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  • Writer's pictureMarissa Bialecki

5 Pieces of Advice for Recent College Graduates

A couple weeks ago I headed back to my alma mater for a happy hour with current juniors and seniors at GWU. At the handful of these student-alumni events I’ve been to, the administrators always ask the alumni to go around the room and share one piece of advice with students. Mine is always the same, and based on the impromptu and informal feedback I’ve gotten afterwards, it seems to resonate.

So as college students across the country receive their diplomas in the next few weeks, I thought I’d put hands to keyboard and jot down the pieces of professional and personal advice that would have been most useful to me when I was in their shoes, sitting on The National Mall as an excited, but very unsure, 22-year-old, first-generation college graduate. I know this is a common topic for blog posts, Business Insider articles and books alike. But hopefully, my perspective will offer up some new food for thought whether you’re a current student, recent grad or know a recent grad who might benefit from this post (if you're the latter, please share this post with a student or grad you know!).

Piece of advice #1: Life isn’t linear.

If you asked me how I got to where I am today, I could very neatly summarize what led me from job to job, from point A to point B. In reality though, I spent most of that time being unsure of where I was headed or what to do next. Life--professionally and personally--isn’t linear; it takes a lot of twists and turns and chances are you won’t see half of them coming.

What I think many recent grads struggle with is the lack of structure once they graduate. For 20+ years, there’s always been a next logical step--you do well in high school, you get into a good college, maybe you go to grad school, you get a good job and you stick to the plan. Except once you leave school, there really isn’t a prescribed plan and you’re no longer able to look to someone else (i.e. a parent, family member, teacher, school admissions officer) to make the decision for you. It’s liberating and unwieldy at the same time. But if you can learn to be flexible, comfortable with the unknown and understanding of the fact that there is often no “right” answer, just plenty of good and bad ones, then you’ll be better off. Which sort of brings me to my next point...

Piece of Advice #2: Be flexible on the definition of a dream job.

My generation, Millennials, are often stereotyped as being a bunch of job-hopping, entitled individuals who still live with their parents because they spend too much money on avocado toast and need constant adulation along with ping-pong tables in the breakroom. We’re allegedly sensitive creatures who need jobs with “purpose” and “personal fulfillment.” I personally believe that a false sense of entitlement isn’t unique to one age cohort, but I do think my generation is more inclined than others to want to know that their work is making a difference or is laddering up to some higher purpose. If done right, that can be a wonderful thing for employees and employers alike.

But I’d caution the Class of 2018, the last graduating class of Millennials, to be flexible on what the dream job looks like. When I had just graduated, I wanted to quit my 9-5 to be a food writer or a chef. Then reality sunk in--food writer jobs are few and far between, chefs have to work long, odd hours and it would be difficult to raise a family or save for the future in either of those professions for a variety of reasons. So, I kept my job in PR and spent most of my other waking hours freelancing. I specifically chose a column about local chefs so that I could be around the profession I admired and was so intrigued by. That led to a marketing job for a restaurant group that I enjoyed for three years. And when that was no longer the dream, I moved on. But for the majority of my early career, I scratched that itch to work around an industry I was passionate about, while still being able to pay the bills. It’s possible, you just have to think outside the box and allow your dream job to take on a number of forms.

Piece of Advice #3: There’s value in knowing what you don’t want to do.

Using internships or first jobs to rule out what you don’t want to pursue as a career is just as important as figuring out what you do want to do. So ask yourself questions about what it is that you want and don’t want: do you want a strong work/life balance or are you willing to deal with long, grueling hours for a certain company, profession or set duration of time? What type of work culture do you want for yourself? Do you like working on a big team or a small one? Do you ever want to manage others? Do you want to be your own boss? Do you need to see tangible results from your work or are you okay with never seeing what the finished product or idea looks like? If you’re in a job that you’ve realized is not what you want to do, why is that? What lesson can you take away from that experience? What’s the silver lining?

Quick personal example: for a period of time in college, I wanted to be a journalist and landed my first internship at CNN during the 2008 election cycle. Over the course of that semester, I realized that broadcast news, constant deadlines, the pressure of live television and unpredictable travel schedules weren’t in the future I saw for myself. But that was okay! I ruled out one communications profession and had a plethora of others to choose from that now I was free to pursue! I learned firsthand that liking the people you work with is one of the single biggest influences on your happiness as an adult and that culture fit is key. As an intern, I rewound many, many tapes and didn’t mind it at all, mostly because I enjoyed the people I worked with and the culture they created. As an added bonus, I met my first boss, Jason Meucci, who has continued to be a wonderful mentor to me more than a decade later.

Piece of Advice #4: Be curious. Be humble. Be nice to everyone you meet.

I chalk this lesson up to having gone to school and lived in DC for so long. The world’s a small place and if there's one thing I've learned in my time in our nation's capital, it's that you never know who you might cross paths with, who knows who or who might make a reappearance later in your life. It's imperative to be kind to everyone you meet, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it will be uncomfortable, at the very least, if you have to work with someone you previously snubbed, and at most, it could shut doors to future opportunities. I'm a firm believer in the idea that you get back what you give, so be kind and respectful to others and the majority of the time that's what you'll get back in return.

Along the same lines, it's important to be humble. Recognize the difference between being deserving and acting entitled, between confident and cocky. Ask questions, but do so respectfully. Take advantage of your recent student status! I can think of no better reason to reach out to someone for an informational interview or phone call because you are or recently were a student, admire what they do and want to learn from them. (Just keep in mind that many of these people lead busy lives and may only be able to do a short phone call, probably get many requests like these and that you should never open with flat out asking them to give you a job.)

Admit when you don't know the answer, even when it might feel uncomfortable. Consider other solutions or points of view. You've just spent the last four years in school, and while your formal education might be over, learning isn't. The right work environments will give you the space to ask questions and the safety to admit you don't have all the answers.

Piece of Advice #5: Networking doesn’t have to be a chore. Focus on meaningful connections and building your personal board of directors.

I'll admit that for a long time, I wasn't great at networking. It's something I'm still working on. But I've never been enthused about small talk and earlier in my career, I felt like I was always the one needing something (a job, a connection, an introduction) which can be an uncomfortable place to be in. The good news is that networking doesn't have to be uncomfortable! First and foremost, don't make it about the end game. If you're going to a networking event, don't walk in thinking, "I need to find a job by the end of this happy hour." Instead, start small--it can be something as simple as, "I'm going to introduce myself to three people and get their business cards tonight." Focus on making meaningful connections and remember meaningful connections take time. Remember everyone has been in your shoes before, everyone needs help at some point or another.

As you meet all these people through jobs, events, networking, your school, etc., start assembling a personal board of directors. One of the staff from the GWU Center for Career Services used that term, "personal board of directors," at the student-alumni happy hour and it stuck with me. Different people throughout your life will teach you different lessons, provide you with different perspectives and will give you different advice based on what they bring to the table. How incredible is that idea, to have your very own personal board of directors? And if you're fortunate enough, you'll be on someone else's personal board of directors years from now and will be able to pay it forward. Find the mentors who will help guide you through life, tough times, career decisions and who will celebrate your successes and serve as your sounding boards and biggest cheerleaders.

So I hope that advice helped. Oh, and one last thing, enjoy and savor every minute of graduation! You made it, congrats!



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