Learning for Life: transitioning from college to work

On July 7th 2012, I scanned a one-way ticket to Seattle, boarded the plane, and prepared to move into an apartment with someone I met on Facebook. Graduating from college and moving into the next phase of life is both scary and exciting, full of risks and rewards. For me, it involved accepting a job at Boeing in Everett, WA without ever having traveled to the West Coast.

When I stepped off the plane, the first thing I noticed was the chill in the air. Even though it was warm out, I still felt cold. Up until this point, I had spent my entire life on the East Coast, growing up in Pennsylvania and attending the University of Virginia (U.Va.), where summers were hot and humid. Both my family and close friends, my support network, resided on the east coast.

Nevertheless, accepting the risks of the unknown and moving across the country was exhilarating. Building my life in Seattle from the ground up was a challenge, but as an engineer, I framed it as a problem to solve. During the first few weeks of Seattle life before starting my job, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to learn about my new city and make new friends. I remember walking to a nearby restaurant to have dinner by myself since my apartment and fridge were still empty, and my obvious discomfort with the situation was eased by the waiter who sat and talked with me when I mentioned that I was new to town. That night, I remember feeling reassured with my decision to move across the country since I had made my first friend. This break between work and school proved to be essential in adapting to the new environment, reducing the anxiety that accompanied starting my job.

On my first day of full-time work, I arrived ready to innovate. I quickly realized that school and industry operate at much different paces. A project at school might last a few weeks, whereas a project at work might last years depending on the product life cycle. In college, many students research cutting edge topics and use state-of-the-art software. Industry does not move as fast, especially highly regulated industries that are governed by strict requirements. It is important to manage your expectations before entering the work force; one way to do this is to speak with a current employee in a similar job role before starting the job.

Even though I did well in all of my college classes, I feared that I would not know how to apply the knowledge to real world problems. The beauty of engineering is that it is ever evolving, and what you learn in school is a foundation for learning more. The majority of my job involves Finite Element Analysis, which I learned completely on the job with the help of great mentors and strong teamwork. I have supplemented on the job learning with formal coursework, like the project management certificate course series I took at U.W.

The results of your hard work have different consequences in the college world vs. the work world as well. In college, getting a problem wrong might lead to a bad grade, but in the real world, getting a problem wrong might jeopardize safety, yield certification issues, or cost the company time and money. This is another reason why the pace of the working world is slower, to thoroughly check the engineering work.

Entering the working world provides more than a job; it provides experience which proves to be more important than your degree with time, laying the foundation for future career opportunities. I am looking to move onto the next step in my career and am learning that the experience I have gotten in the first 5 years of my career opens doors to some jobs but not for others. Pursue experiences both at work and outside volunteer opportunities that are in line with long term career goals.

Other than the work itself, the biggest transition from school to work was the lifestyle. At U.Va., my days were full of activities, from school to sports to leading club meetings. At work, the majority of my day is sedentary, working on the computer for long periods of time. I missed the diverse lifestyle that college offered, so I tried to replicate it in my free time. I joined a soccer team, joined the Society of Women Engineers, and volunteered teaching after school math and science. As a bonus, these activities helped me make new friends in an unfamiliar place.

As you transition from college to work, keep an open mind – open to new people, perspectives, and experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask for help because as a new college graduate, you are not expected to know everything nor need to know everything. A career is a long journey that thrives on continuous learning through strong relationships and adapting along the way.

By Grace Lefebure
Grace Lefebure