Everyone tells you you should be networking. Everyone says you should be on Linkedin. They’re not wrong, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The post-grad career guidance they aren’t sharing is that young people often need to work twice as hard to get a job.
Life isn’t fair for most recent graduates, plain and simple. Follow these lessons and you’ll sidestep a lot of those issues before they can manifest as tangible disadvantages.
Graduate degrees have an inconsistent perceived value
A lot of employers don’t see the value of a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree these days. There are differences that speak to deeper expertise, heavier workloads, and higher levels of commitment… However, not all hiring managers see that when skimming resumes or evaluating candidates on the short list—especially if the degree isn’t directly related to their industry.
Anyone who’s gone through a graduate program knows that it takes hard work, emotional fortitude, and a lot of late nights. I routinely put 11-hour days in my first semester of grad school trying to read every assignment, grade every paper line by line, and write essays somewhere in between.
Not everyone understands it the same way, though. When I went unemployed for 9 months, a lot of people didn’t look twice at my credentials. They just saw “history major” and their eyes glazed over.
The lesson here is not to change their minds—recruiters and hiring managers have their opinions, and those won’t change for a few applicants here or there. Instead, focus on learning how to read into company culture and the personalities of recruiters that you do meet. Learn to figure out who’s writing you off and who’s willing to listen to your story.
You’re dealing with people’s perception of your educational background, not its actual value. Don’t feel down on your luck just because some hiring managers were dismissive or rude. Think about it like a salesperson: good salespeople learn to sift for gold instead of trying to turn coal into gold through sheer force of will. Similarly, you shouldn’t waste your time or energy on people who exhibit dismissive behavior or even ghost you. Just move on to the next prospect if you’re not getting traction.
Most post-grad career guidance doesn’t focus enough on technical skills
Liberal arts degrees lay the foundation for a lot of valuable high-level skills. Unfortunately, many companies create task-oriented positions instead of value-oriented ones. That means they’re designed to repeat the same actions rather than to tackle high-level challenges—and those tasks tend to be technical in some fashion.
You’re going to encounter a lot of companies just trying to fill a single role with clearly defined boundaries, repeating the same tasks every day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also carries an implicit lesson: hiring managers looking to fill those roles tend to care about technical proficiency more than the applicant’s ability to grow with the company.
That’s a disadvantage for a recent graduate that’s been exploring history, literature, psychology, and social behaviors for 4 years. Every role has its own set of related technical skills, so you’ll need to figure those out on an industry-by-industry basis. Outside of those, these skills are desired the most by employers, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities:
- Oral communication
- Teamwork skills
- Written communication skills
- Critical thinking
- Problem-solving skills
- Information literacy
- Technical fluency (often needed as a bare-minimum requirement)
- Quantitative reasoning
Many, many roles are designed this way—probably the majority. “Having potential” isn’t enough for these roles in many hiring managers’ eyes. There aren’t a lot of ways to get around that bias, either. You might get lucky and find a job where someone is willing to train you (as it should be with entry-level jobs, you’d think), but I tried that strategy for 9 months without luck.
Shoot for some technical skill upgrades instead.
- Get the platform certifications you need.
- Attend training seminars.
- Enroll in online courses.
- Make your own projects.
Nobody would hire me as a content writer without experience in website creation. It was only after I made a website in Squarespace and acquired some entry-level digital marketing certifications that someone decided I warranted a hire. The lesson: acquire experience and relevant skills, and don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity. Create one.
I don’t really agree with that kind of outlook on talent acquisition from the employer’s side of the table, but it’s some of the most pragmatic post-grad career guidance anyone can give you. Swapping out keywords on your resume for every single application just isn’t going to cut it. You need to stand out, not blend in.
Paying down debt means more of the student life
When I received my first job offer I thought I’d left the student life behind for good. I’d get my own place, a car, and some nice clothes. Maybe I’d even some nice things for the apartment I was about to find rent.
It turns out that I needed all of those things for that first job (the owner stipulated that I’d need a car, even though I really didn’t), but spending that kind of money wasn’t sustainable on an entry-level salary. At around $28,000 USD in my first year I wasn’t really making enough for anything more than modest savings—and I only reached that salary at the 6-month mark.
I saved an admirable amount considering what I was making, and that was only possible because I was splitting rent with someone. Rent is the single biggest expense on anyone’s budget so it makes sense to cut it in half. It’s not the only expense you need to worry about, either. You also need to manage:
- Vehicle expenses (payments, insurance, fuel, and maintenance really add up).
- Necessities and utilities (groceries plus energy, internet, and phone bills).
- Paying down your student debt as fast as possible.
Those numbers pictured above are just averages, too. The actual cost of living can vary significantly depending on where you live, so budget accordingly! You can only save the money that you keep, and building up a bit of wealth or paying down your debt means cutting costs. Don’t feel down on your luck about it, either. It’s not “normal” to have expensive clothes, a new car, or a fancy smartwatch. Don’t feel like you’re missing out. Instead, give yourself financial and emotional security by managing your money well.
It’s not glamorous, but it is smart financial sense.
Ageism is a two-way street
You may hear a lot about ageism from older professionals who talk about being shunned because they’re seen as “tool old.” That’s definitely a problem in some workplaces, but if you’re a recent graduate then it’s more likely that you’ll face ageism from the other end of the spectrum: being so young that nobody takes you seriously.
What I’ve never really heard from post-grad career guidance that I sought out was that, as a recent grad, I had to prove to employers that I was serious about learning the right skills. Before they understood that about me I was just another not-quite-qualified candidate that might be worth their time in the future.
I don’t agree with that mindset, but it’s what I’ve experienced first-hand.
How do you deal with it?
- Show off your skills and achievements instead of telling people about them.
- Make a statement: showcase your best projects on LinkedIn or build a portfolio website and link to it on all of your digital resumes.
- Earn certifications, attend workshops and seminars, and—if possible—go to some conferences (even easier to do virtually).
You can’t just tell hiring managers that you’re a hard worker and a fast learner to compensate for a lack of experience. Everyone says that and it doesn’t work. Engaging in your own projects gives you an advantage in every application, increasing your odds of getting a job.
Ageism against recent graduates is real—even an accepted practice—and most people don’t even consider it ageism. Age is used as a proxy for actual experience, and in some cases, even work ethic. You’re not going to change the world’s view about this before getting your next job, so it’s best to build your experience and put it on display. That allows you to circumvent age bias.
Networking is more effective than job boards
I wish someone had given me post-grad career guidance that didn’t involve “customizing my resume for every single application.” Instead they should have told me that—once your skills get to a certain level—getting your foot in the door becomes more about who you know more than what you know.
According to a 2016 LinkedIn study, about 70% of successful job seekers had a connection inside the companies where they applied.
You can’t ignore that.
Professional networking is the single best way to get your foot in the door because having advocates is a distinctly unfair advantage in any job search. It’s also part of the reason why applying through an application tracking system doesn’t even work most of the time—other people have contacts in the company who put in a recommendation for the winner, so everyone else gets left in the dust. Why not put your time and energy toward becoming that winner next time?
Building a worthwhile network takes time, so do yourself a favor and get started now rather than 6 months from now.
Those are some of the unfair part of job searching that nobody told me about when I sought out post-grad career guidance. I would have changed my strategy significantly if I’d learned these lessons earlier. I hope you’ll put them to good use!
Happy hunting out there, folks.