Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

From student potential to employee performance: The postgraduate paradigm shift

Through senior year of college, the fortunate among us grow up in environments where others generally have our interests at heart and want us to learn and develop. While exceptions exist, parents, teachers, professors and friends typically care about us and want us to develop and succeed as productive members of society. Being a student is about growing one’s own potential.

Full-time employment changes everything. You take on a new primary occupation (employee) and typically discover that your employer cares less about your potential and much more about your job performance. This is not a bad thing, because good job performance keeps trains running, shelves stocked and the Internet connected. But it does mean that your relationship with your post-college employer will be different from your relationship with any school where you have studied.

Schools’ incentives are generally aligned with students, because the better the students do, the better the school tends to do and vice versa. In contrast, employer/employee incentives can become misaligned. While some employers get ahead by growing their employees to become maximally productive, others achieve productivity squeezing their employees like oranges. You cannot assume that your employer will always be on your side.

What is more, as an outside applicant it can be hard to tell whether an organization will be a good career fit because organizations are heterogeneous. Hyper-local factors, like your direct manager, matter incredibly. Often you cannot totally figure out whether you have found a good niche until you have been on the job for three months. As such, after college it becomes critical to strategize your future moves (where to play & how to win), care for yourself (define & manage non-negotiables like sleep and nutrition) and stay vigilant (discern & chart a course towards a promising future) more actively than ever before.

If you are studying full time right now and this dynamic seems overwhelming, no worries. Billions of people have handled it. You can, too. As a starting mental framework for navigating into a positive and productive career environment, consider these two principles:

  1. You are responsible for your own happiness.
  2. The minimum price of your loyalty to your employer is upskilling and career advancement.

The first principle admits to yourself that you have the agency to keep exploring, learning and charting your chosen path in the world. If a job is not working for you, you can choose to try to grow it, make do or move on. This can feel a little bit scary, but it becomes reality for every full-time working professional. Previously you traveled as a ship’s passenger. Welcome now to the thrilling, compelling captain’s chair, the unbridled essence of living in a free society! The captain can set a course and sail anywhere soon as they take responsibility for their ship. You choose.

The second principle reminds you to look out for your own interests at a basic level. In exchange for your scarce labor, time and results every day at work, your employer needs to offer you upskilling opportunities so that you can keep up as the economy evolves. Otherwise, your skills will stagnate, others will outcompete you and you will lose economic freedom and earnings power. Similarly, your employer needs to offer paths to career advancement. Without paths to advancement, one of the following must be true: the firm will decline because its better employees will leave, the firm’s business model is based on short-term employees or both. In any case, it will not be in your interest to work there for long.

As a student, it is easy to internalize that you need to cooperate, collaborate and always serve others first because everyone around you is typically focused on maximum student learning. But employer/employee incentives are different: they can be misaligned. Exploitative business models do exist in the world. You deserve better, so be on the lookout. Trust but verify. If you find yourself unhappy and working in a dead-end job where you are delivering but not developing, you owe it to yourself to start to look elsewhere. If that happens, it will not be easy, but take heart that you will not be alone. You can always reach out to your undergraduate network for support. You can also retool with a professional master’s or other advanced degree. Millions of us have; some of us even do it twice.

Hal Beresford graduated from Carleton College in 2006 with a degree in mathematics and joined the Peace Corps. Since returning, he has earned master’s degrees in public policy and business administration while navigating a career in data analytics and finance. He works in Cincinnati as a senior finance manager and believes in the talent of every Carl.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *