Thousands of new college graduates of all ages are embarking on one of life’s major transitions, moving from college to career. You could be at any number of stages right now — unemployed or laid off and looking for a job, just starting your first “real” job, looking for a better job, or having secured a position and counting down the days until your start date.
Depending on where you are, you might be feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and frustrated, especially if you haven’t been able to find a job or internship yet. If you just started working, you probably still have some first-day jitters, unsure of how to go about everything.
Whichever phase you’re in, your equilibrium is most likely out of balance. You equilibrium is what social scientists like myself call “a steady state.” It’s your sense of normalcy and familiarity with your routine and surroundings.
The good news is, if your equilibrium is off, that is perfectly normal! It’s all part of going through a major life change, including moving from college to career. In fact, from my experience in both the academic and career coaching settings, as well as what I have found in the literature on “transitions,” I have concluded there are seven phases you typically go through during the college-to-career transition process, or in fact, I believe any other major life change. They are:
- Early awareness
- Decisive awareness
You typically travel through each phase with the goal of returning to and maintaining that state of equilibrium. What follows is a model I created that illustrates this transition process.
I created and modified this model over the years I’ve spent helping students, including many adult learners, transition from college to career. Here’s how it works to help you understand what you’re going though, as well as brief descriptors of each phase intended to help you identify where you may be along these stages. By raising this awareness, I hope it will help you cope with your feelings and thoughts to move on to the next phase and get back to equilibrium.
As I mentioned, equilibrium means a steady state. For purposes of this model, it speaks to the sense of normalcy and familiarity you have after being in college for two, three, four, or more years. Then graduation comes. It’s what we call a “life event” that sparks the transition into the world of job searching and work.
Starting work or a new job might not come that easy. The job search could prove difficult. The move back home might present another new “reality” to adjust to. You become frustrated. Adding to the frustration could be another likelihood — tuition bill payments are due! So much for that new car you were considering after finding your first job in your chosen career field.
Frustration might trigger a coping response — how do I deal with all of this!? This can cause you to become resistant and want to give up. Healthy coping strategies are called for here. It is NOT a time for blaming anything and everything that is getting in your way. It is NOT the time for seeing and believing that somehow you are the victim and you have no control over your future. In his book “Life Strategies,” Dr. Phil McGraw has a chapter titled “Get Real.” Before letting the events control you, “get real” and choose how to adapt and respond by moving into the next phase in a purposeful way.
In my experience, I do not believe students (and people in general) can go from the chaos of change and successfully navigate to a new reality without some form of centering activity. Centering is where you need to take stock of where you are, reflect on what you’ve done, determine what is working and not working, and identify resources to help you. This is when you take a breath, calm down, and think rationally about how to move forward. Perhaps you’ll identify a colleague as a good person who will give you ideas for improving your resume. Maybe you’ll realize you are not networking enough, and need to join some organizations and attend community events. Look at all of the options that are available, no matter if they are unrealistic. With options you create choices. With choices you exercise some degree of control over your future. You’ll sort them out in the next step.
As options surface, you evaluate them and have an early awareness of what might be the best choice for you. Is it time to go on and further your education? Should you hold off on going after your dream job now, and instead take a position that will let you be better prepared for landing your dream job in the future? Will you have better luck finding a job in your field if you move to another area? Again, with options, you have choices — and with choices, you have freedom. This can give you a new determination to move forward.
Decisive awareness is when one option or opportunity appears as the best one. You move into the act of deciding. You usually get to this point once you are armed with all the facts you need about the chosen option and have consulted with trusted friends and family. While the future remains unknown, it can be less uncertain now. You make a decision to pursue your option with all the time, resources, and energy you can muster.
You now must commit yourself to your most viable option to successfully transition to your new life situation. This requires attention, focus, persistence, perseverance, and a willingness to adapt. I recall early in my career, I decided to relocate out of state for a human resources position with Marriott’s hotel division. I became committed to this major life event because I felt it offered me the most long-term promise and potential. The possibility of relocating away from friends and family had never even crossed my mind as a potential career option at that time!
You then return to equilibrium as you settle into your job or other life situation. You start to become familiar with your new routine, and hopefully, achieve some degree of happiness and fulfillment in a choice well made.
A few parting words. Know this is a dynamic model, not a linear one as the model tries to represent. At any stage of change, events can propel you to another stage in the cycle. Even after being committed to a choice, another life event might cause you to once again respond, cope, find viable options, and move through this transition process.
I recall taking a position in human resources only to hear that six months into the role, the company would be relocating to another state — an option that I could not possibly consider given my family situation at that time. Once again my equilibrium was shaken, and I transitioned through the change.
So transition will be an ongoing part of life, beyond moving from college to career. Transitioning successfully, however, can be aided by understanding how you’re feeling and the healthy steps needed to move through the transition process. Keep this model handy as a reminder for when you experience your next life change. How is your transition from college to career going right now?