How Five Princeton Women Have Navigated Their Post-College Years

Two young women on Princeton's campus
Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

The well-documented pay disparity between women and men becomes especially pronounced as women reach their late 20s and early 30s. Researchers suggest that being aware of this divergence may have implications not just for how young women make choices about internships and jobs, but also about their romantic relationships.

In her new book, Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College, Caroline Kitchener, a writer who graduated from Princeton in 2014, explores the personal and professional choices she and four fellow female classmates made during their first year out of college. The five women pursued very different professional paths—writing, medical school, computer programming, jazz singing, and documentary filmmaking—but all experienced shifts in the relationships they had with their parents, partners, and friends as they tried to stake out their independence and start their careers. While these women certainly have a leg up thanks to their prestigious alma mater, there are some facets of the post-college experience that reflect the choices many women make to balance their aspirations at work and at home.

I spoke with Kitchener about her new book, the dilemmas faced by recently graduated women, and how the women she interviewed defined and attained independence. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: Your book is about the first years out of college not just in terms of career, but also in terms of how women cope with trying to structure their own lives. Can you explain that a little more?

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Caroline Kitchener: When I started the book I thought it was going to be all about work. I thought I was primarily going to be focusing on careers and how women got started in their workplaces. As the year went on, the interviews naturally went to romantic relationships, relationships with friends, and relationships with parents. I think a big part of the reason for that was that we had lost the community that we had had our entire lives through school and suddenly we were reaching for security, comfort, and stability. It manifests itself in different ways for different women, but everybody wanted to deepen relationships and that was a priority that I don’t think people anticipated. I definitely didn’t.

Green: What made you want to include your own story in book?

Kitchener: I started this project at the beginning of my senior year [of college] and a big part of what was driving me was that I had no idea what graduation or afterward was going to bring. It’s a time that I don’t think we’ve really focused on. I thought it would be really interesting to be writing about this period while I was living it.

Originally I wasn’t going to be a part of the book at all. I started the research process in September of my senior year, so it was almost a whole year later that I decided to put myself into it. That was a hard decision because all of the girls can be anonymous, but I can’t. That [visibility] comes with its own set of struggles, but as I was writing, I realized that so many of the things that the women I was interviewing were experiencing, I was also experiencing. It felt disingenuous not to put myself in there with them.

Green: You started out freelancing right after college, so you weren’t in a structured office space. Did you get the impression that the women you interviewed didn’t think they could fill that void by deepening relationships in their workplace?

Kitchener: That’s what I had expected. As you learn from reading the book, my first couple of months were really hard. I thought that a huge part of the feeling of anxiousness was that I was alone at home writing, so I didn’t have the community that other people were finding at work.  

I had friends that went into places like consulting firms or Google. More and more there are companies that are trying to mimic the communities of college because they think that’s what people want. So there are many companies where you come in and you have a class and a lot of people your own age. I didn’t end up following anyone who did that, but I know anecdotally from my friends that that is a lot easier when it is built in for you by the company.

Green: What did writing this book show you about the ways that gender and relationship dynamics might influence young professional women’s priorities?

Kitchener: There’s definitely a pressure that we should be prioritizing and focusing on our careers. I think that was something that was very deeply felt by everyone in the book and definitely by me. I want that wonderful relationship that I have, but I also want to feel like I can do anything I want to do professionally. I don’t want to lose that because of my relationship.

Green: It’s often noted that women consider how family and relationship responsibilities will affect their career trajectories long before they actually get married or have kids. It seems one of the characters, Alex, definitely tried to plan with a partner in mind and the other women experienced some anxiety about the tradeoffs between relationships and opportunities. Can you elaborate on that more?

Kitchener: I think it’s different for everyone. Alex’s story is unique because she is a little bit older; she took a few years off. When we started the book she was 25, as opposed to 22 or 23. In the first year, with the exception of Alex, I really don’t think that we were thinking about kids. We’re not really at that stage of being aware of the ticking clock yet. I think that that comes later. The impulse to cling to a relationship comes more from wanting to replicate what we had in college than thinking about the rest of our lives.

Green: You wrote an article for The Atlantic recently that noted the wage gap between Ivy League-educated women and men. In their early 20s, Ivy League women are on par with men, but somewhere between ages 26 and 34, their male classmates advance much further professionally. While reporting this book, did you see the groundwork for that trend being laid?

Kitchener: As soon as you get out of the gate there is a wage gap, and that was part of the reason I was interested in writing the book. I wanted to think about what it is that happens between graduation—when in college [attendance] women are outpacing men—to right afterward. I wrote in the article that 27 years old is the age when they really start to diverge, and 27 is also the average age that college-educated women get married. So I guess you could say that what I noticed in the book laid the groundwork for that, in that the book shows a lot of serious relationships developing. Actually, one of those relationships has now led to marriage. So I guess, as far as wanting deep, connected relationships leads to marriage, that the groundwork is laid in that way.

Green: One of the women in your book, Olivia, the documentary filmmaker, spent a lot of energy trying to stake out financial independence from her wealthy Malaysian parents, and many people her age get some financial help from their parents to cover living expenses. What did you learn about the dynamic between young adults and the parents who are still providing them support?

Kitchener: That is a really difficult dynamic. Parents providing financial support goes a lot better when it’s not a point of leverage for the parent. I think in Olivia’s case it was difficult because she felt like if she took money from her parents, which she really needed to, then they would be able to dictate her life. At some points Olivia’s parents were fully supporting her. The level of support really runs the gamut, but it is extremely common for parents to help.

Green: Do you think that contributed to the anxious experience of the first year?

Kitchener: Definitely. Many parents have just shelled out a lot of money for college, if you were lucky enough that they could do that. I felt an incredible pressure to make them feel like it was worth it. I wanted to prove to them that I could support myself. For the most part I could do that with the exception of health insurance and things like the phone bill. But it definitely increases the anxiety. It makes it more difficult to take big risks, the kind of big risks that in many ways we are encouraged to take in our 20s, because we don't want to disappoint them, especially if we’re having to rely on them for money.

Green: A few of the women—Michelle, Olivia, and yourself—came from affluent backgrounds, and each had interesting interpretations of how their financial privilege affected their identities. Could you explain how you all reconciled with that?

Kitchener: Both Olivia and Michelle came from pretty extreme wealth, and I think the contrast between the two of them is really interesting. Michelle was very comfortable being supported by them because it allowed her to fulfill her dream, and her parents were extremely encouraging of her being a jazz singer. Her parents also gave the money and the support without saying too much else about it. It really was no-strings-attached support.

Olivia, on the other hand, her parents made it very clear that if she took the money it came with a certain set of expectations, one of those being that she would work at her father’s company and stop doing the creative documentary-film work that she enjoyed. While Michelle embraced what her parents could give her, Olivia saw that as something to get as far away from as she could. She did whatever she could to distance herself from that wealth. Not only did she not take her parent’s money but instead she worked as a sugar baby and got money that way. She was willing to do whatever it took to distance herself from the obligations that came with her parents’ money.

Green: It seemed like the competitive Princeton environment brought out an ambitious spirit in some of the women in your book, who often spoke about being on par with the accomplishments of their peers. This was addressed most directly by Denise, who was using the year after graduation to apply to medical school. What did you learn from her journey to not be beholden to the opinions of her Princeton peers?

Kitchener: Her trajectory was beautiful to watch. She started the year applying to medical school and so worried about impressing her family, friends, and the whole Princeton community, which I really understood, because she was seen on campus as such a role model. She felt at the beginning of the year like everyone was watching her and she had reason to feel that way because a lot of people were. Also, her family brought everyone to graduation and there were all of these boys and girls and second cousins looking up to her, thinking, “This is what I want to be.” Understandably, at the beginning of the year she was really plagued by that. She could not even stop to think about what she wanted. She was just thinking about what she needed to do to make the people in her life proud.

And in the end she suffered rejection for what I think was the first time in her life. She’s such an impressive person—she pretty much always got what she applied for. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when she’s opening her rejection letters and [Denise and her mother] are reading them and laughing together. I thought that was such a beautiful snapshot of her transition because she is embracing the rejection with one of the people she most wanted to impress. After that, she comes to the realization that in the end all she has to do is make herself proud.

Green: You finished reporting the book two years ago. Have you followed up with anyone? What else has changed since then?

Kitchener: Well, we’re all at different stages. Alex has gotten married to the woman that she was dating at the end of the book. Three of the serious relationships that were present in the book are still going, so that might say something—they weren’t fleeting. Rather than “What do I want to do next?” people are starting to think, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” And I think that is a pretty big transition. We’re all about 25 now. Right out of college it was very much okay to try things, it’s okay to be adventurous, it’s okay to take some risk. Now, I think, as we’re looking into getting into our late 20s, that starts to change. There is more pressure to figure out what you want for your career and the relationship you’re going to have.