As university / college graduation nears, one of the things you will be asked most often by everyone - friends, family, the occasional stranger on the street - is what, exactly, you intend to do now. This question comes in many guises - from the "Where do you want to work?" to the "Do you have a job lined up already?" and even the "What the heck are you waiting for?"
It can be pretty freaky to go from the well-defined, structured life you've lead as a student for so many years into the uncertainty of life after grad, but there's really no remedy for that fear (and no way to stop those annoying questions) aside from finding and settling into a job you (hopefully) enjoy.
But how do you get to that point? The truth is, finding a career isn't always as easy as simply flipping open the classifieds and then applying for something. A truly successful job search is made up of many different steps, some of which start long before you're ever ready to send out your first resumé.
Here are some things to keep in mind, both throughout your final year of school and when you begin your job search in earnest:
Start early - really early. It's not like graduation suddenly jumps out at you from behind a bush one day. You know it's coming, and you have months - arguably, years - to prepare for it. If you're in your final year of schooling and still don't have a basic plan for your future, you really need to start working on it. I'm not necessarily talking about formulating a year-by-year career to-do list for the next decade, but you should at least have an idea of what you hope your first step will be after graduation (an entry-level job at company X, or a job working in X field).
Similarly, when it comes time to seriously begin looking for a post-grad job, you ideally want to get started seeking out potential employers and preparing to apply for jobs at least a few months before you're finished school for good.
Focus - one of the first things you should do once you start thinking about life after graduation is figure out, generally, what kind of a job you want. You need to decide what kind of workplace atmosphere you're looking for - laid back or formal? - as well as how much you're hoping to get paid, how many hours you expect to work, where you want to work, the size of the company you want to work for, and so on.
A good way to find the answers to these questions is to evaluate your past employment, volunteer work, and other activities to see what feels right for you. Then, once you begin looking for work, you'll have a clearer picture in your head of what you're looking for.
Research - sometimes, when you're all caught up in the academic bubble of school, it's really easy to forget about the "real world" lurking out there. You're so concentrated on the next essay or test, you might not take the time to find the information you're going to need post-graduation. Information like what sorts of jobs that degree you're working so hard to earn makes you eligible for, what the job market is like in those fields, how much you can expect to make, where the majority of jobs are located, and so on. But this is information you do need to know. Go online or talk to your school's career counsellors and find out about it.
Later on in the year, once you start applying for jobs at specific companies, you'll want to do even more research. You're going to want to find out what potential there is for job advancement at a given business - is this a company you might be able to work your way up through over the next few decades, or will you be looking for more challenging work in less than a year? Talk to people in the know - your teachers, career counsellors, people who work at the company, even the interviewer at your job interview - and make sure you know what you'd be getting into if you did get (and accept) a specific job.
Preparation - before you're even seriously considering applying for jobs, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the various job search tools available to you - check out the newspaper classifieds to see how many relevant jobs are advertised in any given week / month and go online to see if employers are posting jobs at generic job sites or if they're focusing more on industry-specific sites. That way, once you really start looking for a job, you'll already know where to go for the latest job listings.
Similarly, the months just before graduation are the perfect time to take advantage of your school's career-related workshops on resumé and cover letter writing, interview skills, job search tips, and so on.
And, when it's finally time to start sending out the first applications, make sure all your employment stuff is in order - have plenty of fully updated (and spelling-mistake free) resumés specifically tailored to the jobs you're applying for, make sure you know how to write a strong cover letter to accompany ALL your resumés, and ensure all your references are aware they may be contacted, and that their contact information is up-to-date.
Talk to people - if you've ever done an internship somewhere, held career-related summer employment, or just been on friendly terms with someone in your chosen field, now's the time to get in touch with them. Let past employers and other contacts - mentors, teachers, possibly even friends and family members - know that you're about to be available, ask them if they know anyone who's hiring, or if they have any advice for you as you begin your job search. Such networking could bring you some valuable leads, especially considering the vast majority of jobs (around 80 per cent) aren't even advertised. Instead, most positions are filled simply through word of mouth - so get your mouth talking!
Keep an open mind - there's no law that says once you graduate with a degree in any given field, that you MUST work in that field. Your degree is just a guideline - in fact, there are plenty of jobs out there that don't CARE what your major was, all they care about is the fact that you were able to work hard and earn a degree in something (demonstrating a good work ethic, intelligence, critical thinking skills, and so on). So keep an open mind about your options and consider trying different things - you just might stumble on a dream job you never even knew existed in a field you had never really considered.
Be prepared to start at the bottom - no matter what field you're in, you're going to be stuck in an entry-level job (with entry-level pay) for the first little while. It sucks, but there's not much you can do about it. It's important to have goals - say, wanting to be the editor of a national magazine - but the reality is you have to earn the plum positions - by, say, covering school board meetings at a community newspaper for a few years first. If you head out into the "real world" expecting to make $100,000 a year at a high-end job, you're going to be sorely disappointed. But if you're ready and willing to pay your dues first, your hard work will be noticed, and it will pay off a few years down the road.
Be persistent - if you know you want to work in a certain field or at a specific company, don't let a little thing like a human resource person telling you they don't have any openings stop you. Just keep at it. Contact the company every few months to see if there's any new openings, and emphasize the fact that you're willing to start anywhere (coffee-getter, toilet-scrubber, mail room sorter), just so long as you can work there. And, once you're there, work your butt off until you get to the top.
Be patient - for some grads, it can take months - yes, MONTHS - to find a "real" job after they finish school. That can be a total letdown, but, eventually, something will come your way. After all, the more resumés you send out and the more interviews you go on, the better you'll be at the whole process and the greater the odds that something will work out eventually.
At the same time, some grads find themselves in less-than-ideal jobs once they're finished school. That also sucks, but it's not like you're chained to that job for the rest of your life. There's no reason you can't continue your job search, while at the same time working a crappy job to put food on the table. There's no greater motivation to get your resumés out there than working a job you dislike.
Learn from your mistakes - if you're on the job hunt for several months and find you're either not being called in for interviews or are simply not getting any of the jobs you're interviewing for, then it's time to re-evaluate your techniques.
Go through your resumé to ensure there aren't any errors that might turn a potential employer off, and consider even re-doing your resumé completely to get better results. As for interviews, take a serious look at what you may be doing that would lessen your chances at a job - are you showing up late, unable to answer certain of the interviewer's questions, too nervous? You could even consider contacting someone who interviewed you recently to thank them again for their time, and ask them if there was any one reason you didn't get the job - you might receive some valuable information for your next job interview.
If one of the reasons you continually miss out on a job is a perceived lack of experience, it may be time to consider an unpaid or low-paying internship or even volunteer work in your field to beef up your resumé before trying again.