Graduation season can be one of both opportunity and existential dread. You’re about to embark on a new chapter of your life and have seemingly endless possibilities ahead of you, whether you’re graduating from undergrad, are beginning your career straight out of high school, or have taken a non-traditional path. All that promise and potential can be just as liberating as it is terrifying.
Almost everyone has well-wishes for new college graduates, advice ranging from trite (“Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life!”) to the ill-advised (any platitude with the word “hustle” in it; anyone who recommends you sacrifice sleep to be more productive).
However, professors who actually work with students, financial experts, and people who’ve been at the crossroads of life say otherwise. Their advice for new graduates is all about relationships: your relationship with your job, your money, and yourself. If you’re looking for a little bit of guidance post-graduation, try a tip or two.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Think about work as something that supports your life, not the other way around
“Rather than think of your job as the central axis around which your post-grad life will orbit, start with your vision of a life well-lived, and then consider how your work can support that vision. There’s no shame in prioritizing your career or life outside of work — you’ll likely have seasons of each — but it’s important to be intentional about your choice. If you consider what you value and what the market values, you’ll avoid the trap that exists by over-indexing on just one.” —Simone Stolzoff, author of The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work
Remember that your job will never love you back
“A company is not your friend! Don’t be fooled at a first job into doing so much work you exhaust yourself or burn out because you’re thinking of your boss or the company as a buddy. Protect yourself and join a union if you can. Make sure you’re getting all you can from the job: 401(k) matching, HR benefits, anything they offer. It’s for you. Do not be afraid to ask and get.” —Gabe Dunn, host of the podcast Bad With Money
Consider how you’ll make a mark on the world
“‘Find your purpose in life’ is a common refrain at graduation ceremonies. If only it were that simple. A purpose in life is cultivated, not found. We cultivate purpose by taking the time to consider what we want out of our lives. What do we hope to accomplish? What matters to us? We cultivate purpose by reflecting on our strengths. What special skills or talents do we possess? What do we enjoy doing? We cultivate purpose by considering how we want to give back. How do we want to contribute? How do we want to leave our mark?
“Reflecting on these questions is a process rather than a one-time event, and it takes time. If we remain attentive, though, we will begin to notice that the answers to these questions draw us in a consistent direction, a direction that allows us to contribute to the world in a personally meaningful way. The world desperately needs the skills we each have to offer.” —Kendall Cotton Bronk, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University
Have constant conversations about money
“Ask for a raise annually. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Talk to your friends about money. We’ve been told for far too long that it is rude, tacky, and taboo to talk about how much we make, how much we spend, and whether or not we invest. But staying silent only benefits corporations — not us. You know your BFF’s deepest, darkest secret, why don’t you know how much they get paid?” —Vivian Tu, former Wall Street trader, personal finance expert, and host of the podcast Networth and Chill
Accept that plans will change
“The advice that I wish I’d taken — and still remind myself of every day, if we’re being honest — is staying open to the idea that your path, your interests, your needs, and your ambitions will change. And that’s a good thing. There can be a lot of pressure to find the ‘right’ path and stick to that plan, so venturing off a so-called track is spun as failure rather than growth or curiosity. Sometimes it’s not giving up, it’s changing direction. It’s not failing at a dream, it’s meeting a new version of yourself and embracing new ones. Letting yourself change ensures your work and ambition grow as you do. And it means that doing what you can, and learning as you go, is enough.” —Rainesford Stauffer, author of All The Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive
Continue your education at the University of You
“When faced with the seemingly endless abyss of your post-grad future, break up that future into smaller ‘semesters’ and decide for yourself what the focus of each semester will be for you. Speaking up more in meetings? Taking a creative writing class? Pivoting your career? Spending time with family and friends? One of the hardest things about life after school is figuring out what you want to be doing with your life, and not just what others — parents, professors, coaches — have mapped out for you.
“The sudden disappearance of the structure of school creates a vacuum. If you don’t designate goals for yourself and your life, you will get sucked into someone else’s goals and end up living someone else’s life. So create your own curriculum at the University of You, and whenever someone makes you feel like you’re doing life wrong, just remember that they’re in another major at another school.” —Cece Xie, privacy and tech lawyer, lecturer at Yale, and author of the forthcoming book Big Bad Law
Don’t compare yourself with others at work
“My first piece of advice has to do with your mindset: Remember that the only competition you have at work is with yourself. My second piece of advice is understanding that comparison is the thief of joy. You and your colleagues might work at the same place, but you have your own goals, dreams, and values. I suggest that you give yourself permission to take the time to assess what your career goals are in this season of your life. Be careful and intentional with the stories you tell yourself, because sometimes we put pressure on ourselves to over-perform.” —Minda Harts, workplace equity consultant and author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table
Set a budget immediately
“It might be exciting to enter the corporate world and have a salary, but it’s never too early to learn how your compensation breaks down into net versus gross income. Be sure to implement a budget so you know that you have enough money to cover all your expenses and save some for a rainy day (read: unexpected emergencies and fun adventures). There are plenty of budgeting formats and ideas, so try them out to see what works best for you.” —Alyssa Mairanz, founder of the online platform and e-course Adulting in the Real World
Break larger goals into smaller ones
“As you prepare to graduate, please know that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the sudden shift into a career and the pressure to have everything together. The key is to break down the big picture into smaller, more achievable snapshots. As soon as you get out of bed in the morning, ask yourself, ‘What’s one thing I can do today to bring me closer to my goal?’ By committing to one small task at a time, you’ll be building up your mental muscles while you make progress. Over time, you’ll find it easier to make better choices that support your dreams.” —Joanna Grover, co-author of The Choice Point: The Scientifically Proven Method to Push Past Mental Walls and Achieve Your Goals