Five Smartest Moves for Liberal Arts Grads

Smartest Move #1: Discover where you want to go

If you thought finding a job after graduation was the most difficult thing to do, think again! Far harder than the initial job search is figuring out exactly what you want to do. The difficulty is that when you’re in college you have very little time, and you may not be inclined towards self-reflection. One way to get started is to take the instruments commonly offered by your careers office, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or the Strong Interest Inventory. You won’t magically find direction, but particularly if you work with a career counselor, these instruments can help jumpstart your thought process.

One piece of advice: be willing to jettison preconceived notions about success. It doesn’t take too long when you’re in the real world to discover that no amount of pay will compensate for a miserable work situation. In particular, don’t be swayed in your career direction by those around you as graduation nears. Resist the temptation to follow the pack and forget who you really are. Often, that means remembering who you were, and what you loved as a child.

It’s actually quite normal to graduate from college without being completely sure of your direction. There are a number of reasons for this. First, you may not have been ready to think deeply about your career while you were in school. Second, you may have tried a number of different fields, but still not found direction. And you may just need more time for exploration or reflection. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t sit still. Find a job. Work through a temp agency. Do information interviews. Intern in an interesting company for a few months. The first key is to put yourself in situations where you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like. The second key is keeping talking to people, especially those who love their jobs. It’s not easy to put in the amount of time necessary to find your passion, but it’s well worth it.

Smartest Move #2: Get experience

Without exception, all the people in Smart Moves, had early work experiences, either on or off-campus. They did co-ops and internships, and played leadership roles in clubs and organizations. Often internships and low-paid clerical or service jobs after graduation offer you the only way to get your foot in the door. That’s particularly true in fields like entertainment, where many recent grads find themselves working in the mailroom. It’s the classic “Catch 22”. You have to have experience to get experience. And often, you simply have to pay your dues.

To make the most of your experiential education, before and after college, it’s worth remembering a few things: First, whatever you’re asked to do, do it well. Second, remember that all experience is good experience, even if it tells you what you don’t want to do ever again. Finally, always be looking around you. Who’s doing the really interesting jobs? How did they get there? Do you like the culture? What do you see that you’d want to avoid in a new job?

While you’re on a short-term assignment, it’s a great time to get into the habit of LUNCH. Invite someone to join you for a brown bag or a sandwich and get to know them. The more people who know you and like you, the easier it is to find career allies who will help you down the road.

Smartest Move #3: Build social and networking relationships

The graduates profiled in Smart Moves could write the book on networking. Networking is important for everyone, but it’s critical if your passion is something unusual like being a stunt actor or working for a major league baseball team. The more outrageous your ambition, the more likely it is you’ll need help getting there. Unfortunately, building social and networking relationships is one of the hardest skills for any young person to master.

Here’s a tip to get you started: In your career toolbox, you need two items. The first is an elevator speech, and the second is an eyeball paragraph. Both seek the same goal, namely to convince the person you’re talking with or writing to that they should spend more time with you. In the case of the elevator speech, you need to prepare a thirty-second response to the question “Who are you and what are you looking for?” For an eyeball paragraph, you need to make sure that the busy person who reads your email has a compelling reason to answer it! Some people, like family friends or graduates of your school, may be pre-disposed to help, but you’ve got to make it easy for them to do so. Your pitch needs to be concise and well thought through.

Building your network is a key skill for graduates at any stage of their careers. Whether they’re former bosses, friends, business acquaintances, faculty, or your hair stylist, people in your corner can make all the difference. They’re great sounding boards, wonderful confidence builders, and above all, probably your best source of job leads. Don’t hide your passion. Let everyone know your career destination, and you won’t travel alone.

Smartest Move #4: Identify your competence gaps

The higher you move in your career, the more likely you’ll be confronted with tasks and responsibilities with which you’re unfamiliar. Knowing what you don’t know is important. But far more important is figuring out how to acquire the knowledge or skills that you lack. In other words, you need to identify and fix your competence gap.

Assessing this shortfall, you need to ask two key questions: “Is the skill necessary for a field in which I want to stay?” and “Would the skill help me to achieve my future goals?” If the answer to either question is yes, you need to find a way to close the gap. The graduates in Smart Moves used the following methods to obtain the knowledge they needed:

1) Pursued further education, e.g., business or law school

2) Identified professional development opportunities offered through their organizations

3) Sought assignments that would help them to practice new skills

4) Found mentors who would act as sounding boards

Most important, you have to be open to assessing what you know and what you don’t. Be open to feedback. Ask for it frequently, and adjust your course based on what you hear.

Smartest move #5: Find your “hook”

Anyone who’s been admitted to a very selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.

The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or a highly risky venture in which you’ve been successful. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.

How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value.

Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.

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