‘Don’t despair’ and six other career tips for new college graduates

(Credit: Photo: Mark Katzman)

Who can forget Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1967 American movie classic The Graduate? Mild-mannered and adrift, Ben Braddock immortalized the situation of the successful college graduate who returns home without a job or immediate prospects.

With today’s economy and job market for new college gradates so uncertain, many more recent college graduates are duplicating Ben’s experience — but typically without the cool humor, existential angst or Anne Bancroft in black, thigh-high stockings. The situation frustrates graduates and their parents alike.

In spite of a sluggish job market for today’s graduates, there are a few specific things both parents and graduates can do to move forward during this time of waiting.

1. Don’t despair.

Graduates, you are not alone, and your situation will change. Remember, this can be a difficult time and your friends and family can help you through it.

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 to crawl under until he or she develops a new professional shell.

2. Change your way of thinking about your job search.

Graduates, don’t model your job search on your college application process. It’s easy to fill out applications — most likely online — and wait to hear what happens. While that process works well for college or graduate school, it typically will not work for a job search. The appropriate job search paradigm is dating. It is all about meeting lots of people and finding the right fit. That means lots of networking and probably lots of rejections before you find the right position. This is particularly true in this market. Most positions won’t be posted.

Parents, think about people you know who could advise your child about his or her career search.

3. Figure out what you want to do.

Graduates, this can be the scariest but also the most enjoyable part of the process. 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. Go to a good bookstore. It will have hundreds of books on different careers and career-search strategies. When this discovery process starts working for you, it can be an incredibly exciting time of exploration.

Parents, help your child think about what makes him or her passionate and how that passion might convert to a career.

4. Get organized.

Graduates, create a plan of attack with small, attainable steps. Dedicate a certain amount of time each day to your search and make and keep a job search folder. File various iterations of your cover letters, resumes, and thank you notes there. (And, yes, don’t forget to write thank you notes to anyone who grants you an interview or meeting.) Create a spreadsheet to help you track contacts.

Parents, help your child break down the process into achievable goals.

5. Use your college career office.

Graduates, even if you never visited the office while you were a student, use its services now, but set your expectations appropriately. Don’t expect them to have a magic drawer full of jobs. What they do have is an ability to help you focus and execute your search — and they tend to have more time to work with you during the summer.

Parents, you can encourage your children to reach out to their career center, but you can’t do it for them.

6. Don’t apply to graduate or professional school unless you know why.

Graduates, it is tempting to go back to school because you “need to do something.” But be aware: graduate and professional school can increase your debt load without increasing job prospects. Don’t go to graduate or professional school unless you know why you are going, where it leads and that you want that career.

7. Consider a volunteer or part-time position.

Graduates, while you are looking for that perfect first job, volunteer on a political campaign or with a local nonprofit agency or advocacy group. Also consider a post-graduate internship. You will meet people who can help with your search. The experience also will prevent a gap on your resume. 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 all of that college tuition so your child could take a volunteer position, this will help in the long run.

Many individuals never take the time to really think about what they want to do and how to do it. They just fall into something and either stay with it or bounce around without direction. While you can’t control everything in your life, this is your chance to think, learn and discover opportunities that could result in a satisfying and exciting career rather than a mind-numbing job.

Mark W. Smith, JD, is associate vice chancellor for students and director of the Career Center at Washington University in St. Louis.