Did college really prepare us for the corporate world?

Happy 2012 Everyone!

After anywhere from 2 to 14 days off during the holidays (depending on how many vacation days you had leftover), it is time to get back work.

I will spare you all the flowery talk about new year’s resolutions and hope and possibilities.  Instead I wanted to “get down to business” by offering my two-cents on a core question that has crossed the mind of many, especially a few months into our first jobs after graduation: “Did college really prepare us for the corporate world?”

My short answer is No & Yes. But let me explain…

For most of us, this is what entering the “real world” is like.

This cartoon really encapsulates the the “no” answer to the question on the table.  In college, study is generally focused on theory. Topics are addressed in a vacuum of assumptions, looking to pull out main points.  Most of us at some point have said to ourselves, “when is this going to be relevant in my future job?” (I remember saying this in response to the Scandinavian Mythology course I took in college. A story for another time).

Most of our professors are researches and by nature talk in theory. The corporate world is the exact opposite; it is about practicality. Decisions are routinely made based on facts over theory. No one ever pulls out a textbook to refer to a scientific law related to a dollars and cents decision. Even business theories (while useful) do not always prove to be right in market situations. Moreover, it is interesting to look back on the courses we took, realizing that the ones we found to be most useful and applicable were the most practical (like a course I look on negotiations). Not to downplay the intellectual enrichment extracted from the many theoretical things we studied, but most did not prove to be incredibly useful in corporate situations (except maybe at cocktail parties where inserting an interesting thing we studied here and there can liven conversation or add to the punchline of a joke).

At the same time, though (and here is where the “yes” to the question comes in), there are certain skills that have been taught to us through school.

  1. The corporate world is a giant (and sometimes messed up) group project.  We have all had MANY group projects through years of schooling. We learned that most of the time there is someone on the team who doesn’t pull their weight and generally there is scrambling at the last minute to meet a deadline.  The corporate world is no different. There are people who put in more work and those that put in less. Often you are not rewarded with anything more when you put in extra effort for the team (i.e. in group projects you all got the same grade) and projects are rushed to meet financial goals so that something good can be said on an earnings call with analysts.  Ultimately, in the corporate world you need to learn how to work with others and school gave us a lot of experience doing that.
  2. Preparation meets execution. In college, all the reading, lectures attended and studying comes down to your ability to illustrate your knowledge of a topic on a test or in a final paper.  The same is true in the real world. It is about results.  While preparation is very important (just like in college), if you are unable to perform when the pressure is on, you are not going to succeed.
  3. Politics (and I am not referring to student council).  Through years of school we are used to cliches and people talking about us behind our backs. Unfortunately, this does not change when people get older.  Remember the lessons of when gossip got you in trouble when you were younger.  Don’t fall into the same trap at work. Stay out of all the office politics and focus on your job and getting results.

Whether you feel that college prepared you for the corporate world or not, the bottom line (and yes, feel free to cross off that square in your “Corporate BINGO!” game… for those who don’t know what I am referring to, go back and read this previous blog post) is that we need to be flexible and adapt and learn how to be successful in the work world.  We can’t rely on a textbook to teach us what to do. The best thing is to find good mentors to help us along the way and to take action (aka  “just do it”).

Apocalyptic predictions aside, I have a feeling that 2012 is going to be an exciting and memorable year.  I hope that it will be a successful one for you.



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About Young Professional's Edge (YP Edge)

Aaron McDaniel is a corporate manager, entrepreneur, author, public speaker and community leader. Aaron has held numerous management roles at a Fortune 500 company, being appointed Regional Vice President at the age of 27, and is the founder of multiple entrepreneurial ventures. He is also the author of the book, The Young Professional's Guide to the Working World (http://www.amazon.com/Young-Professionals-Guide-Working-World/dp/1601632428). Aaron instructed a highly rated student-led course on leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas Undergraduate School of Business and has a book, The Young Professional's Guide to the Working World: Savvy Strategies to Get In, Get Ahead, and Rise to the Top, due to be out later this year. Aaron offers advice that helps young professionals build the foundation for a successful career. Visit his blog, http://www.ypedge.com to learn more.

Posted on January 5, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Good post. It is probably erroneous to think in terms of knowledge of facts or theories necessarily applying directly to work, though in some jobs it does. But education should teach and train PROCESSES that do apply quite directly: reading efficiently (and skimming) for meaning; quantitative analysis; writing skills; discussion/meeting skills; time management; and, as you point out, group work skills. It was an adjustment to me upon entering law practice to learn in performance evaluations that partners don’t just want the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand that is almost inevitable in discussing a legal issue, but a clear recommendation as to “what should we (and/or the client) do,” with reasons stated. “On the other hand” is fine, as long as it is stated as second choice, with reasons given as to why perhaps it should become first choice if this or that factor is different than assumed.

  2. Good post. I agree with point #2 (preparation meets execution) but I do have a criticism about how schooling teaches this. In college, everything we’ve learned gets tested at the end through an exam or paper. We spend a lot of time preparing to get it as perfect as possible because it’s our only shot, and we see our grade at the end of the course. In the corporate world, trying to be perfect on the first shot is not realistic. Ideas in the corporate world require feedback throughout the execution process and people need to not be afraid that they’ll get it wrong the first time. But because we’ve been taught that we can’t fail at our only shot, so many high achievers are scared to make mistakes.

    I’ve spoken with my friends who work at high-powered jobs (e.g. investment banking) who encounter they same problem even for writing an email. They’re so afraid that the email needs to be perfect that they spend a lot more time writing and editing it than they should. It stresses them out and projects end up getting pushed back because of their attempt to be perfect delays the process. The more effective method would have been to send out the email to get clarification or send out a draft of the project to get feedback. Identifying imperfections throughout the process will lead to perfection faster, in my opinion. Unfortunately, college trained us to seek perfection first.

    Here’s my related post on that subject: http://kevinfelixchan.com/2011/02/26/five-things-school-should-have-taught-us/

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