From College to Corporate Life: A perspective on success in the transition from college to industry

Posted by Monica Mellinger on

By: Allan Buyinza, Chemical Engineering BSE, Water Engineer I

Adjusting to corporate life is a process; a process which, if approached well, could build your career, but, if approached the wrong way, could ruin your career. This article discusses some key rules for success in the process, such as acknowledging your feelings and focusing on the outcome instead of the immediate discomfort, learning through continuous application, and beating your deficiency by hard work. The article also discusses some key things to avoid in order to succeed, such as quitting, disowning your mistakes, or being discouraged after very negative criticism.

 Many of us have heard the saying that looking for a job is a job. And that is true. If you graduated from college and got your first job on your first application, you’re probably one of the luckiest few. Many of us applied to many jobs before we got one or two interviews, despite having impressive credentials or even using career coaches to cross-check our resumes. Now, you’ve gotten your dream job or at least a job just good enough to take care of your bills.

Two weeks into the job, after your onboarding training about company policies and so on, you realize that the work you’re doing is nothing related to what you studied. Tasks are becoming increasingly demanding and the speed at which your manager is expecting you to complete assignments is much  higher than the pace at which you completed your assignments in college. You feel like no one ever appreciates that you’re fresh out of college and that it takes time for you to catch up to speed. No one ever says to you, “you did great,” and there is no immediate reward system like in college where you completed an assignment, got an A or B, and you felt rewarded. It  feels like no one appreciates you. Despite being a brilliant scholar, and perhaps an even engaged scholar in college in activities outside of coursework, you begin to feel like everyone around you is smarter than you. Your confidence and self-esteem begin to go downhill. You feel lost and confused and thoughts of quitting begin to creep in. Do not quit! Maybe not everyone has been here, but a handful have. So what are the next steps?

What Not to Do

First, do not quit. Understand that transition from college to corporate life is a process, and it takes time. No babies run on the day they are born. While college taught you the fundamentals of engineering or whatever major you pursued, the most important thing you received from college is not the actual engineering [put your major]. The things we do in school are sometimes unrealistic or too structured compared to real life. By structured, I mean you have all the data you need, and the steps seem streamlined in solving a problem. Forget it, that is not what it is out here. That said, the most important thing you learned in college is how to learn and where to find good information. Therefore, do not quit; be willing to learn.

Second, do not blame others for your mistakes. While “learning through continuous application,” you’re going to make mistakes.  The saying that if you’ve made no mistakes, you’re not any smarter than you were yesterday is true. Others argue that you can learn from others’ mistakes, and that is true to an extent, but everyone does not make the same mistakes. I am not encouraging mistakes here, but mistakes happen no matter what. The most important thing is to take responsibility, own your mistakes, and learn from them.

Lastly, do not be discouraged by criticism. Sadly, experienced professionals or managers tend to forget how they started, and unfortunately there might be a few others that feel good about themselves by putting other people down. In other cases, managers are too focused on “getting it right the first time” that they do not foster learning, and they can be extremely negative when one makes a mistake. Do not be discouraged by their criticism. Pick something out of their critical (and sometimes demeaning) words and learn from them. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and remember that this is a process. Re-focus on becoming better and visualize where you want to be in a year or two.

What to Do

First, acknowledge that your feelings are valid and that you’re not the first one to feel that way. Humans are naturally programmed to resist change and stay in our comfort zones. Adjusting from environments, behaviors, or routine that we are comfortable with to new adventures can be painful. You can reduce the stress of going through transition, however, by acknowledging that the pain is real, the feelings are valid, that you’re not the first one to feel that way. Change your mindset to think about the future outcome of your transition other than the immediate hurdles. A good way to think about it is: no pain, no success.

The other rule is to learn through continuous application. This rule borrows leaf from the skill of swimming. Imagine Peter and Jack, both 14-year-old  kids who don’t know how to swim. While at pool parties with friends every now and then, the friends of these two teenagers always encourage them to try and swim. In fact, both have a burning desire to learn to swim, but they are afraid of water. When called upon, Peter always shrugs and says he does not want to risk life and make mistakes. He is afraid of drowning. Both Peter and Jack spend about two-hours every day watching YouTube videos on how to swim, but Peter never dares to try. On the other hand, Jack decides to throw himself into the pool in the presence of his friends to try and swim for survival. Jack trusts his friends and knows that if he is unable to swim quickly, they would come to his rescue. Jack repeats this every time they are at a pool party, a few times each month. Jack slowly begins to master the skill of swimming. Two years later, which of these teenagers will know how to swim? Obviously, Jack, right? Even though both Peter and Jack were afraid of drowning and both spent time watching swimming videos on YouTube, only Jack decided to learn by doing. This is the concept of learning through continuous application.

Do not let the fear of making mistakes or failing to meet your manager’s expectations hold you back from trying. Do not reject tasks that you know you can learn. Make it clear to your manager that you do not know how to complete the task but that you’re sure you will learn through the process and figure out the solution. Throw yourself in the water and try  swimming. Ask questions and keep trying until you figure it out. Eventually you will be a pro. Yes, we all believe in the “get it right the first time” notion as the best way to avoid waste in a company, but unfortunately, if your company does not allow room for mistakes by beginners, it is not building independent professionals that can offer unique solutions in the future. Sometimes, companies have a set of procedures and the new hire will just replicate those procedures. Although this may not always be bad, the outcome of such work can lead to professionals that are only defined by procedures. These employees may not have learned anything out of that. They can , however, apply the “learn through continuous application” rule. The one who learns continuous application will be a better professional after a couple of years in solving problems and will cope more easily with a continuously changing market.

Next, beat your deficiency by hard work. Work harder and smarter. Unless you work alone, you may feel like an imposter when you’re starting a new job, but working hard is the remedy. The most successful soccer players in the world did not achieve success in one day. It takes a series of continuous habits of hard work to push them to the top. I once had a friend, Gerald, who was a renowned soccer player in my home district who inspired me. I watched Gerald train tirelessly every day. He was the first person to get to the pitch, and he was always the last person to leave. He always left the pitch after dark. He trained double the time most of his colleagues trained. But before Gerald became famous, there were more talented players on the team than himself. In fact, he wasn’t even someone that any onlookers would ever talk about. One thing Gerald knew better was to believe that hard work could help him get better. Gerald outcompeted himself and his more-talented teammates and became the most desired player in the district. Gerald’s story is just one example of beating our deficiencies by hard work. This is not rocket science; your hard work is going to put you in positions of knowledge where your “smartness” couldn’t. You don’t know how to use this software at the job? Study it for twice as long as you’re expected. You’re going to outcompete yourself and those that knew the software before you.

The list of what you should and what you shouldn’t do could go on and on. I’ve learned, however, through my own experiences and from those closest to me that these principles do work, and they will help you adjust well to the corporate life.