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Thoughts on the Job Search

September 18, 2009
By Mike Hemesath, Professor of Economics

As students return to campus and prepare for the academic year, one group will also be looking beyond the cozy confines of Northfield. Seniors, in addition to their comps and extra-curricular activities, are likely to start considering what they will do after June 12, 2010. Fortunately there are plenty of professionals in the Career Center to begin helping you with that task, and I strongly encourage you (and non-seniors as well) to visit them as soon as you have settled in. In addition to these experts, I’d like to offer some advice from another source: the Carls who have graduated before you.

The observations below are distilled from conversations I have had with students and alumni over the past 20 years as they have gone through the task of seeking their first post-college jobs. I hope they are useful.

  • Ask Around. Job information can come from many sources, some rather unexpected. Ask faculty and staff members about their career paths. Ask family friends. Ask your parents—you might be surprised by what you learn. Contact alumni that are doing something you think is interesting. The goal of these conversations is not to get a job offer but to remind you that most people arrived at their current jobs in a circuitous fashion, and they most certainly did not have it all figured out at age 21.
  • The Perfect Job. There is no perfect job. Even being a professor at a fine liberal arts college in the Midwest has its occasional frustrations. The fantasy that you will find a perfect fit in your first job out of college will only drive you crazy and make your job search longer and more frustrating than it needs to be. There are so many aspects of a job that you cannot possibly know about until you are actually working that you need to acknowledge a degree of uncertainty when you accept any job. In that sense, it is a bit like the college search. Was there one perfect college for you? Not likely. But once you narrowed your options, you made a choice based on intuition and probabilities. Then once you arrived in Northfield you had the ability to shape your experience to some degree, and ideally, you have had a good education based on your pre-college research and your in-college efforts. Your first job will be a lot like that. Find something that looks interesting and challenging, knowing that lots of the details (colleagues, exact responsibilities, skills learned, etc.) can’t be known in advance. You might be surprised, like the political science major who is now overseeing a plant genetics operation or the economics major that has discovered that the insurance industry is fascinating.
  • Commitment. As you enter the job market, you’ll naturally be thinking about the commitment that you will be making to an employer. Based on the experiences of other Carls, I would suggest you should be thinking about a two-year commitment for your first job. Two years will give you enough time to learn the kinds of skills most jobs will offer and allows employers the time to benefit from the training they have given you. Less time on the job can end up making you look commitment-phobic and could even harm future Carls if Carleton graduates got a reputation for being flaky. This rule of thumb is not inflexible, but if you think of how quickly two years passed at Carleton, most of you can stick out a two-year commitment at virtually any job.
  • Geography. Some of you have obviously moved around a bit, but many of you have experienced at most two geographic locations for any extended period: the place you grew up and Northfield. The search for your first job is an ideal opportunity to experience the incredible diversity that exists in the United States, assuming that the vast majority of you will find your first job in the U.S. Again, as noted in the commitment section, any geographic experiment is likely to last no more than a couple of years, but there will be few times in your life when you will have as much freedom for geographic exploration. Don’t be afraid to use it.

There is no doubt that the job search, especially in a tight market, will be challenging at best and could be frustrating and discouraging at worst, but your first job is just that—a first job. Use it to help you learn about your strengths and weakness, and your likes and dislikes. Ideally this process will make jobs two, three, and four progressively better.

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This page was last updated on 7 December 2012