Recently, I was working with a student who expects to graduate this coming spring (it is now early December). I realized that she was more forward thinking than many of my other students. She had developed a well-crafted resume; was thinking about letters of reference from professors, internship supervisors, and part-time employers; and was weighing whether she might need to relocate after graduation in order to find work. This got me to think about the ways in which graduate students should be planning now for when they walk on stage. Here are 5 things that all graduate students 5 months before graduating need to have done (or at least should be working on). Or, you can think of this as your winter semester break homework.
1. Consider Now Your Future Living Situation and Expenses You probably expected me to start the list with working on your resume. That’s important, but first and foremost you need to consider how you will support yourself after receiving your diploma. Will your living circumstances change after graduation? For instance, will you need to find a new home because a lease is up? If your paid internship is at an end, how will you support yourself? And most importantly, what will be your expenses? You must consider not only day-to-day expenses but also, long-term expenses like repaying student loans. Taking this “reality check” can be important in generating motivation for the other 4 things on my list! Looking at financial needs begs the question of the “bridge” job (Starbucks, but now on the other side of the counter) you might need to take while you are looking for “real” work. Though the overall national unemployment rate is low, it still will take you several months to find work. If you are not actively engaged in looking for work until the spring, how will you cover your expenses and where will you live for the 5-6 months it might take to find your first job in your field? And remember, moving back in with Mom and Dad can be a viable and a wise decision. (You might nudge your parents to take the storage out of your old room just in case).
2. Use the Benefits of Being a Student You are only a student for another 5 months. Even though as alum you will get certain benefits, they are never as significant as when you are a student. What courses, classes, or training (especially those that might not be for credit) should you take now, particularly those that position you better in the market? Have you taken a grant writing course? This is a must skill for those entering the not-for-profit or government sectors. Have you gone to the career services office for a resume or interview workshop? (Frankly, you should have done that long before now). If your health benefits end when you are no longer a student (on a student plan), what matters should you take care of while a student that might be difficult to do (or more expensive) afterwards? How about student discounts on computers and other technology (the latest version of...) you might need when you are no longer a student? Now is the time to take advantage of being a student. Find out about ALL the student discounts there are and use them.
3. Build Your Professional Relationships Now In school, you have the time to develop relationships with fellow students. But they are not as important to your career right now was those with professors and professionals. It is likely that you’ve come to admire and respect certain individuals. Maybe they taught a class that particularly inspired you. Or maybe you’ve connected through another means, like an internship. In any case, you need to “cement” those relationships now. Remind everyone that you are graduating soon (they can’t keep track of what you are doing, I know I can’t keep up with my students’ lives). Tell them about your plans, and possibly the need for a letter or reference for a job. Stop by their office hours (often underused) or ask them if they could do coffee with you to talk about your plans (they will likely treat you!) and ask them to look over your resume. Connect with them through LinkedIn (after you have updated your profile). Professors, especially part-time ones who might be working in the field, can be on the look out for you and offer some practical advice in your career exploration.
4. Tend to your Social and Online Media If you haven’t paid much attention to your presence online and social media, it’s time to do it! Are you on LinkedIn? Is it up-to-date? Is the photo professional looking? How about Facebook? I do not use Facebook for professional connections, only family and friends. Even if you set up Facebook for only personal matters, a potential employer might still be able to access your profile. Being overly political or sharing too much about your social life could put off an employer. You should spend time googling yourself and not for ego gratification. Are there things about you online that might give someone a reason not to hire you? Clean them up.
5. Work on Your Overall Appearance: Paper and Physical Presentation takes a number of forms. When looking for work, most think about resumes, cover letters, and other “paper” that represent you. Is your resume up to date? Well-formatted? Have you thought about the skills and abilities (ones that you have and are now building in the next 5 months) that you need to integrate into your resume? If you are looking for different types of work, your resume needs to be “malleable” – that is, one that you can revise to reflect different types of jobs: research vs. policy vs. education, etc. Do you have a business card that provides contact information? Have you started to work on a template for a cover letter? Presentation also reflects your physical appearance and presence. Are you taking care of yourself? Will you need to improve (or change) your appearance before looking for work? This will require you considering the culture of the employer. The purple hair and nose-ring that reflected your identity as a student might not be the image you want to present to potential employers. Though your uniqueness is important, you can always put on the nose-ring after hours. Time to let the purple grow out. Physically also relates to well being. Are you well-rested, eating properly, and getting exercise? Do you have a regime that you can continue that seeks balance, includes exercise, a good diet, and even meditation? Creating healthy habits now will enhance your stamina and focus, and reduce stress for when you start the more active process of looking for work. You’ve got 5 months to go. Use your time wisely. You will be pounding the pavement before you know it. Now is the time to prepare for battle. David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing, 2016). He serves on PCDN's Career Advisory Board and is also president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. David teaches part-time at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He can be reached at https://davidjsmithconsulting.com or [email protected]
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