Planning for Your Career After College

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By Jennifer W. Eisenberg

As the old Irish saying says, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.” And there is a trueness to that, which cannot be denied. Not much in this world goes to plan, but as any reputable Type A personality will tell you, any project launched without a plan is just folly. The lesson here is to make a plan but keep it flexible and able to be adapted to circumstances. If you are in college right now, dream your dream, and see if you can make it a reality. Life will happen as it happens, regardless, but plan the work and work the plan and let the dice fall where they may. The widely acknowledged five steps of plan making are: the setting of goals; the approach to goal achievement; outlining the activities included in that approach; prioritizing those activities; and creating a timeline where those goals are achieved. In career planning, these steps would look like the following: getting a degree with a specific purpose in mind; researching a typical career path in your field; visualizing the steps that would get you to the end of that path; prioritizing the steps in the order you can tackle them; and setting those steps on a schedule for achieving that goal. All the while, try to keep up relationships that will provide perspective for you along the way. 

Related: Planning for your Job Search

Set Goals and Dream Big!

Avail yourself of the resources on offer at your college career center, this is their whole jam. They can connect you with potential employers, alumni in your field for networking and internship opportunities. They will also go over your resume with you to help you groom it for each job opportunity. Sometimes they will offer the service of conducting mock interviews, where you go through a fake interview and get feedback from a professional on your performance. Finally, another periodic event they will host is the campus job fair, where you can meet recruiters and put your foot in the door with companies you may be interested in pursuing a future with. It is germane to the best interests of the college career center that the graduates of their school become successfully employed so utilize this very motivated ally in your corner. They can fill in the blanks of what a typical career looks like in your field and what you can expect as far as remuneration in addition to helping shape your resume and CV.  

In addition, talk to people in the field. Work your network. Talk to your professors. Connect with alumni in your area. LinkedIn was made for this. How do people in your field typically find work? Where do you want to go? What do you want out of this career? Do you want to live somewhere exciting or stay close to home? Or both, if you originate somewhere where excitement is the buzzword? What kind of career are you pursuing? Is this your life’s work you are building, or just a job that you can see yourself doing until you can afford grad school or something better comes along? Once you have assessed your work priorities and explored areas where your degree field meets actual job titles, you will have a better picture of what awaits you on the other side of the door marked “employment.”

Develop a Goal-Getter Approach

What is the direction of your career? What are your areas of expertise? Where are you least likely to be confronted regularly with areas where you… fall short? This is where the network you developed in the first step starts to pay off. Reach out to those individuals you have met while studying. Upperclassmen who have graduated (or are about to) and have found work. People you met during your internship or cooperative learning experience. People that your parents know who work in your intended field. You need to become a “pass the potatoes” job seeker. Observe:

Dinner party guest: Could you pass the potatoes?

You: Did you know I am looking for an entry level position in interior design that will really allow me to fully express my love for the Louis XIV style? Here you go.

I’m not saying you should chat up everyone you know on the topic, but you never know who knows someone or something that could be the key to your new job.This is a good chance to maybe get some quick business cards printed up to distribute to all those well meaning family members (hello, Grandma and Aunt Diane!) in case they know or run across someone in your intended field. After you have unlocked employed status, these contacts can help you ascend the corporate ladder. Keep track of them on LinkedIn and check them periodically to see if they or someone they are connected to can provide guidance on that next step, job title, or position. always being careful to offer something in return to these individuals and observing Scalzi’s rule of professional communications, which states that the fail mode of cleverness is “Jerk.” Stay professional in all communication with people you are not bosom friends with. Don’t be afraid to use the persistence you developed in the job search as an employee. If your boss doesn’t know you are bucking for a promotion, you may well get passed over in favor of a squeakier (though not necessarily more deserving) wheel. 

See Also: 30 Career Tools and Life Hacks for Students

Outlining the Steps to Achieve Your Goals

What does the typical career arc in your industry look like? Do you work your way up the chain of command or strike out on your own as an independent contractor from the jump? Knowing what the box looks like allows you to think both inside and out of it. Once you have your prospective network mapped out, the internet is literally filled with sites debriefing you on the etiquette involved in contacting these people. Follow this advice. Be aware of what comes next on your career path at each transition. Be aware that not every transition is something you can plan for. Companies fail and markets crash. It is at points like this that you can return to the plan and rework it. Starting with, what are your assets? What are your liabilities? Can you work your network to any advantage? To paraphrase David Mamet, ABC stands for Always Be… Updating your Master Resume. Well it almost works. Your master resume is where you list every accomplishment and accolade you receive. This allows you to really tailor every application to the specific position. You should be doing this even when you are happily employed at your dream job. A) it will come in handy when you are up for a promotion and B) you never know when you are going to suddenly need a fresh resume for a new job search. Also, keep an updated LinkedIn profile with all citations and certifications you have received. This is a good place to keep track of your network, and the more endorsements you can garner from bosses and coworkers, the better it is for your career outlook.


Where do you see yourself in five years? in ten? in twenty? How does this compare with the typical career path you researched above? What do you need to do to rise above the flock in your field? Answers to these questions can help fine-tune your resume and hone your answers to prospective interview questions. And for your plan to succeed, set a timeline for what needs to happen when. Which leads us to career “hoops.” Just as you managed prerequisites and corequisites as an undergrad, some career “hoops” need to be jumped through in a particular order and some can be skipped altogether. Know which are which. This is where your previous assessment of your strengths and… areas of less strength comes in handy. How do you utilize your strongest skills to get ahead? What problem areas can you shore up to head off workplace drama? The more actual experience you can apply here, the better. As with everything else, try to keep and cultivate a cadre of work-related and school-related friendships so the advice you get remains relevant. Be aware that advice on what to do career-wise will vary by the generation of the advice-giver. Advice from those in the Boomer generation may not have as much relevance to your experience as advice from a closer-in-age peer. 

Create a Schedule

You don’t need to have a date circled on your calendar, but a rough timeline of the events you foresee shaping your career (graduate school? marriage? children? corner office? more graduate school?) could be the difference between starting your job search mid-year your senior year and starting it the summer after graduation from your old room at your parents’ house. What if you finish school in December? These are aspects you need to keep in mind when thinking about the future. Your four years in college (if you stick with a major and finish “on time”) are pretty well scripted. You have the chance to continue that trend right now. From another point of view, that of one who has everything aligned from application dates to interview coaching sessions, all entirely well-ahead of schedule: things can still fall through; you can hit a wall. If you are the one finishing group work for everyone else, you know your curse. You have to make room for disappointment and missed goals. You are entering a job market that is valuated to reward your ability to bounce back as needed. One skill you may have already picked up already but the importance of which cannot be over-emphasized is the ability to keep your head under pressure, to maintain grace in person, and to know when and with whom to vent and let yourself be vulnerable. Your instinct that no one can be as perfect as they seem is correct. It’s not fair that you are probably not able to cry in public or exude a vibe of weakness. Corporate culture can be hard to master, but when you know how to operate in each space, you will be well served by this knowledge and it can get you through many tight spots and rough days, until you can find a safe space to really check in with your feelings. If you have more last-minute tendencies, the advice still holds. Have a full alternate life plan (maybe three) that are viable, based on your actual talents, and have a prayer of playing out positively. As with your primary goals, your alternates may afford you a chance to visualize what you never considered. Do most people do what they imagined at ages 5 or 10 or 15? Even at 20, you may not have had the healthiest dreams and goals. It’s always worth it to reconsider long-held plans. It might be pleasant to have dreamed and then worked to become what you imagined your dream version of you could be. But be careful not to hold fast to promises you were not near an age of reason to make. 

In conclusion, a career plan is a good thing to have. It can help you visualize the steps you need to take to get to the destination of your dreams. At the same time, you will be best served by being more than just flexible in your ability to visualize what your actual career will look like. You will be happier, we dearly hope, as long as you are able to make those moments near inevitable (with proper planning) and survivable when inevitably you don’t get the perfect job right off the bat. If you aren’t sure why you did not get called back, it will probably take all of your personal strength and dignity not to self-evaluate hyper-negatively. This is another skill you will need to master, the holding back of this negativity, since, for one thing, “why you weren’t hired” letters seem to have been a casualty of the ‘08 recession. The world has changed since your parents’ day, so take advice from elders with a caveat that their world is not your world. But this world can be managed and even prospered in, with care. And planning.  

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