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“Exhausted.” “Lost.” “Anxious.” “Everything’s a struggle.”
These are just some of the ways that 54 recent college grads we recently interviewed described their experience transitioning from college to the professional world. Despite being advised to hit the ground running, many young people we spoke with felt disoriented, confused, dissatisfied, and in many cases overwhelmed with the “real world.” In addition to impacting the young people themselves and their wellbeing, this intense and challenging experience affects companies, which spend time and money recruiting and training young people to join their ranks and immediately contribute to the organization.
Some have attributed these struggles to millennials — that young people of this generation are particularly prone to struggle because of how self-absorbed and entitled they are. However our sense, from interviewing recent graduates and working closely with them as they transition from college to the professional world, is that there is something else at play.
In our view, the main reason young people struggle isn’t generational — it’s cultural. In particular: the very significant, but typically underemphasized, cultural transition between college to the professional world. We find in our research that this culture shift plays out along at least three key dimensions: feedback, relationships, and accountability.
“Throughout my entire life from the beginning of school everything was graded. You could get immediate feedback on your performance. But at work, you’re not getting that immediate feedback… and I think that was one of the biggest challenges throughout that transition.” -Candra, 23-year-old health care research assistant
In college, feedback is clear and consistent. You have a syllabus, which details the requirements for the semester and the standards upon which you’ll be graded. And then, for each assignment you submit, you receive feedback from your professor. You don’t need to ask for the feedback — it’s provided to you directly, and typically without much personal explanation. In addition, because grades are standardized, it’s quite easy to understand your personal performance level relative to others, or relative to yourself in previous classes or semesters.
As you might imagine, the feedback paradigm shifts entirely once a student enters the professional world. For starters, the feedback you receive at work is often less consistent and less easily decipherable than in college. Depending on your manager and your organization, you might receive very clear, detailed and consistent feedback on assignments; or you might receive feedback in an intermittent and difficult-to-decipher manner, through a quick comment here or there until you have that rare official performance review. In either case, though, the feedback you receive is often more qualitative than quantitative, which can be confusing to students fixated on what their specific grade was and were they fall on the overall class curve.
As a result of these cultural differences, young professionals can experience a feedback vacuum in the professional world — wondering how to improve, if they need to improve, and how they can develop the skills necessary to improve at their firm and in their career.
Recent graduates also need to learn a new skill around feedback in the working world that wasn’t a common part of the college paradigm: how to receive both positive as well as negative feedback in a poised, professional manner. Granted, in certain rare classes, such as theater or creative writing, students may very well get useful experience learning how to give and receive feedback with professionalism. But this simply is not the case for the vast majority of classes in college where feedback is often delivered impersonally, in written form, and without much opportunity for give and take or face-to-face interaction and discussion.
“So all of a sudden you’re hanging out with people of all ranges and types of backgrounds. And you don’t really know anything about them.” -David, a 26-year-old business strategy consultant
Relationships in the professional world are also very different from in college. In college, you build relationships with people you want to — and for the most part with people around your same age. Relationships evolve naturally through interactions in class, from extracurricular activities on campus, through friends of friends. And there’s typically very little pressure to keep up relationships you don’t enjoy.
However, once students enter the professional world, they find themselves enmeshed in a very different experience of relationship building. It’s no longer only solely about creating a group of fun, nice people to congregate with; it’s now more strategic. Relationship building in a professional environment is about developing friendships, sure, but it’s also about building a robust network of colleagues who can help you succeed at your job and advance in your career. This means interacting regularly with people of different ages, backgrounds and interests. It also means developing a connection with your boss — a new authority figure who not only tells someone what to do, but also has a lot of power over future career development.
And, sometimes, in the professional world, relationship building happens with people you don’t actually even like or want to be friends with. Unlike college, where you can simply avoid people you don’t like — like professors whose classes you can choose not to take — the same is not true in the professional world. You need to find ways to manage difficult relationships in a productive and professional manner.
Finally, how you comport yourself with a professor in one class has little if any impact on your experience, performance, or reputation in another class or department. But of course at work, interactions with your boss may have major implications on your success at your current company. If your boss complains about your performance or work ethic to other leaders, for example, it may be difficult for you to move up the ladder.
“When you’re young coming out of college, you don’t realize what you’re walking into. You either perform or you don’t, and you could lose your job any day. Students think it’s easy-going just like school, but it’s nothing like that. It’s a lot more responsibility.” -Michael, a 27-year-old regional account manager
The entire goal of college — at least from a learning standpoint — is to develop your knowledge base and critical thinking capacity. In school, you are accountable mainly to yourself. Yes, you are occasionally on project teams, or you may partner with someone to complete a project. But in the end, though the group’s performance matters, the ultimate responsibility is to yourself, your achievement, your success and your learning.
In a professional environment, in contrast, there typically is much more at stake, and mistakes can have severe consequences. You’re not only accountable to yourself; you’re accountable to your team, to your colleagues, to your boss, to your division, and to your organization. If you fail a key assignment, damage a client relationship, mismanage an interaction with a supplier, you can’t make it up or ask for extra credit. Mistakes aren’t necessarily or exclusively learning opportunities – they can have serious consequences for your reputation and career, which adds a whole new level of pressure and personal responsibility on a young professional.
These three themes show that, while some young professionals make the transition from college to the workplace with ease, others struggle quite a bit. So what can companies and managers do to help ease this cultural transition for new professionals?
Our top line recommendation is treat this transition like you would any other significant cultural transition, and to apply best practices for cultural adaptation to the adaptation from college to the professional world. This means teaching them about the norms, the rules, and quite explicitly how and why these rules and expectations are different from college.
But smart companies will also actively promote a positive and encouraging mindset among more experienced employees as well. Leaders need to communicate the fact that everyone was young at one point and may have also experienced a challenging cultural transitions. If experienced employees can empathize with what recent graduates face, they may be more apt to attribute their behavior to cultural transitions as opposed to some sort of “entitled mindset” — or at least more open to this alternative explanation.
Mentoring is of course a critical part of this process, but remember that more experienced mentors aren’t necessarily better. What’s essential is finding mentors who have experience of both sides of the transition — who remember what the challenges were like and who have addressed and overcome them. It’s also helpful for mentors to have friends and colleagues who may have had similar experiences as well. That way, they can offer new professionals a range of options and paths for success.
Finally, in order to succeed, young professionals themselves must also be willing to take the time and effort necessary to master the transition from school to work. This could mean reaching out to other more experienced friends or family members to learn about what helped them manage their transition. It also could mean recognizing which soft skills they are lacking and developing a plan to improve them. Because in the end, what we found in our work is that the book smarts students have received from their college education will only get them so far.