What do you want to be when you grow up?

It starts as an innocuous enough question. But as your college days tick away and graduation is in sight, it can cause downright panic.

This may be the first time you’re facing your future without school as your go-to. That first dose of adulthood can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. The choices you make in college (and after) can guide you, but don't have to dictate what you’ll do for the rest of your life.

Here are some tips to help ease your mind and get you on your way.

Tips for Launching Your Career After College

1. Focus on What You Want to Do, Not What You Want to Be

Turn the process of figuring out what you want to be on its head and pursue the things you actually want to do.

Harvard Business School Professor Ethan Bernstein, who teaches the online course Developing Yourself as a Leader, advised 2018 HBS graduating MBA students: “Choose things to do, not things to be. There are people in this world who want to be an author but don’t want to write a book; who want to be married but don’t want to care for a spouse; who want to be parents but don’t want to raise a child. Similarly, there are those who want to be leaders but don’t want to lead. Don’t be one of them. Indeed, do the opposite: Lead without being the leader. Those who choose things to do, rather than things to be, end up with more to share and less to prove.”

Once you decide what you actually want to do day-to-day, you can focus on those opportunities that will bring you the most career satisfaction.

Related: 3 Tips for College Grads Entering the Workforce

2. Learn by Doing

The best way to figure out what you want to do with your career is to try things. Pursuing internships or summer jobs in a field you're considering is the best way to rule out certain types of work. Having experience on your resume is also the best way to find a job post-college.

Even if you’re late to the game, consider an internship your first job. Your college career center is often the best source for finding such opportunities, but you can also use online resources, such as LinkedIn, to help in your hunt. If it’s unpaid, you may need to supplement with a paying job. But if you do well in an internship, it may lead to a full-time dream career. At the very least, you’ll leave with something on your resume and potential references for that next role.

3. Network Like a Boss

Everyone has heard that you should network. But in today’s job market, it’s not an option, it’s essential.

“At least 70 percent, if not 80 percent, of jobs are not published,” Matt Youngquist, president of Career Horizons, told NPR. “And yet most people are spending 70 or 80 percent of their time surfing the net versus getting out there, talking to employers, taking some chances, [and] realizing that the vast majority of hiring is friends and acquaintances hiring other trusted friends and acquaintances.”

Create a LinkedIn account and start reaching out to friends, relatives, friends’ parents, professors, and anyone you think could be helpful. Then start asking for leads and advice. Hearing stories about others’ career paths can help you chart your own way. Those conversations could also lead you to a job.

Related: 4 Tips for Growing Your Professional Network

4. Don’t Forget to Say Thank You!

Your network will become friends for life, so do as your mother always told you and be sure to say (please and) thank you. People are far more likely to help if you show gratitude for their time and attention. Nothing beats a handwritten note, but even an email expressing your appreciation will go a long way.

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Determining Your Next Steps

If you still find yourself ill-equipped for the business world, consider getting a primer online. You can learn vital business concepts at HBS Online. Or check out the many other options available on the web. It will be well worth the investment.

Are you interesting in finding out what HBS Online can do for you? Explore our online course catalog and learn how furthering your education can accelerate your career.

Michele Reynolds

About the Author

Michele Reynolds handles brand marketing and PR for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to HBS Online, she led communications for TripAdvisor and Gazelle and has been widely quoted in national media outlets, including CBS News, Reuters, and The New York Times. Michele earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University. Outside work, she spends time with her teenage daughter, plays tennis, and visits her enormous extended family.