How a Professional Job Is Different from Being a Student

Photo: Mark Stone/University of Washington Photography

Graduating from UW may be one of the proudest moments of your life. It marks the end of your long journey as a student and signals the beginning of your adventure in the professional world. But how is the life of a professional different from being a student? You may be surprised by the similarities and the differences.

UW graduates enter a variety of different fields, from business to tech to education and more. Each professional field will have subtle and different cultures and norms of operating, and it will take time to understand what is considered typical in your field or company and what is not.

Consider the following as you transition from student life to working life:

  • Focus on the organization, not yourself. Figure out how you can contribute to the organization’s needs. After years of thinking about your own goals, your focus must shift while at work to the goals of the organization (or your team’s goals). Professionally speaking, attending to the goals of the organization will benefit you in the long run.
  • People skills matter. Being able to work well with others is a critical skill to have in the workplace. A person who is likable and pleasant to work with is more valuable to an organization than someone who is equally skilled but has a bad attitude. Plus, having personality conflicts or other drama at work can be very stressful for everyone directly and indirectly involved.
  • Meetings, not study groups. You won’t have study groups anymore, but you will likely have a lot of meetings where you work. Pay attention to the culture of the organization and get a sense of how meetings are used; they may be for brainstorming, decision making, for both, or for something else entirely. Also, remember that your role here is to contribute, and you can’t coast. Observe, ask questions, and clarify things that aren’t clear.
  • Collaborate, don’t compete. Regardless of where you work, you will be part of a team with shared goals. It’s important to understand that to move forward at your job, you have to learn to work collaboratively with your supervisor and your colleagues. This type of work includes being a productive, contributing member of the team and taking on challenges, but also knowing where your gaps and weaknesses lie. No one is expected to know everything and to do everything by themselves, so don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. Mistakes and setbacks are common in the working world, but these don’t signal failure. Instead, learn to trust and lean on your supervisor and colleagues so you collectively can problem solve as a team and move the work forward in a healthy, constructive way.
  • Keep learning from others. You won’t have professors teaching you, but you’ll still have many opportunities to learn. In the workplace, veteran colleagues can teach you critical processes, new skill sets, and sometimes how to navigate office politics.
  • 52 weeks, not 4 quarters. UW life operates in quarters, with breaks every couple of months for students to refresh and unwind. However, most jobs will give you between 2 to 3 weeks off a year, which means the cadence of your working year will be very different than the life you are used to now. Working life is a marathon, not a sprint. Unlike final exams, you shouldn’t cram in work and pull all-nighters before a major deadline. you will burn out faster and harder. Instead, think about how to build work-life balance into your daily workday. That may mean working steadily while you’re at work, but allowing yourself to unwind and relax in the evening and weekends. You may be tempted to push yourself as hard you now do at UW, but remember you won’t have summer break to recover from a brutal year. It will take time for you to establish and adjust to a new daily way to tackle work, but building a solid work-life balance will pay off in the long run in your professional career.
  • Annual reviews, not grades. Employers do periodic performance reviews (or “appraisal”) that are designed to help you improve your work, and they are of course also a way for employers to assess your performance. Depending on where you work, they’ll happen semiannually, quarterly, or annually. Having this type of review might feel stressful, but remember that like any feedback, they are an excellent opportunity to continue to improve yourself.
  • Dress code. The old saying goes, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” This advice still holds true, even if business attire has become more casual. It’s important to think about what you’re wearing and how you’re representing yourself at your new job. Professional attire varies widely depending on the organization, so learn about the dress code at your place of work: pay attention to how people dress during your interview, and talk with colleagues and supervisors about what professional attire looks like in that workplace.
  • Keep your résumé updated. Just because you have a job doesn’t mean you can ignore your résumé. You’ll want to be positioned to take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. Remember to save significant accomplishments, contributions, compliments, and new skills you learn to your resume. Having these at hand will make periodic updating of your résumé much easier.

About the Husky Experience Toolkit

The Husky Experience Toolkit is designed to help you make the most of your time at UW, wherever you are in your university career. The articles address four interconnected dimensions of the Husky Experience: Know Yourself, Know the World, Make Your Way, and Weave it Together.