Ask Alice

Are you a collegian or young professional looking for advice on a personal or professional matter? Submit your questions to “Ask Alice.” Individual members of the SWE editorial board will answer questions on a rolling basis, drawing from their own experiences, insights, and expertise.

I’m graduating from college soon. What tips do you have for managing the transition into the working world?

The transition between college or university and career is a significant period of change as you’re closing one chapter in your life and beginning a new one. Student life offers structure: The year is neatly packaged into semesters or quarters with predefined breaks, each class has a syllabus and certain learning outcomes, and you take a certain number of credits to meet your major’s graduation requirements. In contrast, there’s no road map as you enter the “adult world.” Whether you decide to pursue an industry or academic career, a government or military role, or a nonprofit job, this new stage in your life is both liberating and full of uncertainty. What will working full time be like? Will I enjoy being in a new environment? How will I make new friends? Looking back, there are a few tips that I would tell my younger self.

Bring your authentic self to work. Since you’ll be spending 8+ hours of your day in the physical or virtual work environment, be sure you can represent yourself in ways that are consistent with your core values. As you conduct your job search, remember that interviews are a two-way street. While organizations are seeking the best candidate for a given position, you are also looking for what would give you the greatest job satisfaction, financial security, and happiness at work. Aspects such as moving to a new city, travel requirements, dress code, or work hours may factor into your decision-making process. Once in the role, leverage your manager and other peers, seek out mentors, and connect with others in employee resource groups so that you can get the support you need.

Be open-minded. Your first job will most likely not be your last. Use it as an opportunity to build work experience and learn skills that help you grow professionally and personally. For example, my internships in the finance world showed me that a different industry might be a better fit, and I figured out through my first full-time position that I wanted to be in a more proactive role. In the same way that you met people from different backgrounds in school, you’ll meet an even greater variety of people in the workplace. Those diverse perspectives are excellent data points that can help you identify your own wants and needs moving forward in your career.

Work smarter, not harder. Being new is the best excuse to ask lots of questions! Take notes and learn as much as you can from your colleagues to ramp up quickly. To-do lists are my best friend, as they help me prioritize which tasks are high impact and enable my success and the success of others. At work, you are responsible for figuring out how to meet deadlines and finish your tasks, so take advantage of that flexibility to find a style that works best for you. As you develop your own style, you’ll want to be mindful of others’ communication styles. One co-worker might be more comfortable sending chat messages, while another might prefer discussing things on a quick call. Be transparent about your own preferences, but adapt when needed. This helps set expectations and makes it easier to collaborate with others. Also, spending hours in the office does not always equate to adding value, so take regular “temperature checks” of your own physical and mental health.

Embrace your passions, old and new. One of the biggest surprises after I graduated was realizing how much extra time I would have. No more studying for tests, no more working on a homework assignment, no more cramming for a group project. It was incredibly freeing! This meant I had more bandwidth to pick up new hobbies and rediscover favorite pastimes. For instance, I became more interested in playing board games outside of Monopoly and was glad to have more time to read books, as I was an avid bookworm growing up. It is a joy doing activities purely because they’re fun. Participating in activities outside of your area of focus at work has the added bonus of broadening your network, as you’ll likely connect with other people who have similar interests.

Get comfortable with failure. Not everything will work out the way you expect. Whether it’s a disagreement with a co-worker, a presentation gone wrong, or a mishap with a deliverable, failure is a normal part of life. It’s going to be OK! If it was a mistake you made, own up to it. If it was a problem caused by your team, help fix it as soon as possible and be receptive to feedback. Debrief with those involved once the dust has settled so that you can assess what happened and incorporate learnings into future projects. It’s all about how you bounce back from missteps and grow as a person. 

Wishing you all the best as you go from college to career!

Interested in Learning More?

Related content on transitioning from college to the working world can be found in SWE’s Advance Learning Center and SWE Magazine:


SWE Magazine articles

  • Ask Alice (Fall 2020, waiting for your dream job vs. gaining experience elsewhere)
  • “Call Me Maybe” (Media, Fall 2020, communicating across generations in the workplace)
  • Ask Alice (Conference 2021, making networking easier)

If you’re a collegian or young professional seeking advice on a personal or professional issue, please submit your question here:

Be on the lookout for an upcoming “Ask Alice” in the Voices and Views section of SWE Magazine.

Nicole Woon is a SharePoint program manager at Microsoft and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.S.E. (mechanical engineering) and two B.S.E.s (bioengineering, entrepreneurial management). Recognized as a SWE Distinguished New Engineer in 2021, she is an active SWE life member and currently serves on the nominating committee and the editorial board.