For those who remember the good old days when we were still in school…

Freshman year is when you are just getting acclimated. Sophomore year, you start to figure things out and gain some confidence. Junior year is about hitting your stride and performing well, and then senior year is about planning for the next step. In High School this next step is applying for and deciding on the college you are going to and in college it is interviewing for and selecting your job. But what happens during your senior year of the “real world?”

The real world

We have been programmed to think in these 4 year cycles, and so it is natural to get a bit antsy about the job you are in, and the career track you are taking around 3 or 4 years post-graduation. For many, this is when they take the GRE, GMAT or another standardized test and head off to graduate school.  This may be right for some, but just because this feeling comes over you does not mean it is time to quit your current job to join the Peace Corp or head back to school. Use the onset of this feeling as an opportunity to reflect and evaluate.  Keep in mind, though, that it is ok to determine that your “current path” is still the right one. 

In the process of investigating this trend, I interviewed young professionals who reached senior year of the “real world,” and 4 years after graduating took the opportunity to refine their career paths. They shared some key insights into the types of challenges they faced and what they have done to be successful thus far in their careers.

Insights of seniors of the “real world”

One young professional, whom I will call Steve, worked in professional services and decided to go back to get a masters degree.  The other, whom I will call Wendy, has worked in public relations and advertising, and changed companies around the 3-4 year mark.

Steve noted that his biggest challenges in the corporate world were, “not getting bored or complacent [and] deriving pleasure from the work that [he did].” This is something we all struggle with.  Often times, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel for some of our tedious day-to-day job responsibilities. Moreover our bosses often do not explain the importance of the role that we have, so it feels like our contribution is lost in the shuffle.

Wendy’s challenges related to the stark differences between school and work.  “Understanding the completely new lessons that were never taught to you in college [and] that personal relationships matter more than an objective evaluation of your work” were both major challenges she encountered. In corporate environments the person with the best “grades” (i.e. highest quality work) does not always get the largest raise or the biggest promotion.

When it came to preparation for the corporate world each had very different responses. When asked if she was taught in school how to be successful at work Wendy replied, “no, definitely not. College taught you facts, studies, the concept of academia, and it encouraged learning for learning sake… but no one ever sits down with you and says, here’s how the working world works.”  Steve, on the other hand, expressed that “the interaction and team work with your peers and professors” was closely related to how work environments function.  While there is some crossover, there is ultimately a large gap between skills taught at school and skills necessary for career success.

The 4-year mark

No matter what career path you choose or how much you think college prepared you for the corporate world, a distinct change happens about 4 years after graduation.

Wendy elaborates, “I know I definitely got antsy at 4 years. I suddenly felt like I needed a big change and overhaul of my career to indicate some sort of progress. We’re so used to seeing an achievement or clear next step every 4 years that when you suddenly realize that you don’t have that kind of ladder anymore, it can seem incredibly frightening. The first 4 years were more like a whirlwind. I had no concept of time or balance. When you’re in school, everyone else is as well. You’re subjected to the same cycles of class/weekends/ studying/partying/midterms/finals. Once you’re out of school, these cycles are lost and I think most people continue searching for that type of relativity with their peers – therefore they seek schooling again or grow antsy to start a new chapter.”

Steve related this cycle to a progression of emotions ranging from, “excitement to being overwhelmed to struggling to enlightenment then empowerment, to complacence to boredom and finally to confusion… then back to excitement” when starting something new.

Please remember that these feelings are totally natural, and do not merit changing your name and moving to the woods or having to run back to the safe haven of a university when you feel them. As Steve appropriately states, “problems you encounter while working (including the feeling of needing to break away and do something new) aren’t as well-defined as they are in your textbook.  Get comfortable with ambiguity!

The other key to working through this cyclical feeling is to find variety in what you do. This variety may come at work (joining a committee or taking on a new project) but often it comes outside of work in the form of a community organization, a hobby or a side business.  Make sure to explore these before deciding on a drastic career change.

Most of all, remember that your career is not a sprint like a class you take for one semester, it’s a marathon made up of many cycles of varying lengths of time (often not in the 4 year increments we are used to). It is also normal to not have your career path and life figured out a couple years after graduation.  It takes time and can be a bumpy road. The key, as Wendy points out is to “be patient and most importantly – be self aware.” Understanding the feeling you get during senior year of the “real world” is the first step in ensuring you make the right choices build the right foundation for a wildly successful and fulfilling career.