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Career centers across the country struggle with last-minute job searchers -- i.e., seniors and graduate and postdoctoral trainees in their final quarter or semester who need jobs right away. While students can still find options at this point, it may be too late to truly maximize their potential on the job market. When is the best time for students to start thinking about first jobs? From their first day on the campus. Well, sort of.

Students move their job search to the last minute for many reasons but especially because of stress. Early in their education, new intellectual and social challenges are enough to keep them anxious. Who wants to think about a job on top of that? Career professionals and university administrators add to job-search stress by measuring their success by how many students have jobs upon graduation and by making public all of the organizations and sectors where students’ peers work. Met with this reminder of their competition, many grad students may simply feel more comfortable thinking about a job closer to the finish line.

But instead of focusing on the job as a reward for completing their education, I encourage students to aim for a career that aligns with their values, interests and skills. Concentrating on a job is terminal, stressful and boring. Career development is long-term, constantly changing and full of possibility -- a marathon, not a sprint. Education is a part of this development, not just a means to an end.

The skill sets necessary to succeed in both college and the world beyond are similar. The classes in which a student struggles the most can teach them about their particular skill deficiencies, which they need to identify early on so they can either improve in those areas or redirect their path. Further, such classes can also help that student develop the important virtue of resilience -- a quality that leaders in today’s work force need when facing the ebb and flow of everyday social, financial and professional demands.

Obviously, curriculum content that comes with ease has an opposite effect, introducing students to their most natural skill sets and defining their “flow,” or the activities and topics that truly motivate them to keep working. Early career exploration, then, involves the student getting into the habit of reflecting after each quarter or semester on this concept of flow. Then, at the end of the year, they can determine the skills they want to develop from there.

Early college experiences outside the classroom translate into future career success, as well. Navigating roommate or lab conflicts, for example, is preparation for the myriad collaborations and negotiations that take place daily in every work environment. They provide additional insight into the types of personalities students may want to work with in the future. Seeing those experiences as building important life skills rather than as simple day-to-day interactions instills a professional mind-set, or work ethic, early on so that students feel more confident when it comes time to apply for and begin jobs.

Finally, it is never too early to start building networks. They do not have to be directly career related in the beginning. Students who reach out to more experienced students, alumni and professionals for help on projects or to discuss issues of transition within their educational area set themselves up for future job options -- but in a less daunting way.

First of all, the more connections students have when they are job searching, the easier it is, because people already recognize the name on the application. Sometimes that means recruiters and hiring managers come to students directly without those students’ needing to search for jobs in the first place. And the additional exposure to people in various sectors provides a comparison base -- allowing students to ask, for example, “Do this person’s skills and values align with mine?” That exposure helps students make better career choices in the first place, which in turn gives them more confidence in interviews, quicker acclimation to the new position and greater satisfaction while there.

If tended to early on, an awareness of one’s values and skill sets, along with connection building, can help one bridge between education and the world of work in a nonthreatening way. The definition of a success for a student doesn’t have to be finding a job right after college. In fact, perhaps the most successful thing they can do is to leverage their college experiences in and outside the classroom to intentionally decide who they are, who they want to be and what career of choice best suits their personal mission.

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