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.”
OMG let me count the ways:— Katie Parrott (@kplikethebird) November 13, 2018
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.”
The Challenge: Feedback Isn’t a Given
Assessments are baked into the fabric of most school environments: Every test has a score; every assignment gets a grade; and every paper is returned with comments. You always know how you did and, based on how much each component is worth, you can calculate what overall grade you’re on track to get for the semester or year.
But at work, your boss isn’t giving you grades as you go. They might not even volunteer much in the way of qualitative feedback.
How to Shine: Make a Point of Asking for It
After spending so many years taking built-in assessment mechanisms for granted, it can be a major challenge to figure out who to speak to for what kind of feedback, the right way to ask, and how often to do it.
Still, Dea urges, you should make it a priority, lest you be blindsided at your next performance review or miss opportunities for growth and development. Request feedback meetings with your boss periodically (using this handy email template or in person) and don’t forget less formal ones with your co-workers. And make sure you take constructive criticism graciously: Remember to listen, ask follow-up questions to deconstruct and understand the feedback, make a plan to implement changes, and follow up.
The Challenge: Hard Work Doesn’t Always Speak for Itself
Just because you’re doing a great job at work doesn’t mean everyone knows it. It doesn’t even mean your boss knows it. That, too, can be difficult to get used to coming from years of schooling where your performance on homework, exams, and other assignments pretty much spoke for itself.
How to Shine: Be Your Own Cheerleader
At work, you have to be more proactive. “You won’t necessarily have a test score to fall back on for credibility and expertise,” Dea says. “Sometimes you have to take it upon yourself to let people know.”
You have to learn to advocate for yourself, to talk about what you’re up to with a broader narrative of your career in mind, and to get others to amplify your work. You can start by sharing updates with your manager at your one-on-one meetings (and if you don’t have those set up, use this template to ask for regular check-ins) with a focus on results and impact.
If you don’t, you could lose out on recognition, the chance to build strong relationships, and opportunities to take on new and challenging projects.
The Challenge: You Have to Deal With Office Politics
Social dynamics at work are often more complex and less predictable than those in the classroom, according to McKay. As a student, you had to primarily build a strong relationship with your teachers, and occasionally with a study or project group.
At the office, you’ll have to do the same with your boss and teammates, but you’ll also have to build relationships across teams and departments, network outside the walls of your office, and navigate unwritten rules of office politics.
How to Shine: Build Relationships (Not Just With Your Boss)
McKay suggests pushing yourself to prepare for these broader social dynamics by doing more networking while still in school—by joining a club, for example.
As soon as you start a job, Pante suggests introducing yourself to those in your vicinity and beyond. Your efforts will lead you to people who can help answer questions about your work, office rules and politics, and more. And letting them get to know you makes them more likely to trust you.
Emily Gaudette majored in creative writing. She’s since worked at a nonprofit, at culture and news websites, and most recently in content marketing as an editor for Contently. She’s had to quickly pick up new knowledge as she’s shifted from one industry to another, and building relationships with colleagues has been key. (Full disclosure: I was one of her co-workers at Newsweek.)
Most importantly, she says she’s learned to “reach out before it becomes an emergency situation, when it’s just about curiosity and not about filling a hole you’ve gotten yourself into.”
Entering the workforce after years of schooling can be a bit of a culture shock. You’ll have to ditch some of your well-worn strategies and adopt new ones if you want to be as great an employee as you were a student. Then again, you were always good at learning new things. So go on, do what you do best.
Photo of person shaking hands with co-worker at the office courtesy of millann/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author