So You Want to Be Successful After College
I felt I had to write this article after seeing countless college graduates/friends have issues finding jobs. It can happen to anyone, liberal arts to engineering (However, I find that liberal art graduates have greater difficulty in finding jobs). This is my personal guide on how to do it right. My article will provide concrete examples from my own experiences, where things go right and wrong.
Number One Mistake To Make
I’ve encountered many college students who have this perception that they automatically get a job after they obtain their degree. Not true. The degree is not a golden ticket to a job. It will help you in certain situations where corporations may require it as a base qualification.
Think of the degree like having a high SAT score. Although it’s not the same at all, but like many people who have high SAT scores, there are many people who also have a degree.
So, when someone looks at a set of resumes, and everyone has a degree, how do they figure out who to hire?
Things You Need To Do In School
Aside from ensuring that you pass your classes and graduate, there are several factors aside from your degree that will determine your marketability – the ability to sell yourself to an employer.
Connections will be your lifeline to finding a job. Getting to know people whether at parties, clubs, or any social gathering is important as you’ll never know who you’ll meet. The more people that know you, your talents, and can vouch for your abilities, the higher your chances of getting connections for jobs.
Joining campus clubs are usually one way to get connections – many of them have liaisons to companies in the field, and I’ve seen many clubs hold events where a representative from such company will visit the club and talk about job opportunities, and accept resumes.
Prior to my years of experience, I used to party often (as hard as it is to believe now); this included nightclubs, social gatherings, mixers (business networking parties), etc. Out of the many parties, there were two specific people I met that helped pave my path:
- I was having a drink with an software engineer I’ve never met, and we ended up talking about our projects (I’ll talk about projects later), and exchanged information at the end of the night. One month later, without ever having any contact with him, he randomly IMs me asking if I wanted an internship at the company he worked for. I accepted the offer, where I began to expand my software engineering knowledge by working in my first startup.
Being there helped me move on to NASA, where being there helped me get a job at Stanford.
- A female who did not seem like it, but she was heavily into old-skool hip-hop music, and even performed in a hip-hop group. At that time, I had negative preconceptions about hip-hop, and she invited me to watch her group. Accepting the offer, I visited her and her group the following week, and got a great lesson in the history of hip-hop, and the emergent subcultures that branched from it. By the end of the day, I was hooked, and ended up joining the group, learning routines for one full summer until they had to return to Japan (they were all visiting Japanese people).
Because of them, I love to dance, even though I’m horrible at it.
I once went to a Stanford admissions Q&A as I was interested in transfering to Stanford at the time. The number one response from admissions when it came to the application was, “Show us your passion!”
That phrase is not just applicable to college admission essays, but also to job hunting as well. When I interview prospective employees or read resumes, I look for evidence of passion. Show that you really are into being a marketing major; start writing articles about lead generation for example, or how to use product design to captivate potential customers.
Showing passion usually leads to demonstrating authority and credibility. Passion lets employers know that you have the gusto to do the job, that you really want to do the job, and that you’re not just doing the job just because.
I love teaching as much as I do learning. When I ran the Emotion Lab at Stanford Psychiatry, one of the interns posted a flyer up for Stanford HELP (Health Education for Life Program), where one can teach health and science at a local elementary school. I immediately joined, and found myself teaching an entire classroom of 6th graders. Topics ranged from teaching basic cell biology to sex-ed (I doubt I can ever post my sex-ed stories here).
I think a lot about innovations and creative means to teach, and this sixth grade class was no exception. A notable story would be when it came to teaching the effects of alcohol. Prior to this lesson, I asked my students to bring in a black shirt, and preferably wear black pants if possible.
Meanwhile, I had my friends help me with some papercraft I was working on – paper ninja stars, nunchucks, and bows and arrows made from straw and newspaper – an entire ninja arsenal.
On the day of the lesson, I came in dressed up as a shirt ninja. The kids were beyond stoked that a ninja had appeared in their classroom, rather than the usual Theo. Majority of the kids wore black, and I taught them how to fold their black shirts into a ninja mask to wear. At that point, I had around twenty little ninjas in my class.
“You are now my grasshoppers, and today we are going to talk about alcohol…”, I exclaimed in a makeshift ninja-voice as an opening for my lesson, “Now tell me what can ninjas do!”
I had several responses from my grasshoppers, such as, “Kill things! Run fast! Climb trees!”, and wrote each response on the board.
With all the responses, I now posed a new question, “Can a ninja fulfill their mission when under alcohol?”
(I’ll tell you the answer for this lesson will be , no; however, Drunken Ninjas are an exclusion to this rule.)
The kids remained silent. I had expected that only few would know the actual response, and gave the answer. But what really mattered was why and how.
“We will find out… WITH A FIGHT TO THE DEATH!”, I yelled out, as I took out my arsenal of hand-made paper weapons.
The kids went beyond ballistic after seeing me pull out a paper ninja star and started making grabby-hand motions at the large bag I held.
“Not only will we fight, but we will fight… drunk!”
In my other hand, was a bucket full of drunk goggles – goggles that have lenses that completely distort the wearer’s vision.
I took the kids out to the grassy field, and everyone got their own set of equipment. They were evently spread out, and drunk goggles were placed over each of them. It seemed my squad was ready for bloodshed.
“Okay… NINJA FIGHT!”
Screams and giggles erupted as my ninjas flailed helpelessly about, attempting to attack their victims, and failing horribly, barely making any kind of contact, or none at all. No one was (fortunately) assassinated.
Back in the classroom, I went over what happened on the field, “So what did you learn about being a ninja under alcohol’s influence?”
The majority of responses were around, “You can’t kill things, it was hard to move around, I kept falling… “
I summarized that alcohol can affect one’s judgement, ability to react, and maintain balance – things that a ninja need to succeed in their missions.
Now, my closing statement. I’m not one to tell someone they can’t do something (usually), so I ended it with this note, “In years to come, you might find yourself in a situation where you will be offered alcohol. It’s up to you to determine if you’re going to drink it or not. What I want you to think about when that happens is what happened to you as a ninja today when you were under the influence. And, that’s the lesson, my grasshoppers.”
Realistically, I don’t expect to reach everyone with my lessons, but when class was over, I had five students stop by and tell me that they won’t drink when that time comes. It was a great feeling, and it would not be the first in my future lessons. I know that they might hold true to their word when the situation happens, and I also know that some of them may not.
What mattered was they made a rational choice after being presented the possible consequences.
I love teaching. Did you see my passion in my story?
Don’t start your credibility and authority after you graduate, start it during your tenure at school. Find ways to apply what you’ve learned in your classes. Demonstrate that you not only know your classroom material, but that you can apply the concepts as well. It’s like having a high IQ. High IQs are great, but will mean nothing if the person who has that IQ does not know how to use it.
One of my projects, Notemine, was formed while I was in university, and was taking my upper-division classes. As I was taking these classes, I was applying concepts like object orientated design I learned in class when I started writing Notemine. The project grew as I learned more material from my classes, and really is a tangible testament to what I have learned. I was like a train engine without an emergency break – I would come home to do my homework, and spend ALL my free time programming Notemine into the early hours of the next day until it was either time for school or work again. The first version of Notemine was built in one month as a result.
It was Notemine that greatly helped with me getting my current and first full-time job as a software engineer.
Keep Up In The Field
This relates to passion in a way. To be an authority or have credibility in the area you want to work in, you need to understand what’s going on in the field. This means keeping up on blogs, reading news, journal articles, etc.
Essentially, be well versed in what you want to be doing.
As someone who’s field is in technology and science, I frequently read sites like Slashdot, Digg, and Engadget. Digg is more of a news aggregator that spans a variety of different areas, so I usually use that site to understand what’s currently hot or how-to guides in tech, design, programming, etc.
Not only that, I do my best to keep up in current events as well. I get my conservative spin from the Drudge Report, and my liberal spin from CNN / Digg. Despite being inherently liberal, I do my best to have both points of view, which is why I see what one political group likes to say about another.
You do not need a 4.0 to become successful in life. In many cases, grades will not matter. However, there are cases that do. Keeping your grades at a B-level will be sufficient for most scenarios where grades do matter.
One of my best friends recently graduated in the most difficult field – computer engineering. However, his grades were extremely poor – a 2.0, or barely passing. Where he works now, he makes less than the baseline for that major, and isn’t even doing anything computer engineering related! He’s now back in school, taking even more classes because he can’t get into grad school due to his GPA. He believes doing grad school will take him towards the right track and the right salary.
Make Yourself Known / Establish Authority
How will employers find or know of you if they don’t know you exist? Aside from hitting parties and clubs, there are other things you can do, such as starting a blog and writing about things you experience while learning material in your field, or joining professional places like LinkedIn, establishing a profile, and answer questions in the Q&A section to show that you’re knowledgeable in your field.
- I frequent LinkedIn often, and hit the tech Q&A sections frequently, answering questions that I know the answers to, and also providing evidence or additional authoritative resources to augment my answer if available. If you look at my Q&A section, you can tell I’m well-versed in web development, server configuration/maintenance, database design and management.
- I write in my blog, specifically this one. I write about my passions – chemistry, computer science, genetics, the entire shebang. Do you get a feeling that I actually care about all these things reading my blog? I hope you do.
Get an Internship
Most colleges have a college and career center, where they maintain postings for jobs, ranging from full-time to internships. It is to your benefit that you find an internship that pertains to your field, since it will help you build experience.
What most college grads find is that to get a job, you need experience; getting an internship will help build experience, but even some internships require a base amount of experience to apply. It’s a bad catch-22.
Get ahead of that game by seeing what you want to do really requires, and do your best to find an internship while in school. It seems to be easier to get internships while in school since employers feel that they have to pay significantly cheaper rates since the student lacks a degree.
If you are on financial aid, you most likely have work-study, where you work on campus, and the money from aid is given to you. Most students will end up working in places like the bookstore or cafeteria. Do not do this if you can! If this is the only job you’ll hold in school, be aware that it might be the only thing on your resume when you graduate.
Most professors are doing some sort of research when it comes to a university setting. Ask your professors if they have any research assistant positions available, where you can help them with their research. Not only would you most likely be paid from work-study, but you’ll also get experience.. in your field!
(Long post from one of my old journals)
One day in October 2004, while walking through the students records building of Foothill College (I’m a Foothill student), I noticed a NASA/AMES banner calling for yearly internships.
Something clicked inside and said I should do this… for Stanford!
For those curious about the program, the website for it is located here.
“NASA internship positions are available in a wide range of settings that include private industry, and correspond to almost every college major. Student interns work directly with scientists, programmers, accountants, engineers, administrative assistants, web developers and other professionals as they carry out or support research related to Astrobiology, Aviation Operations Systems, Information Technology, Psychology, Life Sciences and Space and Earth Sciences.”
Eventually, I filled in an application and sent a resume; days later, I received a call from NASA/AMES to go for an interview in the middle of November for three positions: web programmer, systems administrator, and technology lab assistant. I’ll go into detail about what each of these jobs are later.
I didn’t know at all about how the interview process worked, so I searched the intern website for more details. An excerpt from Erina Birman who wrote about her experience in “My Internship Experience” caught my eye:
“One of my instructors announced, during class, an opportunity to intern at NASA. Every student seemed interested and everyone was encouraged to apply. When I showed up at the information meeting. I felt that my chances were slim due to the large number of students who were applying. Although I initially felt discouraged, I reassured myself that I would regret it if I were to not try. Of these, only 30 got offered positions.”
Holy crap, only 30 received positions? I wondered what I would be up against. During the week before the interviews, my friends from my honors classes notified me that they are applying for it as well.
Knowing now that I could be up against some pretty high odds, I contacted my best friend Victor Gonzales to assist me in preparing.
“Theo, do you have a cover letter?”
“What’s a cover letter?”
“Yeah, but it needs to be drycleaned…”
“Business card? Portfolio?”
“No, but I can produce one.”
“It’s complete, but it needs revising.”
“Do you know what interviewers ask during a job interview? Do you even KNOW what the job you’re applying for entails?”
So, at this point, I felt I was pretty unprepared and possibly screwed, but I didn’t give up. Theo never gives up!
And so, I spent most of my entire week at Vic’s house, writing out my cover letter, revising my resume, doing mock interviews with Vic, where he would ask me common questions interviewers ask and I would respond as if it was a real job interview. We spent some time on how to properly shake hands, pre and post interview procedures (like obtaining a business card).
My friends already had their interviews, and gave me a fair warning that the interviewers are TOUGH. One was slammed with a five-person panel for psychology, while the other was denied an interview because she lacked some certain requirements.
Eventually, the final day came, November 17th; Vic let me borrow his shoes and executive leather case to hold my stuff in. My suit was ready to go from the cleaners… I became Great Job Interviewee Theo!
All the interviews were at NASA/Ames in Moffett Field, near Mountain View. I had to stop by the Visitor’s Center to grab a visitor’s badge:
The orientation meeting was at 12:15PM; luckily I came early, since the place is really, really, huge – even with GPS (the GPS unsurprisingly lacks the map for NASA), I ended up getting lost as some streets are literal loops.
Eventually, I make it into the orientation room; there’s around thirty people there, and I notice I’m the only one in a suit. Everyone else has casual-but-a-little-more-than-casual clothing. I smirk knowing that Vic has prepared me Well.
(Just a side note, the NASA interviews run all week, so I’m apart of one group, as my friends are apart of another where they have their interviews on separate days.)
My first interview was for web programmer. It was supposed to be at 1:45PM, but I made it early by an hour to the Human Factors Research & Technology building (HFRT) to my interviewer.
(I want to note that if you are the first one to be interviewed, come EARLY. Each of my interviews was only 45 mins max. It seems like a long duration, but you’ll soon realize that it might not be enough time. By coming in early, you might have a shot to get your time extended and give yourself a huge shot in getting in because the interviewers will then get to know know the most about you.)
Coming in early was well worth it; I was in a small office room of the Outreach Manager for HFRT. Between me and the female interviewer was a desk. I’ll admit I cannot fathom the specific questions asked to me during the interview, but it all went well as she asked me to show my portfolio.
I believe it was the portfolio that sealed the deal. It had my most recent work and conveyed all aspects of my Information Technology and programming career from the last year. We went through eage page as I explained each program I wrote and the people I worked with.
She was impressed that she called in the current intern (male, so I can refer to him as ‘he’ hereafter) to look at my portfolio as well; they both agreed that I should see the work that they are currently working on. To my amazement, it was the exact same stuff I did at Entetel and for Notre Dame – content management systems. NASA recently adopted a new look for their website and administration has ordered all public websites within NASA to convert to this design.
Along with that, they’re also working on their own content management system as well as some other things. I made my comments and observations about their work and they asked me for places where it might be improved, and I gave my feedback. The intern and I got along very well, as we were avid gamers and talked about PC games and whatnot. He ended up giving me his AIM sn as well as e-mail to keep close contact.
Before I left, I remembered Vic telling me to ALWAYS get the business card of the person who interviewed me so I can send off the final “weapon” – a thank you card. He said that if the other applicants match you in ability, it’s usually the thank you card that puts you on top as it shows you are organized on following up or something like that.
Overall, the interview went great. They basically asked me if I wanted to work for them in the end. I was unsure at first because I don’t know what the other two job positions will ask for.
The second interview was around a mile away from the first one; it was only now 2:10PM (that previous interview lasted LONG).
So, I make it there (I can’t remember where “there” was, but it involved Aeronautics) and I’m greeted with a three-person panel. This was for systems administration, and the process was completely formal. It lacked the friendly air of the previous interview at the HFRT.
Sadly to say, they cared more about my degrees (or lack thereof) than my actual work experience. I was asked many questions about my lack of degree and when would I get it, etc. Then, they explained the “systems administration” job, which wasn’t even sysadmin at all, it was just another web programming job, but more undefined. They didn’t know what the heck they wanted, or even want to define what they wanted in their web application. I just know it has to do with a screwed up inventory keeping program that the previous intern screwed up on badly.
It just felt stiff, and completely unfriendly. Out of the door, I determined that this job I would decline if offered, because they only seemed to care about my school credentials as opposed to my actual work experience. In sociology, it’s called “credentialism” – you favor someone more for the school they came from / degree; it’s like saying, “I need a lawyer, get me someone from Stanford!” – just because it’s Stanford, doesn’t mean it’s the best.
The final interview was at Foothill, which I soon learned wasn’t a NASA position, but Foothill looking for the “leftovers” to do meager tasks. Again, it was a formal interview, but this time the interviewers read off of an interview sheet. It felt quite structured, and it was exactly like Vic and I practiced during or mock interviews.
Basically, a Technology Lab Assistant is just sitting your ass in a computer lab, watching over people who use the computers all day. Do boring things like help people with software, give e-mail accounts, etc. I know I made that one for sure, but it’s not something I wanted to do.
The day was over, and I was exhausted. Throughout the day, I let Vic and Deborah know of my progress with each interview, and I told them that I pretty much got the first and third jobs based on impressions alone.
And, I was right. I did get the job. Days later, NASA/Ames called me informing me that I received the web programmer job and to call my interviewer to formally accept the position. It’s the job position that I went in early for, the interviewer who was kind enough to actually know and understand my work, and the intern that showed me all his cool work, and our internal contacts thereafter through e-mail that most likely gave me the position.
My orientation date for my job is officially December 13, but it’s most likely I will be going in earlier as the previous intern needs to hand off his work to me before he leaves to Europe for another position.
If I do really well at NASA, I have the possibility for a permanent position or a second year of internship.
Welcome, Great NASA Intern Theo!
It’s so amazing. In less than a year, I’ve made it this far.
Have a Backup Plan
Always have a backup plan. I cannot stress this enough. One downside to specializing is that if jobs in that particular field are being cut back, that means your chances for a job are low.
Understand Where the Jobs Are At
I know you want to do art, which is why you’re an art major. However, have you actually thought about if it was difficult to become an artist? What kind of artist do you want to be, what do you think you might do?
Hopefully, you’ve asked these questions while in college, and not after you graduate. Most students are completely unaware of the job market for their field of study, and don’t know about how large the hiring pool is, what kind of hours, or salary one can expect, etc.
Being informed also means knowing what you’ll be getting into. You don’t want a situation where you graduate, do your job, and learn and regret that it’s something you can’t do, don’t have the talent for, lack the connections for, etc.
Doing what you want to do is one thing, but also having the finances and stability to do it is another. Which brings me to another topic…
If you’re a liberal arts major, the chances of finding a job will be smaller than someone who has done science (in my experience). If you know that what you want to do will not lead to security (job, finances, etc), then you need to think about a Plan B, and that may mean taking up another major to augment situations where you do need to resort to diverging from your primary field of study in order to be stable.
For liberal art majors, I always recommend doing a major in science. I know that science is difficult for many, but get as close to a science as much as possible, or a least a field of study that is widely in demand and offers security.
Note: I don’t suggest you do what I do, it may not work, but for me, it’s beyond successful.
I originally did multiple majors because I wanted to maximize my chances of transferring to Stanford. However, I eventually learned that having multiple degrees was beyond beneficial since it meant that I could jump from one field to another easily.
- At Stanford, I was highly valued for my experience in computer science and psychology/sociology/social sciences. I was the only research assistant in the labs that had a combination of both backgrounds, and the other professors were jealous of my mentor because I was able to do beyond what the normal research assistant could do. Not only that, I also ended up working with Nissan, who was collaborating with the lab, writing programs for the lab’s first driving simulator for studying hypnosis.
- How I aced the interview for my current job was I was able to apply unrelated concepts into a marketing concept – I was able to draw my knowledge from bioinformatics, where I used a genetics algorithm as a hypothetical solution to their lead scoring methods.
- In my current chemistry class, I was able to use my linear algebra to come up with an algorithm to quickly solve problems found in Hess’ Law. No one has ever done it before, but it’s proving successful on every Hess problem I use it on. My professor thinks it’s really neat, although he doesn’t know how to assign points for work if it’s ever wrong since he doesn’t completely understand how I do it yet.
Be Aware a Bachelor’s Degree May Not Be the End
For certain majors, you will need at least a masters degree to do something significant. One that usually comes to mind is psychology, where if you want to do things like case studies in therapy, you will need either a masters or a Ph.D.
Be Aware Of the Salary For the Degree
Some fields of study are more valued than others. Computer engineering will average around $70-80k starting, while biological sciences may average $30-50k base (my estimates are Bay Area estimates). Think about where you will be living, the cost of living, your future debts, etc, and think if your major can ensure some semblance of security. If you’ve diversified, you can be worth significantly more since you may have the ability to solve problems in unique ways due to your knowledge in different fields.
Masters and Ph.D degrees do not differ too much in terms of salary. My experience with Ph.Ds is that having one seems to be a risk as the company thinks that they have to pay you a very high salary due to the degree you have, and as a result won’t hire you. If you want to teach at a university level, or do work in research as opposed to industry for example, you’re going to need a masters or Ph.D.
Know the Players
There are major players in every field, who I’ll term gatekeepers. They hold a lot of the keys to your entryway into a job. Steal some of these keys by knowing what they (they being a company, a person, etc) do so that you can open doors on your own.
Like Apple products and want to work for Apple? Then, understand the Apple product lineup, who are the players in the space, shortcomings the company may be facing, who or what their competition is, etc.
Know the space inside and out. Show that you know what’s going on in this area; know key people, what they do, how they’re advancing the field, etc. Find people in the area that inspire and motivate you.
Interviewers will be impressed that you have an understanding of the movers and shakers, and that you not only carry your talents, but you essentially have a general idea of how the industry works.
Sides, if you don’t know who the gatekeepers are, then how are you going to be able to let yourself in?
I can share several stories of success and failure, and I’m sure I’ve only gave half of what I’ve intended to say. Be passionate, demonstrate that you care about what you learn, show that you can apply what you’ve learned, and most of all, have a backup plan when things go wrong. Don’t be in the situation where you regret what you’ve studied, and end up going back to school or grad school to have the proper means to get the job you want.
If there are any questions I haven’t answered, or things I eventually think of, I will write a part II to this article.