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From School to Work: Necessary Shifts and the Myth of the 'Perfect' Solution

The transition from school to work can be a jarring experience for many young, talented individuals. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the same strategies that led to success in school will automatically translate to success in the workplace. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that work and school are fundamentally different, and understanding these differences is crucial for career success.

Today we will explore the how the workplace is often different from a school environment and provide detailed examples to help you navigate the transition from academia to the professional world.

You Can’t Succeed by Yourself

At school, students are often independent in their learning and are responsible for their own grades and progress. However, in the workplace, success is rarely achieved alone. Your ability to succeed and deliver depends on the support of your boss, colleagues, and stakeholders. Having someone with influence rooting for you can make a significant difference in your career advancement.

For example, imagine you’re a software engineer working on a project. You might think that delivering high-quality code on time will automatically result in recognition and advancement. However, if your boss or colleagues aren’t aware of your contributions, your work may go unnoticed. In this case, it’s essential to build relationships with your team members and superiors, communicate your progress and achievements, and seek their feedback and support. By doing so, you can ensure that your efforts are recognized, and your career can advance.

Your Work Won’t Speak for Itself

In school, acing a test or turning in a strong assignment is often enough to pass a class or excel to the next level. However, in the workplace, your work is unlikely to get noticed unless the right people are speaking up for — and about — you and it. Your boss, colleagues, and stakeholders are not necessarily looking for perfection; they’re looking for results that align with the company’s goals and values.

Let’s say you’re a marketing specialist working on a campaign. You might assume that creating visually appealing ads and writing compelling copy will automatically result in success. However, if you don’t communicate the campaign’s objectives and results to your boss and stakeholders, your work may not receive the recognition it deserves. In this case, it’s crucial to not only deliver high-quality work but also to promote it within the company. By building relationships with key stakeholders, attending meetings, and presenting your work in a clear and concise manner, you can ensure that your efforts are recognized and valued.

There Isn’t One Right Answer at Work

In school, whether you succeed or fail depends on how well you understand and apply the lesson. However, in the workplace, the “right” answer is often more subjective. The solution to a problem may vary depending on factors such as company culture, industry trends, and stakeholder preferences.

For instance, imagine you’re a product manager working on a new feature. You might assume that conducting market research and creating a detailed product roadmap will automatically lead to success. However, if you don’t consider the company’s long-term strategy, industry trends, and stakeholder feedback, your solution may not align with the company’s goals. In this case, it’s essential to communicate with various stakeholders, gather feedback, and be open to adjusting your approach. By doing so, you can ensure that your solution aligns with the company’s objectives and meets the needs of your target audience.


Treating work like school can be a detriment to your career success. Understanding the differences between academia and the workplace is crucial for navigating the transition from school to work. By recognizing that success is not achieved alone, promoting your work, and being open to different solutions, you can set yourself up for success in your professional career. Remember, the strategies that got you here won’t get you there. Embrace the differences between school and work, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your career goals.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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