I went to college in the dark ages when email was still fairly new (Juno was my jam) and we weren’t allowed to use the internet for research to cite in papers. At my small liberal arts university in Phoenix, I was the student body president, I studied abroad at Oxford, and graduated summa cum laude a semester early. My whole life I was an A student, and was always told I would succeed.
Then I entered the workforce. It quickly became apparent that the jobs available to me almost exclusively involved being someone’s assistant. Within six months I was driving an hour each way in Dallas, Texas to a job where I filed papers for some idiot. I was in despair. Why did I work so hard in college if this is what was waiting on the other side?
I called the Vice President of my University who had been a mentor to me and described my disillusionment. His advice: go to graduate school. Even then, ten years ago, I knew that was bad advice, however well-meaning. What’s the point of an undergraduate degree if all I qualify for is a job that I could have done after high school? And if college is useless because it didn’t give me the experience that employers want, graduate school probably would be too.
I started to transition into sales at my job at an importing firm. By inserting my ideas and being proactive, I made myself useful enough that they sent me to China for eight days to teach our counterparts there about the importing cycle so we would cut down on mistakes and miscommunication.
I got recruited out of that job to work at a wealth management firm, but that still involved too much time buried in paperwork, so six months later I packed my car and moved to DC. I saw legions of graduates with much fancier academic pedigrees than me pouring into DC and feeling the same disillusionment about what they were facing in post-college reality. I fell into this thing they called the “Libertarian Movement” and learned fundraising, which is really just sales for nonprofits so I was good at it. After doing several fundraising jobs, as well as helping to grow AFF’s Membership program in my spare time, I jumped industries again and started my own business.
Unfortunately it’s worse for recent graduates today than it was for me ten years ago. Your college degree is worth even less, was more expensive, and the job market is more paltry. If you’re despairing about what you are facing, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Figure out what you DON’T want to do. Especially as a woman, you can get tracked into administrative jobs. Even though I’m very organized and good at that stuff, I knew I didn’t want to get stuck there. I actually pretended to not be good at it so people wouldn’t give me those tasks anymore.
2. Learn what interests you and what you’re good at. School makes you good at school. Work is totally different, but you can take initiative to get on projects that interest you or create them by pitching them to your boss or manager.
3. Jump at new opportunities. I changed jobs almost every year until I was twenty-eight. New opportunities (that come to you or you seek out) help you advance and try out new challenges.
4. It doesn’t matter that you’re smart. I know you were told your whole life that you are smart, but it doesn’t matter that much anymore. More specifically, it matters how you think and solve problems, not how much Aristotle you’ve read or how great you were at writing papers. Being smart made me better at the jobs I took, but I was successful in them because I worked hard and got results.
Life after college sucks at first, but that’s the fault of college for being a weird environment with its own rules. Once you realize that and adapt outside of it, you can do great.
Joanna Robinson is the Owner of Lunar Massage, a growing chain of massage studios in Washington D.C. She is a former Membership Director and now Board Member of AFF.