cocoa liquor up the walls. I wondered who was sat at the desk in my student room now.


Written Nov.14 2020. Music and Audio edit by Valentin Jann.


  1. Dropped out my first semester and started working on my road plans. This has given me so much inspiration thank you for the post! The pictures look so cool! Looking forward to more 🙂 – ant


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