At the end of every school year, the media is stuffed with advice for soon-to-be graduates looking forward with excitement — and not a little fear – to setting out on their careers. I’ve althinways felt that this was just a little bit too late – by the time June rolls around, you’re competing with literally millions of recent grads, all frantic to find some kind of handhold in this thing called “real life”.
No, the time to start thinking about life after graduation is now – no matter where you are in your education process. The earlier you stop thinking about college as a break from “real life” and start thinking about it as a stage of real life, the better. That doesn’t mean you have to start sending out resumes the first day of your freshman year, but rather that you should always be thinking about the arc you’re following in college and where it’s likely to take you – and how you can shape it to take you where you’ll be happiest.
Lindsey Pollak, the author of Getting from College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World, offers a ton of advice for job-seeking grads – and future job-seeking grades – on her blog. Some of the more important tips she offers include:
College students, in my experience, suffer from an inferiority complex. They assume that nobody on “the real world” would be interested in their thoughts, talents, or problems, one consequence of which is that they do very little to reach out to people in fields they’re interested in until they’re “finished”, which usually means when they’re actively looking for work – and by then, it’s too late.
Start making connections as early as you can. Email people in fields you’re interested in, even if only to say “I read your book and it really had an impact on me” or “I really like what your company is doing with X”. Join professional organizations – most offer low-priced student memberships – and attend conferences. Join or create groups on campus devoted to topics that interest you.
In most cases, you’ll find that people are more than willing to lend a hand to a bright student. It’s flattering to be recognized for what you’re accomplishing, no matter what the source, and it feels good to know you’re helping someone set out on the right path. There are exceptions, of course, but few enough that you can always move on to the next person.
2. Do your research.
Visit and use the career services office on your campus.Virtually nobody else does, so you’ll be received with open arms. Keep an eye out for unusual job titles, and research them – maybe Corporate Happiness Officer (a real job title!) is something you’d be good at? How about Vice President of Environmental Sustainability?
Look up companies that interest you and see where you might fit – there are thousands of tasks that have to get done in a typical company regardless of whether they make tractor parts or iPod accessories. Pay attention to media stories about new fields opening up, or about skills that are experiencing a growing demand – these are the career paths of tomorrow.
3. Use your summers wisely.
A great internship or summer job can be a huge help, but there are other things you can do in the summer, too. Start your own business, or create a website. Temp to get experience working in a wide range of companies. Take summer courses through your school’s adult extension, or at a local community college, to build up non-academic skills like bookkeeping, business networking, leadership, or computer programming. Read widely and wisely – forego your usual beach reading for recent publications in fields that interest you. If you can afford it, travel – learn to adapt readily to strange and unusual circumstances.
4. Craft your online persona.
In today’s world, one of the worst ways students damage their future careers is by sharing too much of the wrong kind of information online. Assume that everything you post online is going to be available to prospective employers, clients, or investors, all of whom increasingly turn to the Internet to research potential employees or partners. Keep the drunken stories either anonymous/pseudonymous, or marked as “private”, and be sure to build out public-ready profiles, under your own name if at all possible.
5. Look at small companies.
Although going from college to Google might seem like a real coup, a small company offers a lot of benefits early on in your career. At Google (or another mega-company) you’ll be an insignificant fish in a huge sea, whereas small companies may well give you the chance to shine. According to Pollak, small companies allow students:
- Opportunities to take on responsibility beyond your job description.
- Less strict policies about working hours and days off.
- The possibility of making a real difference in the company’s success.
- The ability to work closely with high-level people.
6. Pay attention!
Whether you end up at a big company or a little company, consider your summer jobs and first jobs out of college as a training ground – an extension of your education. Listen more than you talk, and learn as much as you can from the “old hands” – and from their critics. “Give colleagues and clients the opportunity to share their advice, guidance and tricks of the trade,” Pollak writes. Stay on the lookout for opportunities to grow your skills, by taking on new responsibilities, joining projects, or getting yourself attached to the teams of company visionaries.
7. Become a great writer.
No matter what field you hope to go into, and no matter what job you hope to have in that field, writing skills will get you further than almost any other competency. “Written communication skills are ESSENTIAL for most careers today,” writes Pollak. Look at every written assignment as a chance to develop better writing and editing skills. Ask for feedback from your professors. Take writing classes, either for credit or through adult extension. Join a writing group, or form one. Read writing books (Stephen King’s On Writing is a great one and highly readable). In short, do whatever you can to become a better writer – you’ll be putting yourself two or three steps ahead of the rest of your graduating class.
None of these things should be the only thing you do in college. Go to classes, of course, but have fun, take adequate time to relax and blow off steam, take a risk or two, and make friends. But make sure you spend at least a little bit of time – an hour every week or so is plenty – to think about what you want to do when college is over. If you’re anything like I was, and like most of my students are, you honestly have no idea what you want to do when you graduate – so take some time now, with graduation still over the horizon, to get some ideas and lay some groundwork, so you don’t join the ranks of terrified recent grads groping blindly around the job market and grasping at the first thing that comes along.