Twelve months ago, one month after graduating from college, with an Italian Studies degree and a Sociology minor, I was in the thick of the freakout. The everyone-I-know-already-has-a-job-I-still-don’t-know-WTF-I’m-doing-with-my-life-why-did-I-major-in-Italian-freakout. Friends who majored in accounting happily posting their life-plans all over Facebook. Family members not-so-subtly asking if you have a life plan, yet. Every entry-level job application to be found requiring “3-5 years of experience.”
One year ago, that freakout paralyzed me. I whined, hoping the next life-stage would present itself to me like high school and college so conveniently did.
I know a lot of people who are tackling the same ‘is this the right path’ doubts, student-loan anxieties, and job application difficulties that consumed me a year ago (and continued well into my 9 months of unemployment after graduation). So I’ve compiled a few of the most important lessons I tend to share with people that I have learned over the last year – from interning in an extremely competitive environment, while also applying for jobs in one of the most competitive cities in the U.S. – and I hope that they can help you or someone you know navigate the inherent freakout of transitioning into post-grad life.
Overcoming the Freakout
For me, breaking out of freakout paralysis involved sending a LOT of resumes and cover letters into the black hole that is the Internet, to any organization I thought I might be interested in. Although applying and not hearing back from anyone right away can begin to feel fruitless, if I hadn’t forced myself to send applications repeatedly after graduation, one of those resumes would never have led me to intern with a Congressman, and my current job in Washington, D.C. Commit to applying to one job per day, and suddenly ‘figuring out the rest of your life’ will feel less daunting.
Standing out by acing the little things
If you’re like me, you might apply for some jobs or internships in a different city than where you currently live. Which means you’ll likely be interviewed by phone or Skype, which provides additional challenges to conveying your knowledge and skills. For example:
You might live in a different time zone than your interviewer. You might confirm that your phone interview for an internship with a Senator in D.C. is at 2 pm on Wednesday, prepare really strong answers the night before, and check your phone at 1:30 on Wednesday, to realize that you missed 3 calls from your interviewer that morning because it was at 2 pm EASTERN TIME, NOT SEATTLE TIME. You might not be chosen for that internship.
Am I speaking from personal experience? Yes. Did I lose an internship opportunity because of my lack of attention to detail? Yes. Did my prior preparation still impress the guy in my rescheduled interview so he would eventually pass my resume along to another Congressman’s office, who I ended up moving to D.C. to intern with? Also yes. (Thanks, Nick). I got lucky here. Not everyone will be as nice as Nick. Moral of story: with any kind of interview, the little things, like double-checking your interview time and demonstrating an impeccable attention to detail, can make or break your chance of getting a job. Be the person who remembers the time zone.
Getting over your pride to intern until you find a job
For some horrible reason, “entry-level” jobs in many fields require applicants to have 3-5 years of work experience in that field. This is why so many post-grads end up selling their labor in return for the opportunity to make coffee-I mean-learn valuable skills through internships that count towards that required prior experience. Taking an internship while applying for “real jobs” right out of college may feel demeaning, especially if it is unpaid, and you actually are only making coffee. But I would argue that the three (THREE!) different internships I held after graduation, which included coffee-making, are what set me up so well for my first real-world job.
Using an internship to your utmost advantage
There are a myriad of articles out there with comprehensive internship advice, that I won’t try to replicate. But these are some useful lessons learned that I frequently pass on to other people. The first piece of advice I received upon moving to D.C. to intern while looking for jobs was to set up coffee dates. Not like meeting-up-with-a-friend-you-don’t-actually-want-to-hang-out-with coffee dates. I mean informational interviews – where you invite a colleague from your internship’s office to coffee in order to “learn more about what they do.” Apparently everyone knows that this really means you’re looking for jobs, and you want to know if they can help you find one.
Some people will swear this is the only way to find a job in highly-saturated job market cities like D.C.: you want to work in PR, but so do 200 other interns who live near you. So you get coffee with Senator so-and-so’s Communications Director who will pass your resume along to Congresswoman so-and-so’s office that has an opening for a press assistant – and thank goodness you met for that coffee because now the Comm.s Director will put in a good word for you over those 200 other interns. This is how “applying for jobs” was described to me when I moved here. That is a best-case scenario. Luckily, while they may not connect you directly to a job, seasoned professionals can help you in other ways (listed below), so you should grab coffee with any colleague you can, and ask about what they do and how they got to where they are today.
Once you’ve set up a few coffee dates, prepare intelligent questions to ask on each one. After listening and learning from the answers, you will usually be asked what your career goals are (if you haven’t thought about them, do so. If you have nothing to say here, they’ll wonder why you’re wasting their time). Then, it is UP TO YOU to figure out how they might help you. Most often, the person will offer you some really helpful advice, having been in your shoes before. But you can’t assume they will do more than this, unless you ask them to. Professionals in the real world have a lot on their plate at all times – and finding an intern a job is not high on their to-do list. However, you CAN politely enlist their help in a couple of ways:
- Ask them to look over your resume, and suggest any changes. These are people who probably look over resumes all the time, and will know what is impressive in your field and what actually isn’t (How I quickly learned nobody cares that you’re ‘proficient in Microsoft Word’ – because of course you are, you typed your resume right? Duh.)
- If it feels right, ask them to forward your resume along if they know of an open position in your field. Make this easy for them, by sending them your typo-free resume in PDF form after your coffee. (I now have a 3 page PDF doc that includes my resume, cover letter for the specific job, and list of professional references. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for a very busy person to read.)
- Always ask them to direct you to at least one new person to have coffee with. If you’re awkward like me you might get sick of meeting strangers in coffee shops. But, the more you do it, the better your interview skills, and the less awkward you become.
- Finally, don’t let your network of coffee dates forget about you. If you talked about editing your resume or obtaining contact info for a colleague in your field, send profusely-thankful follow up emails, paired with real, mailed notes thanking them for taking time out of their busy schedule to meet with you. People remember that kind of tangible gratitude.
I didn’t jump into the coffee-dates networking game nearly as soon as I should have when I began my internship. And I missed out on early advice and connections because of it. One of my best friends who found a job most quickly after graduation had been grabbing these informal coffees with local professionals months before we left college, gaining tons of advice and communication skills before the rest of us. Get on her level.
Putting ‘the rest of your life’ into perspective
Sometimes throughout the job hunt, you’ll be tired of uncomfortable networking events, tired of your job application emails being ignored, and you’ll feel like you will never find a job related to the degree you went $30,000 in debt to obtain (Unless you’re an engineer or an accountant, in which case you can leave this page and go enjoy your eternal job security bliss). You will probably feel pressured to find the perfect first job that combines your major with your passion and long-term goals.
Well, stop fretting. The best advice that this Italian-Sociology major got during the job hunt was that careers are no longer simple ladders. They’re more like adaptable flow charts, that provide you with multiple, changing paths for achieving an end goal. You will very likely need to take internships and jobs that don’t seem related to your dream career goals, in order to learn the specific skills that you will end up needing later to achieve your dream career goals. Look at job descriptions* of positions you want to work in someday and figure out what jobs or internships you could work now that will prepare you for that goal in the future. I want to pursue international policy as a career, and my current job has nothing to do with that. But the U.S. policy analysis I do now is making me more qualified for my goals every day. Remember that your first job or internship is not the rest of your life.
I have been extremely fortunate to work many diverse, formative internships immediately after graduating from college. I am now employed, in a job I love, paying my student loans, and doing fine. The freakout is only temporary!
While I’m not an expert, postgrad anxiety is fresh in my mind, and I’m always happy to answer questions recent graduates might have.
*Also, www.Idealist.org is where I found my current job, and is one of the best free internship/job search resources I have used. Good luck!