Dear Recent College Grad,
Maybe you've just started your first real full-time job. Or maybe you're off taking an obligatory backpacking trip in some remote corner of the world, convinced that the month between now and your start date will last an eternity.
Or perhaps you're still searching for a job and feeling a bit jealous of your classmates that have already been hired.
Whatever your situation, the transition from school to work is an abrupt one, and the learning curve is long.
I started my first full-time job almost exactly five years ago, and there's a lot I'm still figuring out. I was really, really good at school. And I think I'm generally so-so at work. Actually, I've found that it's often the best students that struggle the most with the adjustment.
Why? School and work are different beasts.
The sooner you learn the differences — and how to be really, really good at work — the better off you'll be. It seems like everybody has job advice for new grads, and in honor of my five-year real-world workaversary, I wanted to share mine.
Without further ado, here's what I've learned so far:
1) Rubrics no longer exist. Make your own.
In school, when you're assigned a paper, you're typically told what you need to do in order to get an A, B, or C.
In the work world, when you're assigned a project, your boss isn't going to explicitly say what needs to be done in order to succeed.
Oftentimes this is because your boss isn't even sure yet what they hope to see. This kind of ambiguity can be panic-inducing for a new grad who's used to having clear expectations.
So what can you do? Schedule a meeting with your boss and tell them how you plan to define success on this project. Come prepared with a list of goals and how they will be measured. Give yourself a grade at the end of each project and ask your boss if they agree with your assessment.
2) Finished is better than perfect.
Read some job ads and count the number of times you see "results-oriented" or "bias for action." Businesses want employees that get stuff done. So as tempting as it is to procrastinate or push assignments off until you can perfect them, just get them done.
B+ level work is normally more than sufficient, and unlike school, the real world relies on iterations. Everything can be improved upon. So submit a draft early, and know that you can make it better with the help of your team.
Similarly, resist the temptation to let assignments that your boss mentions off the cuff fall through the cracks. You are only human, you can't do all the things. But if your boss tells you to do something, either 1) do it and tell them when it's done or 2) double check the urgency of the request and prioritize it accordingly. Don't just let skip it and hope they forget about it. It will come back to bite you.
3) Learn to be intrinsically motivated.
I was a total grade monkey. By that I mean, I'd do anything to get an A — and avoid getting a bad grade.
At work, I no longer had a 4.0-shaped carrot dangling in front of my face. Instead, I quickly realized that if I did a mediocre job on an assignment, no one would say anything to me. And if I did an amazing job on an assignment, my boss still might not say anything to me.
If you're someone who's previously relied on praise or top grades for motivation, this silence can be both confusing and demotivating. You need to find something other than praise from your boss to motivate yourself.
Try writing a list of reasons you want to do your job well, and connect them with positive outcomes. E.g., "I want to learn as much as I can at this job because it will help me become the best professional I can be."
When you finish an assignment, congratulate yourself and remind yourself of how it connects to your larger goals.
4) Set up some extrinsic rewards with your boss.
Some research indicates that extrinsic motivators can actually take away from intrinsic motivation, but let's be real… we don't all land our dream jobs straight out of college, and sometimes getting through the day and doing your best requires concrete, extrinsic rewards.
The problem is, as previously mentioned, businesses don't always have extrinsic rewards in place. Sure, you'll get an annual or maybe even quarterly performance review, but compared to weekly grades, that's not very much feedback.
Raises and promotions are great, but they're also relatively infrequent.
So what can you do to get some extra motivation week-to-week? Sit down with your boss and set clear goals. Just having goals and knowing whether or not you hit them can serve as extrinsic motivation. But you can also add positive rewards, like commissions or the ability to leave early on Fridays if you hit all your goals for the week.
Think of what motivates you the most and chat about it with your boss — don't be afraid to get creative. If you're the betting type, consider making a game out of it.
5) Manage up.
That is to say, learn to manage your manager.
For a new grad, managing up may be uncomfortable, but it's one of the best things you can learn to do.
The business world flips the academic world on its head. In school, you're generally rewarded for doing what you're told to do well. Teachers review your work and have semi-objective standards in place to evaluate it.
Not so in the corporate world. There, the employee who brags the loudest is often the employee that gets promoted.
Doing good work is important. But if you just silently get work done and don't know how to share your results with the folks who manage you, there's a good chance your impact will go unnoticed.
Oftentimes, managers are way too busy to successfully manage you… so when you're doing your job well, they might not notice you. This won't do wonders for your motivation or any feelings of imposter syndrome you might be dealing with.
When you feel like you need reassurance or want praise for a job well done, be proactive.
Put some time on your boss's calendar at the end of each week to tell them what you've accomplished, or shoot them a list of your top 3 achievements for the week. Maybe put together a quick presentation on a problem you solved and the impact it had (make sure you quantify it).
Should managers be doing this on their own? Yes. But are they? Typically not.
As a new employee, you'll often end up with a lot more free time than your manager, at least initially. So by demonstrating initiative and ensuring your boss knows what you're doing well and what you need help with, not only will you be setting yourself up for success, you'll be building a positive relationship.
And one of the best ways to motivate yourself to do good work is to build a bond with your manager — if you like them, it's unlikely you'll want to let them down.
Going from flexible schedules, campus parties, flip flops, and 24/7 dining halls to working (and being "on") five days a week isn't easy. It takes a lot of getting used to, and there's other #adulting tasks to adjust to as well, but by setting realistic expectations and knowing what it takes to succeed, you'll already be ahead of the pack.
Good luck and enjoy the ride! For all its challenges, you'll soon realize that working set hours, contributing to the world, and making money can actually be pretty fun.