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7 Tips For Moving From College Into The Professional World


Tis the season of pomp, protests, platitudes, and, unfortunately, when commencement speakers “just can’t help themselves,” politics.

But what new college graduates really need is practical guidance on how to transition to the professional world. Here are seven tips (and a postscript for women) for now, or to pull out later when that first day of work nears for you, a younger friend, or family member.

1. Be An Anti-Millennial

In his 2008 book, “The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace,” Ron Alsop explored the graduating generation’s entrance into the workforce. Alsop penned a summary of his book for the Wall Street Journal, highlighting employers’ biggest complaints.

Millennials seek “to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace.” They don’t want to work more than 40 hours a week, want to wear clothes that are comfortable, want flexible work schedules and more vacation and personal time, but also desire high pay and a promotion within a year. According to employers Alsop interviewed, they also “want loads of attention and guidance from employers. An annual or even semiannual evaluation isn’t enough. They want to know how they’re doing weekly, even daily,” but at the same time “they don’t take suggestions for improvement well.”

Want to succeed in the workforce? Do the opposite. Dress professionally. Work hard and independently, and if you need esteem reinforcement, call your mom. Remember, the employer is your boss and you are there to please him (within moral and legal limits, of course). It is not his job to keep you happy; it is your job to keep him happy. If you do all of this, you will get promoted and earn flexibility, but it won’t come in a year. And if you don’t adapt, you will end up job-hopping for years, never proving that you deserve the responsibility and flexibility you desire.

2. Keep Reading Substantive Books

Lifelong learning may be a catchphrase, but it’s truly necessary if you want to succeed in the professional world. A college education will open doors; what you learn afterward will help you succeed. Where to start? Well, Alsop’s book would be a good place! But beyond that, regularly read the Wall Street Journal and trade and professional magazines, in print or online.

Also read the webpage and social media feeds for your industry, company, and competitors. Add some more practical resources, such as—believe it or not—a user manual or “Dummies” guide to the software programs you will use and Strunk and White’s perennial writing resource. Finally, well-written fiction and non-fiction will do more to improve your writing skills than anything else.

3. Exercise Prudence in Dress, Dialogue, Demeanor, and Drink

Remember that prudence is a virtue—and there’s a good reason for that. Prudence will save you many personal and professional heartaches. So exercise prudence in all you do, starting with your dress. Yes, casual might be more comfortable, but it is less professional. Err on the side of business attire, especially at the beginning of your career. Women, the look you are going for is professional, not sexy. Megyn Kelly’s success notwithstanding, don’t adopt her wardrobe, which is better suited to a cocktail party or high-end clubbing.

Similarly, your demeanor and dialogue should be professional. Speak to the custodial staff with the same respect you show the CEO. Also, let prudence guide your conversations—in person, in email, and on social media. Don’t gossip or badmouth co-workers or supervisors, even if your higher-ups are. Keep conversations about religion, sex, and politics outside of work; and even then, remember that what you say reflects on your employer.

So don’t be this guy.

Finally: Don’t drink more than one alcoholic beverage at work functions. It’s hard to be prudent when you’re blotto.

4. Re-Boot Your Social Media Presence

As a millennial, you likely learned to peck out a tweet before you learned to sign your name. But now is the time to transition your online persona from party girl (or boy) to professional. Consider starting fresh with a new handle for work-related posts and follows. Keep your social life separate, while remembering that what you say on those accounts is still public.

Next: follow relevant accounts, such as professional and trade associations, business and news outlets, your employer and competitors, and industry journalists. Try Googling “top [pharm] journalists on twitter,” personalizing for your industry. Then follow the “who’s-who” to keep current on the latest news.

But keep your phone holstered at the office. The office is for work, not surfing. However, if you’ve spent years in school constantly checking each little ping, limit Twitter and Facebook perusing to your professional persona. It’s likely not as exciting (yet) and will at least serve a legitimate purpose.

5. Set Your Professional Standards Early

It’s also imperative to set your standards early, both for yourself and for others. Here I’m talking about morals and priorities. No one enters her first professional job with designs to be the next Bernie Madoff. No one plans to tolerate sexual harassment. And no one intends to destroy family relationships through neglect. But youth and inexperience often leads us down a path from which it is difficult to return.

That little fib to the client or boss, the minor over-expensing from a business trip—these little things grow as we numb ourselves in the bustle and stress of the job. Or consider an off-color joke or comment, followed months later by an inappropriate proposition—surely made tongue-in-cheek? Then there are those cancelled family outings for a rush project. “There’ll be more time to spend with family once I’m established,” you tell yourself. But the more established you become, the more responsibilities you will have. Now is the time to set and live up to the standards you want for yourself and expect for others.

6. Find Mentors and Actively Network

Navigating these, and other, early challenges proves much easier if you have a good mentor. Many companies will assign you a mentor, akin to your freshman roommate. You might hit it off and be a perfect fit, or the relationship may remain polite but stilted. If not a good fit, maintain the relationship but also forge new ones.

Look for others whose work ethic, professionalism, and morals you admire. Seek out the person who treats everyone with respect, doesn’t bad-mouth or gossip, and gives credit where it’s due but accepts responsibility for a group failing. Oh, and who doesn’t cheat on his (or her) spouse.

Often you’ll find these people through various work-related projects. As the project nears an end, mention to your would-be mentor the benefits of the project and your desire to work with him or her in the future. Volunteer to take on a special project or serve on a committee. By doing this, a natural mentor relationship will develop over time.

Seek out networking opportunities. Join local and national professional and trade organizations. Attend their monthly or annual meetings, or serve on a committee or as an officer for these organizations. Also volunteer to serve on the board of local nonprofit organizations. These often consists of a variety of local professional players, and such service helps the community and you personally.

7. Remember: ‘You’re Gonna Make It After All’

Finally, remember your first “real” job will be hard. It will be nothing like a summer internship, which had outings and an end date and offered the excitement of fall football, friends, and frolicking to look forward to back at college. But this is work. Given our government’s inability to address the Social Security crisis, you will likely be working for another 50 years (remember, prudence in drink!).

Nonetheless, you will be excited to start your new adventure. And you’ll show up for your first week feeling like this:

But by the end of the week you will realize that day-in and day-out, work is hard and you may leave the office on Friday feeling like this.

But it is early, and new jobs are always difficult. Give it time. This may end up being your dream job, or it might be years before you find the perfect fit. Still others find that work is always work and never a vocation, but still take pride and pleasure in doing an honest day’s work to support their family.

No matter which scenario plays out, don’t waste the opportunity to learn, make connections, and grow. While doing so, pay off those student loans. You never know when you will find that perfect calling or entrepreneurial opportunity, and if you are saddled with thousands in student loan debt you won’t have the flexibility to pursue that prospect. So no (avocado) toast, tattoos, or Tahiti until you pay off that mortgage on your mind.

2 Postscripts for Women

Before you slip on those heels for your first day at the office, knock those chips off your shoulder—the glass ceiling, gender-pay inequity, and mansplaining myths you’ve been fed for the last four years. It’s a bunch of hooey, and viewing the workplace through the lens of liberal academia will become your personal albatross. Rather, assume—as is usually the case—that opportunities are equal, and jerks ply their trade equally as well.

Finally, if you hope to be a mom someday, remember you can have it all. But you can’t have it all at once. That’s reality, not sexism.