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Each year tens of thousands of college students cross a commencement stage somewhere in our nation and begin their pursuit of the American dream.

Collectively, they share a single purpose to make it in the “real” world, but individually they have a multitude of pathways to consider.  It is a major career decision point that begs for mindfulness and focus.

Having served for nearly a half century as a university president at several campuses, state commissioner of education, and other top-level leadership positions in education, I have attended and presented at scores of commencements.  I have spoken to thousands of students in both small and large group settings, as well as one-on-one.

The most often question asked me by students over the years has been what is the best route to success in the world of work?

There are many options from which to choose.

woman holding backpack

Some students are bound and determined to make as much money as they can as fast as they can.  Others are focused on accumulating advance degrees as quickly as they can. In between, there are many questions to be considered:  Does the workplace choice fit personal career goals? Does it offer a desired quality of life experience? Does it have preferred core values?  Does its leadership team provide strong mentoring opportunities?

An introspective look at one’s self is also very important in making the transition from school to workplace.  By the end of the college experience, individuals typically have a reasonably good idea of their social interests and needs, their skill sets, and their personality traits.  Personal comfort and fit obviously should be priority goals in job/career selection. The ultimate test is the degree to which the chosen job environment becomes a labor of love or a source of drudgery.

From my perspective, based on my life’s experience and continuing observation of students I have met over the years, the third decade of one’s life is the best time to build a strong career foundation.  That has certainly been the case in my life and career.

students studying

For me, visible leadership opportunity, access to strong mentoring, and in-depth learning experience were the key elements.  When I graduated from college, I seriously considered three firm job offers: the editorship of a small weekly newspaper in my hometown, an executive staff role with the Boy Scouts of America, and a sales job with a well-known insurance company.  The newspaper job offer was for $70 per week; the other two jobs offered in excess of $100 per week.

I chose the newspaper job for three reasons: (1) the newspaper had just been purchased by a nationally recognized and revered former editor of a large daily; (2) the editorship offered me opportunity to be a visible community leader at an early age; and (3) the small-town newspaper provided opportunity to learn firsthand all aspects of the news business where rookie mistakes, which were inevitable, had minimal impact.

The choice paid off for me and became a launching pad for the career moves that followed.  By the time I was 30 years old, I had served in leadership roles in three different settings with three different bosses who became lifetime mentors for me. All along the way, I was constantly challenged and encouraged to be all that I could be.  At times, it was tough, but I always viewed the workplace struggles as gifts of opportunity. I knew my bosses were pushing me to measure up to my potential and that inspired me.

None of the positions offered much in the way of compensation.  At each step, I had more financially lucrative offers that I turned down.  However, my later experiences confirmed that the enriching experiences, learning curve opportunities, and strong mentoring more than compensated for the small paychecks. Equally important, the early jobs offered a comfortable environment that fit well my personality, interests, and needs as I sought to define who I was and wanted to be.  It would be difficult to find happiness and contentment in a mismatch work environment.

students throwing up caps

On a related point, I have often been asked the upside/downside of using the third decade of life to secure graduate degrees.  There is no definite right/wrong decision, in my judgment. However, based on my observations over the years, I’m inclined to recommend against the back-to-back-to-back pathway from undergraduate, to master’s, to doctorate.  The reason is simply that the pathway often leads to a 30-year-old with lots of degrees and no experience in the workplace. It is a mismatch that can, and often does, play havoc with an individual’s career aspirations. The multiple degree credentialed individual may expect more pay than an employer looking for evidence of workplace experience may want to pay.

In summary, the important lesson is that during the formative years gaining experience, visibility, and quality mentors are far more important than salary and perks.  Short term loss of potential income in return for long term gain in experience from working with strong leaders and helpful mentors is a tradeoff that has paid rich dividends for me over the years.  Throughout the process, it is important to maintain a mindset that the ultimate goal is to enrich your life and not necessarily to select the path that will lead to bigger paychecks. After all, personal fulfillment is, or should be, the bottom line of career aspirations.  Life is too short to accept anything less.


Charles SmithAbout Charles Smith
In more than five decades of professional life, Charles E. Smith has held primary leadership roles in education, journalism, and state/federal government. During his years in Tennessee, he served as chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents for  six years and as the Tennessee Commissioner of Education for seven years. He also served as chancellor of two University of Tennessee campuses, as vice president over two separate divisions of UT’s statewide university administration, and as editor of both weekly and daily newspapers in Tennessee.