A Rude Awakening: Transitioning from College to the Working World
Whether you’ve had your first exposure to the working world or not, there are some traditions, habits, and best practices that everyone seems to know but you didn’t learn in school. The “cultural transition between college to the professional world” was identified by Harvard Business Review as one of the biggest hurdles recent graduates make.
Every college student is building key skills like problem solving, critical thinking, writing abilities, communication, time management, as well as technical skills related to your area of study. But what happens when there isn’t a rubric for your first project at work? There are some key differences between college and post-grad life. Here are some common rude awakenings recent graduates face when transitioning from college to the working world.
Managers vs. Professors
- Expectations from your professor stay the same week to week, semester to semester and they’re spelled out for you in the syllabus at the start of the term. In the working world, expectations for your job are generally written in the initial job description, but then can shift weekly as projects, pressures, and even managers change frequently. It’s important to stay honest and open to feedback.
- In college, you receive an outline, syllabus or rubric for how to complete a project, often with step by step instructions or timelines for each piece of work. In the working world, you have to figure that out for yourself. Ask clarifying questions, research online if you don’t know how to do something, or ask more seasoned co-workers. Take the initiative to learn as much as you can, then ask for additional feedback or direction as needed.
- Communicating with your manager is more frequent. In college, you rarely check in with a professor on a paper until it is due—but at work, managers expect updates and communication while you're working on a project. Don’t be afraid to bring drafts to your manager before the deliverable is due and make any adjustments necessary in a timely manner.
Performance Reviews vs. Grades
- In college, some courses are structured so you have multiple opportunities for grades and to increase your performance. You know where you stand in each class by midterms. In the working world, sometimes you won’t get a review for 90 days, 6 months, or even a year. Beyond the first year, most companies have an annual performance review. When starting a relationship with a manager, ask about how the review process works, whether there is a self-evaluation, or whether there are quarterly review options.
- You won’t get a grade or a percentage after you turn in something to your boss; recognition looks different for each manager. Sometimes you’ll have to learn to be okay with a private email saying “thanks for your work on this.” If recognition is important to you, learn how to work with your supervisor to adequately get recognized.
- Feedback - supervisors are busy and they don’t have office hours to talk to you about your project unless you ask for it. Go out of your way to find time for feedback. Learn the power of the calendar invite: send a 15-minute meeting invitation to your supervisor and include a brief agenda of what you’d like to cover in the meeting. Most managers will appreciate the initiative.
Co-workers vs. Classmates
- In college, you learned many interpersonal skills and gained experience working with others. In the working world, group projects are still the same, but you must delegate and balance the work better. Learn what is expected of you and then execute efficiently. In the working world, it is also possible that you’ll be in a group with various levels of power and authority which is a great opportunity to show upper management what you can do.
- In college, you have ample learning opportunities and you’re constantly learning new things in class, whereas at your first job (depending on what it is), you have to make more of an effort to seek out learning opportunities outside of your day to day tasks. Consider creating or joining “lunch and learns,” “book clubs,” or asking your manager or HR department about opportunities for professional development.
- There are no “clubs” in the world of work, like those you may find on a college campus. Many companies do philanthropic service or social hours, but these are often casual and optional. If you want to engage with like- minded people, consider creating a committee or working group to get people involved.
Schedules & Time
- In college, everything is paced out based on the term cycle, either 10 weeks for quarters or 15 weeks for semesters. Then things change. Each industry has a different pace, some busy seasons are before the winter holidays, others are before the end of the fiscal year in June. Learn what your organization’s pace is like and schedule breaks accordingly because there won’t be any scheduled parent’s weekend or fall break.
- Milestones are different too. In school you had life milestones or summer or the end of a course where in the working world employees can spend years before you hit an official company milestone like a “5 year anniversary.” Find ways to celebrate your own milestones.
- Learn to be okay that things are never “done,” otherwise you’ll work 24/7.
One way to make this transition smoother is to get experience and exposure exposed to the working world sooner. Consider career opportunities and Micro-Internships, like those Parker Dewey provides, to practice these suggestions and build your transition resilience. Lastly, remember: like with all transitions things won’t be smooth sailing immediately. It is okay to ask questions, admit you made a mistake or are still learning, and move forward.
Molinsky, A., & Pisman, S. (2019, April 11). The biggest HURDLES recent Graduates Face entering the workforce. Retrieved April 12, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2019/04/the-biggest-hurdles-recent-graduates-face-entering-the-workforce
Alexandra Colina, MEd, LPC
Alexandra Colina, MEd, LPC is a licensed professional counselor and a career consultant at Next Move Consulting. She has served as a career counselor at Loyola University Chicago, has taught career development courses to undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago, and has designed career curriculum for Chicago non-profits including Cara Chicago and the Women’s Business Development Center. She has also provided resume reviews for 100+ applicants in programs provided by Skills for Chicagoland’s Future. Alexandra is also a certified instructor for TRACOM Social Styles and Resiliency programs which aim at providing social intelligence and self-awareness to employees. She has supported hundreds of individuals in achieving their next career move.