Alternative title: things I think I learned about job and career searching in college.
First, Why I Am Qualified to Give Advice
Well, I’m not. But I did have An Experience that I am pretty proud of having gone through. I had a non-ideal internship stack up (not a single internship in the industry my major is named after) and went to a school well known for academics but not for industry connections in engineering. I applied furiously to jobs from September 2021 through March 2022, getting multiple rejections after completing entire interviewing processes. By mid spring, it seemed like everyone around me already had accepted offers in software or consulting or grad school. Things were starting to feel dire.
One funny moment I’ll always remember: hanging up the phone after a particularly painful recruiter rejection, starting to cry, and then opening up Linkedin to keep searching jobs, tears still streaming. Pure comedy, even in the moment. But I came out the other end with 5-6 offers, from smaller energy analytics firms to a tech media giant. I ended up accepting an engineering job at a buzzy startup that I felt very mission-aligned with. So yeah, that sweet, sweet validation finally arrived. And with it, the arrogance to write this post.
I’m not going to pretend that I have 100% original things to say here, but I’m compelled to reflect on my experience of getting my first job post undergrad, and maybe it will be interesting to someone. Particularly undergraduates. And if for nobody else, it’s been helpful for me to get down.
Ignore other people’s opinions about what is interesting to them or for you
We’re so different that there’s not much point putting any weight on someone else’s personal opinion of whether a job or field is interesting or not. Don’t just absorb those opinions: set them aside and dig for the reasons behind them. What about the job makes it interesting or not interesting for them? Collect information, not just vague feelings.
There’s nothing quite as exasperating as sinking resources into uncritically following someone else’s (like your parents, or your career counselor, or your peers) advice only to find that it was completely not applicable for you.
The perfect internship probably doesn’t exist
You might have a lot of different interests and skills you want to explore. The broader your interests, the less likely it is that you’ll find a summer job or internship that checks every box. For example, say two of your main interests are entomology and graphic design. You might want to find a job that combines both: maybe a graphic design internship at a parks department, where you might get to do a project about native pollinators? But say that the project falls through, and you’re stuck making pamphlets about picking up dog poop all summer. Not the best graphic design job, nor the best entomology job. So the next summer you go full-out entomology and get an awesome REU studying bugs. Fantastic. But wouldn’t it have been better to do the first summer on full-out graphic design, and the second summer on full-out entomology? My point is, don’t be militant about checking every single box of
□ interest A □ interest B □ interest C
□ employable skill A □ employable skill B □ employable skill C.
That’s going to make it really hard for you. Instead, find high quality experiences that check at least one core interest and skill, and then leverage multiple experiences over the years to get that full breadth.
Save Those Receipts!
Whenever you do something cool, have a folder that you keep on presentable material from that experience, which can include:
- A neat little paragraph summing up what you did, what strengths it employed, how it helped your organization, and how you grew.
- A document with all the other random details and thoughts you can draw on later if you have to write an essay about it
- Screenshots, photos, presentation slides (NDA-compliant, of course), any proof of your work that you can show future employers. Pretty pictures always help.
This can save you a lot of effort later with portfolios, lengthy job apps, and interview prep. Memory fades fast.
Dig Deep, Or Else
Inauthenticity is fatal, and since your job is going to be taking up a lion’s share of your life (for the time that you’re employed in that job), it’s crucial to be authentic in your job search.
What I mean is that you have to do the hard work of figuring out what matters to you, what you’re good at, and what you enjoy, if you want to have a life that doesn’t fucking suck (sorry, I’m getting really into it here). You can listen to other people yak all you want but there is no replacement for the winding journey of self discovery.
It takes a lot of self-belief to trust that you can do that work and find a job that you’re really happy with. It takes a lot of self-belief not to settle for less. And obviously it takes doing the work to get the work done, but if you don’t believe that you can do it, you probably won’t even try.
I think that being satisfied with the way you spend a majority of your waking time and energy is pretty key to “the good life.” So career moves really are one of the most important things out there. It makes everything else look pretty small if you really think about it. So don’t be afraid to devote real time and resources to sorting career stuff out, even if you’re not 100% confident about the outcome.
What You Do, Not Where You Do It
Prestige and name recognition can be helpful, sure. But in many cases, it’s not a big deal if you don’t get it. You can work hard, learn stuff, and be creative anywhere. Regardless of where it is you worked, you’re going to get the same interviewer questions about it. In fact, at a smaller organization, you might have more power to really change their game, not just be a cog in the machine. Now that’s good shit to talk about in an interview.
Stuck at your parents’ house with no job? That’s almost just as sad as being stuck at your parents’ house with a virtual internship. Except the money part. Now, if you have the opportunity to be free of the burden of breadwinning for any period of time, that’s already a massive blessing, because your biggest asset is your own time. Make your own internship. Be your own boss (ha). There’s a lot you can do with free or very cheap resources. Like start a blog! Something I did not do with job interviews in mind at all!
I’d actually argue that in some cases it’s better to create your own exciting and challenging summer project than do a boring and irrelevant internship. Figure out what you want to do, then find the resources and environment to do it.
One example of a low-barrier-of-entry and high-independence summer project I did was teach a Zoom course to high schoolers at the end of my pre-senior summer. It was only three weeks, but since I really threw myself into it, it was a really rich experience for me and I was able to talk enthusiastically about it in many interviews.
Do Practice Interviews
Sorry. You just gotta.
Once You’re There, Try Hard
Try your best to be professional (positive, hardworking, communicative, have boundaries) because it will pay off one way or another. You’ll probably need that letter of recommendation, anyway.
Do Not Give Yourself an Ulcer Over It All
Even if you fuck up for one summer, it’s probably going to be fine. All three summers, even. That’s not a license to make stupid decisions, but short of committing an actual crime, you’ll probably be able to move past it pretty easily.
I hope this was interesting and/or helpful! Please do not ask me for career advice though. For further career musings, I recommend 80,000 Hours .