Graduates: Don’t despair, says WUSTL careers expert

The graduation pictures have been e-mailed to friends, posted on Facebook and framed alongside family photos perched on bookcases and fireplace mantels. But behind the toothy grin of many college grads lies a worrisome question that flies in the face of this celebrated educational milestone: Where’s my job?

For students who do not yet have jobs, the time following graduation can be an incredibly exciting one of exploration and discovery. But it’s also a time that also requires the right actions.

“Graduates, don’t despair,” advises Mark W. Smith, assistant vice chancellor and director of the career center at Washington University in St. Louis. “For those who do not yet have jobs, this can be an incredibly exciting time of exploration and discovery.”

But it is a time, Smith points out, that also requires the right actions.

Recommending a plan of attack that includes embracing a job search paradigm akin to dating and leveraging your alma mater’s career services during the summer, Smith offers advice for both graduates and their parents, who can play a vital, supportive role during a difficult transition.

Don’t despair. Make sure you have an emotional support network— family, high school friends or an online network of college friends. Parents, remember that a lobster grows by shedding its exoskeleton and crawling under a big, safe rock until it can grow a new shell. Your little lobster has just shed his student exoskeleton. You are that big, safe rock your child may need until he develops a new “professional” shell. Be very aware of your child’s vulnerability.

Figure out what you want to do. If you are unsure about your future, think about what you value, what you are good at and how you want to spend your life. Seek out books on different careers and career search strategies to see which ones best align with you and your approach to the world. Use the Internet to identify careers about which you are passionate. If you have a specific dream job, make sure you are realistic. If it is not immediately attainable, figure out what steps will take you there. Parents, help your child realize her passions and how they might convert to a career.

Change your thinking. Don’t model your job search on your college application process. It’s easy to fill out applications—most likely online—and wait for a response. While that process works well for college or graduate school, it typically fails in a job search. The appropriate paradigm is dating. It is all about meeting lots of people and finding the right fit. Parents, think about people you know who can advise your child on her career search.

Get organized. Create a plan of attack with small, attainable steps. Dedicate time each day to your search. Keep various iterations of your cover letters, resumes and thank you notes in a job search folder. Create a spreadsheet to help you track contacts. Parents, you may be tempted to give your child deadlines. If you must, focus on deadlines for the small steps. Help your child break down the process into achievable goals.

Use the college career office. Even if you never visited the office as a student, use these services now, but set your expectations appropriately. Don’t expect the career office to have a magic drawer full of jobs for the taking. Rather, capitalize on the career staff’s ability and resources to help you plan, focus and execute your search. Besides offering advice and feedback on your cover letters, resumes and pitches to employers, college career staffs also maintain alumni and industry contacts. And they tend to have more time for you during the summer. Moreover, they can be cheerleaders and advisors. Parents, you can encourage your graduates to reach out to the career center, but you can’t do it for them.

Let people know you’re in the job market. You may be embarrassed to do so, but you need to get over it. Talk to alums, parents’ friends, and friends’ parents about careers and opportunities. Don’t ask for a job. Instead, focus the conversation on learning about different careers, industries and hiring procedures. Seek advice on resume and pitch, potential employers, trends in the industry and interview questions. Be sure to express gratitude, follow up and stay in touch. Maintaining the network of contacts with monthly e-mail updates on your progress can be as important as the initial meeting. Parents, take stock of your contacts to provide an assist.

Don’t beat a path to grad school. Don’t go back to school because you “need to do something.” Graduate school can increase your debt load without increasing job prospects. Graduate or professional school might be the right step when you know your career goals. Parents, there are lots of law school graduates who don’t have prospects and are not sure they want to be lawyers. Don’t let your child be one of them.

Consider a volunteer or part-time position. While you are looking, volunteer on a political campaign or at a local agency. You will meet people who can help with your search. The experience will also prevent a gap on your resume. Consider a post-grad internship. If you can’t afford to be unpaid, take a temporary job. Remember though, your first priority should remain your job search. Parents, while you certainly didn’t pay college tuition so your child could take a volunteer position, this will help in the long run.