Approximately three million college students are expected to graduate with either an associate's or bachelor’s degree in the United States this coming May. If you are one of these students -- and what comes after graduation scares you, don’t let the fear prevent you from taking action. After working with thousands of students -- and having been one myself -- I realize that the fear stems from a misconception that you’ll be stuck with whatever you choose for the rest of your life. And until a few decades ago, that was the case.
However, as Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew, founders of the career website TheMuse.com, point out in The New Rules of Work, “the New Rules necessitate a major mindset shift; one that involves looking at your career as a series of two- to five-year steps, rather than a single choice made up front.” So you don’t have to make a decision for the rest of your life; you just need to take one step in a direction that seems most appealing to you at the moment and be prepared to course correct as needed. Here are five tips to keep in mind as you do so.
Articulate What You Are Seeking
“What will you say when people ask you -- and they will -- what are you doing after graduation?” asks Jenn Leard, associate director of career advising and student engagement at Goucher College. “Having an answer already planned allows you to be on the offense (instead of the defense) and strategically enlist their help in keeping an eye out for opportunities of interest.”
Before you have to respond to such inquiries from family and friends, give an honest answer to yourself. What are you motivated to do following graduation? If you are considering further education, have you researched schools and applied? If a graduate degree doesn’t seem appealing at this time, perhaps you can consider taking a gap year. If you are interested in securing a full-time position post-graduation, you may want to check out this advice. “If you don’t know WHAT, think about what you do know so far,” says Leard. “What’s important to you, even things that might seem small?” Be sure to seek guidance from your career office. “Career development and navigating the job search are not innate,” says Leard. “We aren’t born knowing how to do this; therefore, we have to LEARN how.” Career counselors can help guide the learning process.
Expand Your Network
Many job seekers believe that networking is what you do when you have an idea of what types of opportunities you want to pursue. Once you clarify the general direction you want to go into, you will connect with people who can help you get there. Although that’s a perfectly acceptable way to make connections, it doesn’t help much if you are a college student who has no clue what comes next. As that student, know that you are not alone.
“It’s important to crush the myth that everyone else has their next step set up already,” says Leard. “You can then operate from a place of active engagement, not PANIC, as you approach the job search.” Start exploring and connecting with people in different environments. Get out of your academic context and try something new: A class you never thought you’d take, a Meetup group, a volunteer engagement a friend mentioned, a program you saw advertised in the school’s newsletter. Don’t worry about not knowing how the engagement can lead to a career. The purpose of the activity is to open your options. Expanding your network will help you expand your access to opportunities you didn’t even know existed and learn more about their alignment with your values and goals. In addition, through such experiences, you may come across a person who becomes your mentor and guides you on your professional journey.
Step up Your Online Game
Attending events in person is one way to connect with like-minded individuals and experts in a certain field, but that could also limit your access, especially if you find yourself in a smaller geographical area. That’s when an active online presence can help. The keyword here is active. I’ve mentioned the importance of having a polished LinkedIn profile, and while that’s the one well-established online professional network, it only works if you actively engage by sharing content and commenting on what grabs your attention. Furthermore, plenty of professionals and companies use a variety of social media platforms to expand their reach so be sure to engage on other networks, such as Twitter and Instagram.
“Have a plan of action,” advises Leard. To avoid overwhelming and stressing yourself as to how much and what to post, work with a career counselor to help you develop a strategy. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you need patience. Developing connections and establishing networks takes time and effort, and you cannot force the process by bombarding other professionals with a constant barrage of messages, likes and shares.
Have A Plan B
Whatever it is that you want to do following graduation, things happen and plans may have to be adjusted, so make sure you are ready. Flexibility is the key to success. College graduates often limit their searches to opportunities that match their degrees and majors, and on a surface level, that makes sense. But in a world of work where previously non-existent jobs are constantly created, it’s an effective strategy to look beyond your degree and discover new options. Change is inevitable and what guarantees success is to view change as a skill. Start keeping track of what will help you bring value to employers a year or more in the future. “Most professionals now change jobs -- and even careers -- every couple of years,” Cavoulacos and Minshew write. Career paths are more flexible than ever, and “you will likely reinvent yourself many times over.”
Graduation does not mark the end of your education, and continued learning is essential to professional growth. In fact, some of the most successful people in the world credit their good fortunes to voracious reading and continued learning. To keep abreast of new developments in your fields of interest, you may want to stay informed by listening to diverse podcasts, reading blogs and major publications, following companies and influencers on LinkedIn or Twitter, taking free online classes, and engaging with individuals from all walks of life. The required skills for each job will change as the world of work changes rapidly, but if you stay curious about trends, you will prove yourself an asset for any employer.
Lastly, as you ponder the above points, please don’t forget to apply for opportunities. “Set aside time to apply and be sure to customize your application materials to each position,” says Leard. “Keep track of descriptions, where, when and which you apply to -- staying organized and on top of your applications is a key ingredient to a successful job search.” Pay special attention to opportunities that inspire you. Those are the ones to further explore as you move closer to graduation and enter a new stage in your life.