By the end of college, you’re an expert in education. Not only in the field you majored in, but in how to succeed in class. You know how to navigate grades, how to get the professor to like you, even what pen you prefer to use to take notes.
But when you start your first job, you’re leaving the structure of education to learn a whole new system. You have to learn how work works: when to ask off, how to ask for a promotion, if you want a promotion, how much food you really need to buy to feed yourself, what your salary means, even what’s appropriate to talk about in the break room.
This post is for college students who are transitioning to the 9 to 5 p.m. Here are a few things to keep in mind when the going gets tough.
On one of my first few days of my job, I called my mom crying. I was excited about my position and my company, but there was just so much to learn—I didn’t think I could ever catch up. It seemed like it would take months, even years, before I could even produce something that would help my team.
I know now that this feeling isn’t so unusual; it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unproductive in the first few weeks of a new job. For starters, college students are often around the same age, so everyone has a relatively similar amount of experience in school. But in the business world, you might be working with a coworker who’s been in your division for two decades—so catching up just takes time.
After I finished sniffling, my mom explained (very kindly) that a career isn’t college. You can’t grind it out 24/7 until suddenly you have fifty years of work experience under your belt. Instead, she suggested, try learning something new every day.
In the first few months (or even years) of your job, there’s an expectation that you might not produce a lot for your company—your job is to learn. So take the excuse of being new to meet everyone you can, sit in on meetings, and soak in as much information as possible without worrying too much about what you’re producing.
If you were a high performing college student, this is a pretty weird feeling—you’re not going to get an “A” or sometimes even feedback. But that doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job, I promise.
College students have pretty strange schedules compared to the rest of the population: studying till 2 a.m., scarfing down Waffle House at 2:15 a.m., and waking up at 7:55 a.m. to run to an 8 a.m. class. Regardless of your specific schedule, coming from college, your body probably isn’t used to the regularity of the 9 to 5 p.m. So even though you know you need to wake up at 7 a.m., you might find yourself having a hard time falling asleep at a reasonable hour.
I found this physical transition to be extra tricky, and it took me months to figure out how to set a bedtime, how to eat foods that made me feel good during work, and how to take productive breaks. So give yourself a break; your body needs time to adjust to your schedule.
Plus, you also have to learn how to work at specific times of day. In school, I was wired to start studying in the evenings. So sometimes after work, I would open up my laptop and keep working on a project. But as the weeks went on, I realized that whenever I tried to do some work in the evenings, waking up the next morning was a little tougher. In order to do great work while I was at work, I had to learn how to rest during the evenings.
Taking it easy after work (and getting home at a reasonable time) isn’t just a mushy gushy suggestion—it’s vital to succeeding at your job. Of course, every company has different expected schedules. Once you find out when most people on your team are leaving, head home too. It’s okay to work a little harder the first few weeks of your job, but creating a work-life balance is ultimately what will take you from a good employee to a great one.
Renting an apartment, managing your bills, and starting to budget all take a lot of time. Many students are doing several, if not all, of these tasks while in school. But even a move to a new apartment or house can make the start of a new job logistically tricky.
So, first check out NPR’s lifekit! They have great episodes on simple things, like setting a bedtime or keeping habits. If you have money questions, check out nerdwallet for all things budgeting and finance.
Also, learn how to set goals. When you switch into a 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. career, the goals you’re reaching for can become a lot more ambiguous. In college, for example, my goal was to graduate. There were tangible awards and markers that let me know that I was reaching that goal. Out of school, I knew I wasn’t ready to do some of the standard markers of success: buy a new car, have a baby, or go to grad school, so at first I had to spend time figuring out what my new goals were.
There’s tons of advice out there on the right moves to take and goals to set right out of school. But all in all, try your hardest not to compare yourself to others. In your first few years out of school, you’re meant to start making your own decisions, defining your own goals, and then making plans to reach them.
And remember, if you were successful in school, you’re statistically very likely to be a rockstar at work. Don’t worry if it’s taking you some time. The transition is hard, so give yourself a pat on the back. You’re doing great!