How to Survive when Trading Your Backpack for a Briefcase Isn’t All You Thought it Would Be
So, you’re about to graduate from college and enter the full-time workforce. Maybe you’ve already got the job offer in your hands. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for.
There are countless articles and books on finding your first job, succeeding in the workplace, making a name for yourself, and moving up the company ladder. They’ll tell you how to dress and make sure you know exactly how to impress your new boss.
But what not too many career-related resources will admit is that sometimes, work sucks. Adjusting from the college lifestyle to being a member of the workforce can be a stressful, frustrating and sometimes disappointing transition.
I was an independent, first-generation college student. My parents didn’t have the money do to much more than give me the occasional care package, or the experience to guide me through things like applying for financial aid. As a result, I worked 3 part-time jobs to pay my way through school.
Each semester, I took 4 or 5 classes and worked somewhere between 30-40 hours a week. It’s easy to understand why I thought great things were coming my way. Heck, after living with a schedule like that for years, the notion of just having one full-time job seemed like easy street.
But it wasn’t.
The lifestyle of a college student, especially one who also works, is often hectic, chaotic, and non-stop. You’re only half-joking when someone asks you if you’re getting enough rest and you turn to them and say “Sleep? What’s sleep?”
But college life also features variety and constant change. Each semester brings a new set of classes and new people into your life. One week you’re writing papers, the next you’re cramming for exams. Your jobs are usually the type of work you can leave behind when you go home at the end of your shift. Your work schedule itself may vary based on your classes and what else you’ve got on your plate. Each day is new and different.
When I transitioned into my first job, I was amazed at just how hard I found it. I wasn’t used to going to the same place and seeing the same people every day. I found myself feeling bored and confined at the notion of spending 40-plus hours a week in my office. When I found myself sitting in meetings that went over the same stuff again and again, longed for the days when I bounced from a lecture on literature to one on abnormal psychology. Those topics may have put me to sleep then, but I’d have given anything to be discussing them instead of “how to increase productivity” for the fiftieth time now.
I don’t want to make it sound like work is a prison sentence. In the right job for you, it is possible to thrive, find challenges and adventure, make an important contribution, earn decent money, and maybe even still have a somewhat flexible lifestyle. But in order to get there, it is important to face the transition from college to work with both a realistic perspective and a positive attitude.
Here are a few of the things I wish someone would have told me as a new college graduate. If I’d given them some forethought, the transition may have been a bit less bumpy.
Money still doesn’t grow on trees.
When you’re used to living on a college student budget, the idea of an actual full-time salary is overwhelming. You can feel rich on a paycheck that those who have been in the workforce for a while would find downright depressing.
Chances are, you’ll have more money now than you’ve ever had before. But before you start offering to cover the bar tab for all your friends who are still in school or buy yourself that new top-of-the-line TV, remember that it isn’t just the amount in your pocket that is increasing. Most likely, your expenses will go up too.
Generally, living on campus is cheaper than renting an apartment or paying a mortgage, especially when you factor in electricity and other utilities. Don’t forget what you’re paying out for cable TV, your internet connection, and your phone service. Maybe you got support with your bills from your family before, and are now on your own.
A professional wardrobe is also usually quite a bit more expensive than your college student attire. There’s some truth to the saying “it takes money to make money.”
Before you jump into making huge financial commitments or blowing wads of cash while you’re out and about, take some time to get used to living with both your new income and your new obligations. You’ll be better off in the long run.
Variety is no longer guaranteed, so learn to make “the same old same old” interesting.
`Even if you land your dream job, the transition from being all over the place to having the majority of your waking hours spent focusing on your work can be tough. Doing anything for at least 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, can get old after a while.
Instead of having a class or two in the morning, a break in between, another class in the afternoon and maybe a few hours at your part-time job in the evening, you’ll get up in the morning and head to the office. Unless your job is of the “in the field” variety, you’ll be there most of the day, staring at the same four walls or cube farm. You might have the occasional meeting or off-site event thrown in now and then, but for the most part you’ll need to get used to seeing the same scenery and doing the same types of things day in and day out.
It’ll be up to you to make your work life more interesting. Invest yourself in knowing all you can about the organization and its operations. Try to learn new things every day. Make sure you take a break each day to soak up some sunshine. Don’t spend all your off-hours crashed out in front of the TV. Build varied and fun activities into your spare time, whether they involve gradually decorating your new apartment, hitting the gym, taking the occasional weekend road trip, or catching a weekly movie with your friends.
Just because your friends are still out all night doesn’t mean you should be.
In most circles of college friends, everyone doesn’t transition from school to work at the same time. Perhaps some of your friend are taking longer to complete their degree, and are still living the college life. They might have gone on to graduate school instead of jumping into the workforce. Maybe they graduated with you, but just haven’t found a “real job” yet.
Sure, they can blow off the 9 a.m. lecture. But your boss stops by every morning at 8:30 sharp to see if you’re at your desk. The invitation to stay out until the wee hours of the morning partying like the college days is tempting. You’re still young and very much alive, after all. But even if you can drag yourself in on 3 hours of sleep, there’s nothing more miserable than suffering through 8 hours of drudgery with a hangover.
Don’t give up being the party guy or girl if that’s what you like to do. But consider saving it for the weekends.
Don’t let the monotony drain your brain.
Some jobs will be full of new things to learn and experience. Others will have a short learning curve, followed by months on end of doing the same thing. Once you’ve got these types of jobs down, they can quickly become routine, monotonous, and boring.
The funny thing about being bored at work is that it can actually be more draining and stressful than being challenged. Most people like to feel productive and useful. While you may not miss exams and cram sessions, you might find yourself missing the college atmosphere, where everyone is intent on learning new things. You’ll quickly learn that a day of doing something that doesn’t tax your brain at all can make you just as exhausted as wrestling with difficult new concepts.
You’ve heard the saying “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” and it applies to our ability to learn new things. Getting out of the habit of making new discoveries can make you forget out to stimulate your brain.
Don’t give into the temptation to veg in front of the TV set, surf mindless web sites, or sleep off your drudgery-induced lethargy every night. Instead, have pet projects at home that re-energize your mind and get you excited. Read, write, play a sport, learn a language, do carpentry work, paint, play an instrument, visit museums, make jewelry, become a good cook … whatever floats your boat. Just don’t let the daily ritual of filling out mindless reports or answering the same question 50 times a day turn you into a zombie.
At work, seek out opportunities to take on new and different things. Show yourself to be capable of getting done what’s been assigned to you while still contributing to or observing other areas. Let it be known that you want to stretch your horizons, without making it seem that you don’t value your current assignments.
If it looks like opportunities to do more with your talents and skills aren’t going to present themselves in spite of your efforts, use your spare brain power to start planning your next job search.
Remember that you’re once again the little fish in the big pond.
The degree you just earned and all the experience that came with it really do mean a lot. They landed you the job, after all.
But to your co-workers who have been there for years, you’re still the new kid on the block. Be confident but humble, involved but not overwhelming. You don’t want to be the doormat who gets assigned nothing but the mindless, boring tasks. But you don’t want to be branded as the “annoying new kid who steps on toes and tries to change everything” either. Take time to observe, learn and understand the operation. Figure out where you fit in now and where you hope to be in the future. Make sure you know why things run the way they do before you come in bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and full of ideas for change.
Get to know everyone. The most helpful people will be colleagues in your line of work who are willing to provide support and training. Take notes on what you’re learning, even if it seems simple at the time. Don’t be the one who has to ask three times how to log into the computer system because you haven’t bothered to write down the steps.
Also make sure you get to know the administrative support staff in your office. Most of the time, they’re the ones who really keep things running. If you need to plan an event, have a question about human resource issues, need supplies or IT support, or want to gain access to a higher up, these are usually the people who can easily help you get what you need.
Start walking the work/life balance beam right away.
Most success-on-the-job resources will tell you that now is the time to go above and beyond. Give it your all. Shine like a star. Get to work early and stay late.
To a certain extent, they’re right. You’re new, and you want to impress your boss and those around you so that you’ll keep your job, get promoted, and be on the way to financial and career success.
But there’s more to life than work, and I’m a firm believer that if the rest of your life is passing you by then you aren’t really all that successful. The trick is to be productive and ahead of the game at work while still enjoying and appreciating the rest of your life. Household responsibilities, time with loved ones, time for personal interests, and just plain fun are important.
If your company needs support on the occasional late night or weekend to meet deadlines, jump right in and volunteer. But if working ten hours a day and coming in on the weekends is a regular expectation, you have to question whether things are being run the way they should be. People are entitled to lives outside the office.
If you start out as the gung-ho new guy who stays late every night, and then over time start trying to reclaim your life, it’ll look like you’ve gone from dedicated employee to slacker. But if you go above and beyond now and then while still making sure enough of your off-hours are sacred, and maintain that schedule, then you’ll just look … dedicated.
Burnout is real. People who don’t take time for themselves are usually harried, bitter, boring and tired. Their personal relationships suffer. Don’t become one of them. Be the person who comes in each day fresh and ready to go, not the one who feels like she never left and just really wants a nap.
The work habits you develop now will carry through the rest of your career. Make sure they’re ones that benefit your entire life, not just your job.
Co-workers aren’t like classmates.
In college, you may have had a set of new classmates each semester. Some became friends. Some became study buddies. You may have partied, shared secrets, talked about your sex lives and made fun of geeky professors. A few became part of your permanent social circle, the rest drifted on as the academic or living arrangements that brought you together shifted.
At work, you’re probably stuck with most of your co-workers indefinitely. You rely on each other to get your jobs done. If the IT crew isn’t developing what the marketing team needs, then everyone fails.
Be warm and friendly to your co-workers. Pitch in and be a team player. Ask questions, learn, and offer input. There probably will be difficult people, and you’ll need to learn to work with them. Unlike the annoying guy in your seminar class who always had his hand raised, they won’t be going away at the end of the semester.
There will be others that you actually enjoying working with. You’ll have goals in common. You may even find that your interests outside of work are similar.
Co-workers can become friends for life. I have made several along the way. Many are part of my personal life now even though we don’t work together anymore. But it is important when forming friendships with co-workers to tread slowly and be cautious. Don’t jump right into doing bad impersonations of the boss or talking about your cheating boyfriend or how the new girl in research is hot. Be sure the person you’re confiding in or just having fun with isn’t someone who will use what they’ve learned against you or inadvertently share your personal information with other co-workers.
Humor is your best weapon.
Yes, there are times that work just sucks. By day four of another five-day week, you’ll sometimes feel like pulling the covers over your head and moaning “there’s gotta be more than this.”
Keep your sense of humor about you. Observe workplace quirks and laugh about them. Journal about the absurdity of it all, just not someplace where your boss is likely to find what you’ve written. Tell funny work stories to your friends and family.
The comic strip Dilbert and the movie Office Space were such big hits for a reason. There’s a common thread of both the annoying and the inane that holds the working community together. We get through it by laughing about it.
Develop healthy habits.
You’ll look and feel better if you eliminate some of those college bad habits early on.
Maybe in college, you were running around so much from class to class and job to job that you really didn’t need to work out regularly. Now, you’re sitting at the same desk all day. Build a workout routine into your schedule, even if you’ve never had one before. It’ll be good for both your body and your spirit.
Make healthy food choices, even if in college you lived on pizza and beer. Don’t deprive yourself totally of your greasy spoon favorites, but balance them out with healthy meals most of the week. Make breakfast more than a cup of coffee. It really will help gear up your mind for the day.
Get plenty of sleep, even if it means taping some of your favorite TV shows and watching them over the weekend. Workdays seem even longer when you’re sleep-deprived.
Make it a point to keep in close contact with family and friends. When you’re stuck at work all day, it can be harder to find time for personal calls or visits just to hang out. But makes sure you do. Those you love can be a lifeline and a support system as you’re adapting to the world of work.
Finishing college and starting your first full-time job is just like any other adventure. It has its highs and lows, its ups and downs. The transition may not be easy, but with realistic expectations, adaptability and a positive outlook, you’ll be able to be both successful on the job and happy in your life.