The transition between college and the "real world” can be one of the most daunting times in an individual’s life. Even with the assistance of great mentors and a supportive college career counseling program, it still can create a sense of uneasiness. During these uncertain economic times, students may have trouble deciding what path to follow, whether it is a career or continuing their education by enrolling in a Masters or Doctoral program. Some may even consider enrolling in school while working a job simultaneously, making them a more competitive candidate for positions in academia down the road.
There are many books that help transitioning students prepare for graduate school, ranging in topics from acing the GREs to writing the most attention grabbing and effective personal statement. Also helpful are guides and manuals that discuss the benefits of shadowing professionals before committing to a career path. Despite the multitude of resources available, often the richest source of information comes from individuals who have previously gone or are now going through a transition themselves. Who better to ask than peers who are preparing for the future, transitioning, and flourishing?
No Time for Senioritis
Don’t assume your senior year will be a time that you can devote all of your energy and attention to job and graduate school applications. While these forms need to be filled out and submitted, schoolwork keeps coming. Senior year in college is much different than in high school; the classes are harder, senior theses need to be completed, and the prospect of entering the "real world” approaches. Many students wish they had spent the summer prior to their senior year getting "ahead” by researching potential employment opportunities and graduate programs.
The ‘Fit’ Needs to Work Two Ways
Most students were shocked that their graduate school interviews did not only focus on why they wanted to attend the school, but also on why it would be a good "fit” for them. Unlike applications to undergraduate institutions, graduate admissions interviewers look for a well thought-out 5 to 10 year plan and clearly defined examples of how the graduate program will fit into your current life. It is important to not only research the program or company you are applying to, but to look up "key players” (professors, potential supervisors, etc.) and discuss how their accomplishments have personally influenced you. For example, read research papers of a professor you hope to work with, paying special attention to the sections outlining directions for future research. Consider what you can add to their agenda, and take it another step further. The better you can articulate the working relationship you hope to have with the professors, the more successful a contender you will be.
While the decision about your future is ultimately in your hands, it is important to communicate with others during such a formative time. Students stressed the importance of being proactive to seek out opportunities and helpful resources.
Help at College
Within their college, students noted many sources of help, such as workshops, career fairs, and networking opportunities, in addition to access to faculty members. Most described relying heavily on their academic advisors, starting as early as their sophomore year. With their advisors, students were able to craft a schedule that gave them depth of knowledge in their field of interest, but also a well-rounded education ranging from the social to "hard” sciences. The academic advisors also made sure that the students were on track towards graduation. Faculty members were also a great support. While students counted on their favorite professors for recommendations, they also looked to them for career advice. Remember, most of the faculty members in your subject area went through the same process as you. By approaching counselors and other faculty on your own, you get advice tailored to your personal needs, and you can also voice any of your concerns. Finally, students revealed that the career counseling center was one of the most important sources of information. Students were able to set up appointments to practice interviewing techniques, review their applications, as well as network during career fairs. For example, two students discussed making appointments with the career counseling center to review general interview approaches for graduate and employment opportunities, and to schedule times to have their resumes edited. One even said that the individual he contacted at the career center was so obliging that she set up a series of mock interviews which really helped him learn how to talk to others.
Help at Work
Not only did students rely on their college for help, but they also received support from outside their university. Many turned to their supervisor and fellow workers for job connections and advice. If you want to ask your supervisor for a recommendation, it is important to approach them at least a month or two before applications are due so they have time to evaluate you. Chances are they will be writing several recommendations, so it is better to be proactive and give them the time they need. It is also helpful if you provide them with a copy of the courses you took in school, a short description of where you plan to apply, as well as a list of all your awards, accomplishments, and extracurricular activities. This information can help your supervisor tailor a letter to highlight everything you have achieved.
Many students echoed the same sentiment that they felt they had started their search late in the game. Most noted the reasons for starting at the end of their junior and senior years as being bogged down by work and other commitments as well as being uncertain of exactly what they wanted to do upon graduation. These students agreed that had they looked earlier into programs in their general area of interest and contemplated specific geographic regions , they would have saved a lot of time during the search process later. Students felt they should have begun their admissions essays during their junior year, using the summer prior to their final college year as a time to edit and perfect their work. This way, instead of scrambling to complete applications while balancing school work and other commitments, they could devote their energy and focus to their interviews and last minute preparations.
Take Advantage of All Opportunities
Of the students interviewed for this article, all were active in several clubs, jobs, teams, and honor societies. Surprisingly, they all said they wish they had taken part in more. One student who already has a lot on her plate said she wished she had gotten involved with internships, even if it meant less time for schoolwork. While she wants to enter the mental health counseling field, she fears she will proceed down this path and later decide it is not for her. Had she been able to work in the field, perhaps she would have been more certain in her career choice. Another student also affirmed this belief saying he worked six part time jobs in different areas of psychology. This was his conscious choice and gave him great exposure to opportunities available in the future,despite giving him less time for other activities.
It’s Up to You
While everyone’s journey is unique, the ideas students expressed regarding their futures share many common themes. All students emphasized the need to prepare early, take advantage of all of the support available, and explore all options when preparing for the future. No matter what is in store for you on your personal search, remember that this is an important time for self-exploration, reflection, and growth. Good luck!