My major in college was Communications, with a focus in Public Relations. In the first two years, a lot of what I learned within my field was what some might refer to as “the basics.” Most of the information included vocab words I aced on a test but would forget two weeks after the final exam. Don’t get me wrong, these classes were important in that they were an overview of the subject to which I was about to devote 4 years of school, not to mention the rest of my foreseeable career.
Later on, classes became more “practical.” Lessons referred to actual case studies. Our minds were tested on more than just words, but rather the application of techniques. In my senior year I took an extremely beneficial class that included all hands-on PR work. We even ran our own campaign for the local branch of the East Coast Greenway (and so I continue my “mandatory boasting”).
Obviously all my classes were important (in their own special way…), but I always found that the teachers who best knew how to teach Public Relations had actually worked in Public Relations. There is a difference between studying and doing, and when a favorite professor of mine failed to get a promotion simply because she didn’t have a Masters degree, I felt outraged! There was no doubt that her 20+ years of experience had proven more helpful to her students then any textbook teacher.
Well, I seem to be going off on a tangent from my original point of post.
I’ve been in the “real world” for about 2 years now, which means I’m just new enough to remember school, and just old enough to realize that there were some key points that our Communications lessons failed to mention. And so I have compiled a nice little list of things I wish I had learned in school, though perhaps some of these are merely lessons we each have to learn from actual experiences.
1. More Microsoft Suite, please.
I will admit that I’m grateful for having been trained to work on both Mac (my preference) and PC while in school, but despite what I had considered a thorough training in each field, I find that there was much still to learn. In particular– Microsoft Office. Let’s face it, unless you’re working for some fancy-pants (exaggeration) company, you’re probably dealing with Office ’98 on a PC from an equally distant past. Now here’s the thing– I thought I knew Excel pretty well. Nope. Barely scratched the surface. And don’t get me started on Publisher, a program I have since learned to worship as a god of efficiency. Oh, and Mail Merge. Mail Merging documents is a glorious time saver and I shudder to think of my life without it (I recently had to print out 800+ personalized letters…imagine typing each name and address…one at a time…I feel sick…).
2. Customer Service a.k.a. basic manners and tact
I don’t care what job you have, 95% of us will have to deal with customers/clients. Honestly, the majority of ‘customer service’ is basic etiquette. Watch what you say and the tone you say it in. Also, it extremely important that you learn to read people– position your statement or argument by what they value or feel. Simple social interaction is very important, especially in situations when you find yourself addressing someone who keeps you employed and helps pay your salary. The customer may not always be right, but you sure as hell should pretend they are.
The other half of social interaction, especially in the not-for-profit field, is the schmoozing. You may be making a measly salary, but you’ll often find yourself around the kind of people who spend the equivalent of your monthly income on one night of drinks. Here is where you must become a human chameleon; once again– read the audience. Fit in, but don’t put on airs. Be yourself, but maybe not the same self you present when hanging out with friends. Oh, and it’s probably a safe bet to say you should steer away from commenting on your own pile of student loans…they may be rich but they’re actually not looking to adopt a 25-year-old drowning in debt (drats!).
3. Writing. Editing. Simple, right? Wrong.
Years of writing classes, essays, and research papers– All for what? Well, I promise you one thing, practice makes perfect with writing and all that ‘practice’ will sure as hell come in handy in the career world. You will find yourself writing, no matter what your job: composing an email to your boss, a proposal for a new program, a post for the website. You will write, and you will be judged. Perhaps one of the most disheartening moments of my (albeit brief) career thus far was finding out that one of my bosses, whose tactics and work ethic I admire, was an incredibly terrible writer. My respect for her didn’t decrease, though I will admit a slight wavering. Anyway, one of my personal favorite things to do for work is write. Because of that, I’ve been given more and more responsibility in different spheres of the organization. People take notice when you can write well. It will get you places and it will get you things– possibly just more work for the same salary, but you can’t beat the respect that goes along with it. So take advantage of all the writing you will do in school– not necessarily that paper about John Milton’s Paradise Lost; teacher’s should stress the different forms of writing, and how to make your point clear and concise (I always fail at the concise part).
4. Office Environment 101
Perhaps this is where the mandatory internships and learning from experience come in, but I don’t think I got a full dose of the Office Environment until my current job. So what is the “Office Environment”? Basically it’s another version of entering a new school: Where do you eat lunch? Who can you complain about work to? How should you dress? What sort of supplies do you need? Of course, the Office has a whole new set of learning blocks, for instance: How do I use a fax/copier/printer? Who handles my paycheck? What’s the difference between vacation days and personal days? What are these mysterious “benefits” I suddenly have as a full time employee? How do I navigate the computer system? Most of these things are answered easily enough (hint: befriend the HR department), but its just the idea of playing by a whole new set of rules that can be difficult. So what should school have taught us about ‘Office Environment’? Basically that we just when we thought we were out of middle school, we get sucked back in. Minus the detentions, but plus the overtime without extra pay. Oh, and expect drama. Always with the drama.
5. How to work on a zero dollar budget
Okay, this is more of a personal one. Or perhaps other not-for-profit workers at small organizations can relate. I have literally been told to plan events on a $0 budget, to “use what we have,” and to somehow make money off of it. Pinterest is a saving grace, as is a vivid imagination. And then, of course, there is my own wallet which, when all else fails, sometimes comes into play. Thankfully, nowadays I’m usually given a small budget or reimbursed for my contributions, but never underestimate the importance of being able to work with barely a dime.
Remember, this list applies specifically to my own experience. I’m not attempting to rewrite any Senior Year curriculum, nor panic any soon-to-be-grads. In fact, I would be very interested in hearing what other people have encountered as educational blind spots– What is something that has proved so crucial in your career, that you didn’t learn in college but wish you had? Then again, maybe some of these things can only be learned from actual experience. What do you think?