There are many points of view about this question, certainly from the people I’ve met personally and those who have had a hand in my career to date. I haven’t actually encountered many who hasn’t had an opinion on this question yet. My own experiences with them, both from the self-imposed pressure to get into one, ultimately participating in one and also listening to the views of others are many, varied and I can’t find any empirical, measurable indications of what “success” in a graduate program means for one’s career.
I asked myself this question as I was attending the thirtieth anniversary event of the graduate program I was a part of. Mind you, it’s not been thirty years since I started working, just that the program itself is that old.
Like many, I didn’t land a position in a graduate program on my first shot. Hell, this was in no way a conventional choice for someone with an engineering degree, but, as the saying goes, every door that closes opens up a new path. No, in fact, my first choice was a position in one of the big three car manufacturers in Australia, despite knowing in my heart and head that the industry was dying, and at some point it would end up in the sad position it is now, which is in palliative care awaiting the car factory reaper.
I must say that I was pretty devastated after missing out narrowly on a position at Ford. In fact, I still wonder what might have been if things had worked out slightly differently. However, in all of these things, you’re really only given one proper shot at it. And I flubbed it. Nevertheless, it is one of the great lessons that I learnt: never let yourself get bogged down by that sort of self disappointment because sometimes life is just like that. I then managed to find a seat in a graduate program in the public sector, not an area well known for its technical prowess (which it ultimately proves time and time again with the most incompetent IT departments).
What did I think of it overall? Lacklustre at best. It promised riches in opportunity, but the experience was sort of like going to a nice restaurant, trying pate for the first time and finding out at the end it was goose liver. Yes, there was extra training and yes, there was mentoring from an executive who had experienced many things in life and work. But then, I asked myself, what would ultimately be the result of all this? Was I now suddenly going to be seen as some sort of hero amongst my peers or would I, once out of this program, become some grunt, never to be seen again?
I may have gone into it, like a lot of things, with the wrong point of view initially. A career, like many things, depends on your abilities, but , probably far more importantly the attitude you take into it. Sure, the graduate program made me slightly cynical of overpromising, but then again, I’m not sure it was ultimately designed for someone who had worked professionally before. Many of the participants were entering their first proper job after graduating from university.
I met many of my peers who participated in the graduate program, both before and after me, and it was definitely an interesting experience to see just where they had ended up in the time since. Some had climbed up the ladder, to varying degrees of responsibility, others have hit roadblocks that were purely unintentional and more a product of the times. But the biggest thing that everyone was doing there was talking to everyone else and sharing their experience.
Perhaps that’s what a graduate program is all about. Letting people out of their shells to get better at building relationships and networks. More than anything, this type of program facilitates a controlled environment of cooperation and learning with your peers so that you can then become comfortable with advancing yourself in a more practical way than if you were purely learning something theoretical at university. What it doesn’t do is shield you from failure, mistakes and generally bad decisions. Those are things that are hazards of being an adult who must be able to accept full responsibility for their actions.
So, forget about training and mentoring and getting special treatment after finishing a graduate program. There’s no guarantee that anyone completing a graduate program will have a good career just because they were seen to be full of potential at the beginning. I’ve met a few people who haven’t been more successful than people who just started with any old job. It ultimately depends on the individual, their motivations and their goals. But, if anyone out there is working towards a graduate program or is already in one, take away the knowledge that you’re only special for a little while. After that, you’re just like everyone else, because you have to own the choices you make with nobody out there holding your hand.