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5 Career Tips for Recent College Grads

Why are there no women in upper management? Cue awkward, long silence. My 45-year-old male manager, Joe, was stunned by my blunt question during one of my first performance reviews. Hmm…probably not the best way to approach the gender equality issue at a storied financial institution at the age of 22 in my first real-world job. Oops.

Younger people, and probably most people, are notably savvier than I was at that age. But with a niece and nephew graduating from college this May, here are career tidbits I wish I had fully grasped after I graduated college and before I entered the work force, aka the “real world.”

1. There is no rush to start your career.

A manager from one of my summer internships gave me this advice between my junior and senior year of college. “You have the rest of your life to be in the rat race” were her words. I didn’t listen. I was too anxious to start my career. And I didn’t want to be “behind” my peers. I wanted to climb the corporate ladder and earn bigger paychecks as soon and as quickly as I could.

In my mind, the people who didn’t get full-time jobs right away had to be independently wealthy, not serious about their careers, or both. Personally, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t going straight into a full-time job or graduate school.

Looking back, I realize there was no rush to start. And now, I know many people who took a year(s) to travel or live somewhere new without a financial safety net AND who went on to have very successful, lucrative careers. By working at restaurants or ski shops and living very frugally, they supported their “gap” years and grew confident that they could handle whatever came their way. They negotiated the world with more ease and maturity that came with life experiences that corporate training couldn’t compete with.  

If you are ready to jump into a traditional full-time job, great! But I encourage you to take a beat. Consider other options with an open mind. Sabbaticals are more prevalent now than when I started working, but you still must work years to earn them. Also, once you make a corporate paycheck, it can be hard to go back to eating only ramen. Careers start over and over. We are continuously reinventing our careers with new jobs, new challenges, new companies.

Takeaway:       Your career trajectory isn’t dependent on the start date of your first job.

2. There is value in what’s “old” and in paying your dues.

Admittedly, when I joined the work force, I thought smarts and hard work gave me permission to be outspoken. I didn’t want to be the corporate puppet who only spoke after figuring out what the higher-ups thought. We all know those people.

Even more embarrassing is how I regarded older colleagues as behind the times and overly ingrained in the status quo. And in my vast experience of summer internships and classroom learning, status quo was not the way to run a company and increase value to shareholders. Snarky truth? I also judged older colleagues for phoning it in and collecting a paycheck. They were people who had lost their drive and will to make the business better in exchange for great hours and a 401k match.

Obviously, not a great attitude. This is not to say that “this is how it’s always been done” is an acceptable answer. I hated that response so much! And it’s not to say that some colleagues aren’t just coasting from 9 to 5. There is even a term for this now! It’s called “quiet quitting.” It is real. But be respectful to the people who were there before you. Their years of institutional knowledge and practical experience bring much-needed wisdom and corporate savvy to every situation.

Takeaway:       Don’t enter the work force thinking you know it all. You don’t.

3. Meritocracy doesn’t always win.

Remember how some professors and teachers loved certain students for no apparent reason? And these students were able to seemingly get away with more than others? Corporate America is the same. It’s frustrating and not fair. This can be especially true with jobs where your performance can’t easily be quantified and compared.

Not sure about other industries, but in the financial industry, nepotism was is alive and well. This was really discouraging for someone who was trying to break into the industry from the bottom. There were no family connections to get me hired or to look out for me. I carried that chip on my shoulder for a long time.

Takeaway:       No advice here, except to get over it. The only thing you can control is you.

“The unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective.”

Jon Stewart

4. There is no clear career path.

Life isn’t the career ladder that I pictured it to be. No steps are outlined. At school, you knew which classes you needed to take and in what order to take them. Success meant graduating and starting life in the real world. Unfortunately, and fortunately, there is no clear path to being “successful.” There is no single definition of success.

This can be very difficult for students who are used to defined metrics as written in the syllabus. For example, the goal is an “A,” and you can earn an “A” by achieving a 90% to 100% in their class.

While organizations are trying to get better at mapping out general career paths, metrics for performance reviews are squishy at best. “Works well with others” can sound like the teacher’s report your parents got when you were in preschool. It’s also very subjective. The quality of support and guidance you receive is heavily dependent on the manager reviewing you. You can get super lucky or not.

Another outside measurement of success you may have used during your academic career is how you are doing compared to your peers. Are you at the top? Bottom? Somewhere in the middle? It’s comforting to have a measuring stick that tells you if you are doing the right things and going in the right direction.

But there is nothing as concrete as a grade and your class standing in the real world. It is probably one of the reasons that people get so caught up in money. It’s easy to measure, quantify, and compare. “I have X amount of dollars, which means I am in the top X%, which means I am good at life.” It’s hard to measure happiness or relationships and how that relates to your peers.

Takeaway:       Determine your definition of success by your own measuring stick.

5. Emotional intelligence is important.

If it isn’t clear yet by some of my cringe-producing personal examples, emotional intelligence skills are critical at work and in life. You will only get so far by focusing solely on your technical skills. Yes, there are mad geniuses out there who have zero social and people skills. They are the exception, not the majority.

Takeaway:       Emotional IQ is a skill worth taking time to learn and hone.

Financial Advice for New College Graduates

Some practical advice for college grads starting their first job (because I can’t help myself).

  • Live within your means.
  • Save where and when you can. You will be old someday. You will want to retire someday. Defer to your 401k. At least enough to get the company match. It’s free money.
  • Start an “oh crap” fund. It comes in handy in so many unexpected situations from getting your car out of the impound lot to paying medical deductibles when you break your arm at a pick-up basketball game.
  • Consider Roth IRAs and Roth 401ks. You are likely in the lowest tax bracket you will see in your lifetime. And investment compounding is magic. Locking in a low tax rate now and letting your investments grow over 30 – 40 years will give Future You more financial security, choices, and flexibility.   
  • Look at your employee benefits carefully. It seems like mumbo jumbo, but there are some great benefits other than health insurance that you can take advantage of.

Many new grads are saddled with student loans and credit card debt. You won’t regret making the lifestyle decision to pay your debts off as quickly as possible, but it doesn’t make the decision or the everyday spending choices easy or fun.

Additional Reading

Here are some interesting articles for new grads:

Should Young People Save Less and Spend More

Save Like A Pessimist, Invest Like an Optimist

Personal Finance Tips for New Graduates

This next part of your life is scary, exciting, and fun, all at the same time. Enjoy!

Disclosures: BW Financial LLC dba BW Financial Planning is an Investment Adviser registered with the State of Colorado. All views, expressions, and opinions included in this communication are subject to change. This communication is not intended as an offer or solicitation to buy, hold or sell any financial instrument or investment advisory services. Any information provided has been obtained from sources considered reliable, but we do not guarantee the accuracy or the completeness of any description of securities, markets or developments mentioned. We may, from time to time, have a position in the securities mentioned and may execute transactions that may not be consistent with this communication’s conclusions. This communication is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, accounting and/or tax advice. Should you have any questions and/or issues in these areas, please consult your legal, tax and/or accounting adviser.l

Financial Planning, Personal