Career advice for the college graduate

This is a guest post from Lisa Lessley Briscoe.

My friend (and fellow Bearcat) Lisa writes: “I was just poking around on GRS (I don't usually read) and noticed that you'd posted an entry for college graduates recently. Funny how summer rolls around and you start thinking about stuff.” She's passed along some additional advice for those just entering the workplace.

Congratulations, you just graduated from an excellent liberal arts college!

You worked incredibly hard to complete your degree and now it’s all behind you: general education requirements, a wealth of extracurricular activities, those classes for your major and minor, perhaps a semester abroad, and a thesis and its accompanying oral defense. You’ve invested a great deal of time, effort, and money into your degree and now you’re ready to conquer the world.

Where to live? Pack up that futon and wave goodbye to your family! You find a city that suits you (say, Seattle), settle in after an age-old argument with your housemates over who gets which room, and get started on the job search.

Sure, your resumé isn’t bursting with experience (after all, how far can you stretch your meager retail and accounting clerk duties from summer jobs?), but you know you’re smart, energetic, and ambitious, not to mention the liberal arts clincher: you’ve “learned how to learn.”

You mail your resumé to a number of prospective employers, but no one calls back. You try to network, but no one knows of any available jobs. Your mother begins asking how long you’ll look before you decide to move back home. Things are bad.

What to do? The rent must be paid, not to mention the car insurance and grocery bill, even if it’s just Top Ramen. Ah, well, it appears that Queen of the Photocopier is the best title you’ll get. Your roommates are bank clerks and receptionists, and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local pizza joint becomes a regular event in your week. (One roommate sneaks out extra slices in her pockets.) You are underestimated, frustrated, and misunderstood.

I was there, believe me. And I feel your pain. Looking back fifteen years later, here’s what I wish someone had told me…

You lack experience. Regardless of all your education and energy, you just don’t have it. And there’s no way to gain that experience without working for a while. It stinks and it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is. To really excel in a field — any field — you must be in it day after day.

Out in the world, you need to have something to show, and you often have to earn it by tedious drudgery. While you’re busy being a peon, some people will completely ignore your existence, some will assume that you aren’t capable of an intelligent thought, and some will be downright condescending and mean. It’s profoundly frustrating.

However, working for a few years as a copy clerk, a receptionist, an office boy, a customer service representative, or whatever, does not condemn you to a permanent career in that position. When I turned 25 and found myself working as a receptionist, I was profoundly depressed. I was certain that I would be stuck in that chair with a headset forever. It may take a year or two, but you certainly can transition into something else if that’s what you want.

Now, here’s what I really wish that I’d known… If the less-than-entry-level jobs are virtually unavoidable when you have just finished college, use them to your advantage. So, you have to be a receptionist/copy clerk/customer support rep for a year or so; make the most of it. Take a job in a field that interests you. Use your time to be exposed to the jargon, attitudes, and daily vibe of the field. Sure, you may have limited exposure, but every little bit counts.

  • While you’re answering phones, you’re also meeting people in the field who will be invaluable contacts later on.
  • While you’re transcribing dictation, you’re learning the terminology used in the field.
  • While you’re numbering legal documents, you’re seeing how a court case is supported.

For example, I worked for a few years at a law firm, a field that had never held much interest for me. I almost put myself into law school, in large part because of some experience and a glowing recommendation from a partner in the firm. (Why I didn’t go is a long story; suffice it to say that I’m glad I didn’t do it.)


Law-firm Lisa, circa 1993

Want another story? My husband applied to a number of architecture schools without much success a year or so after graduation. The following year, he worked as an office boy at an architecture firm (while working as a barista on the weekends). The combination of resources for creating a more sophisticated portfolio and references from within the field produced a completely different experience the second time he applied: he had a number of excellent choices for school.

Okay, one more that doesn’t involve graduate school. After parting ways with the law firm, I decided that I wanted to be a technical writer in high tech. My year of purgatory as a receptionist was unsurpassed in misery, but I transferred straight out of that into the job I wanted and soon thereafter into a company where everyone wanted to work.

My primary regret now is that I didn’t do those peon jobs in fields that fascinated me. Why not be a receptionist at an art museum? How about a translation company or one that did language classes? There was a world out there that I didn’t reach out and grab, and I regret it.

Now that I have job experience, my job searches are different. It is unnecessary for me to take an entry level job to get where I want to go. And my liberal arts education certainly is an excellent asset when it’s paired with experience. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But for you, O recent college graduate, do your drudgery but make it count… Pick the field and then the job; I certainly wish that I had.

Thanks, Lisa! The recommendation to find an entry-level job in a field that interests you is spot-on. I wish I had done this, too. For more advice about starting a career, check out:

Look for a second guest-post from Lisa in mid-July.

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Craig
Craig
13 years ago

This is pretty good advice, and I wish I’d had some like it when I graduated college. And also, read “What Color is Your Parachute?” to get a better idea of how to really network and find a job. I knew that some of my classmates knew something I didn’t, but I never bothered to ask them what. Their entry-level jobs at good companies became more interesting while I floundered in dead-end positions, eventually going to graduate school then law school as many directionless grads do. Fortunately I finally learned how to look for a job about the time I… Read more »

Depressed Grad
Depressed Grad
13 years ago

Oh dear god! Those first few paragraphs are my life right now! Except I’m living at home to save money and my mother asks me every day if I’ve found a job yet!

m.g.
m.g.
13 years ago

For a lot of different reasons we won’t go into, I dropped out of college my sophomore year and went to work. There are days when I absolutely hate myself for it, but for the most part I think it’s going to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. I am now back in school part time and working full time. I’m getting my degree in the same field as my work. So when I do finally graduate I’ll not only have a degree, I’ll also have 8 or 10 years experience in my chosen field. I figure… Read more »

Derek
Derek
13 years ago

There is much to be said on the experienced gained in entry level positions besides resume building. There are countless lessons about the workplace learned at your first few jobs. Jumping right into a higher responsibility position can be quite overwhelming without that gained knowledge. We are often cocky straight out of college and don’t realize just how much we don’t know until faced with the trial by fire.

InvestEveryMonth.com
InvestEveryMonth.com
13 years ago

I find that most people out of college are not investing because they are paying off or still accumulating debt. Most of us went through the hard transition to pay off our debts in order to start investing on a consistent basis. Due to compounding interest, the earlier you can learn this lesson and make the switch from debts to investments, the better off you will be.

molly
molly
13 years ago

I wanted to work in publishing, so in my first year out of college (1988/89) I took a temporary data entry job, working 4-midnight, at a publishing company in my hometown and lived at home. I also volunteered with a small press during the day, which was fun but taught me very little except that the way to make a living in the world of small-press publishing is apparently to have enough money, either inherited or married-into, to be able to live without an income. I applied for every permanent job that came up with the publisher I was working… Read more »

Jenn
Jenn
13 years ago

I just wanted to add, no matter where you have to work, do your best and try to have a good attitude about it. Even if it’s just a job to pay the bills, really dig in. Learn how to deal with bosses. Learn how to take direction and how to take initiative. There are skills you can learn at any job. And, as my mom told me time and time (and time) again, “everyone has to start somewhere.” If they don’t treat you with common courtesy though, just leave. Nobody deserves to be treated like an animal. I also… Read more »

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

This fits me exactly, except I know what I want to do and I have 7 years experience in this industry, including some not so entry level jobs. It’s just that I just so happened to have graduated and quit my decent job that I had during school to move halfway across the country. Now I’ve gone much longer without working than I had planned. I could easily find a job, they just aren’t what I want to do. The places I want to work are few and far between, require incredible knowledge, skill and hard work ethic not mention… Read more »

Liza
Liza
13 years ago

Also — jump in and solve problems as soon as you notice them. I once hired an intern away from a non-profit that my office had organized an event with, because every time I went to go deal with something, she was already there, already solving the problem. After the 2nd time it happened, I asked her if she was looking for a “real job” and by the end of the day, I convinced my boss that we had to hire her. Incidentally, she worked for that company for ~4 years, before one of our clients lured her away to… Read more »

Jonathan
Jonathan
13 years ago

Great article. I felt the same way once I got my degree and had an entry level job, however, my attitude got in the way. I was somewhat forced to remain at my position because I at least worked hard, but personality was terrible.

Thanks for the article though, eye opener, and next time around (finishing school again for CPA) I won’t be so closed minded.

Peter
Peter
13 years ago

Many people end up in jobs that they didn’t go to college for. It doesn’t make your college time a waste, so don’t feel bad about that. There are plently of other valuable skills to be learned at college besides the book knowledge.
Unless you go to school for a highly technical field (law, medicine, engineering) where your book knowledge and grades are paramount, the skills you acquire will translate to many other fields so don’t limit yourself to just the positions you got your major in. If you still love that field, great, but don’t be locked into it.

Sam
Sam
13 years ago

My path, I graduated with a BA in psychology in 1993 and most of my fellow classmates from the school of psychology went into retail. Entry level jobs in psychology (usually at underfunded non-profits) don’t pay the bills. However, I took one of those entry level jobs at a private psych. rehab day-program facility. While I worked for poverty wages (yes, literally, I was making under the federal guidelines for poverty) for a year and lived at home. But, having 1 year of experience on my resume allowed me to find another position higher up the title ladder making enough… Read more »

Amber Yount
Amber Yount
13 years ago

Great advice! I’m gettting ready to graduate next spring, so I’ll be in this position soon enough 🙂

JohnK
JohnK
13 years ago

Don’t forget about internships your Junior/Senior Year of school. I used to be a contracted consultant for Verizon, on two separate occasions, laid off both times with no notice. The first time, after being assured that contracts would be renewed, I was laid off after 11 months of work. The second time, laid off with no notice after about 8 months. It seems at the time, very few contracted employees were offered permanent employment. Interns, on the other hand, were almost always offered high-paying salary positions by the time they graduated. On this note, I might suggest you look for… Read more »

Bill
Bill
13 years ago

Great article. One daughter graduated last year from college and another this year. Great advice and I wish I’d had this stuff when I was in college. I do remember devouring “What Color is Your Parachute?” I haven’t thought about that book in a long time. I’m a manager at my day job and it’s really great when you find people who go above and beyond on a daily basis.

Jeff
Jeff
13 years ago

I feel like I’m going crazy since graduation a few weeks ago. I am jobless and down to fifty dollars to live on before bills are due again and I find a job. Just reading this makes me feel somewhat sane and that it really is ok to only have menial office jobs and retail work as experience. I have been hesitating to take any sort of work because I am scared to make a commitment somewhere and then to get a desired job somewhere else. This is just the kind of thing I needed to read, thanks.

Julia
Julia
13 years ago

Great advice in the article and comments! In addition to doing internships while in school (which is a path I took), look into volunteer opportunities as well. Hospitals, art museums and schools are always looking for volunteers. While you might not be doing work that gets you the experience employers are looking for, you’re getting a related organization’s name on your resume, plus the opportunity to network! In high school, two volunteer opportunities I took (doing computer/newsletter work for a senior center and assisting a teacher in a college level computer course) turned into paying jobs after awhile. That beats… Read more »

Minimum Wage
Minimum Wage
13 years ago

I have a liberal arts degree, a minimum wage job, and nothing which could be considered career-related experience. Oh, and I am over 50. What hope do I have of ever getting a good job?

Experiment
Experiment
13 years ago

Great article… I’m 25 now, about 10 years ago I imagined life at 25 would be much more different and exiting than how it actually panned out. I currently have a stable job and have been able to build up a decent savings. While I am doing well at my job, I really do not enjoy it. Also, the career track that I am currently on gives me little experience in areas where I would want to work. So, I will start an experiment today. I dug out some old paychecks of mine to see what I was getting paid… Read more »

BigH
BigH
13 years ago

Yeah sure go get anentry level job YEAH RIGHT!!!! Entry Level Jobs are a JOKE anymore why??? Because companies now days SAY ENTRY LEVEL JOB WITH EXPERIENCE OF AT THE MINIMUM OF A 1 AND ACTUALLY THEY WANT 2,3 UP 5O 5 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE FOR A DAMN ENTRY LEVEL JOB!!!! How the hell are you supposed to get an entry level job when entry level jobs are really NOT entry level jobs when they say they are but they are not??????????? Companies also want a person to have this damn magical wand that one can wave and say oh… Read more »

Judy
Judy
12 years ago

This article def does not apply to students who attend top institutions. I would find it ironic and saddening to see a Harvard grad as a receptionist. Kids, work hard in high school get into a top college that employers actually know about, and you’ll be fine.

Marc
Marc
12 years ago

I have 2 in college – so always interested in hearing about students/grad & their money. – Like the responses!!

Don’t forget to have some fun at school to – how about having some fun and makeing money by designing a t shirt – how about winning $500. check out http://www.blackeyedt.com

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