Four Things to Help You Get a Good Start After College

Even in this slow-growth economy, college grads can work smart and gain identity capital that will pay off in the long run.

By Alex Chediak Published on June 1, 2016

The numbers are in for the class of 2016: Those who took out loans graduated with a record level of debt: $37,173 per student on average. Their average starting salary? $43,000. Both these figures are on the rise. Unfortunately, the average debt number is rising faster.

And there’s another problem: In our slow-growth economy, many new graduates are forced to accept jobs that don’t actually require a college degree. Underemployment best describes the situation for only 6-12 percent of recent graduates (depends on whose data you’re looking at), but it varies widely by academic discipline. Graduates from applied fields like engineering, nursing, and business are less likely to be underemployed. Nevertheless, if you combine the underemployment and unemployment rates for recent graduates, we’re talking about approximately 1 in 7 young adults receiving an unpleasant welcome to post-college life. What should you do if you’re in this category?

1) Be glad you have a degree.

Difficult as things may be, your job prospects without a degree would be far worse. Unemployment and underemployment are both higher for those with only a high school degree or those who started but never finished college. By the way, successfully earning an associate’s degree is better than never completing a bachelor’s degree. The latter tend to have lower student debt levels but greater delinquency and default rates — even a little debt is onerous if your earning prospects are poor. Meanwhile, almost one in three (28 percent) of workers with associate’s degrees earn more than the median earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees.

2) Think long-term.

There are two different kinds of underemployment: dead-end jobs and starter jobs. Think Starbucks versus a volunteer gig at an overseas health clinic for someone aspiring to be a physician’s assistant. Or a nanny job versus working as a docent in a museum for someone aspiring to be a research historian. While plenty of students work as baristas and baby-sitters (and anything else that pays), if you’re serving in these roles after graduating, it looks weird on your resume. It raises eyebrows and creates suspicion. A dead-end job has that designation either because of the duties involved or because the industry truly has nothing to do with what you studied in college and where you see yourself in five years. So it’s hard to talk about it in a future interview. The alternative — leaving a gap on your resume — can also be problematic.

By contrast, a starter job may pay less at first, but it has a greater likelihood of leading to something better down the road. Paid or unpaid, it can go on your resume and be discussed in a future cover letter (and interview) because it meaningfully contributes to your life story as an aspiring health care worker, research historian, graphic artist, or whatever.

3) Pursue identity capital.

Another way to recognize a good starter job is by the identity capital you’ll acquire by serving in that role. Meg Jay, in her compelling book The Defining Decade, defines identity capital as “what we bring to the adult marketplace … the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs.” Working for a larger, more well-known firm (like a Fortune 500 company) is better than fulfilling the same kinds of duties for a Mom and Pop shop.

It’s important that the role’s duties are relevant to your long-term aspirations (see above; think long-term). It’s also helpful if the place you work will immediately garner the attention of prospective future employers. Fair or not, telling people you work for IBM, AT&T, or Deloitte & Touche wins you immediate credibility. It’s better than hearing “I’ve never heard of so-and-so” when a manager is eyeballing your resume. In addition, larger, more established organizations provide more opportunities for both advancement and lateral moves. Not everyone can or should move up into management, but it’s nice to have options within the same company if you start off in marketing but later decide you’d prefer something in sales.

4) If you job-hop, do it strategically.

This generation of twentysomethings is likely to go through more jobs in that decade than their parents. Job hopping makes sense if you’re clearly switching into a role with greater duties, seniority, and/or compensation. And getting hired by a competitor is often a good way to get a raise. But be careful about job-hopping too frequently. There’s the thrill of the chase, and a nice honeymoon phase in any new job, but excellence comes from perseverance. And it’s excellence that, over time, makes your marketable. So invest in your skill set and stay in a role long enough to leave a mark and earn a solid recommendation from your supervisor. Think too of what you’ll leave behind if you switch to a new organization. Consider whether your retirement funds (or stock options) are fully vested and if any perks like flextime or telecommuting may need to be re-earned.

Though underemployment is a reality for many new graduates, the good news is that it can be a short gateway to a meaningful and rewarding career doing what you love. Don’t lose heart. Keep moving in the same general direction. Godspeed.


Alex Chediak’s book Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke (Zondervan, 2015) helps students make informed decisions about how to pay less for college, earn more during college, and set themselves up for financial independence after college. His previous books include Thriving at College and Preparing Your Teens for College. Learn more about him at

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