As the end of the semester approaches, many students feel as if their lives have transformed into a whirlwind of due dates, last minute assignments, and of course, finals. For graduating seniors, however, this stress is often compounded by their impending transition into the professional world. With so many different things to consider at once, it is common for seniors to feel overwhelmed by the amount of change they are dealing with and the amount of important decisions they need to make as they start to think about their future careers. To offer some students some advice (and relief), we talked with Mary Anderson, the director of the career services office at The College of St. Scholastica. A career services veteran of over 15 years, she has helped countless students manage their post-grad plans and stress.
Q: What are some of the more common worries you hear about from students as they think about graduating and starting their careers?
A: The students I'm meeting with right now who are seniors graduating, most of them will say, "I'm ready to be done with college, I'm excited to be done, but I'm anxious because I don't quite know what the future holds." There's this turning point where someone is ready for this chapter to be done, but they don't know quite what it's going to feel or look like in that transition from being a student to being a full-time professional. For some of them who don't have something lined up after graduation, they are worrying about how they are going to manage this search once out of school.
Q: What are some challenges that can be overlooked?
A: Students don't always anticipate the change of not having that built in social network. Whether that's because you have friends in your classes, you're living on campus, or you're in athletics, you get used to having a built-in group of friends. I don't think all students realize what a difference that is when you transition out of college. I think this is true for all students, but maybe even more so for student athletes. When you are accustomed to daily interactions with athletes, practices, the team, and your daily student life, it is difficult when all of a sudden your life doesn't include any of that. I think it is surprising for many students.
Q: Do students debate the value of gaining some work experience vs going grad school? What do you say?
A: I think my advice is very field dependent. For example, for students in business fields, many graduate programs want candidates to work before they come back (to grad school). For a student who is pursuing a health or science degree, it's more likely that they would go right on to grad school. I think the other part to consider is how ready and focused the student is. If a student is still unsure about what they want to do, it's a big commitment to go to grad school, and therefore it is probably better to take a year or two to regroup and refocus on goals and plans before continuing to graduate school. For other students, they are focused, but might state, "I know I want to do this, but I need a little breather before I jump into a new program. This is an example of another time when a gap year is really important.
Q: What is your opinion on taking a gap year after graduation?
A: I think that a gap year can be really productive and really valuable. One of the pieces that I think is important is if a student went to do service or travelling for a year, when they come back and they're either applying for jobs or graduate school, they should be able to share why they took the time off and what they learned from it. They need to be able to reflect and articulate what they learned from this time. For example, sharing reflections like "it provided time for me to focus" or "I learned about myself" or "I pushed myself to be independent in a different way" and then giving a concrete story to demonstrate this is an essential part of the process.
Q: As graduation approaches, a lot of people are looking for advice but feel like it's too late to visit their career services counselor. Is that notion accurate or can they come in at any time?
A: It is never too late! Would we ideally like to meet with students in their first year? Definitely. But if they haven't, we still welcome students at any stage. We also see students once they graduate because certain populations have not found a job or they're still looking; we can still provide service. What we then try to do is to meet them where they're at, no guilt. We like to focus on how we can assist them in moving forward in their process and toward their goals.
Q: What were some of your personal experiences after graduating from college? Does it influence how you advise students today?
A: Some of what impacted me the most were the changes and career paths I had from senior year of high school to graduating college. I think it's important to normalize and remind students that along your career path, you will have twists, turns, and changes based on your skills, interests, and learning more of what's out there. A change of plans should not be seen as a failure. Also, when I think about my own transition, I went right on to graduate school, so I can talk about why I made that choice, but also about how many students in my graduate program worked first. Generally, there are many paths to the same goal.
Q: If you could leave upcoming college grads with one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Graduating students often say to us, "I'm entering the real world." One of the things I would share or argue with those students is that college has been the "real world." It's important not to discredit all of the skills that they've developed as these are the skills that will be helpful to them as they transition. Whether its communications, relationships, or leadership roles, they have been developing the resilience and life skills necessary to make them successful as they take that next step in their career path.