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Realistic Expectations Help Graduates Find Purpose in Work

Realistic Expectations Help Graduates Find Purpose in Work

by Helen Stubbs

Story Highlights

  • Most college graduates (73%) do not have a high sense of purpose in their work
  • Four key college experiences align with high levels of purpose in work
  • Mentors should provide graduates with realistic expectations for the future

I had a lot of idealistic professors that really made me think that I was going to change the world … that we all were. We were going to go out there and be a great politician or a great lawyer … it's just kind of like it's not the real world. You go out there and you're just another person. It can kind of affect [you] -- I think college builds you up a lot. -- "Erin," 30, legal assistant

A recent Gallup study commissioned by Bates College uncovered an essential college experience that has received little attention for its power to set students on a path to meaningful work -- establishing realistic expectations. In this study of more than 2,000 college graduates, those who received realistic expectations about their employment prospects were much more likely to achieve purposeful work -- work that allows people to apply their strengths, is deeply interesting to them and contributes to their life's meaning. This finding was notable not only in its first appearance in Gallup's alumni studies, but also in the strength of its association to meaningful work.

Four College Experiences Aligned With Graduates' Finding Purpose in Work

  • having an internship or job that allows students to apply classroom learning
  • having someone who encourages students to pursue their goals and dreams
  • being given realistic expectations about employment prospects upon graduation
  • participating in a class or program that helps students think about looking for meaning in work

Note: Experiences are listed in order of the magnitude of their relationship to college graduates' having high levels of purpose in work, as identified through logistic regression analysis of survey responses; n=2,205

Graduates in the study expressed disappointment upon graduation around a variety of areas of work. Some had been encouraged to pursue an academic major, not realizing the jobs they aspired to require a master's degree. Others were wholly unprepared for the salaries they might earn at a time when they felt particularly burdened by and intent on paying off college debt.

They don't tell you. You can pay a ton of money for a degree, and there's no demand for that. You might have a ton of student loans, and you can never pay that back because you can't do anything with your degree that you just got. -- "Mark," 40, engineer

Some graduates wanted more information about the job market -- the demand for skills and anticipated salaries with a bachelor's degree in their discipline. Many had an overblown sense of the type of duties they would be assigned as a newly minted college graduate; spending time on administrative and mundane tasks were not a part of their post-college dreams. Respondents shared how internships helped them align work aspirations with their interests and skills and exposed them to workplace challenges -- handling a difficult coworker, addressing an error or sharing bad news with a client.

School is nothing like the real world, and it was just a shock when I went to intern how different the classroom was from the outside. … Then when I did six weeks in a real classroom, that's when you got the work experience. … I don't feel like I got that until my senior year. -- "Chris," 43, teacher

Some spoke to the disconnect between the advice and learning they received from professors -- some of whom had never worked outside of academe -- and the realities of the workplace. While many find mentors other than faculty and staff, Gallup research consistently reveals that mentors are most commonly professors, underscoring the need to offer students more than a strictly academic perspective.

You don't know what you don't know. When you're in school, you're not even thinking about that because nobody's even told you. … They might have one person in the engineering department who could talk to you about this stuff. … If your adviser was that person, then you were in luck, but if not, you were lost. I think there should be more guidance people. Or maybe assign you to an older student or something or have a mentor in the workplace or something. -- "Mark," 40, engineer

Ensuring students have realistic expectations of employment exposes a tension between encouraging students to pursue their dreams -- a key experience highlighted by this and previous Gallup research -- and not offering them an overblown sense of the steps required to reach them. So, while mentors are well-advised to nurture students' career exploration, their advice should be tempered with an honest vision of what it takes to achieve their goals.

This challenge may be exacerbated by colleges' touting the successes of star alumni, which can obscure more common paths that are circuitous or marked by menial jobs and responsibilities. To address this disconnect, some colleges invite graduates to share their experiences and paths in their early postgraduate years.

For me, there was no guidance in school. … It just so happens that most of the professors are people who seem to not have real-world experience themselves. They also kind of just … are all in that bubble. … My mentors are people from outside of school. -- "Ted," 31, musician

These findings are particularly important given that the Bates-Gallup study found that most college graduates lack high levels of purpose in their work -- only 27% of college graduates met this threshold.

And yet, employers participating in the Bates-Gallup study described workers with high levels of purpose in glowing terms -- they come to work early, are enthusiastic and committed to their organization's mission and goals, and offer novel ideas and an energy unmatched by employees who have lower levels of purpose. Considering their demonstrated ability to deliver on their organization's bottom line, employers unanimously expressed a desire to prioritize hiring purposeful workers over others.

As higher education considers the most effective ways to prepare students for successful and productive lives and careers, these findings provide a clear roadmap for institutions and college students alike. When students learn about the career paths of others, when they find mentors in professional spheres of interest, when they understand job market conditions in their chosen disciplines, and when they actively explore their interests through internships and co-ops, they will have more realistic expectations for what lies ahead -- wise counsel for any aspiring college student.

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