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To Succeed After Grad School, Understand This

Why does it seem like, for some people, graduate school can kill your career?

I’ve met so many people who have spent a ridiculously long amount of time in school. I spent 15 years.

And somebody asked me yesterday, what do you see the most? What is missing? What is the biggest problem you see with respect to grads trying to build careers?

The biggest thing I believe is that, when you’re in graduate school, you haven’t learned how to play the game of work. If you get into a job when you’re 20, by the time you’re 40, you’ve got 20 years of experience playing this game.

  • You’ve learned how to negotiate salary.
  • You’ve learned how to play offers off of each other.
  • You’ve learned to tailor your resume.
  • You’ve learned how to build and manage relationships.
  • You’ve learned how to build you personal brand.
  • You’ve learned how to succeed in a workplace.

If you start a career young, you’ve learned all of these skills that can take you to the stratosphere by the time you’re 40.

In grad school, you just don’t learn that. You don’t learn the game at all. In fact, even worse, you learn a totally different game. The metrics of reward and value in academia are completely different, and in some cases they’re actually inverse to the real world.

And because of that, when you have somebody who’s thirty five, who spent 15 years in school and has never actually gone out and played this game, it’s sort of like having somebody who is half decent at soccer, who goes and tries to play basketball.

Imagine if you go and try to play basketball. And there’s this really good team with somebody who’s really, really good on it. When you step onto a basketball court, if you’ve never been there before and there’s somebody who’s a star who’s getting all the attention, they’re getting the ball passed to them, they’re getting all the points, you don’t usually say, “This is completely unfair and I should be getting this attention. I should be getting the ball passed to me.”

You recognized that it’s because they know how to play the game. They’ve played it for longer.

The game academics don’t know

When people step out of academia into that “real world,” they play the careers game much like somebody stepping onto the basketball court for the first time. And the people their age, especially if you’re in your mid thirties, like I am, have already learned to play the game.

Many people in academia are hard on themselves; they wonder “How come nobody passes the ball to me, how come nobody wants me?”

The problem is that you’ve never learned to play the game. And academia actually makes this worse. Because not only does it teach you how to play the wrong game, it will actually teach you that the non-academic game is bad. “We play this game because it’s better and it makes us happier and we’re having more fun doing this.” They will tell you terrible things about the other game…. And what do they know?

Why call it a game?

So you might be actually really bothered that I’m calling this a game. And I can understand that because, it feels so personal. The rejection feels personal. The loss of self means that leaving academia feels personal. It might seem calloused for me to say that it’s just a game that you need to learn how to play.

But here’s why I think looking at it as a game actually helps.

Let’s go back to the basketball analogy. When you step on the basketball court, and you suck the first time you play, you don’t feel bad about it. You just say, “If I’m going to play this game, I’m going to have to practice. I’m going to have to get better. I’m going to have to learn.”

How do you learn how to play the career game? You model people who are doing it. You look at people that you want to imitate and try to do what they’re doing. Look at their LinkedIn profiles, look at their resumes, look at how they present themselves and carry themselves. (By the way, this doesn’t have to be some gross thing where you become someone you’re not. Find people who inspire you and who are interesting and doing interesting work and start to learn from them.)

Imitation is really the best way to play this game.

That’s one of the reasons why networking so valuable because you will find and learn from people who can help to shorten your knowledge gap. One of the things I notice a lot about people who go to grad school after a career is they almost never struggle after to get work. They know how to play the game.

And I think this is your one goal. If you need to leave academia, if you have spent too much time in grad school, if you spent a little bit of time in grad school, you need to recognize that the game you’ve been learning to play is probably not the right game. There might be some transferable skills, but give yourself permission to learn the new one.

Give yourself the permission to suck for a little bit.

Give yourself the permission to feel uncomfortable.

It’s not fun when you have letters after your name and you’re 35 or 40 to step back into a new game and feel uncomfortable.

But it’s only through going through that discomfort that you can ultimately build a successful career with whatever degree you’ve got. And one of the great things about seeing this is a game is you’re not going to be hard on yourself if you screw up. Even the top executives go for jobs that they might get rejections from. The top executives get fired.

This is the game. And the more you learn how to play it, the more success you’re going to have.

And, I know this sounds counterintuitive, but I actually believe that the better you get at this game, the more fun you’re going to have.

Once you learn how to play the game, you get the opportunities. You get to do work that brings you joy and purpose. You get to do things that are meaningful. You get to start businesses or do consulting, or you get to maybe even put parts in your game on autopilot.

Once you learn how to play the game, you actually will have a much better life. But it’s just that first period that sucks.

The best gift you can give yourself is, first of all, recognize that it’s a game.

Secondly, recognize you be learning to play the wrong game.

And, finally, go and start learning how to play the right one. And if you do this, your life will never be the same.

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