How to Navigate the Shift From College Student to Real-World Professional, According to Career Experts
Everything isn’t going to fall apart, promise.
My last semester of college, I felt exceptionally happy—but also anxious and lost. The mix of emotions could have been the result of a serious lack of sleep, or the realization that soon I'd no longer be living two minutes from my closest friends. My diagnosed anxiety disorder, which my therapist told me would be heightened during times of change, probably made an appearance, too. Looking back, though, I chalk it up to fear of what I didn't know, and what they don't tell you about transitioning from college student to real-world adult.
When you land in the "real world," there's no travel guide waiting for you with a sign, telling you exactly where to go. After packing up your comforter, textbooks, and Polaroids, you typically head back to your hometown with the imminent question, what now? Some of your friends may have found a job at this point, or begun moving to a new city with their big dreams in tow. You may not know it based on their Instagram stories, but they're facing the same reality as you. The same imminent what now?
Even if you follow a distinct path post-college, you'll find this question popping up from time to time. As career expert Sarina Virk Torrendell, founder of withSarina Career Coaching and the voice behind the Career Memos withSarina podcast, puts it, "Every day is a mystery." Like starting anything new, it's best to jump in, put one foot in front of the other, and learn as you go.
Having a guide in your back pocket does wonders as well. As Monica Geller from Friends says, "Welcome to the real world!" It can be overwhelming at times, but these tips and reminders will help you navigate the big changes up ahead—and maybe even learn to love them.
Create your own sense of structure.
Transitioning from classes to career can be daunting. You’re used to the structure of college, where each semester has set goals, professors, grades, and week-long breaks. A syllabus details what to expect, and the only decision standing between you and success is, “Do I complete this assignment, or not?”
Without this structure, Tess Brigham, psychotherapist and certified career coach, notes existential questions come up like, “What if [this decision] changes the trajectory of my life and everything falls apart?” Truthfully, you shouldn’t have the answers (no one does), but once you’re out in the world, it’s now up to you to craft each part of your life. When you're in a position—whether or not it’s your dream job—put in the effort and lay out steps for personal growth and success. Create the structure you need for yourself.
Those steps could be initiating a conversation with your manager about your ideas, their management style, or how often you should meet—whatever is appropriate in your specific workplace.
Readjust your expectations.
Additionally, Torrendell says you should take time to set grounded, realistic expectations, because you might have a glamorized idea of what it means to be a living, breathing, working adult. “Starting out in the real world can be a disheartening experience because you’re so optimistic,” she says. And while I’m a huge advocate for romanticizing your morning coffee routine, squaring any glorified notions of having everything together with the relatively unglamorous reality of day-to-day life can ease the shock. It can open your eyes to the behind-the-scenes version of adulthood everybody lives most often—the very normal moments of mess, stress, and confusion that Instagram influencers don’t share on their highlight reel.
A 2018 study from the Pew Research Center found 85 percent of teens, otherwise known as Gen Z, use YouTube, and 72 percent use Instagram. With the continuous presence and use of social media, it’s easy to get completely sucked in. Brigham suggests muting people who bring your confidence down, and tailoring your feed to only include those whose social media presence actually inspires, motivates, and delights you. This will reduce what Brigham calls, “comparison-itis.” By not comparing yourself to others, you can tap into your own awesome-ness, and the successes you never expected to have.
“When you go into the workplace, you start to learn things about yourself that you didn’t even realize were inherently part of who you are,” Torrendell says. While the climb may be uneven and unfiltered, each step is made for you.
Use this time to explore.
To find your purpose, Brigham believes you need to “see this time of your life as exploration.” Throw the societal timeline of getting married, having kids, and being well into your career by 30 on the backburner, and instead, tap into your interests. When you reach a fork in the road, know there are no right or wrong decisions. And it’s a myth that what you decide to do now does not need to be what you do forever.
“As long as you’re moving forward, it doesn’t really matter the direction,” says Brigham. Making decisions keeps one foot in front of the other, even though you may feel a sense of loss. According to Brigham, this feeling is quite natural, but shouldn’t steer you away from progress. “You want to be an active participant in your life—the biggest mistake you can make is hiding.”
Torrendell agrees, saying the transition doesn’t need to be linear. You can take a job outside of your field or at a start-up company, and see where it leads. She started her career at a human rights organization before pivoting to a role with Postmates, when the food delivery app first began. She later worked on collaborations for brands Warby Parker, Glossier, and Outdoor Voices, before landing in global marketing at Apple. The biggest lesson she learned was to ask questions, even the ones you think are dumb.
“I made this huge mistake, and from that point forward, I always asked questions,” she recalls, adding, “It completely shifted the way I took things on.” With each pivot or mistake, Brigham says you’ll recalibrate, discover your likes and dislikes, and make more aligned decisions, too. Every step is essential. As humans, making mistakes feels awkward, messy, and embarrassing. However, without our mistakes, we never learn.
Don’t be a stranger.
You should build genuine relationships with people in your workplace and leave room for change. Torrendell recommends leveraging the opportunity of being surrounded by colleagues to help you make meaningful connections. Ask your manager to introduce you to another team member, and sit down for a virtual coffee with them. Once you’re done chatting, ask them who you should chat with next. Making those sincere connections will not only prove your value, but give you an advocate to lean on. This is especially important in a remote work environment, where you’re not conversing with your coworkers on a daily basis. The worst thing that can happen is the person is busy or declines. In that case, don’t give up—stay open to connecting with other coworkers and practice patience. “Not every manager will be your advocate,” Torrendell says. “But if you do enough relationship-building within your company, someone will be your advocate.”
Treat yourself like a friend.
In my experience, you’re rarely told how hard the transition from college student to real-world professional can be. If the noise in your brain is too loud, engage with people and talk about what you’re going through—preferably off social media. There is power in speaking your truth, and giving yourself grace.
“It really starts with being compassionate with yourself,” says Brigham. “Recognize, this is a process,” she says, and that others are going through the same exact thing. She adds that people often expect too much to happen at once. “We want it to be overnight. We want that movie montage, but it never works that way,” she adds. Change takes time, so give it time. You’re far from alone, and there’s time to find your purpose and run with it.
“Careers are long, you’re just in the beginning,” says Torrendell. “Be a sponge in this time of your life and enjoy whatever comes your way.” Listen to podcasts like Girlboss Radio, reach out to a career coach, or even take a course like Torrendell’s The Job Seeker Lab withSarina. Take risks while you have a little less responsibility. Of course, be kind through it all.
“It’s going to be OK,” she says. “It really is going to be OK.”