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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2012

The Real and Unreal
Worlds of College

Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)

"College is not the real world!” How many times have you heard someone speak these words or, similarly, "Wait until you get to the real world!”? I concurred with these messages in "School-Smart but Culture-Dumb” (Hettich, 2011) in which I summarized three real-life examples of recent college graduates to illustrate inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Table 1 in that article compared college and workplace settings on 16 dimensions that represent important differences in organizational cultures and practices. For example, in the workplace, compared to college, you can expect less concrete feedback, less control over your schedule, less personal support, less structure in your assignments, fewer right answers, and less time off. In addition, you will experience high expectations from your boss for consistently excellent performance, productive teamwork, active participation in your tasks, application of your knowledge, and adaptability to changes. Such comparisons are the ways in which college is not the real world.

New graduates are likely to encounter serious problems if they cannot quickly discern and adapt to these discrepancies. Not only are the differences real, but also the distinctions reveal that some aspects of college (e.g., expectations of frequent feedback, its focus on your personal development, the academic calendar) actually counter-prepare you for the workplace, or instill habits and expectations that are opposite workplace practices. Elwood Holton and Sharon Naquin (2001) pinpoint the nature of these differences.

College and work are fundamentally different. The knowledge you acquired from college will be critical to your success, but the process of succeeding in school is very different from the process of succeeding at work. Certain aspects of your education may have prepared you to be a professional, but evidence from the workplace indicates that this is not enough for professional success. …Worse yet, the culture of education is so different from the culture of work that if you continue to have the same expectations of your employer that you did of your college and professors, you’ll be greatly disappointed with your job and make costly career mistakes. (p. 7).

To reduce the effects of college’s counter-preparation practices, I highly recommend (and employers agree) that you complete at least one internship (Hettich, 2012) preferably in a nonacademic setting, acquire diverse part-time job experiences, complete job-related courses such as management, marketing, economics, and communications, and become involved in extracurricular and volunteer activities to develop interpersonal and leadership skills. Coursework alone is a necessary but inadequate preparation for the workplace.

Yet, College is the Real World
In his annual hiring survey of employers for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, Philip Gardner (2007) sought explanations for why recent graduates are disciplined or fired from their jobs and why others are promoted or given new assignments. Table 1 lists several reasons why new hires are disciplined, ranked in order by mean score and showing the corresponding percentage of occurrence at the high end of the scale; behaviors shown in bold are also reasons for being fired. As you examine Table 1 note how easy it is to identify college situations that are counterparts of workplace behaviors. Yet, a student can possess a mediocre work ethic, show minimal initiative, be late for class, fail to follow instructions in an assignment, text-message during class—in general, do just enough to get by—and still receive a passing grade. In the workplace such behaviors could be cause for termination—a consequence drastically different from receiving a C or D grade. In short, behaviors (whether in corporate or in graduate/professional school settings) that lead to discipline or termination are the same behaviors students should avoid during college.

A major factor that accounts for the seemingly harsh consequence of being fired is a person’s accountability to others. For instance, the disinterested student who ignores instructions, arrives late to class, and submits assignments late is usually harming just one person. On the job, however, such actions can affect the performance and evaluation of coworkers and the supervisor. Remember: College is all about your personal development, but the workplace is about organizational productivity and making the boss look good. The transition from college to workplace involves a major switch from being self-centered to other-centered. Teachers, staff, and administrators who enforce high standards for performance and accountability are not simply being "hardnosed,” they are doing you a favor—preparing you for the real world after college.

From a positive perspective, Gardner (2007) also asked employers to identify characteristics that lead to promotions and new assignments. Table 2 lists the top ten characteristics (from a group of 1500 that respondents named) by relative frequency and integrates them with a series of work strategies identified by Robert Kelly as "Star Performers.” These qualities are also essential for success in graduate and professional school and are defined in Table 3.

As you study the definitions, identify those aspects of your coursework, extracurricular and volunteer pursuits, jobs, and other daily activities that enable you to establish and practice these characteristics. Why not tape this list by a mirror or computer as a set of personal goals? Or discuss it at your next Psi Chi meeting? If you can firmly establish the values these characteristics reflect while you are in college, chances are you will apply them successfully in your professional and personal life. The list is certainly not complete but it is a good start.

Your coursework and college life in general are teaching you to distinguish among a diverse array of values, theories, ideas and concepts. Along the way, you can jumpstart your professional preparedness by learning to discriminate among those aspects of college life that do and do not reflect the other real world you will enter after graduation. You can do this now—paying forward—or put it off until you enter the workplace and pay the price of an early career setback.

Gardner, P. (2007). Moving up or moving out? Factors that influence the promoting or firing of new college hires. (Research Brief 1-2007). Retrieved from HERE

Hettich, P. (2012, Summer). Internships!. Eye on Psi Chi. 16(4), 6–7.

Hettich, P. (2011, Summer). School-smart but culture-dumb. Eye on Psi Chi. 15(4), 10–11.

Holton, E. S., & Naquin, S. S. (2001). How to succeed in your first job: Tips for new College graduates. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a "real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices.

Copyright 2012 (Volume 17, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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