Katie Parrott’s college career advisor used to put her in the category of “ostrich person.” The term was reserved, she recalls, for students who’d “stick their head in the sand and pretend that school was never going to end.”
In Parrott’s case, it was true. Her plan, at least for a while, was to “do school forever.” She was a great student, after all. She grew up in suburban Ohio, where she attended a good school with other high achievers and got really good test scores. She graduated from Kenyon, a competitive liberal arts college, with highest honors and a Fulbright grant.
When she eventually lifted her head out of the academic sand and decided to join the workforce, the transition was rockier than anticipated. “Let me count the ways,” she tweeted in response to my inquiry, quickly listing: “1. Not being used to hearing ‘not good enough’ – and not knowing what to do when it happens, 2. Being terrified of not knowing/getting something wrong, 3. INTENSE DISCOMFORT DUE TO LACK OF RUBRIC/CLEAR EXPECTATIONS.”
She learned that school and work environments are quite different, and the strategies that helped her excel throughout her academic life weren’t necessarily the same ones that would lead to success in her working life. And though it’s been six years since she left campus, she still thinks about this all the time.
Great students don’t automatically make great employees. In fact, you, like Parrott, might be in for a rude awakening when you realize you can no longer rely on the same assumptions, rules, and paths to success you’ve been trained for years to follow.
But it’s not a lost cause. Whether you’re about to graduate and start your first full-time job or are a few months or even years in and haven’t quite figured it out yet, here are a few of the challenges star students face in the workplace—and ways you can learn to shine as brightly in the office as you did in the classroom.
The Challenge: Your Path Forward Isn’t Always Clear
Remember when you finished first grade and moved up to second? And how you repeated the process year after year, moving up through middle school, high school, and college?
“We’re so used to growing up and having those levels and grades be those markers,” says Muse career coach Al Dea. “We’re trained that everyone operates at the same pace,” he adds (with some exceptions, of course). In school, you’re almost guaranteed to step up to the next grade, and the fact that you have doesn’t preclude your friends from doing the same.
At work, “there aren’t the same stages,” Dea says. Sometimes you move at the same pace as your colleagues (like at a large company with very clearly delineated ranks and corporate ladders), but more often each employee will be coming in from a slightly different starting point and move at their own pace. There may not be regular or straightforward opportunities for advancement, and if your friend in the next cubicle gets promoted, it might mean there’s no more room at that next rung for you.
These new realities can be disorienting and demoralizing. “It’s easy to get insecure and concerned,” Dea says, if you feel like you’re not moving forward or that others are doing so more quickly.
How to Shine: Set Your Own Goals
“The key is taking the time and making a persistent effort to set your own goals and track progress against your own goals,” Dea explains. Make it a priority to evaluate and reevaluate where you want to go next—by asking yourself open-ended questions about your job and career, doing research about possible paths, talking to people to learn about their experiences, identifying skills you want to improve, and more. And then track your progress so you continue to feel motivated.
The Challenge: You Don’t Get as Much Direction
Parrott ended up getting her first job at a small startup with a flat management structure. “Having spent 16 years getting syllabi and rubrics and knowing how I was being measured,” she says, she suddenly had no idea what “good enough” looked like, let alone success. “I felt like I was floundering all the time. I needed those guidelines.”
But guidelines that detailed and unchanging are rare outside the classroom. “The workplace is not often as prescribed and predictable as school coursework might be,” says Jenn McKay, an HR consultant and leadership and career coach. In most classes, you know exactly what’s going to be covered, what assignments and exams are coming up, and how much each component is worth. But at work, there’s a “degree of navigating the unknown.” she says.
Varun Negandhi—an automotive engineer and founder of BeyondGrad.com, a site to help young professionals become better employees—compares being a student to using Google Maps. “Acing a test or a project in school is as simple as Google Maps giving us the end destination and the directions we need to follow to get there. All we have to do is follow the directions correctly,” he explains.
At work, however, you often have to decide what the destination should even be and get there—sometimes without instructions of any kind, let alone a fastest route laid out for you with traffic and other delays flagged. “Sure, you have mentors that you can ask questions to, but they have jobs themselves,” Negandhi says.
How to Shine: Flex Your Independence
The best approach, Negandhi suggests, is almost always to do some work on your own and come to your mentors or bosses with proposed solutions rather than wide-open questions. You’ll not only be practicing working independently, but you’ll also be building a reputation as a self-starter.
At the same time, you’ll have to decide when to ask for more direction on a particular project or for your role in general. Jill Pante, director of the University of Delaware’s Lerner Career Services Center, has spent years helping students transition into the working world. In the office, she says, it’s often up to you to initiate conversations about expectations.
Make sure you go in with detailed questions that demonstrate you’ve already thought about the answers, she says. Instead of, “What do you expect of me?” try, “Here are the things I believe I need to be working on. Are there other things I should be doing?”
The Challenge: Acing Assignments Isn’t Enough
In school, if you do what’s asked of you and do it really well, you’ll earn yourself the reputation of a stellar student. Extra credit is a rare, and usually optional, bonus. But “the extra credit part is what becomes absolutely necessary at the workplace,” Negandhi says. “The extra credit is where you make the name for yourself.”
According to Pante, most students “do whatever’s expected of them” to “get the A,” she says. “Very rarely do you find students who go above and beyond, who want to help shape or change or read more about the curriculum or topic.”
While that’s typical in school, at work it’s just the baseline. “The danger is mismatched expectations,” Dea says. Based on your years of training, you may think that doing all that’s been asked of you will land you that promotion, but it might not. Plus, you might miss out on opportunities to explore new areas of interest and learn new skills that’ll propel you along your career path.
How to Shine: Go for the “Extra Credit”
“If you really want to set yourself apart,” Dea says, you have to think about what else you can do and take on to add value. Try to “identify opportunities no one else is thinking about and expand your scope to other things that do fall in your realm but people didn’t see initially.”
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