Understanding How Careers Work: Advice For New College Grads

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time
2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time
3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better
4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This first post covers the four important career messages. Subsequent posts will explore the three career strategies.

  1. Discovering your passion evolves over time

Few college graduates could have accurately told you their passion at graduation. This is not surprising, because it turns out that identifying a career passion evolves over time. Think for a moment about Alison Levine, one of the people profiled in Smart Moves. Alison now describes her passion as combining adventure travel with philanthropy. But could she have told you that when she was doing her undergraduate degree in communications? Absolutely not. What about when she was getting her MBA or working at a prestigious investment bank? Ditto. In fact, Alison didn’t discover her passion for mountaineering until a new procedure was discovered to treat her heart defect.

For Alison, her illness and subsequent treatment helped her discover a passion for mountain climbing. And it’s that first passion that then led to Alison’s related passion for helping the women who live in the areas in which she climbs. Alison runs the Climb High Foundation, whose programs enable these women to work as trekking guides and porters in their local mountains and national parks so that they can maintain an adequate, sustainable living wage and can make meaningful, long-term improvements to their quality of life.

If you just heard about Alison’s passions, you might think that her educational background in communications and her marketing and finance experience would be a waste. In fact, her success at achieving her passion comes from her ability to integrate all of her knowledge and talents. It’s Alison’s ability to give motivational speeches that provides the money to support both her mountain climbing and her philanthropy.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to know everything in college.

  1. Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

Even if you know your passion from a relatively early age, it’s rare to find a linear path to achieving that passion. Take Brad, for example. In Smart Moves, Brad states his passion as “alleviating unnecessary suffering”, a passion he discovered because a childhood friend died of campus. But what is Brad doing now? He’s completing an MBA, after several years working as an investment analyst at a health care private equity fund, and working at a major pharmaceutical company.

Too often, when we hear that someone has a passion for something like alleviating unnecessary suffering, we immediately jump in our minds to the most obvious professional path: becoming a doctor. That’s why Brad’s story is so interesting. Because he, too, thought he’d be a doctor, and he did everything he could to prepare himself for that path. He even managed to be sent to Peru through Doctors without Borders, despite the fact that the organization never hired students for international assignments, and rarely hired people who were not doctors or medical professionals. Through that experience, and an opportunity to evaluate a World Health Program in Bangladesh, Brad really began to understand medical care in Third World countries. But his experiences were not all positive. In fact, Brad says that he got a strong sense of how much well-intentioned aid and medicine is lost to graft and corruption before ever reaching the intended recipients.

Through experiences in the field, Brad recognized that, for him, the path to reach his passion was not to be the doctor and deal with one person at a time, but to look at alleviating suffering from a much broader perspective. And that meant putting himself in a position to eventually fund global initiatives. Looking in from the outside at Brad’s career, many people would assume that he’d lost his way. But being true to your passion doesn’t require you to tell everyone why you’re taking a particular path. For Brad, working as an investment banker was a means to an end. And, alongside his finance work, Brad has always volunteered for organizations, constantly building the skill sets he’ll need to be successful in achieving his goal.

The other thing I want to mention about Brad, and all the other people we profiled in Smart Moves is that they aren’t perfect. They’re just like you sitting in the audience. People always talk about achievements, but let’s face it, we’re all going to pursue paths from time to time that probably aren’t wise in retrospect. Brad actually went down an ill-fated path to a dot-com internet company right after college. Six months later the dot-com went bust in the last recession and Brad was left scrambling, not knowing his next move.

I do not know one successful graduate who has never come face to face with serious challenges—most of the time not of their own making. If you get used to reflecting on the things that don’t go well in your life and constantly look for ways to improve situations, you will end up developing one of the most important skills in life: career resilience. What I mean by career resilience is acquiring the ability to look at a bad situation and figure out how get around it in order to achieve the ultimate goal.

  1. The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

In Brad’s case, if he had not had the two experiences of health care in developing countries while he was still in school, he would have continued his original path towards being a doctor. His frustration of not being able to influence health care in a broader way may not have manifested itself until long after he’d accumulated over a $100,000 in debt.

So the question to ask yourself is are you taking the most advantage of your Grove City education? Are you using all the available resources to challenge yourself to figure out your place in this world? And, are you using your education to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities that will help you not only decide how you want to live your life, but also provide the opportunity to find a path to your passion?

When I talk about education, I’m thinking of it very broadly. Education is not just what you study in college, but also what skills you develop in and out of the classroom, through your experiential education, and study abroad. And it’s not about checking off the boxes, as in “took a class where I used Powerpoint”; it’s about truly engaging in, and reflecting on, your education.

Let’s take study abroad or work abroad as an example. Learning outside the U.S. can be extremely helpful to developing the kinds of intercultural competency you need to follow your passion. But it’s only really a growth experience if you go outside your comfort zone, for example by living with a local family, studying only in the language of the country, or making your own arrangements. When I was at Duke, I discovered that employers often assumed that if you’d studied in a country like Spain, you’d speak the language. And if they started to talk to you in that language, you better be able to at speak enough Spanish to say “I’m sorry, I was in Madrid a couple of years ago, and I’m a bit rusty ”!

Graduating from a good college or university will help you in opening doors to opportunities, and doing well in school is important, but good grades aren’t everything. You can be successful in work you love even if you didn’t get stellar SATs or a great GPA. After all, employers rarely ask for your GPA after your first position—if then! The best antidote for lower grades is successful, relevant experience.

Many of the Smart Moves stories talk of the value of being involved in extracurricular activities. Sometimes the value of this involvement, though, is in helping you to discover what you would rather keep as interests, rather than as a career. Jonathan envisioned himself as a famous sportscaster, but his passion for politics and a reasonable family life led to decide to be a lawyer by day and limit his work at the TV station to Friday nights. When we think about our lives, we cannot separate our own personal passions from our context. With whom do we want to share our lives, and what does that mean for the kind of career we pursue?

  1. Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

For many people, the whole notion of “career” is totally overwhelming. The reality is, though, that no one starts at the top. And in this economic climate, starting at the bottom—even in a job that doesn’t require a college degree, is sometimes necessary. My first job was a file clerk for the Inner London Education Authority office of Career Services—and no, I had no thought at that time that my passion would be to help people of all ages find work they love. Many of the graduates in Smart Moves started work in very low-level positions. Cara worked for free at a music station; Warren bused tables in a country inn. Liz worked behind the cheese counter. These jobs were way below the graduate’s intellectual capacity. Being clueless, or underemployed, however, did not ultimately affect their ability to follow their dreams.

One of the major things that has changed in the past decade or so is that there is no longer a stigma to frequently changing positions—especially if you’re laid off, or in your first couple of jobs after college. There is evidence of this in a Duke University study that investigated how the Class of 2001 had fared in their careers during their first five years after graduation. It turns out that, on average, they had 2.79 jobs within the first five years and 43% of them had changed not just jobs but careers. When you’re thinking of taking a job, it’s worth reflecting on why you want that job, and how it will lead you closer to your kind of work you really want. Sometimes you have to take a job simply to put food on the table. There is no shame in that. And there are often ways to make entry-level jobs more useful to you than the job description might imply.

On October 22, 2009, a blogger called Tyler, who’s a recent graduate with a BA in English, wrote a very interesting entry on the Higher Education Weblog. I want to quote from his article:

“The planning firm that used me as office slave creates written reports and documents for city governments, the state Supreme Court and high-paying private clients. After I’d worked there a few months, I asked my boss if I could assist in writing them. After all, I had an English degree and the engineers and geographers at the company didn’t. He agreed and started me off typing reports and correcting a few grammatical errors. But while typing a poorly written market-research study, I asked if I could rewrite it…….I was allowed to redo the report. It turned out well, the client was pleased and I gained impressive experience for my resume.”

Tyler demonstrated a key lesson. You have to do the job for which you were hired well first. But after that, if you can find a way to help the organization while making your job more interesting, you’ll often be given the opportunity. I’ll add my 2 cents. Sometimes you have to accept jobs in which you have no real interest, and you may dread going to work. I’ve been there, so I know. BUT—and this is important– you are not your job, and no job can stand in the way of your reason for being. If the job really sucks the wind out of your sails, finding outside avenues, like volunteering, can be critical to your well being.

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