Grad Week: How to make a successful transition from the classroom to the workplace

The shift from third-level education to the working environment does not need to be abrupt

For three or four years, students have worked tirelessly on essays, group projects, presentations, and exams. Then, suddenly, that journey through third-level education comes to an end quicker than you ever realised it would.

It is an exciting time of life. But change is often scary, particularly when you are for the first time leaving full-time education and beginning to make a move towards full-blown adulthood.

That first full-time job, particularly if it’s in a field you have an interest in and have been studying for several years, is a big change. But there are things graduates can do to make that transition much more palatable.

Victoria Lawlor, a career consultant at Trinity Business School, said she looks at the journey from university to work in three stages: before you start, the adjustment period, and establishing a good work/life balance.


It does not have to be a cliff edge moving from education to work, Ms Lawlor said, with students being able to prepare for the change before they even graduate.

Working on your mindset and mentally preparing for the change is very beneficial for students, she added.

“Understanding that it’s going to be a different working environment than what they’re used to. For a lot of graduates that are entering the workforce, and in my line of work I deal with a lot of international students, so it’s their first time working in Ireland and they can be extremely nervous about that transition phase,” she said.

One way to ease that nervousness is networking with staff in advance of your start date, perhaps asking to meet one of the team members for a coffee.

“I find the more information they have, the less nervous they are and the easier they find it. It can even be just little things like what the dress code is, that they might not know otherwise. It gives them an opportunity to just ask any questions they might need to know before they start but might be uncomfortable doing otherwise,” she said.

“So maybe doing the networking part before they start, where possible. Connect with people they’re going to be working with on their team so when they start it’s a softer land, so there are already some people they’ve been in touch with.”

Researching a company in advance is also a good idea. Not only does it provide an opportunity for students to better understand the place in which they will work, but it also makes them look more knowledgeable when they do start.

“Certainly research is important because you might find there’s a big project happening or the company is in the news or something, so it helps them to seem a little bit more informed when they start, in terms of the marketplace and competitiveness, that sort of thing,” she added.

Ripped jeans or suit?

Once graduates actually enter the workforce, there are other key things they can do. First, Ms Lawlor said, they should think about their presence and personal brand, or how they want their colleagues to view them.

“For example, people obviously don’t want to be known for bad timekeeping, so make sure they’re arriving early. Be professional in work, so that might relate to the dress code. Or they might want to be known as a team player, so they might proactively work on those skills,” she said.

“I also think, culturally, it’s very important to adapt. Looking at what other people are doing in the workplace, learning the etiquette of the workplace that isn’t published anywhere. Do people always turn up a minute or two early for meetings? If so, that’s something maybe you could mirror. Or if people go on a coffee break at a certain time, and not at another time.”

At university, generally your peers are the same age as you. However, in a workplace, intergenerational mixing comes to the fore. There can, at times, be challenges associated with this.

According to Ms Lawlor, one of those challenges is the extent to which some people want to get to know their colleagues.

“Different generations have different levels in terms of what they disclose. So on your first day or your first week, I kind of compare it to a date; you want to give people enough about yourself to keep them interested, but not tell them your full life story. Disclose what you’re comfortable with, but don’t feel the need to tell everybody everything straight away,” she explained.

Soft skills

One mistake graduates can sometimes make is seeking to show how much they know and can do in the area of work. However, in the early days of employment, soft skills are often what make graduates stand out.

“People tend to go in with really good technical skills, academic and theoretical skills, but they might not have the experience on that personal side,” Ms Lawlor said.

“I think communicating and influence is definitely one to be aware of: ways you communicate with people, what’s common in the company, whether that is popping over to someone’s desk, or sending email. Teamwork is obviously one to look at, as well as time management.”

Clear communication becomes incredibly important when it comes to employee wellbeing. Graduates should learn when they can say no, and how to raise feelings of overwhelm or stress.

Graduates should look at what they’re getting out of a task, as well as what the company is getting.

“There is a big wave in terms of being authentic at work. It’s about that open communication so if somebody is feeling overwhelmed, they can go to their line manager and say, ‘I have these five demands on my time, I can’t get to all of them this week, what would your priority be? I think it would be this but I just want to check if you would be happy for me to focus on this first’,” Ms Lawlor said.

“I think it’s more about not taking everything themselves and not saying no outright, but taking on a priority list with somebody who is more experienced.”

Graduates should not be concerned, however, if there are particular soft skills with which they struggle. There is constant learning in a workplace, with HR often running personal development courses or line managers providing personal development plans to enhance these areas.

The third phase of the transition into the workforce is looking at what sort of employee you want to be or what career you would like to have long term.

According to Ms Lawlor, there are some topics around work/life balance that really come to the fore when you’re in this stage of transition.

Ms Lawlor believes it is important to pause at the end of every week and reflect on the preceding days: what was learned, what can be improved upon and what you did well.

Graduates should have a folder or notebook where they write down these reflections, so they can return to them as time progresses.

“I’ve found from my work history, time flies so you can be there a year later at your performance review and really not have taken stock of all the things you have done. You shouldn’t be going, going, going all the time. You should have a bit of a plan in terms of where you want your career to go,” she added.


Your first job is very much about gaining experience and on-the-job learning. This is made so much easier by having a fellow colleague who you can ask questions for advice.

Ms Lawlor, and many other career coaches or counsellors, have said seeking a mentor is one of the most beneficial things a new employee can do.

“Often, what I’ve found is from a Trinity perspective, for example, there is such a strong Trinity alumni community, that they can often buddy up with someone. That can work really well,” Ms Lawlor said.

“If they don’t have that alumni connection, I would look to see if there is a formal mentorship programme, and volunteer themselves for that as a mentee. Really, I suppose, have a close working relationship with your line manager so you have that support.”

Trying new things is also vital in the early stages of a career. You cannot grow if you only conduct tasks you’re already good at; failure and mistakes are not always bad things.

“Some companies have rotation programmes, which is a really good experience. Other roles don’t allow for that, and they might be quite siloed or focused. Even if your role is quite siloed, or in a specific discipline, I would encourage people to get broader experience,” Ms Lawlor said.

“The way to do that is to volunteer for projects that come up outside of their team or department, or they can look broader at groups which look at topics such as diversity in the workplace, women at work, things that gives them a bigger focus in terms of work and helps them get known outside of their immediate team.”

Overall, though, the most important thing a new graduate can do upon entering the workforce is just be willing to get involved. Impostor syndrome is a feeling everyone experiences, but new employees shouldn’t let that hold them back.

Work hard, volunteer for projects and contribute to discussions and meetings in the workplace. Not only will that allow your colleagues to get to know you better, but it will also show them how much of a self-starter you are, a keen trait to have in the ever-evolving and changing working world.

Five tips to ensure a smooth transition into the workplace

1. Prepare yourself: Researching the company and role you’re about the begin will make the transition to full-time work far less stress-inducing and will make you appear competent to your boss and peers.

2. Ask for help: If you’re a graduate beginning a new job, it is expected that you will not know everything. Don’t pretend you know what you’re doing if you don’t and ask for clarification from a mentor or colleague if needed.

3. Set boundaries: While everyone wants to make a good first impression, don’t overwork yourself or run yourself into the ground. Having a healthy work/life balance will make you a better, more well-rested employee.

4. Put yourself out there: Don’t be afraid to volunteer for projects. The best way to learn and gain confidence and experience is by trying new things.

5. Reflect: Looking back at what you have done well or not well is one of the easiest ways to progress. Taking time to reflect on what you have completed will ensure you don’t make the same mistakes again, and will ensure you can acknowledge or recognise all of the hard work you have completed.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times