Transitioning from college to work is one of the most dramatic changes you will ever make. Entering the “real world” in your first full time job is certain to bring confusion. There will be no orientation program, no class schedule, no 4-year plan -- let alone any real “plan” at all. To ease your anxiety, here are seven strategies for a successful transition:
• Change Your Attitude. As a student, you have responded to assignments and were graded immediately. Each semester, each level, you have been automatically promoted without having to negotiate the next stage. That system dependence process is over now; promotions will likely never be automatic again. While you were in class, you didn’t get a second chance to rewrite a paper to improve it. But on the job, you will work for bosses who not only expect you to work hard and well, but to continue to re-do your work until a client is satisfied. You will be promoted only when you exceed expectations (and not always then), and only if and when you and your work are well-liked. For these reasons, you have to shift from the expectation of routine advancement to learning as much as you can and getting yourself moving forward.
• Change Your Behavior. Forget college’s casualness. There will be no more coming in late, tying your schedule to fit your sleep habits, or cutting class after a night of partying. Now showing up every day on time is the minimum accepted behavior, one without any stars for punctuality or attendance. You’ll have also to give up any “loner” behavior. Even if you’re an introvert, you have to make yourself fit in. Being new is tough, but it will be totally up to you to take the initiative with your co-workers. Introduce yourself, meet people, ask about them (who they are, what they do, their experience), and remember them by name. Trade in your college “clique” mentality and learn office politics. Start by being open to everybody.
• Change Your Talk. In college everyone was the same age and spoke the same way. Now you could be working with all ages, even co-workers your parent’s age as well as people from different backgrounds with completely different interests in everything from food to movies to music. Successful employees adopt an insider’s language, often a more formal way of speaking than you may be used to. Listen to your co-workers and bosses communicate with each another and use this professional interaction as a guide for yourself—erring on the side of caution when you’re just starting out. Stop complaining out loud. It was ok in college, but you’ll succeed better without it.
• Change Your Learning Habits. You’re used to receiving—curriculum overviews, study guides, outlines, and projects prompts. Now that you’re working, you will have to learn in different ways. Ask for feedback on your performance in order to discover what else you need to learn. Instead of turning to a teacher for guidance, you will need to turn to more seasoned professionals in your field to point you in the right direction. It will be up to you to take the initiative.
• Change You Interaction. You are no longer able to request a new roommate in your dorm, or change majors or course load at the drop of a hat. When you mess up on the job (and you will), you have to learn to take ownership and apologize and not be defensive. You’ll have to learn people-skills – how to keep your cool, handle criticism, solve tough dilemmas, deal with difficult people, and act ethically. Start looking around for examples of great work and behavior from others, and you will learn more about yourself, even make friends.
• Change Your Focus. Your job description is just the bare minimum of the job requirement. Instead of a multiple choice test where the right answer is the only answer. Now pleasing your boss is the top priority. Find out what your boss wants and deliver it, instead of waiting for assignments like you did in class. Stay a step ahead by finding ways to contribute without always being told what to do. Make yourself useful. Learn about your company’s services, products, clients, and history. Build relationships with your bosses, not just your peers. While in college it was all about you. Now at work it’s about fulfilling someone else’s agenda. And at the same time, you must learn the twin skills of fitting in and standing out. Start small. Attempt to get to know people through their interests. Do the best you can and ask for help when you need it.
• Changing Yourself. Instead of doing only what’s required, look for the part of the work that’s interesting. Find ways to use your strengths, figure out how you can learn more and relate better. Be open to opportunities to contribute. College graduation is the end of one part of life, but it is also a beginning. Commencement signifies moving on to the career process.
Adele Scheele, PhD
Career Coach and Change Strategist
Speaker and author of Skills for Success and Launch Your Career in College