As the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch suggested in his Last Lecture: experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. In other words, sometimes you need to learn the hard way; to feel the fire yourself to know that the burner is hot. Still, sometimes it is nice to have a bone thrown your way, especially early in your career.
We have surveyed alumni from a prestigious Human Resources and Labor Relations master’s degree program and asked them the following question:
To better prepare for the transition from (school) to work, what advice would you give to current students (i.e., what do you know now that you wish you knew when you were a student)?
With over 100 responses on record, here are a number of highlights from what our early career professionals had to offer:
Student life is much easier, more social, more flexible, more customized to you, and allows for more diverse work/life balance. The working world typically shifts a majority of the focus to being at the office, working, and thinking about work even on weekends. You’re now on the schedule and at the mercy of the organization (unless you start your own business). Work/life balance changes in proportion, because so much of the week is spent at work. Make friends at work to introduce some socializing into this now main piece of your life. Use the leadership and networking strategies learned (in school) to help get involved in your new job – Employee Groups, Teams, Programs, and Events.
Relationships are huge. When you are in school, work hard to (gain) experience working in teams and developing relationships.
I wish I would’ve had more exposure to the level of ambiguity you would face (in the workplace). I also wish someone could have prepared me for going into the workplace confidently, as I struggled with that the first few years.
My internship was the most useful preparation tool prior to starting work. For students who are willing to relocate for their job, I would highly suggest they find an internship far away from school or their home.
It’s ok to ask questions (they like to know you’re thinking and interested), but take initiative and be proactive. Get to know your team and the business right away. Employers know you don’t know everything coming in as long as you’re willing to learn.
I am currently studying to become PHR certified. I think this would have been a much easier certification to obtain fresh out of school (or while attending grad school) when I was still in the studying mindset.
Learn Microsoft Excel.
Today’s business environment requires a clear understanding of the impact that Human Resources has on the bottom line. Students need to understand the purpose of the function within a company’s business model and how they can use it to generate value or reduce risk. This often requires a strong business and data acumen that I feel most students lack or have never been exposed to. Learn Excel. Learn simple spread sheet modeling. Learn to be empirical and logical in your approaches – saying you got into HR because you like people is over.
Start learning how to use Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint early on. If you can create macros, develop data models, and understand different functions, it will differentiate you from your peers. You need to think ahead. Don’t wait until the last minute to have a plan. Always be thinking about the future while concentrating on the present. Find a mentor, but don’t be discouraged because not everyone is willing to help.
Carefully consider the location in which you are going to work.
I wish I took (a course in) compensation.
Really do a strong self assessment of what you want out of your career, and where you will be in ‘life’ in 3-5 years. Choose a company that matches your values, morals, ethics, and has built in the value that you believe is important to you. Don’t chase the mighty dollar, a swing of 5 or 10K may seem like a lot right out of school, but it’s better to choose the company that is a good fit, the money will come….and money isn’t the only key to satisfaction.
The transition to work is very different for each person. It’s really just part of growing up, so don’t expect it to be the same for you and your peers. Do what is best for you as an individual, and the transition will happen naturally over time.
Meet people. Schedule time with them, get to know them, let them get to know you. It WILL be awkward with some of them, but that is part of the growth.
It’s very difficult to make friends in a new city. Most companies make it seem like work and social life are mutual; that there are a bunch of young people that work for the company and they all go out all of the time. It’s not necessarily true. Also, there’s a lot of prejudice against millennials. Be cautious and always ask for advice before making suggestions. Take the role of the ‘young learner’ and then after a while, you’ll be accepted to make suggestions.
This is very specific to my current role but I was just recently involved in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. I felt very comfortable with the process based on my coursework. However, implementing the changes in the contract and building the processes/procedures to communicate, train, and support the new contract changes came as a surprise.
Moving far away (geographically) is difficult for someone who is more established. I thought the move would be easier than it was.
Try to apply the “how” you have been taught to get things done and come up with your ideas/solutions; and not so much emphasis on what you might have been taught is “best practice” based on research.
Follow your “gut” instinct. Speak with other “young alumni” at the firms you are interested in working for. Look at what the position responsibilities are and think about how much of an impact you want to have (and will you be able to have that impact- i.e. within the bureaucracy). Are you someone that wants to develop new ideas or just follow procedures that are in place? What kind of difference do you want to make? What growth plan is in place / does the company support HR growth? These are questions that can sometimes be answered in the interview process, but are best answered through individuals who have worked at a given company for some time. Meet with as many alumni as you can and work as many internships / get involved with as many HR projects as you have time for so you can narrow down what your career interests are.
Ask questions. Ask questions. Work hard. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Be willing to take on new challenges. If you’ve never had HR experience: be a sponge.
Get to know and understand the Company’s culture and politics so there are no surprises.
I wish that I had known that my education doesn’t automatically mean people will respect me. I had to work very hard to gain the respect of the people I work with and the best way to do that is to follow through with promises.
Building relationships is an essential part of my success, especially in a large company. I think more emphasis needs to be placed on this and building a Personal Brand. Knowing how you are perceived by others and how to get people to perceive you the way you would like to be perceived is critical. Also, how do you promote your Personal Brand? I think that we should encourage graduates, after getting their feet wet in HR for a few years, to take a job outside of HR. This will make them much more effective when they eventually come back to HR and it’s something that our leaders look for when they are looking to promote. Essentially, get outside of your comfort zone. Your first 6-12 months in your first job is critical. Develop a plan before you start on how you want to show up to work. First impressions are critical.
Stay in the learning mindset, because you don’t know anything yet. Be prepared to learn and be open to learning; don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially of your client groups. They know you’re new, you have a 6 month window to ask as many “stupid” questions so that you can fully understand their industry and issues – they’ll expect you to know most of that by the end of 6 months – make sure you do!
Learn how to manage relationships with co workers early. You can leverage these not only to use as a resource but for future networking as well.
Don’t accept a job based on comp and benefits, think about what will truly make you happy.
Not all corporate cultures like your educational background. I was told not to talk about mine, which is difficult coming from such a strong academic community. Most of my peers are uneducated.
Network, network, network! I have created my own career path even within the rotational program I’m in due to the networks I’ve connected with.
Prioritization of work is key. It is important to prioritize different work issues as well as your work/life balance.
The transition from student to working professional is really difficult. Sitting at a desk all day, surrounded by people who are not in your age group is a big difference.
It is important to be flexible and open early on in your career. You will (eventually) find out what HR area you like the most but the most important thing to look for is company fit. If you like the company, you will find a role that works for you. Be mobile in the beginning, first 2-3 yrs. Once you have established your place in the company, you can advise others of your personal preferences regarding location, position, etc.
While you have finished your degree, the learning has really just begun! Each organization is very different in terms of HR systems, business practices, industry standards, etc. Ask lots of questions, keep an open mind, and observe as much as possible during the first few weeks/months.
Leadership development is just as important as business and HR knowledge.
When looking for a full time role, culture is the most important criteria.
Recognize and understand the politics in your organization quickly! Learn company and employee history is important Find a mentor/confidante within HR to better transition.
The tools and education learned (in school) are great but when starting your career, you will need to know tactical processes first. Recruiting (learning your markets), Benefits (understand your companies policies and programs), succession plan tools are key if your first role is a generalist (position). Move to where your company needs you. Never turn down a temporary assignment. Don’t be afraid to move for learning opportunities!
Listen more, speak less.
Maintain a strong work ethic and the rest will fall in place.
Be very prepared to tell stories through metrics. Advanced Microsoft Excel training is a must and remember to always pay attention to details.
Give yourself the opportunity to get adjusted to the learning curve. You aren’t expected to have all of the answers! Try not to get frustrated with yourself early on. Life moves much faster as a professional, but make sure that your life at work doesn’t consume you, and spill over into your personal life.
(Learn to) navigate politics, the basics of how to lead meetings effectively, how to consult with difficult clients, how to confidently challenge others and influence decisions without formal authority.
If all factors of two different job offers were exactly the same (i.e. same industry, pay, benefits, etc.) with the exception of the company and one has a rotational program and the other does not, choose based on the company that you think will fit you better, not based on the availability of a rotational program. The opportunities to move around large companies and create your own career path are so abundant that I believe rotational programs do not provide a clear advantage. Long story short – don’t rule out companies without rotational programs when interviewing.
Connect with recently-graduated alumni.
What I now feel less-comfortable with is how little weight I gave to work location and work/life balance. I was eager to accept any location with the company I liked and put in the time and effort right off the bat. While the work ethic is good, I didn’t place enough importance on establishing a personal life outside of work, and I’m close to 3 years after graduation and still do not have an established social network.
Your internship is very important; make sure you tap into the great alumni network and faculty resources. Stay in touch with fellow HR members for best practice sharing
Culture is the most important thing to consider (when evaluating companies). Also, formal rotational programs aren’t always the best option.
Be highly involved in social networks, and increase your personnel skills.
Be intentional about your networking- stay in touch with faculty, staff, students, alumni as well as recruiters and people you meet on recruiting trips. Make a point to reach out to your “key contacts” every few months.
Don’t choose a company/job purely based on the compensation.
Be resilient, be adaptable, and don’t be afraid to take risks!
Know yourself well enough to identify what your “tipping points” are in the job decision-making process (e.g. are you highly risk-adverse and will benefit from a very large company with lots of open roles/increased job security, do you thrive in fast-paced work environments, are you resourceful enough to be thrown into ambiguous work environment or do you prefer more structure, etc). Also, be prepared for the transition from college to work world (especially if you’ve been in school straight through your Master’s program). It can seem hopelessly exhausting but you’ll eventually adjust and find your rhythm in balancing work/personal life.
Be okay with moving – take the plunge
By the time you graduate, you feel as though you’ve learned a ton about HR and you’re going to be a really capable HR professional. Once you get to work, be prepared to feel like you don’t know anything and you’re back to square one. You may have a ton of great ideas and a lot of enthusiasm for making things happen, but make sure that you listen and learn and understand the business before jumping in. Additionally, I think the biggest initial hurdle (which I had never even considered) is learning the business lingo (all the acronyms, company-specific terms, etc.) and building a network, which is especially crucial to your success in your first role. Networking is really important.
To relax more. To see people and not their positions.
Focus the majority of your time outside the class room. Focus on events, workshops, site/plants visits, current events, networking, guest speakers, etc. to prepare for the real world. The classes are necessary, but getting out and talking with people current in the industry is very helpful.
The academic schedule is so much more flexible and open than the typical work schedule. Be prepared to have earlier bedtimes.
Take some time between graduating and your first day on the job. Getting started will be a whirlwind for a while so spend time with friends/family and get settled into your new city before taking the new job on.
Negotiation skills/ people managing/ leadership development.
Develop GREAT note taking skills and project management skills. The book smarts aren’t everything!
Realize that there is always more to learn when applying school to a real world work environment, but be confident that you are going in with a solid foundation.
When transitioning into your role it is important to keep your work life balance in check because only you can control that aspect of your life. Do not be afraid to ask questions to understand and share your opinion when it is needed. What you learn in the classroom will be valuable, but this does not mean that there will not be a learning curve when starting your new role.
The real world is far from the models and concepts that we learn (in school). It is about flexibility and willingness to learn afresh!
Try to find a part time HR job while in school to get more experience if you have none.
Don’t get discouraged if the job isn’t everything you thought it would be. Jobs are never as glamorous as they are portrayed. You have to put in the time and a lot of hard work to prove yourself and get the respect of your peers and leaders.
We all learn through our trials and tribulations. Regardless of efforts to prevent these flops and failings, they are, alas, inevitable..and important. Reframe the way you look at these events as key learning opportunities. Remember, you are not the first person to make a mistake. Hopefully you find value in this vetted, sage advice and will return to this list time and time again as you move forward in your career.
Have more to share? Leave a comment to supplement this list.