Career Advice

From Graduate Student to Young Professional: Tips for Conquering the Transition

Marisa Sanders

Well, you did it—you got a job! Good for you! Between writing your dissertation or thesis, teaching, and finish­ing experiments in the lab, you somehow managed to apply for the job, submit an application, do your research on the company, and woo everyone during your interview. Sud­denly, your entire world takes on a rose-colored tinge; the point-grubbing pre-med undergraduates and jaded assistant professors who previously irked you so much now seem to flit by you like butterflies on a sweet breeze. “Life is going to be so grand!” you’re convinced, confident that your hard work has finally paid off, and now you can sit back and relax. I mean, how hard can the “real world” be, right? More free time, a nice income, energetic new coworkers. You have “adulting” down to a science…

…Or so you think. Transitioning from graduate student to “young profes­sional” comes with its own set of unique stresses. Whether you’re staying on the academic tenure-track, embarking on a career in the corporate world, or join­ing the chemical industry, you should be prepared for whatever unfamiliar experiences come your way. Below, you’ll find several tips to help enable a smooth transition during the first year in your exciting new role. These tips are simply a guide—read them and consider your personal goals to make the transition your own.

Mentally Prepare Yourself For the Change
Perhaps one of the best features of graduate school is its flex­ibility. As a graduate student, you have the autonomy to set and accomplish your research goals in whatever manner you deem appropriate. Maybe you’re a proponent of undertak­ing hands-on bench work in the morning and analyzing data in a nearby café in the afternoon. Or perhaps you maintain a regimented schedule where you swing by lab in the morning, hit the gym every day from 3:00–5:00 p.m., eat dinner, and then do research from 7:00–9:00 p.m. This may succeed for the time being; however, depending on the company culture and the nature of the work, your new role may not allow you the flexibility that graduate school once did.

In preparation for your lifestyle change, create a list of activities you intend to undertake in a given week. In addition to working out, this list may include social activities, artis­tic endeavors, reading, and other hobbies. Although it seems self-evident, remember to allow a realistic estimate of time for everyday chores. Now add on your projected commute to and from work. Will you take public transportation or will you drive? Many young professionals have never had to commute to a lab in the past, having previously been blessed with on-campus housing. For many, commuting is a transition in and of itself.

After composing your list, try configuring your week. Will your new schedule require you to join a 24-hour gym? If you don’t have to drive, can you tackle work during your com­mute? Will your new way of life yield more free time than ever before? If so, how will you fill this gap? Will you master a new hobby (e.g., once again take up the flute that’s sitting in your parents’ attic)? Consider these matters now, to give yourself the opportunity to restructure your life before embarking on your new job.

Set Goals and Identify a Mentor
Just because you got the job and are no longer a student doesn’t mean your studying and professional growth will come to a halt. While you will certainly bring many excellent skills to the job, consider what you can additionally learn to further both yourself and the company. Identify and set con­crete goals to accomplish over the next one to five years, and be sure to seek out opportunities for professional develop­ment.

A mentor can offer helpful profes­sional advice, especially during your first year on the job. This mentor may be a more experienced professional at work, a previous colleague, your super­visor, or another individual currently in a position of the type you hope to obtain one day. In fact, there is absolutely noth­ing wrong with having more than one mentor! Ask them about typical trajec­tories in the field or how they attained their positions. Perhaps they could suggest professional societies to join or additional technical or professional courses to enroll in. Communicate your goals and aspirations to your mentor(s) so they can help propel you in the right direction.

Maintain a Work–Life Balance and Set Boundaries
After graduating from a Master’s or Ph.D. program where you are likely to have spent the last few months brooding over your research, defense, and dissertation every second of the day, it may be difficult to initially achieve a work–life balance in your new job. The excitement of embarking on a fresh ca­reer will probably motivate you to volunteer and assist others wherever possible. However, it is vital to reflect on what ad­ditional projects or commitments are absolutely necessary for you to achieve your professional goals, versus those that are merely tangentially related.

Setting boundaries early on in your job will help foster a healthy work–life balance. The desire to make a good first im­pression—for example, by coming in on the weekends, check­ing and replying to e-mail at all hours, and staying exception­ally late on weekdays—can lure you into a cycle it might prove difficult to break. Your boss may become acclimated to your habits and expect that you maintain them during your entire employment with the company. However, this can be pre­vented. From day one, if you arrive on time, assiduously work until the end of the day, and manage to consistently meet your deadlines, there shouldn’t be a need to overextend yourself during off hours. Although sometimes you may need to stay late or arrive early to complete work, if you find yourself constantly sleep-deprived or having to miss important family or social events, you might want to reevaluate your ways. You aren’t likely to find a boss who will discourage you from working during off hours (unless he or she is required to by law), but the same boss will be just as impressed if you can accomplish the as­signed work in the approximately eight hours each day you are already there.

As you realized in graduate school (hopefully), self-preservation and work– life balance are essential to performing the task at hand well. Yes, as grad stu­dents we all underwent preliminary sen­timents of guilt for using our vacation time—but, don’t you remember feeling so much more refreshed after returning from vacation than you did when you left? Companies (and universities) give their employees time off for a reason— they need it. Some rest and relaxation will only improve your motivation, cre­ativity, and long-term happiness. Believe me, saving up unused vacation days may reward you with commiseration from your colleagues at the happy hour, but you will be doing both yourself and your employer a disservice by skimping on time off. After all, if you are not con­tent with your work–life balance, you cannot efficiently assist others or excel professionally.

In preparation for your lifestyle change, create a list of activities you intend to undertake in a given week.

Ask Questions
Even though you were hired because of your specific skills and traits, you won’t know everything at your job. This is expected, but you should ask questions to figure out how things run at your company—both technically and cultur­ally. Perhaps there is a special order for having your work reviewed by your su­pervisor, or a unique technique that you never learned in graduate school. That’s okay! Ask away. Understanding the company culture and how you fit into it is very important.

You’ve learned (hopefully) all about the importance of networking by attend­ing professional development seminars at ACS meetings. As you start your new job, you will automatically network with employees in your department. However, make the time to get to know colleagues throughout your company. Take the initiative to arrange lunch meetings with coworkers and learn about what other colleagues’ roles entail. These get-togeth­ers can be beneficial when you need col­laborators from other divisions to help tackle a project. (Better yet, they might reach out to you for help with a task!)

Block time out from your busy schedule to attend the summer work picnic, holiday party, dinner cruise, and similar events. You never know who you’ll run into at these events—it’s quite possible that the spouse of one of your coworkers, whom you meet at a work outing, may be your next boss.

Nourish your ties within profes­sional societies such as ACS. Throughout college, graduate school, and now your career, you will continue to grow within these groups. Make an effort to attend professional conferences to stay in tune with your technical field and also to stay in touch with former colleagues. You never know who (or what) will influence your next career move.

Keep an Open Mind
The key to progressing in your career is to stay open to new experiences. Per­haps after your first month on the job, you’ll realize the work itself bores you or the company culture conflicts with your own. Don’t be alarmed—this happens more often than you think! You should feel proud of being able to identify these issues. Knowing your values and what excites you will help direct your future career path.

While they may at first be difficult to see, there are positives to any negative work experience. For instance, it’s pos­sible that your interests may align with a different department in the company; in that case, inquire about the opportunity for interdepartmental movement and see if you’re better suited to another area. If not, learn all you can while at your cur­rent job, continue to reach out to your mentors, ask questions, and do your re­search for your next move. Look at your career as a journey. While you may not exactly know where you’ll end up, if you plan ahead, pace yourself, and have confi­dence, everything will turn out okay!