Life After College: Smoothing the Transiton

Chapter 10 of my book I CAN Finish College is about preparing for life after college. We all think of graduation as the holy grail. The big achievement. And it is … but it isn’t. I remember the speaker at my stepdaughter’s graduation from Bryn Mawr College saying that we all worked so hard to climb that ladder to the top—to graduation and then we would get there and leap into nothingness. It was an appalling thought—especially hearing it as a parent who had just forked out a zillion dollars for this education. But it was true to a great extent. For all our lives we moved from one clear goal and set of actions to the next. From elementary school to high school and hopefully to college. In the quest for more certainty families and friends would ask what your major would be in college because it was assumed that the major would lead to a specific career and that would be where you stayed for the rest of your life and you would be all set.

Well forget that idea. That ended at about the same time as my stepdaughter’s graduation—in the late1980s. The market crash of ’87 launched what was really the first of the waves of “white collar’ layoffs which Barbara Ehrenreich described in Fear of Falling. What has been evolving ever more rapidly is a work life that is more about gigs than entrenched stability in any one job or even any one career. Technology has a lot to do with these changes—movement from a manufacturing things economy to a creation of knowledge and technology driven economy. And things move fast. My own career path presages this trend in my leaving the corporate world as a marketing executive and moving ultimately to a career in higher education with a bunch of gigs thrown in.

So now to the actual point of this piece. What do you do? You are getting ready to leave college and what is next. While you are still in college remember that it is the dress rehearsal for all that follows.

Preparing for the workplace

· First—Don’t worry so much about the major unless it is essential for a particular career (engineering is about the only one of those.) But find the path that gives you the most gratification and where you excel and trust that the skills you get regardless of major will be relevant to work. Any major will teach you how to read, write, do both qualitative and quantitative research, ask questions, and engage in team work. You will do all those things in whatever job you have.

· Do work while you are in college. Do jobs that pay the bills even if they are not exciting you may learn about what good and bad leadership looks like, how to make customers happy and how to fold a shirt or wrap gifts. (My son, the advertising exec, is excellent at both those skills learned in summer jobs.)

· Do work that won’t pay the bills—internships are necessary. Some may be paid but even if they pay little or nothing they give you a feel for the work you may be thinking you want to do later. One of my former students wanted to be a journalist until she had an internship in a newsroom. She is now a lawyer in a communications firm. You meet people who will be key to your landing the first gig after graduation and may become mentors and friends long after. Spend time in your college’s career office to find and prepare for those internships. Lots of time…

· More work that will not pay the bills is service. Whether you volunteer to tutor high school students in math or teach little kids how to read or work in a hospital or create a vegetable garden in a food desert, you are doing work that is not only gratifying but often puts you in leadership roles. You also meet more people who can be useful as references and part of your network. And you might find a career idea that you had not thought of at all.

· Do work for your school. Head a club, be part of student government, volunteer for a task force. Your college higher ups get to know who you are and can lead to valuable contacts. You also learn how to engage in work with others in achieving a goal or purpose. You may get recognition that will lead to other good things ranging from scholarships to job opportunities.

All the above do a few things for you to prepare you for life after college. You have to manage your time well to keep up. I have known many students who have done all of the above and kept up a solid 3.0+ GPA. Note that the 3.0 + GPA is really important for job searching. A potential employer who sees all you have done while keeping up your grades knows that you will be a hard worker and able to do the multitasking that is part of any workplace. So you have to be really being strategic about how to use time. When you graduate and are starting a family and doing all the things we think of as grown up stuff it takes organization to live that life. Practice in college. You build your networks. You build your organizational knowledge. You build your self confidence.

On the job

I highly recommend the film The Intern with Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway. It hits issues like work life balance, leadership, focus, and manners as these things relate to a new generation of workers. It is also very fun. If you want to see a dysfunctional old school workplace try Glengarry Glen Ross starring Alec Baldwin (the source of the line “cookies are for closers” he says in Boss Baby). And if you want to see a dysfunctional workplace overturned by women then go back to Sally Field in Norma Rae.

Hopefully you have learned through those summer jobs and internships that the workplace is a political universe and that you have to be cautious in navigating it. You need to speak up in meetings … but not dominate. You have to let people know what you have done… but not be boastful. You have to be a team player. You have to do face time (not FaceTime) as in be in your seat before you boss arrives and after s/he leaves. You have to deliver projects on time and done well. Exceed expectations. You have to take initiative. You have to be able to listen – really listen to what is said in meetings both in words and in subtexts of body language or nuance. All of this can sound unpleasant but that should be mitigated by your having done your homework and found yourself in a nice company and doing work you like. (Back to those internships and mentors…)

You need to follow the trends in your industry – reading the trade publications like Ad Age or Women’s Wear Daily or the Wall St. Journal. You could find out there are rumors circulating about your firm or that there are key trends in your industry or that new legislation may deeply impact your field (and job…) It also keeps you in the conversation at work. Read other stuff too. It is called cultural literacy. Read, see, go to the things others in your workplace are so you are always part of the conversation.

And dress appropriately for your workplace/industry. For some firms jeans are cool but others really look for more formal and conservative attire. My son-in-law, a corporate lawyer by day, is a rock star on the weekends (really… guitar and all.) So who you are at work and at home can be different people to some extent. The being nice part should be consistent all the time.

Preparing for personal life after college

At some point you will leave your parents house. My son thought he would live at home for a while after college until I asked one too many times what time he would be home from a date when he was 22. The next day the apartment search began. Better to plan on that sooner rather than later.

As part of the job search you need to create a budget – a very lean budget perhaps but you will need one. Go to the federal Occupational Handbook and get a sense of starting salaries for your field of interest and locale. Armed with that then figure out what you can afford to pay in rent (both by yourself or with roommates), utilities, college loans, food, health insurance, transportation, dry cleaning, hair care, etc. Ideally you will have an actual job offer but if you are in a position to negotiate at all knowing your base expenses will help. Some may be met through your work—corporate cafeteria, health insurance, transportation subsidies. Ask about those after you have the offer in hand and are negotiating the close of the deal (if they really want you they will have told you all the perks anyway.)

Roommates can be a challenge but may be a necessary evil if rents are crazy. And can actually turn out to be your best friends. If you had them in college you will know that. Sometimes college classmates can make good roommates. But always vet roommates carefully ( I think of scary roommate movies like Single White Female…). Be sure you are reasonably compatible and agree on ground rules up front. Maybe even in writing so there is no confusion or if there are conflicts you have something to point to.

Figure out cheap eats. Give potluck parties and save the leftovers (there will be lots) for yourself for the week.

If there is time given work keep up exercise/sports, some kind of spiritual practice, time with friends and family, community service of some sort and binge-watching time and sleep. This keeps you sane. Again college was dress rehearsal for all this right?

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD is a former college senior administrator and professor and the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide You can find out more and see other blogs at


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