Congratulations on your graduation! Earning your college degree is a major accomplishment. Your degree will be a helpful stepping stone to other life achievements. Whether life after graduation means more education or starting your career, you'll need to make the significant decision of what to do after college. Here's our guide to navigating the critical post-graduate transition as smoothly as possible.
Your next career step: job or graduate school
Many careers require a graduate degree, so you may not have much of a choice if you have a specific career path in mind. But you may also take the plunge into graduate studies because you're passionate about continuing your education or you want to get a leg up on the competition. You may also decide to go straight to graduate school because you have the time for it now — in the future, other commitments like family or career could hinder your ability to go back to school. It may also be easier to relocate directly after completing your undergraduate degree.
If you decide to go the job-hunting route, the most important piece of advice is to develop a job-search strategy. You will not be successful just "winging it."
Your next life decision: choosing a career
Once you've decided to enter the workforce, you may not be sure of a career path to pursue — like many other recent grads. Even if you have a pretty good idea of where you're headed, leave room to change your mind. Career experts predict the average person will switch careers (not jobs) four to five times over his or her lifetime.
So where to start? You can begin by finding your life's passion — or at least your current life passion. Take our Workplace Values Assessment to better understand the values you cherish most.
Leverage your on-campus college resources. Career services centers are specialists in helping students with these kinds of questions, and positioning your school work, activities and internships to make you appealing to potential employers.
If you majored in a subject that you loved, but you're not sure how to build a career from it (or you simply have no real career focus), head over to our Career Exploration section, where you'll find useful tools and resources to help you with career choices and direction.
Your next place to live: moving home or getting an apartment
If you're a recent grad who planned to move into an apartment in a distant city but abruptly changed your plans to move back home, you're not alone. It wasn't your first choice, but for some unemployed graduates, it's the only option. Where will you live after graduation?
Living at home — if you have the option — certainly has its advantages:
- Low (or no) rent
- Home-cooked meals
- Access to laundry
- Utilities included
The downside? You're back in your parents' home, which means even though you are now an adult, your folks and siblings will probably still see you as the same kid you used to be.
It's natural to fall back into old living patterns, and college students aren't exempt from that. You may find yourself relying on your parents for tasks you should be able to accomplish on your own, such as cooking or cleaning. For some helpful advice on moving home after school, check out 10 Tips for Moving Back In with Your Parents After College.
Living in an apartment, either by yourself or with some roommates, has its perks as well:
- Freedom to do what you want
- Privacy (up to a point)
- A sense that you are really an adult
The downside? Living on your own can be expensive, especially if you're still looking for work or making an entry-level wage (and even more so if you want to live in one of America's most expensive cities, like San Francisco or New York). If you choose apartment living, consider each of these factors carefully:
- Where you want to live
- What kinds of amenities you want (laundry facilities, parking, etc.)
- How much you can afford to pay per month
- Age of residents in the complex
- Lease terms and additional costs
Your next home town: staying nearby or moving away
Regardless of whether you move back with your parents, stay in town or move across the country, you'll need to take care of some important issues when you leave campus.
- Update your address. Change your address with the post office, credit card companies, student loan providers and magazines. You'll also need to change (or get a new) driver's license, car registration and voter registration.
- Find new services and amenities. Locate banks or credit unions, public transportation, post offices, grocery stores, malls, movie theatres, restaurants, places of worship and gas stations. Learn about your new neighborhood and the surrounding areas.
- Plug in. Get connected to your new community. You can subscribe to the local newspaper, join a community or civic organization (both for volunteering and for networking), and find your local alumni association club.
For help with relocation, check out our extensive Job Seeker Relocation Resources. And if you're moving without a job lined up, you'll want to read New City, New Job: How to Conduct a Long-Distance Job Search.
Your next budgeting issue: new car or paying off existing debts
The most important lesson in post-college money management is that your paycheck will always be smaller than you think it will be, and your expenses will always be higher than you imagine they will be.
If you've never had to plan a budget, now may be the time to do so:
- Start with your net income, which means the money left over after withholdings like taxes and social security come out of your gross pay.
- Next, add up your essential bills: rent, health insurance, utilities, internet, cell phone, transportation, medications and food. Subtract those from the amount above.
- Finally, subtract credit card payments, student loan payments and any other loan payments.
What you have left is your discretionary income, which you can use for savings, investing, and entertaining.
The average college student graduates with a student loan debt of about $33,000, and it's even higher for graduate students. Many college grads leave school with high credit card debt as well. Supporting yourself and paying back debts on an entry-level salary can feel like a tightrope walk, where any extra expense could lead to financial disaster. You'll need to plan very carefully.
Your next financial goal: investing for the future
Many baby boomers learned the value of investing too late in life. The earlier you start putting money aside for retirement, the more money you'll have once you retire. Or better yet, you'll be able to retire sooner.
But it's not just retirement savings you'll need to account for. You should be saving and investing for future major purchases, such as cars and houses. Your employer may offer some retirement and investing options, such as 401Ks and a stock purchase plan, but you should also explore the independent options available to you.
Once you've allocated money for your future, go ahead and spend a little. Whether you go out for a nice meal or take a vacation with friends — you'll enjoy it more knowing that you're making wise financial decisions.
Your next insurance policy: health, auto, life, apartment
Now that you're out on your own, it's time to make some decisions about insurance. There are advantages to obtaining different types of insurance; just be sure you choose your insurance plans wisely.
Most employers offer health and life insurance for full-time employees — and experts recommend taking advantage of the group rates you can get through your employer. Under flex plans, the company deducts these costs from your paycheck before taxes, saving you more money and ensuring that your premium always gets paid.
And, of course, if you drive a car, you'll need car insurance. But what about apartment or renter's insurance? Apartment insurance policies protect the contents of your apartment in the event of damage or disaster. Monthly premiums are usually affordable, and these plans offer peace of mind.
Your next concern: dealing with career success or struggles
Now, back to your career. Just as first impressions are critical in the application and interview process, your first days on the job will go a long way toward establishing your reputation with your boss and co-workers. You'll want to prepare yourself for dealing with:
- Office politics
- Dealing with good and bad bosses and coworkers
- Marketing yourself within the organization
You should also consider finding a mentor to help you navigate workplace and career decisions. Some companies sponsor mentorship programs, or you can find one through professional organizations in your area. Read our article, Moving Up the Ladder: 10 Strategies for Getting Yourself Promoted, for some ways to get ahead.
As you consider what to do after graduating college, remember that a job is only a job. You may find the position of your dreams right out of school, but it's more likely you'll find a decent job and build from there. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself — or on your job — to be perfect. Hopefully, your career will be a long one, full of accomplishments, growth and many adventures along the way.