Opportunities Abound: Transitioning Tips After Graduation

June 25, 2015

Graduation cap

Christina Knowles, Executive Director of the Boston Women's Workforce Council, offers advice on your career after graduation.

Article first appeared in Spring 2015 SOM Management Magazine

Graduation can engender both rewarding and daunting feelings all at the same time. On one hand, we have accomplished a major life goal, and on the other hand we are now faced with the challenge of beginning or changing our careers. We are standing at a major crossroad of life, with multiple paths from which to choose. Navigating our wide variety of options can seem confusing, and even intimidating. As we contemplate this transition time in our lives and the challenges that lie ahead, we ask Christina Knowles, executive director of the Boston Women's Workforce Council, for words of advice to help get us started.

As I talk with my peers, many of us are still feeling confused about how to find the right job. Indeed, we're not even sure what the right job is for us! Do you have any advice on how to approach this important transition time?

I strongly encourage you to be open-minded when looking for your first job or making a career switch. Be open to new fields, industries, jobs, and geographical areas, even if they don't fit in with your vision of your career path.

Every job you have is an opportunity to explore new sides of yourself and learn new skills and information that you can apply towards your dream career path. And don't be surprised if your career ends up taking a wonderful detour down a path you had never imagined—that's how it works for many people, myself included. The worst thing you can do is limit yourself and refuse to look at all the opportunities available.

Other students I talk to seem to know exactly what they want. Do you have any different advice for them—what should they do if offered opportunities that don't seem immediately aligned with their goals?

Even for those who know exactly what they want to do, I still recommend keeping an open mind and casting a wide net—you never know where it might lead.

That said, everyone goes through periods in their careers where they are in a job that isn't ideal. In these situations, you need to find a way to make that job work for you and the career you envision. Identify the skills in your job that will most benefit you down the line and strive to perfect and expand those. Volunteer on a work project that interests you but is outside your job description (as long as it won't interfere with your normal work). Find a non-profit or political campaign you care about and offer up your skills and expertise pro bono, or take on a part-time job in your ideal line of work. All of these actions keep your skills fresh, expand your resume, and increase your network.

There are also those of us who have already had careers but are making the leap to a new field or seeking new responsibilities. Now that we have a new degree and new skills, but a resume that reflects our old path, how can we best pitch ourselves to potential employers?

Most skills and knowledge are highly transferable. Find the skills and knowledge your current and past jobs share with your new field and use your resume and cover letter to make that connection clear. Also, be sure to indicate how your skill set and knowledge from your previous career will be beneficial to your new field. 

If you're making a career switch, be prepared to take jobs that are lateral or junior to your prior positions. It's important to adjust your expectations for title and salary before you start interviewing—employers don't want to hire people that feel entitled.

Can you share some tips on how to self-promote effectively once in a job, particularly as a woman in the workplace?

I believe that learning to effectively self-promote is the single most important thing you can do for yourself. It is also one of the hardest things for women to get comfortable with. But if you don't promote yourself, no one else will.

With your boss and key colleagues, you want to let them know about accomplishments inside and outside the workplace. So be sure your boss knows you were appointed to a nonprofit board of directors or that you graduated first in your class. With regards to promoting yourself within your job, make sure to pass along recognition or compliments you get for a job well done to your boss. Likewise, be sure to update your boss periodically about the great work you're doing that s/he may not otherwise hear about. A quick email gets the job done.

There are times when you'll want to share important milestones and accomplishments with your entire network. In order to avoid sounding arrogant, make the focus about the exciting work you'll get to do or the positive change you're creating as the result of your accomplishment. And of course, let people know how your accomplishment can benefit them through collaboration opportunities, facilitating introductions to your new network, sharing new resources you have access to, etc. Be useful!

How do you define career success? Can you share some of your principles for achieving it?

For me, career success is working in a leadership capacity to advance women and other marginalized populations, creating real, measurable change on a macro-level, and doing whatever I can to help other women achieve their professional dreams.

I am very lucky that I have turned my most deeply held passions and values into a career and have had several leadership positions at a relatively young age. But for me, success isn't about a fancy title. It's about loving what I do, looking forward to going to work every day, and knowing that, in some small way, I am helping to make the world a little better.

Perhaps this is why I believe that people are only truly successful if they are also happy in their career. Dig deep to find out what it is that makes you tick and what it is that you're best at, and find a job or field that allows you to showcase this. Find out what you need to be happy at work, what you're willing to compromise on, and where you draw your bottom line. And don't ever compromise your integrity or your value—you'll quickly end up miserable

Are there any last words of wisdom you would offer to those of us in the early stages of our careers?

Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Our image and presentation play a huge role in how people perceive us. If you want to be the boss one day, start dressing like the boss now.

Don't reserve thank you cards just for job interviews or meetings with your mentor—send a note to a colleague who helped you out on a project, or to the IT people who restored your computer after a crash. Show your genuine appreciation to people—it will be noticed. Plus, it's just the kind thing to do.

And finally, try to have fun with this time in your life. You're at a unique place where you're either starting a new career or entering the working world for the first time. It's scary and stressful, yes, but it's also exciting, fun, and an excellent opportunity to have a bit of an adventure. Be open to new things; take some (calculated) risks; make mistakes and learn from them. The world truly is your oyster, and I can't wait to see what you do with it.

Christina Knowles

Christina M. Knowles serves as the executive director of the Boston Women's Workforce Council. She has an extensive background in politics and legislative affairs, and has devoted her career to advancing women. Named a Top 100 Influencer by Campaigns and Elections magazine, Knowles has held a variety of roles in Massachusetts politics, including serving as the executive director of the Massachusetts Caucus of Women Legislators in the State House and as the executive director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Organization for Women.