How to Graduate Into a Great Career
You've taken courses in every imaginable subjectexcept in how to launch your career.
Most of the 25 professions profiled in Best Careers 2007 are great for college grads, as well as more-established professionals. But earning your diploma doesn't mean you're prepared for a career. Here are seven tips for doing it right:
If you're considering going back to school, do your homework first. There are plenty of guides to graduate schools, including the U.S. News rankings for Best Graduate Schools. Keep in mind, though, that rankings don't necessarily predict how well a program will prepare you for a career. Harvard may turn out good physicians, but could that be because they started with such great raw material?
To really probe the quality of a graduate program, arrange to visit one of its classes. At the end, ask the students how well they believe the program is preparing them for their career. Live too far away to do that? Send an E-mail to the program's students or alumni. (You can often get a list by calling the program's administrative assistant.) Also, call major employers of people in that profession. For example, if you're looking into nursing schools in New York City, call the human resources departments at a couple of New York hospitals and ask, "Which nursing programs seem to produce your best nurses?"
Consider alternatives to grad school. Not all good training occurs within in the halls of academe. If you aspire to a career in business, for instance, you might want to start at the elbow of a talented manager or two.
Also be sure to get the best possible internshipsones where you work with top pros in your field of interest and get feedback from them. Don't necessarily rely on staffers in your university's placement office to find an internshipthey have to find one for every student and might not find the one that's ideal for you. Make a list of places you'd love to work. Call those organizations. You might even get an internship custom-created for you.
Ask a lot of questions. Everybody wants to hide his or her ignorance, but relentless questioning is key to learning. Plus, it will impress your instructors and supervisors. That can mean strong letters of recommendation and an inside track on job leads.
Be picky. Many people would rather have a root canal than look for a job. So many job seekers take the first offer they get. Huge mistake. You wouldn't buy a car without test-driving a bunch of different models, right? So don't jump at the first job, which could have a far greater impact on your life.
When looking, cast a wide net. Answer lots of intriguing ads. Tell everyone in your extended network that you're looking for a good job. Even cold-call a dozen dream employers and ask if they might need someone like you. Then, in job interviews, after they've interrogated you, vet them back. Ask questions like these: "How is working here different from working at one of your competitors?" "What do you hope I'll accomplish in my first few weeks?" "Is your company growing, holding steady, or shrinking?" "What will my career trajectory be like if I stay with the company?" The answers will help you make a decision. And you'll impress the employer with your curiosity and confidence.
Be humble. Many employers find fresh college grads to be cocky, with unreasonable expectations. New hires often think they know a better way to run things. And sometimes, they're right. But more often, there's a good reason for the way things are doneit was developed over time by experienced people. In your first few weeks, ask plenty of questions, but do what you're told and see how it works out. At minimum, you'll have proved that you're willing to pay your dues.
Seek opportunities. On Day 1, if the boss says your job consists completely of tasks that a high school dropout could do, say something like, "I am willing to pay my dues, but I believe I can be of greater use to you if you give me more responsibility. For example, I'm a pretty good writer and researcher." My daughter's first job out of college was in the White House but only to answer letters written to the Clintons' cat, Socks. Before her job description was set in stone, she asked for more responsibility and, within two weeks, she was writing Hillary Rodham Clinton's daily briefing.
After nailing down a reasonable job description, identify the most knowledgeable and influential people in your organization. Make a point of asking them questions and offering to help them out. You'll learn a lot and make connections that will help in the future, with career guidance, job tips, and letters of reference.
Think like a leader. Even at the entry level, it's time to start thinking like you are the leader: someone whom others look up to, in your organization and in your field. Worker bees who simply keep their heads down often are the first to get the ax in a cutback. At the least, they feel like small cogs in a large machine.
So get in the habit of asking yourself, "What might be a better way?" Share your ideas with colleagues you respect. Listen carefully to their reactions; don't accept or reject their ideas without reflection.
It's a cliché, and only sometimes true, that if you just do your job well, the money will follow. Still, think that way. That will keep priorities where they need to be: on learning and on getting ahead ethically. Yes, cheaters sometimes win. But you won't feel good about your career if that's how you succeed.