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You've Graduated, Now What?

Regina Cash-Clark -- Frozen in a holding pattern regarding your future? Not ready to give up, but not exactly sure as to where to begin? The key is getting ahead before falling behind. Here are five ideas for optimizing your gifts and talents as you secure your first job.

If you're a recent or soon-to-be college grad without a job offer or a plan, the pressure is on. You may feel overwhelmed by now as classmates prepare for careers while you see no offers, or future, in sight. The reality is that the job market has improved since the economic downturn reared its ugly head, but it's still highly competitive out there.

Let's be honest. There are some fields where job stability seems like a given and new recruits are always in demand, areas like computer science, medicine, engineering. Then there are the creative pursuits, often the paths less traveled by the upwardly-mobile minded. Consumer Reports touted the "100 Best Jobs" as a preview of jobs to come, and let's just say the fine arts didn't make the top ten...or eleven...or thirty. And as a full-time professor who teaches Writing, I find students can feel intimidated by such data, and rightly so. The key, in my opinion, anyway, is getting ahead before falling behind.

So, maybe you're frozen in a holding pattern, not ready to give up but not exactly sure as to where to begin. Before that cap and gown have a chance to collect dust, I have a few quick suggestions that might at least lighten your mental load. Here are five ideas for optimizing your gifts and talents as you secure your first gig--I mean, job.

1. Know your strengths.

That seems simple enough, right? Almost condescending. Yet it should give you enough pause to consider taking an honest look at your strengths vs. weaknesses. If you want to work for a major national magazine but your grammar is not up to par, you may want to consider working (or even volunteering) for a small local publication, perhaps a newsletter or free community newspaper. And that leads me to suggestion #2...

2. Start small.

Now I didn't say think small--aren't all of us creative types dreamers, anyway?--I said start small. You don't have to seek out a Fortune 500 company to get your career off the ground, or even to make it big. Look for local and smaller market opportunities. And prepare to move around. You may have to relocate to another city, or even another state, in order to take advantage of a great opportunity. I say go for it while you can. Take the job. Celebrate your independence. Cherish the victory. Hey, a small victory is a victory, nonetheless.

3. Do something.

So the job hunt isn't going exactly how you'd expected. Your job leads have steered only to dead ends and your freshly-framed diploma is beginning to look more like a bookend. Consider some age-old advice: yes, do something. I've said it before, to students and new grads. You can volunteer for an organization or a non-profit, find a full- or part-time internship, start your own little enterprise. Find something that will allow you to continue to build your skill set and network at the same time. Even if you're not getting paid for the day-to-day work, the experience and connections could prove priceless.

4. Make a splash!

Or, to use a cliché, knock 'em dead, kid. Translation: whatever you do, make sure you go above and beyond the norm. Get noticed. If you're one of several interns, make sure you leave your mark. Give enough extra effort that your name begins to ring a bell for your supervisor. And make sure that when you do accomplish something big, you document it somehow; for starters, you can include it in your portfolio as well as your LinkedIn profile (as long as it's not confidential information, of course). Now documenting doesn't mean dancing in the halls shouting, "Look at me! Look at what I did!" No, I wouldn't take it that far. It means letting your work and work ethic speak for themselves. You're not trying to show up your peers or superiors; that could prove disastrous. Instead, you're striving to give 100-plus percent, each and every time. Period.

5. Stay connected.

I've seen hundreds of students come and go over the ten-plus years that I've taught at Ramapo College within the Writing concentration, but only a select few have kept in touch. I make sure to tell my seniors every year, "Stay in touch," and "Keep me posted on your progress," among other things. Yet only a handful will do that. They are the ones who seek out letters of recommendation, references and even employment advice. They are the ones I'll remember most and feel comfortable talking up to prospective employers. And it doesn't take a lot. Just a LinkedIn note or an email here or there. It's not for my benefit, it's for theirs. So, work your first network: stay connected to instructors, past employers and even classmates. One of them could sit in a boardroom ten years from now.

Regina Cash-Clark is a writer and an associate professor of journalism who teaches courses in writing and journalism as a full-time college professor.

© 2016 Regina Cash-Clark

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