By Caroline M.L. Potter
You've spent four years pursuing a profession from the comforts of a classroom, hoping that when you earned your degree, a job offer in your chosen field would follow. But then the recession hit and job openings -- for seasoned pros and college grads alike -- grew a bit scarce.
"I was in a panel speaking with alumni from my college, and they're worried about what they're going to do after graduation," says Matt Smith from Responsible Outgoing College Students (ROCS), a small staffing and recruiting services company that helps companies find the top talent in the Washington, DC, area. "A lot of graduates are very idealistic and want a job they're going to love, but the reality may be different."
What should graduates do when their dream jobs have dried up? Read on for expert advice from Smith and others who help twentysomethings find their way.
Adjust Your Expectations
"Most people don't develop careers related to their majors anyway, and even if they want to, if the field is competitive it will probably happen gradually over time," says Alexandra Levit, author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College. "For your first position, adjust your expectations and look for something that allows you to master the transferable skills that will serve you well no matter what future path you decide to pursue."
Crack the Networking Nut
"We encourage students to figure out how to network," Smith says. "At my alma mater, George Mason University, we have a small alumni base, but 70 percent of our alumni live within 30 miles of our campus. There are a lot of young people out there in jobs, and they are very approachable. College students should go to alumni events while they're still in school to make connections early in the game."
Don't Rely Only on Resumes
"At this point in the game, just sending in a resume isn't going to do anything," Smith says. "A lot of hires are based on referrals. Reach out and call alumni. Identify people who work in your target industry or company. Offer to meet them for happy hour. Of course, don't be a dummy and get drunk, but have a drink with alumni. They want to talk to young people and connect. And if you can make a connection and get a current employee to submit your resume [to a potential employer], odds are you'll probably get an interview out of it."
Find or Create Volunteer Opportunities
"Get to know individuals employed at target organizations who are in a position to hire you as an intern/volunteer or refer you internally," Levit says. She points seekers to online and personal networks, saying, "Searching LinkedIn.com and asking your parents' friends and your college professors/internship supervisors can prove helpful in this regard."
Levit also says asking for a 30-minute informational interview about the field is more effective than asking for a job. "Once you get to know someone, you can then see if she needs a hand," she says. "It's hard to pass up free help, and once you're in the door of the organization, you're in a much better position to get a paid gig there."
Expand Your Horizons
If you don't live in a magnet city for your industry, you may need to relocate -- but don't move until you've got the job. Smith says, "If you're in a fraternity or sorority, or have family, see if you can crash on someone's couch [in another city] and do interviews for a week. If you can list this local address on your resume, that's even more ideal."
Levit doesn't recommend moving before you have a job. "This depends on your personality, but I'd recommend staying put until you have a job offer in hand and a paycheck on the way," she says. "If you have your heart set on moving sooner rather than later, then you should be prepared to take a less-desirable job to cover your living expenses while you explore your options. The last thing you need is to sink further into debt because of an impulsive decision."
A Part-Time Job Is Still a Job
Having something on your resume is better than nothing. "Taking a part-time job shows that a candidate has to pay bills and cares about personal finances, that he's motivated and hungry," Smith says. "I'd take someone who's been doing this rather than someone who has just been interviewing the whole time. It demonstrates a strong work ethic."
Make the Most of Your Current Job
If you've got a job that's "just a job," you can still use it to help you get to where you want to go. "The hardest part about being in something you don't exactly like is it that it can affect your overall performance," Smith says. "When you feel like that, look for other responsibilities to assume. See if there's another group of tasks that you can get involved with."
Tom Moore, co-CEO and founder of ROCS, agrees. "What I suggest to a lot of students is if they get any job, volunteer to organize an event so you can use your finance or other skills," he says. "Get creative where you can apply your expertise in different ways. People will notice your contributions."
Put Things in Perspective
Don't get caught in the self-pity trap if you can't find the job of your dreams just yet. "Talking to your parents and family friends about their experiences living through similarly tough times can help put things in perspective," Smith says. "There's no shame in doing what you've got to do, economically speaking."
Moore reminds seekers to keep focusing on their career passion. "Attend conferences. Keep yourself motivated by reading newspapers and blogs so you feel connected to your goal, no matter what your current job is," he says.
Have a Plan B
"A lot of students shut their minds off to certain opportunities, but you have to have an open mind and consider different possibilities," Smith says. "You may want to be in marketing, but in reality, you may not be a good marketer. However, you may be a really good salesperson. You'll never know if you don't explore all your options."
Internships Aren't Just for Undergrads
"It's never too late to do an internship," Levit reveals. "In fact, the trend is swinging older. Baby Boomers who are mid-career and using an internship as the jumping-off point to switch into a new field represent the fastest-growing population of interns."
Moore advises that if you graduate without any internships, "you're behind, but it doesn't matter if your first job is an internship. It's never too late." Smith adds that if you don't have internships, be open to temp work. "We offer students the ability to do project or temp work at companies, and many often wind up getting a full-time job offer out of it," he says.