We asked a bunch of economists what they would say if they were giving a commencement address this spring. Here are some excerpts from their responses.
Approach your career ambitions the same way you approached your romantic ambitions at college. Sure, you're looking for "The One," but the only way to find that is by going on a lot of dates. And you should think about your first job as a good first date. Try it out. If you like it, stick around for another year. But if not, ask another employer out. And keep playing the field until you've found the job you want to stay with.
This pattern of hopping between jobs while young, before settling down, is in remarkably common. And it makes sense, too. Romantic success never follows from trying to improve your partner; it follows from moving on and finding a better match. The same is true in the world of work.
Indeed, economic research shows that most large pay gains come not from your boss promoting you, but rather from moving to a job that's a better fit, with a different employer.
So for now, play the field. You'll discover what you like, you'll discover what you're good at, and at some point you'll be ready to settle down.
Understand that sunk costs are sunk; do not be afraid to change direction.
Few people mind the first hour of work in a day. Its the eighth, ninth, or 10th that really starts to hurt. So focus on the last few hours of work in the day when choosing jobs. You'll find that some things that seem like fun will sour quicker than others over the course of the day. This is also why variety in a job can be a terrific perk.
Similarly, the first dollar you earn is more valuable to you than the last, so giving up a few dollars to get a little bit of something else you value--serving the social good, travel--is often a worthwhile trade.
When comparing jobs, put a lot of weight on the potential upside and less weight on the potential downside. Everything else roughly the same, pick the job with more uncertainty. If it turns out well, it's likely to turn out really well. And if things don't turn out so well, you can always change jobs or, better yet, go to business school.
If you start something, don't view your decision as final, and create possible "exit" points. Consider having new and different experiences for a year or two, for example travel for a few months or more, or enroll in something like Teach for America or Peace Corps. With more information, you will make better career and other decisions. have such opportunities and reversing course becomes more complicated.
If you don't reach your dream job destination until age 35, no problem: you will still have about 35 years working at that job. So look for jobs that build toward a goal, based on an informed understanding that comes from asking older people about their jobs, their skills, and their paths. It is OK (in fact, it's a good thing) if your long-term vision changes over time, but you need always to have one, even if it changes, and an informed sense of how to get there.
If you don't have kids or a mortgage, relish this chance to be poor for a while. Forget about what to "do" and instead look for people and organizations you admire and would want to hang out with. "Where" and "with whom" trumps "what." Remember that life satisfaction depends on autonomy and influence, not titles or salaries, so keep the former as criteria.
"If you don't have a passion (or just don't know what it is yet), find a job that takes advantage of both your skills and your preferences. Jobs pay you based on your skills, but also based on their attributes ("compensating differentials" - you get paid more for jobs that people don't like to do). You could find your niche based on what you're relatively good at ("comparative advantage"), but also based on the job attributes that you like more (or dislike less) than other people.
Economics works great for planning your life when you don't have a work passion, since we tend to assume that your job delivers only money and you trade off job hours with leisure hours. If you think your job will just be a job, pick one that pays well per hour and leaves you some time off, even if the activity of the job is boring. Since the world is full of people looking for a job that feeds their passion, if you are willing to do something which most people are not passionate about (accountant? Tax attorney?) there's an arbitrage.
Economists have found that if you graduate during a recession, your career prospects are stunted long after the recession itself is finished. The economy is recovering now, but slowly. A year's delay would do no harm – might I suggest signing up for a master's degree?
Time is precious. Find a way to use your gifts. If you don't have any gifts, invest in finding some. If you have some, invest in improving them.