When I graduated from college in 2005, I was disappointed to discover that the Venn diagram between Stuff I Liked to Do and Stuff People Would Pay Me to Do contained very little overlap. Today, I understand that this is a totally normal predicament—especially when you’re in the beginning stages of your career. The important thing is to find ways to do the stuff you like regardless.
My advice to new graduates is to waste no time in carving out space for the things that make you happy. If you have fun cooking, start a YouTube channel that documents your experiments with eating on the cheap. If you like drawing comics, volunteer to teach a course for kids at a local after-school program. This is how you’ll get the experience you need to (maybe!) get paid for stuff you like doing, and meet people who are interested in the same stuff as you.
Don’t worry too much about about how all of these activities are going to add up in the long run. The most important thing I learned in my 20s is that one thing leads to another. I started a feminist pop-culture blog with my friends, which gave me the informal training (and the confidence) I needed to submit to bigger publications. I moved to a new town and joined a community garden, which introduced me to a network of people who were passionate about food and the environment. There’s not always a direct payoff, but there’s only upside to pursuing activities that interest you.
In reflecting on what I wish I’d known at 21, I got curious about what advice my wise Quartz colleagues might have to offer. Here are our newsroom’s top tips for new graduates—and for anyone else who’s pondering a fresh start.
Don’t go overboard at Ikea
My advice would be to travel light until you find the apartment (and city) you really like—don’t just buy a bunch of cheap furniture that you’ll throw out when you inevitably move the next year. Moving is expensive and awful enough as it is, trying to move furniture that you don’t really need or like will only add to your misery.
If you live in New York, never underestimate the importance of proximity to a washer and dryer. Assuming you are not a) a millionaire b) the luckiest person on earth, you probably won’t have one en suite, but definitely make sure there is one on your block, or in your basement. Related: Wash your sheets. It’s a small thing that seems annoying in the moment but which dramatically improves your home life. And makes you feel like an adult.
Lastly, invest in a good blazer. Whether you identify as male, female or in-between, a good blazer is the kind of clothing staple that you can modify a dozen different ways depending on the situation: Job interview? Check. Dinner date? Check. Just need a little confidence boost this week? Check. — Meredith Bennett-Smith, deputy editor, geopolitics
Keep your syllabi
As you flee campus for the wider world, don’t forget to take your syllabi—those listings of reading assignments and discussion agendas distributed by your professors. Such academic ephemera may not seem handy, but in a few years, you’ll half-remember an idea you need from a book whose title you can’t recall. Now you’ll be able to track it down. If you need to reach a former prof for a recommendation, you’ll have a record of your intellectual engagement, so you can say something more appealing than “Remember me from Econ 102?” And it’s a healthy practice to simply revisit the key works that shaped your worldview as time goes by—you’ll be surprised at what you remember and what you never picked up on. —Tim Fernholz, reporter
Start saving money … like, now
Putting your cash towards anything other than rent, food, student loans, and bar-hopping might seem crazy at this point in your life, but trust me: It’s never too early to start socking money away. Pick a manageable dollar figure—it can be small!—and start tucking that into a high-interest savings account each month. Better yet, transfer it from your checking account automatically. If your company has a retirement plan that you can participate in, go for it, especially if they match your contributions. And even if not, you can open an IRA, which will also let you save money before taxes. Having short-term savings is a helpful buffer when something unpredictable happens (root canal, anyone?), and saving for retirement is a long process that you might as well kick off early. Trust me, your 75-year-old self will thank you. —Kira Bindrim, editor, Talent Lab
Remember that your education is only beginning
That last round of finals may be over, but there is still an infinite amount of studying to be done—learning to balance a budget, to hunt for the perfect apartment, to cook for yourself, to negotiate a job offer, and the list of the unlearned goes on and on.
The wonderful news is that you don’t have to buy any more $200 textbooks to figure any of this out. Free resources abound: YouTube tutorials and Reddit forums (take a look at r/eatcheapandhealthy, r/fitness, and r/personalfinance, to start) are an excellent way to learn immensely beneficial habits that you may’ve never realized you needed before graduation. Sites like Coursera and Khan Academy are treasure troves for anything you might want to know, from the mundane (how to do your taxes) to the extraordinarily niche (the entire history of Tibetan Buddhism). The biggest mistake you can make is believing that school has taught you everything—or even anything at all. — Amy Wang, reporter
Master the art of the networking email
I don’t exactly remember what emails I sent out through my school’s online alumni network when I was first looking for a job, but I’m pretty sure they were terrible. Nowadays, I get emails from recent graduates myself from time to time, and they often make me cringe. Here are a few pointers:
- Don’t take radio silence personally. People are busy, and you’re probably the last thing on their minds. If you don’t get a response, it’s fine to follow up—but don’t nag or act entitled.
- Do your research before hitting send. I’ve been asked about topics that are totally unrelated to my experience, because the senders clearly hadn’t paid attention to my bio or my work.
- Don’t ask right away for a job referral. The other person doesn’t know you yet. Ask them for advice in your chosen field, and tell them about yourself.
- Ask specific questions. I once got this inquiry: “What is the future of journalism?” This is the kind of question that’s both impossible to answer and irrelevant to job-hunting. Instead, ask questions that relate to your own experience or that of the alumni.
- Don’t be too formal. This may be a personal preference, but if you see the other person graduated recently—say, within the last five years—don’t go with “Ms. Kozlowska.” “Hanna” is more personal, and it won’t make alumni feel ancient. — Hanna Kozlowska, reporter
Don’t fret too much about your first job
As a new graduate, you may be convinced that the first job determines your career. It does not.
I know because after finishing a PhD in chemistry, I decided I wanted to completely change fields and become a journalist. I had entered unchartered waters, and I did not know anyone who had made the same transition to help me navigate. The advice I did get was mixed, and it only left me more confused.
For me, the process of getting to my current position wasn’t straightforward. I took an internship, then chose a job that I knew I would enjoy, but wasn’t a perfect fit. A few years later, I did land the ideal job that I’d hoped for when I first made the transition to journalism.
Regardless of what you studied, the skills you gain at university can be put to immediate use in many jobs that could all lead to successful careers. So when you look for your first job, look for a place that you feel excited about, and don’t worry too much about career progression. As a new graduate, you can take risks that you wouldn’t be able to later into your career or life. — Akshat Rathi, reporter
Go ahead and wing it
I recently read a great interview between New York Magazine’s Matt Zoller-Seitz and Damon Lindelof, the creator of television hits Lost and The Leftovers. (I haven’t extensively watched either series, but found this conversation to contain some poignant truths about life and loss.) Lindelof acknowledged experiencing some backlash when viewers sense that he’s making up a show’s plot as it goes along.
“Of course we’re making it up as we go along,” he said. “It’s possible to both be making things up as you go along and have a plan at the same time … Look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m making things up as I go along and I have a plan.’ And guess what, you just told the truth.”
“Anybody who has a plan for their life and everything is going according to that plan? Please, please, let’s have a chat. I want to know your secret,” he continues. “Because that’s just not life. I mean, that’s not the way I see life.”
That’s not really the way I see life either. I’ve been winging it with a pretty broad flight plan for the 14 years since I graduated from college. It’s taken me to places I couldn’t have imagined (in a good way). When we’re too myopically focused on a prescribed path, we might be blind to a new opportunity, or some interesting fork in the road. When it comes to a career, I think the key to navigating this successfully has to do with knowing, deep down, what kind of work satisfies you and feeds you, what you want to express, and what you really value. I’ve actually written down broad answers to the questions like these in a notebook: What are you really interested in? What are you happiest doing? What kind of people do you want to be around? What’s your ideal workplace look like? What about your home? You might find what you’re looking for in a wide array of unexpected places. That’s certainly been the case for me. — Jenni Avins, reporter