Unlearning what you learned in school

By Ray DePaul

Spoiler alert: What made you successful in university may not work in your career.

When I entered the university world four years ago, I was struck with how different the environment was compared to the private sector where I spent the previous 25 years. But this isn't one of those rants about how we have to change our education system. I simply want to point out some obvious adjustments new grads will have to make if they enter the private sector.

  1. You don't get to set the quality target. Remember that course where you were heading into the final project with an 'A+' and decided that a 'C' on the project would net you your goal of a 'B+' overall? That calculation won't work after graduation. Your boss/customer/investor decides the level of quality and they almost always demand an 'A'.
  2. There's no answer book.There is often no right answer. In fact, I would argue that if there is a well-known process to achieve an unambiguous correct answer, then that job will be automated in the not too distant future. The harder tasks, left to us humans, is to find an imperfect solution to a fuzzy goal with countless constraints and tradeoffs.
  3. No one lays out a path for you. No one decides what you need to learn to move forward. They don't package it into neat courses and programs and stamp a seal of approval on you. You have to figure out your own path, and your own destination. And you will never hear the term rubric again. You might as well start thinking that way now.
  4. Less is more. If you bury a good idea in a 1000 word essay and the reader misses it, then it's your fault, not theirs. Generally you will be tasked with activities that are designed to make some else's life easier. So if you are asked to write something up, get to the point. Use bullets and formatting to draw me to the important points. Busy people scan documents - they don't read every word. Don't waste my time or yours.
  5. Deadlines change.You might think you have a month to complete a project, but then your competitor makes a big announcement and you have to react within 24 hours. You always have to be ready to make a decision with the imperfect information that you have. This is one area where experience trumps effort.
  6. Customers aren't fair.You can expect and demand fairness from your professors, but customers (and bosses) can be fickle and you may never know why they behave the way they do. I expect you've already learned this one in your part-time jobs.

But it's not all bad news. There are changes that will be a relief.

  1. You may only have one boss. On the plus side, some of you will likely have a single individual who you can go to and ask for help prioritizing the multiple projects you are working on. Gone will be the days of having five professors who don't care about the workload in your other class. Unless of course you become a freelancer with multiple customers.
  2. You have unlimited options. While some of you might be blessed with this realization already, most of us spend our university years living with constraints outside of our own control (financial, parental, geographic…). It might have led to behaviour summarized as "just hang in there". There is a whole world of options awaiting you. Different places, unknown professions, new influences, different paths. Embrace the journey that is uniquely yours.

There is so much that you are learning in school that sets you up for success post-graduation. While my list above is certainly not exhaustive, hopefully you'll be open to the many new realities, expectations, and options that await you as you dive into a career.