New Graduates - Do You Really Need a Career Plan?

By Ellis Chase

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While I’ve talked to students on many different occasions throughout the academic year, I’ve never been invited to give a commencement address. That hasn’t stopped me from thinking about what I would like to say, if asked. (I’d even be happy to wear a cap and gown.)

The Graduation Address I’d Like to Give if Only Someone Would Ask

What I want to say to you today is what I wish someone had said to me at my graduation. (Never mind that I didn’t attend. That’s another story.) 

Commencement season is much more than students protesting speakers and speakers telling graduates about the impact they can make on society.

It’s a time for celebration, yes. But underneath all the excitement, there’s a profound level of anxiety. Anxiety about what kind of job you should be looking for. Anxiety about whether you can afford to live on your own or will be moving back home. (My apologies to the parents for bringing this up, but I’ve seen statistics claiming anywhere from 53-85% of college graduates move back home.) Anxiety because now is the moment when you really have to decide what you want to be when you grow up.

But my question is this: should you really be asked to make a decision for life at 22?

I’ve been a career consultant for more than 25 years so I know that some of you will make bad career decisions just to avoid the anxiety of not making a decision at all. Sometimes that means law school, sometimes medical school, sometimes another professional graduate program. Or just any graduate school, in order to avoid any decisions and stay in a relatively safe place.  

I frequently joke to my graduate students--who carefully made their very expensive decision to go to business school after at least six or seven years in the workforce--I am grateful for all those who chose to go to law school right after graduation, because they will form a strong base of referrals for my private practice later on.  

Why? Because their decisions were usually based on all the wrong factors. Choosing a profession for life at 22 because of a need to make a decision, any decision, is a bad idea. 

Where bad decisions will take you

While I like getting the business from all those unhappy attorneys, at the same time I’m very sorry to see so many clients who are miserable in their careers as a result of faulty decision-making. And too often, they stick with those bad decisions for far too long.  

Why do they stick with those decisions? Because they worry about not knowing what they really want to do. A kind of infinite loop.  

I then end up working with many 40-45-year-old attorneys who will claim that they hated law school at orientation, but could never figure out how to extricate themselves from the security of a steady job and a good paycheck--the “golden handcuffs.” 

Or I work with the many doctors who have enrolled in the Executive MBA program, where I consult, because they’d never liked clinical work much, were not that interested in medicine to begin with, and wanted to do something much more business-oriented.  

Or I speak with information technology professionals from abroad who chose their careers because they saw those careers as the best possible shot at upward mobility in their countries, and then later realized that they were far more interested in the business end of things.  

When I meet students, like you, about to graduate from college who are thinking about the law school thing, I’ll ask them why. Their first inclination is to think of law as a safe, secure choice. Funny thing about that. It isn’t, anymore. 

But if they don’t have a substantive answer to why they’ve chosen law school, I will suggest that they try clerical or paralegal work in a law firm or other legal area for a year. Otherwise, they have no real idea whether or not the field is interesting. 

What kind of decision should you be making? 

First, let’s take the pressure off. It is not necessary to make a lifetime decision right after college graduation. Let’s take that even further. I’m a career advisor who doesn’t believe in long-term career planning. Yes, there are some who do have a vision; some of my students, at age 31, know exactly where they want to be in 30 years. Most don’t. 

I’ve never been able to figure out why making a lifetime decision is so important to so many people, and why it’s a normal expectation. Maybe it’s the result of so many parents and friends asking, “So what are you going to do? What’s your career goal?” I think that the 20’s are the perfect time for exploration and figuring things out. Lifetime planning for most of you is not feasible. More than that, it’s probably the cause of so many bad decisions.  

But what should a graduate do? If we’re talking about someone who, like the vast majority of graduates, doesn’t have a clue about what he or she wants in the long term, let’s start as I already said by taking the pressure off. 

The decision about that first job should be based on – 

What do you find interesting? 

What have you enjoyed doing to this point?  

And what is important to you in terms of your personal values?  

Then I’d ask you to think about what are the upsides of a first job?   

I suggest including the upsides to help you understand that this initial decision isn’t one that can never be altered. Or that if you make a mistake it’s a career killer (ridiculous). At your age, no job should be thought of as make or break. What this initial job should be is a skill builder, and an exploration.  

Let me give you an example.

A recent college graduate client was determined to get into advertising. He was a talented writer, and had a serious creative gift. But entry-level jobs in advertising are hard to find these days, in a seriously contracting and quickly evolving field. Thanks to his skill at building networks, he managed to find a job with a firm he soon realized was not a good fit for him. To put it mildly, he despised the people and the culture. But he stuck it out to gain experience. He left for an unpaid internship, which helped him clarify his interest in the creative end and helped him develop a strategy. The internship recently ended.  

He’s on search once again now, and is still angry about his initial experience. I pointed out the upsides-- both the first bad experience and the non-paying experience not only gave him skills to describe to prospective employers, but also helped him discover exactly what it was that he wanted to do in advertising. I also pointed out that everyone has terrible jobs, maybe a few of them, and it was just unlucky that his first one was such an unpleasant experience. But at 24, he now has a much better grasp on what he wants to do and the steps he’ll need to take.  

Most careers are not linear. What’s important to keep in mind is that you can make mistakes, you can choose wrong paths, you can be downsized or terminated, and you can still have a successful career.  

And when you start thinking about careers as an evolutionary process you begin to understand that there is no absolute decision to be made at a set time. I know lots of very successful people who made their defining career decisions in their 40s . . . or even 50s. 

Assess your interests and values
Once you understand that it’s not imperative to make the Big Decision at age 22, figuring out what your first steps should be is critical. Do a self-assessment of your interests, clarify your personal values, and research potential job markets--those are the key elements in starting. Learning as much as possible about the field you’ve chosen will help you become an insider even before you’ve landed a job. And it will set you apart from other job candidates.  

You don’t need to make a life decision, but you do need to have an initial target. As I point out in In Search of the Fun-Forever Job: Career Strategies That Work, targets are the first objective in any job search or career transition. You can’t just “cast the wide net,” and hope that something will just happen by chance. A targeted search, with a carefully crafted marketing plan will get things going.  

But before you begin, you need to take the pressure off. Aim for the first job, not the total career. Eliminating the anxiety will help the process immeasurably.  

By the way, congratulations on your graduation! 


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