Starting a new career after college is exciting! But big mistakes, like taking on too much debt, can get in the way of lifelong career success.
For many generations, the pathway to the American dream started on a college campus. A four-year sabbatical from the real world (that many stretched into five or six years) would end with a diploma and a guarantee for higher earning power and success.
Then the Great Recession of 2008 hit.
The transition from college to career was no longer met with little resistance. College graduates faced a much different scenario: no one was hiring and their talent was no longer in demand.
Of the combined total college graduates in 2012 and 2013, only 46 percent reported in 2014 they had obtained a full-time job; and an additional thirteen percent have been unemployed since graduation. The pathway to success is now crowded and many are left trying to understand what to make of their stalled-before-started careers. The world has changed, and a four-year degree is no longer a guarantee of a great job and access to the American dream.
How can you give yourself the best chance for success as you transition into your career?
Avoid these five common mistakes made by many college students and graduates starting a new career.
1. Using student loans to finance your lifestyle
Taking on debt is always dangerous, but assuming debt to finance a lifestyle in college is just plain foolish. I’ve heard of students actually taking out loans to go on a big spring break trip. While it may be fun in the short run, the costs will always come back to haunt you.
Loan payments can stretch out for decades. The choices you make in college have a huge impact on your life when you need access to capital to purchase your first home or a new car, or have to cover unexpected expenses.
Being a poor college student is acceptable, and many have memories of living off ramen noodles to survive. But no one wants to be living the life of a pauper in their mid-thirties because they are still paying off student loans from a week in Cancun.
2. Taking on too much debt
The future may seem a long way away, but it comes quicker than you realize. Assuming you will immediately have a high-paying job to cover minimal debt payments is a big mistake. Early in your career you should stay as flexible as possible, and debt is a huge anchor that will limit your possibilities.
Do you know the return on investment (ROI) for your degree? Taking on $200,000 in debt at an Ivy League university to obtain a social work degree and a $30,000 base salary, would not be a wise investment. You could obtain the same degree from a local state university for much less and have a great ROI.
Think long term, have a plan for the future, and make sure the degree you are obtaining will really give you access to a better future.
3. Not anticipating the skills you will need in your career
A college degree only scratches the surface of the key skills and information you’ll need to be successful. You can get a jump on your competition by asking advisors and mentors in your career path what critical skills they use in their daily work.
What do they wish they had studied in college to help prepare them better? What skills have they obtained since college that are necessary for their success? Many college students will focus only on degree requirements for graduation. Those who will have success right out of college focus on taking time for extra learning in the summers or during breaks to obtain critical skills.
Many of these skills can be obtained by leveraging massive open online courses (MOOCs) from the best universities around the country for free. Highlighting these on your resume after college will instantly put you ahead of your competition that only focused on degrees.
4. Accepting the first available position
In a tight job market, the natural inclination is to jump at the first offer you receive because any job is better than being unemployed. For some people this is true. But if you’re a top performer prepared with a solid education, resume, and requisite skills, it can be worth waiting for the perfect position.
Getting started on the right career track is the greater concern. Your first job will start you down a career path in an industry. Over time you will start to build momentum, contacts, and industry knowledge. Depending on the industry, this momentum can take a life of its own and it can be hard to redirect into new opportunities later.
5. Not negotiating salary and benefits
If you receive a job offer, the company wants you and you are their top candidate. Know the industry averages for your position and negotiate your salary by showing how you will provide added value to the firm. A $5,000 increase in salary at the start of your career could be worth more than $150,000 over a thirty-year duration — and that’s just a conservative estimate.
And don’t forget that negotiating your benefits does not end at your salary. Consider negotiating your vacation time and work schedule as well. Many industries allow flexible schedules and telecommuting options. Negotiating these elements can lead to a better quality of life and greater productivity. Always sell these benefits as providing greater value for the company.
Everything is negotiable in life! Yes, there might be other people applying for that dream job, and the person making the offer to you will certainly let you know it. Don’t be afraid to negotiate if you think it’s appropriate.
How have you avoided one of these big mistakes for new grads?
Robert Dickie is the author of The Leap: Launching Your Full Time Career in Our Part Time Economy. As president of Crown, he is dedicated to helping people create long term plans for financial, career, and business success.