The Job Hunt: How to Start a Successful Career

Juan Carlos Suarez, a 21-year-old incoming senior at University of Miami, is frightened by what his job prospects might be after graduation.

“I’m scared the knowledge I’ve acquired in college won’t help me in my career,” said Suarez.

A business student with a 3.9 cumulative GPA and member of the National Business Honor Society, Suarez said that regardless of his academic achievements, he doesn’t think he has enough work experience.

“Everything you learn [in school] is theoretical textbook stuff, when real life situations are different than what you learn in your books,” he said. “I think companies are looking for a balance of work experience and grades, and I don’t think I have that balance since I don’t have enough work experience,” he said.

Suarez's anxieties are not unique. A degree does not a job guarantee, and leaving the comforts of campus life for the professional world can be a daunting and stressful process. There are, however, ways ease the transition and increase your chances of a successful entry into the world of work.

Getting Started

Diana Ford, owner and president of The Ford Agency , a D.C.-based job recruiting company, said she advises college seniors to start focusing by creating a sense of professional self.

“Now that you’re a senior, it’s about time to focus,” Ford said. “Work on your résumé and explore your Career Development office.”

She suggests evaluating all sorts of jobs to get an idea of the options available, and also checking out internships to get a head start. She also encourages students to ask for help.

“We all have family, friends, and mentors who can provide us with valuable insight into the professional world,” she said. “It’s just up to you to listen.”

Presenting Yourself

Michael Keith, a communications professor and student adviser at Boston College, said many students try to find jobs right after they graduate to get right on the career track. For these students, Keith acknowledges that experience is essential.

He also said attitude and social skills can really make a difference in candidates, perhaps even more than prior experience or a shining transcript.

“I’ve always felt employers don’t pay a lot of attention to grades,” he said. “I think if you have a diploma from a good college, the grades aren’t a huge determinant.”

Employers often want to hire someone with personality and a positive attitude.

“Someone who has an upbeat personality and good appearance helps,” Keith advised. “Also, employers want someone who conveys they’re willing to work hard and do what’s expected.”

Still, with competition fierce among graduates applying for jobs in every field, employers can be, and are becoming, more demanding in their expectations for potential workers. Increasingly, some say, employers look at the full package.

“Prospective employers want a well-rounded individual, which includes good grades, internship experience, and leadership roles, and/or co-curricular involvement,” said Theresa Harrigan , director of the Boston College career center.

The ability to communicate these qualifications during the job search process — on a résumé, in a cover letter, in an interview, or when networking — is essential.

Also, with the number of companies checking out prospective employees’ Facebook and MySpace profiles, students need to portray a professional image even on their personal websites.

“Remember you can be ‘googled,’” Harrigan warned. “Do you know what’s out there on the Internet about you and who may have access to blogs or a personal website?”

The Importance of Internships and Experience

According to many experts, including Harrigan, student internships improve the job prospects of graduates.

“Not only is an internship a résumé-builder,” Harrigan said, “but [they allow] students to gain an appreciation for what types of jobs they might like and not like, what type of organization they want to be a part of, what type of supervision they like and what type of manager they might want to be.”

Similarly, Harrigan emphasized the importance of showing a strong work ethic and building a professional reputation by following through all tasks at an internship, no matter how trivial the assignment might seem.

“Everyone is contributing to a successful outcome for the organization,” she said.

One big mistake common among new professionals and interns, Harrigan said, is not taking the job seriously.

“It’s important to transition from a student role to a professional role,” she advised. “Start with the basics –- get to work on time, have a positive and professional attitude, and demonstrate reliability.”

Ford said that getting hired is a strong sign that the job candidate was on the right track in the initial stages.

“They interviewed well, demonstrated willingness and desire to contribute, and clearly portrayed themselves as a team player with the potential to contribute to the organization’s culture and success.”

But getting hired is only the beginning, Ford said. If an employee is clearly intelligent but has trouble retaining the basics once on the job or internship, it is a sign they aren’t interested, she said. Lateness, she said, is also an indication of lack of interest.

“Someone may not be a morning person, but even a night owl will get [himself] to work on time if they want to impress,” Ford said.

Impressing superiors can also make the experience more fruitful, as relationships fostered by hard work can help careers move forward.

“Mentors can also provide on-going guidance and help to learn and understand a new work culture," Harrigan said.

Networking is also essential for interns and new employees.

“Build a network internal and external to the organization –- they will be your advocates and sources of information that will help along the career path,” Harrigan said. “Don’t hide in the cubicle…get involved in professional associations and committees, and let others get to know you.”

Another career mistake becoming increasingly more common among young workers (and maybe even the older as well) is disrespecting technology.

“Silly emails, gossipy emails, and negative, complaining emails can come back to haunt you,” warned Harrigan, who advised keeping a separate email account for personal use.

Keep the Faith

A career is a central part of life and many students go through college without a distinct sense of what they want to do in life. But before graduating college, it's important to become active in exploring careers and checking out different classes and internships that may interest you. It’s not easy finding a job right after graduation, but it’s not impossible if you focus on what you want and gaining experience in different areas of interest.

As Ford pointed out: "Now, even with a master’s degree, or two, the competition is tough. When you are starting out in the professional world, try to remember you are starting out. There are many opportunities for exceptional career paths and a great deal of room for many to succeed, but everyone has to start somewhere.”

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