Career Advice

Advice for the Graduates

14 Jun 2012  

Tomorrow more than 500 students will graduate from Kellogg. Many of them are my students; I’ve had the joy of teaching almost half of the group in my marketing strategy and biomedical marketing courses.

I’ll be at the ceremony but I won’t be addressing the students tomorrow; I was a finalist for professor the year but my bid apparently came up a bit short. But I’ll offer a few words of advice for the graduates here. I’ll keep it to three points, because as my students know the best plans and presentations focus on three things.

First, always have a back-up plan. There is a lot we don’t know about the future. What will happen with the Euro? Who will win the upcoming election? What will the U.S. healthcare system look like in ten years? But we do know one thing: the future will be full of surprises.

Your career will unfold in ways you can’t anticipate. You might be fired when you least expect it or find yourself working for someone who asks you to do things that are ethically questionable. You might come across a compelling opportunity you didn’t anticipate. You might need to move to a different city for a family reason.

So it is important to have a back-up plan. Ask yourself a simple question: in ten years, what type of a job might I like to have? You don’t need to know the exact answer, but it is good to a few options in the mind so you can test the ideas and take steps to make a move possible when the time comes.

I have a good friend who recently left his employer after many years. He is talented and skilled but seems a bit adrift. It is clear he never thought about his back-up plan. So now he is trying to figure out what to do. He knows what he doesn’t want to do, but isn’t sure what he would like to do. This is a difficult position to be in.

Second, live frugally. The world is an economic mess; the EU is falling apart, there is far too much debt everywhere and some global financial institutions are teetering. I don’t know how it all will work out, but I’m pretty confident that people who spend cautiously and have little debt will be fine. So save some money and if you’ve taken out loans to attend Kellogg get busy paying them off as soon as you can.

Third, define your brand on your own terms. Don’t let your employer define you. It is tempting to think of yourself as part of a company, so a McKinsey consultant or a P&G marketer or a Goldman Sachs analyst. Don’t do this. Defining yourself as part of an organization gives your employer too much power. Loyalty is fine but don’t think that your company has any great emotional connection with you.

Build a brand based on your talents and your skills. Craft a career that mixes learning and experience. The brand you build will be the foundation of your career and your life.


Commencement marks the beginning of the summer for me. This is a relief; I have had an exceptionally busy spring. I’ll be posting once a week or so. I have a number of corporate programs coming up, plus the Executive Development Program and Strategic Marketing Decisions courses at Kellogg. I’ll be traveling to Florida and New Jersey for work and Michigan and Colorado for vacation with my family. And I’ll be finishing up two new books that will be coming out this fall. I’ll post more about those in the weeks ahead.

6 Responses

  1. Max Ramberg says:

    Great advice Professor!, I enjoyed being part of your class and hope to keep in touch. PS, while EU is falling, South America is rising (for now), everyone is welcome! .:)

  2. Melanie Hill says:

    Thanks Prof. Calkins! This is great advice. Thanks for all of your teachings–through this blog and in Marketing Strategy class.

  3. haha I liked the one ‘the EU is falling apart’ … not really politically correct in a politically über-correct Germany 🙂

    have a great summer!

  4. Thank you for the wise words Professor. All of them relevant to each of us, and I for sure will be following them to the tee! Was a pleasure attending your class this year, and hope to be in touch.

  5. Bob Killian says:

    Three good points. I hope your students see their value.

  6. Josh Duncan says:

    Great advice Professor!

    It has been a few years now since my commencement but would say that the advice is still very relevant.

    Have a great summer and looking forward to hearing more about the upcoming books!


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