The weeks leading up to college graduation are the best. You’ve worked so hard and studied so late into the night (usually when you were desperate and panicky and had no choice, right before a midterm). You’ve written papers on medieval literature, Indian art history, and the psychology of Vine videos. You did it. You finished college. You have your whole life ahead of you! So now what?
Maybe you already have a dream job lined up, and if so – congratulations and good for you. You might be traveling for a while or staying in your hometown and tending bar at night so you can spend your days putting together a business plan for your brilliant app, which is destined to be the next Snapchat.
Then again, maybe you have no clue what to do with yourself now that classes are over. That’s OK, too. You don’t have to have it all figured out the second they hand over your diploma. This is a marathon, not a sprint, goes the old cliché. Henry Ford was 45 when he created the Model T, and Toni Morrison was 39 when her first book was published. Look at Betty White – the woman is having a career renaissance in her nineties.
Maybe that seems ancient to you, so just know this: If your career path isn’t perfectly mapped out right now, that’s OK. If that’s the case, here are a few tips that might help as you move from college graduation into that big, exciting, overwhelming, unknowable, mindboggling thing called life.
1. Crush your own ego: First, you should be proud of all you’ve accomplished (assuming you studied and worked hard and didn’t spend the last four or five years attached to a beer bong 24/7). You should burst into the world feeling confident and assured, but humble and willing to learn. There will be setbacks, rejection, and speed bumps in any career, so it’s important to annihilate your ego before anyone else can, so you can then build it back up, like a phoenix rising from the flames. This will help you forge ahead and push past anything or anyone who tries to get you down. Find a good balance between confidence and the ability to say, “I don’t know,” and you’ll be in good shape.
2. Make a five-year plan: And then immediately set that five-year plan on fire. Just kidding. Sort of. If writing out your goals sounds cheesy, just do it behind closed doors. It helps you focus, and reminds you what you truly want. Your plan might change every few years, so maybe it’s a three-year plan. Also, please don’t have a panic attack if five years go by and you aren’t in the exact place you’ve plotted out for yourself. You’re not a robot. Cut yourself some slack. As long as you’re trying, you’re doing it right.
3. Avoid negativity: You know those articles with titles like “The 5 Majors That Will Ruin Your Life” and “The 10 Majors that Successful People Pursue So They Won’t Be Broke Losers”? If you majored in English or Philosophy or Drama, those articles suck, and they make you want to crawl into a hole with a bottle of cheap tequila. If you majored in Computer Science or Engineering, you probably have those articles framed above your bed. In any case, you need to avoid negativity online, in real life, and in your own head. Screw those articles. Screw the people saying, “You’ll never get that job.” You can, and you will. If you Just. Keep. Trying.
4. Do not go to grad school to “escape” reality: This is a terrible plan. Go to grad school if you must, and if you’ve thought long and hard about the consequences of taking out (more) student loans, the dangers of private loans, and the pros and cons of grad school versus real-world experience. You’ll only be “escaping” reality for a short time, and then you’ll be going through the “what do I do now that I’m graduating?!” mania all over again. I’m not saying grad school is bad, and some careers obviously require it, but just do it for the right reasons. “To hide away in poetry classes and avoid working in a cubicle” is not a good reason.
5. Do not yell at customer service reps: If you do emerge from the gossamer fog of academia only to realize that there’s a large pile of debt looming over you, you may be tempted to call Sallie Mae or Navient or whatever your student loan lender is called and start screaming at customer service people and asking them to make the nightmare go away. I understand this type of berserk behavior (because I may or may not have done it once or twice), but I’m sorry to say it won’t help. You’ll just be ruining someone else’s day. So don’t take it out on the customer service reps – no amount of yelling and screaming will make your loans disappear. Sorry.
6. Don’t assume: You can assume that someone in a robe will hand you a diploma when you graduate, but that’s about it. Please don’t assume that you’ll be a millionaire within the year or that your resume and your charming personality are so irresistible that you’ll of course land all fifteen jobs you’ve applied for. “Don’t assume” is just a good mantra to have in general. It applies to work, dating, traffic, interpersonal communication – anything, really.
7. Network: There’s a difference between “networking” and “kissing ass and being gross to get ahead.” Yes, there’s a blech side to networking almost always, but you should get over it. And please don’t puke when I say, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” It’s sort of true. It’s also what you know, but if you meet someone in the industry you love, they might just remember you and help you in five months, two years, or a decade down the line. You never know. So meet as many people as you can, be nice, and don’t burn bridges. Yesterday’s lame boss is tomorrow’s person who is doing the hiring at your future dream job. Think about it. Obviously, if they did something horrible or illegal, you should burn that bridge down to the ground, but if they were just annoying, it’s best to suck it up and play nice.
8. Always send a note: One of the best bosses I’ve ever had was a feisty, 82-year old movie producer. She wasn’t always sweet, but she was tough, caring, and inspiring. She was a mentor. She once told me to “always send a note – people remember.” This is 2015 so you can swap out “email” for note, but you should send a short, to-the-point “thank you” email after every job interview. Don’t write a manifesto or email them six times a day. Just send one, simple note. If you hear that someone you worked with in the past or an old boss got promoted, send an email to say congratulations. These little things go a long way, and people do remember.
So that’s it. Eight simple tips for navigating the path out of school and into the unknown. Hopefully they’ll help when you’re looking for jobs, working toward your dream career, or doodling in the margins of your five-year plan in an effort to figure it all out.
Dina Gachman is the author of Brokenomics: 50 Ways to Live the Dream on a Dime (Seal Press, April 2015).