School’s Out

Kristine Hayes

THIS TIME OF YEAR, nightly news shows often feature a montage of clips from various commencement and graduation speeches. The speakers, mostly well-known business people, politicians and celebrities, dish out anecdotes and inspirational words to hordes of newly minted college graduates.

If I were ever invited to speak at a commencement, I’d offer a more commonsense approach, sharing some of the insights I’ve gained from working in higher education for more than two decades. In particular, here are five tips I’d give to young graduates venturing into “adulting”:

1. Realize you probably don’t know what you’re good at. Also realize you don’t really know what you want to do with the rest of your life.

I started my college career as a journalism major who hated science. When I was forced to take a biology course to fulfill a graduation requirement, I discovered I was fascinated by the field of genetics. I switched my major to biology, but swore I’d never work in a laboratory. One unpaid internship later, I discovered I was not only good at lab work, but also enjoyed it. Now, I’ve been working in labs for most of my adult life—but when I was 20-years-old, it was a career that wasn’t even on my radar.

According to some studies, nearly half of college graduates don’t work in the field their degree is in. To make matters worse, nearly 45% of college graduates may be underemployed, working at a job that doesn’t require a college degree at all. My advice: Take advantage of various career and learning opportunities as they arise. They might just lead you on a career path you never dreamed of.

2. Get an education—just not too much. Studies continue to show that a college degree leads to significantly higher lifetime earnings. But the statistics may be starting to change. With the increasing cost of a college education, a four-year-degree no longer comes with the guaranteed payoff it had just a few decades ago.

Too many students seem to think that, even though they hated sitting in a classroom for the first 12 years of their education, they’ll suddenly love it when they go to college. Nothing could be further from the truth, and many end up dropping out. Millions of Americans are saddled with student debt, but no degree to show for it.

My advice: Consider alternatives like trade schools, apprenticeships, community college certificate programs and the military. All offer pathways to rewarding and financially stable jobs. The best part: Most of them cost a fraction of the tab for a four-year degree.

3. Follow your passion, but do it as a hobby. I admit I’ve contemplated trying to turn my hobbies into a career. Who wouldn’t love to earn a living doing what they consider their passion? But once your hobby becomes your job, it will likely cease to be your passion. Instead, it’ll probably turn into a stress-filled, 18-hour-a-day job as you struggle to stay afloat, build a business and make money.

The cold, hard truth is only about 35% of small businesses survive more than a decade. My advice: Find a job you enjoy and a hobby you love. Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Dare to dream about retiring early and then save the money to make it happen. Once you leave the workforce, you’ll have nothing but time to pursue all the activities you love.

4. Learn to cook. I’m no gourmet chef, but I can read a recipe and create something reasonably tasty from a few simple ingredients. The few times a year when I go out to eat, I’m usually disappointed with the food I get and astonished by the cost.

My advice: Invest in some good cookware and a couple of good cookbooks. Learn how to shop for groceries on a budget. Once you’ve become familiar with the price of common food items, you’ll realize the restaurant meal you just paid $25 for contained just $3 of ingredients.

5. Examine all benefits of a job. It took working nearly 20 years at my current job for my salary to double. I’ll probably never come close to making a six-figure salary. But I’ve had jobs with fabulous retirement benefits and I’ve had jobs where working less than 40-hours-a-week was still considered fulltime. At my current job, my dogs can accompany me to work every day—a huge benefit when it comes to raising and training a puppy.

My advice: Don’t just consider the salary when examining a potential job. Factor in retirement benefits, paid time-off and any other perks that come with the position. While it’s the salary that pays the monthly bills, often it’s the benefits that make a job desirable and worthwhile in the long run.

Kristine Hayes’s previous articles for HumbleDollar include Six Years LaterState of Change and A Better Trade. Kristine enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and her two corgis.

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