The old paths through adult life don’t work anymore. Graduate school is no longer a ticket to a stable career, and in some cases, it’s not even a ticket to a job. Student debt weighs so heavy today that people should not expect to have what their parents have. Technology opens up many types of new types of unstable careers, but slams the door on many stable ones.

Workers today will have no fewer than three careers in their lives, and they will change jobs frequently when young. After that, they will cut back when they have kids, ramp up when they need money, and switch when their learning curve flattens.

The good news is that a large consensus of experts say in today’s world, this kind of living will not necessarily hurt your career. And in fact, changing positions frequently makes you a better candidate in many circumstances. Jason Davis, blogger at says, “If a candidate has been at the same company for 10 years or more, you should take a red marker [to the resume], draw a big x through it, and throw it in the garbage.”

Today’s worker focuses on finding positions–all the time–that are fulfilling, engaging, and accommodating of personal time. It’s a nice picture, but it’s hard to imagine it’s a stable life.

And, for the most part, people do not like instability. Even the people who you’d think would be risk takers, entrepreneurs, are not, really. Most people are thinking of ways to mitigate the risks they are taking, according to Saras Sarasvathy, of the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

So what can people do today to mitigate risk in the face of an inherently high-risk workplace? Get good at dealing with transition, because today’s workplace is full of it. The people who are most adept at dealing with transition are the people who will do best in their career and in their life.

1. Have two jobs at the same time.
The easiest way to make a transition is to do it slowly. The old way to change careers is to quit one, leave everything behind, and start everything over new. This is extremely difficult, and extremely risky. An easier transition is to start a new career while you’re doing the old one.

In some cases, you will end up doing the new career most of the time, in some cases, you will find out you don’t like the new idea and you’ll try something else. Recently, though, some people find they like doing both. Two careers makes sense to a lot of people, especially if one is fulfilling and the other pays the bills. Or one is very unstable and one is stable.

Marci Alboher describes the nuts and bolts of having two careers in a way that works in her new book, One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success. She moves between her own set of careers as author/lecturer/writing coach as she tells a wide variety of stories of how people maintain multiple careers successfully.

“It used to be that the only way to transition was to leave your prior career behind. Today’s strivers are learning how to take what comes before and overlay new experiences on top of that. Today a career can be a mosaic.”

Alboher shows this is a path people can use to not only create more stability as they change, but also to follow their dreams as they’re going.

2. Be comfortable with uncertainty.
Eve Ensler, author of the play The Vagina Monologues and also, more recently, the book Insecure at Last:Losing It in Our Security-Obsessed World, thinks one cause of insecurity in our lives is the expectation of being secure. “If you think you’ll get to the point that you’ll be secure, then you’ll be chronically depressed,” says Ensler.

Since we can never really be secure, we should instead learn to be comfortable with that. Getting good at dealing with a world that does not provide security is actually a more healthy way to live than trying to find that one, perfect path through life that leads to a mythical security.

Ensler’s ideas suggest that today’s career paths, that wind and stop and turn and surprise us along the way, may be better for us once we get used to not knowing what’s ahead. “When you start working with ambiguity and living with it initially, it’s scary because there are no signposts. But eventually it seems to be a much more interesting way of living.”

3. Take time to explore.
It used to be people started exploring when they turned 40, and we called it a mid-life crisis. It seems clear, now, that exploration and self-discovery is something to do throughout life, not just when you get sick of your mortgage or your marriage.

But this process requires we take time to check in with ourselves during transition times. Jumping quickly from one thing to another is not as effective as taking time to figure out how you’re feeling, and what you enjoy, each step of the way.

Mike Marriner was planning to go to medical school but realized he wasn’t passionate about biology. He decided to take time to figure out what he should do next.

During this process, he started Roadtrip Nation, which sends teams of students around the country to interview people about their lives and careers. The idea is to provide inspiration or cautions for people as they consider making a transition. “Today there is no transition period,” says Marriner. “Everything is very quick and we are trying to put the spirit of exploration back into American culture.”

Roadtrip Nation has become a book, a summer program for college students, and a PBS Series, all addressing the idea that transition is serious business, and part of moving into adult life is getting good at figuring out where to go next.

To many people, the continuously shifting workplace is disorienting and discouraging, but really, you just need to reorient yourself and develop personal tools for a new workplace. Transition is an opportunity, and today life is full of more opportunity than ever before.

The first summer job idea is you better get one. If you are in college, now is the time to gather experience so that you will have some idea what you want to do with your life when you get out of school. Graduating from college is a very hard transition. One way you can make it emotionally treacherous is to try to support yourself with a job when you have no experience in a job.

There are lots of different strategies to take when you are looking for something to do in the summer. But each strategy has one thing in common – starting now is better than starting later.

There is wide consensus that you really must be doing something in the summer that teaches you real world experiences. So don’t sign up for summer school thinking that businesses will be impressed. Surely you already have enough school under your belt. Eighteen years, right? Summer is the time to try something new.

Look for something that will help you grow personally and professionally. Even if you don’t have a great startup idea in your back pocket, you can still think big. You have good reason to demand that your summer job be fun and stimulating — there are enough jobs out there that you don’t have to take a terrible one.

Also, don’t restrict yourself geographically. When you have two kids and a mortgage then relocation is terrible. But in college, relocation is an adventure. Apply for summer jobs all over the country.

1. Get money to go to start a company.
You have to have an idea, but if you have a good one, Y Combinator will give you about $15,000 to move to Cambridge, MA and be surrounded by people like you doing the same thing. This is a great way to learn how to build a startup. The arrangement is friendly and supportive, and even if your company doesn’t get off the ground during the summer, you will learn a lot.

Relatively few women apply to do programs like this one. So I am taking a moment to encourage women to try it. Starting a company is not only about being able to program a computer. It’s about being able to see an unmet need and find a solution. Apply by April 2.

2. Experiment in social entrepreneurship.
Experience just announced a fellowship program that matches students with non-profits for the summer. The students not only get paid to do good, but they also get paired up with mentors from management consulting firms, which really makes this is a great learning opportunity. The fellowship program was only recently announced, so you may benefit from the fact that a lot of students don’t know it exists. Apply by March 1.

3. Call someone you want to work for.
Really. Just try it. The trick is to call someone senior enough who can make an independent hiring decision, but junior enough that there are not three layers of assistants protecting him. The person you call will be flattered, and mostly likely will listen to you.

Tell this person about what you can bring to the company. (Probably your most appealing offer will be some combination of your wet-behind-the-ears enthusiasm for working and I’m-younger-than-you flair for technology.) Also, tell the person your goals for the summer, so the person can understand how they fit in. Then ask for an internship. You just might get one.

What if you try all three of these ideas and they don’t work? Keep trying. You will spend a lot of your life job hunting. You may as well get good at it now, before your life depends on it.

Good internships are treasure troves no matter how old you are. They give you the opportunity to make a new start –figure out where you fit, switch your career path, or just find someone who cares enough to help you make good decisions.

That said, the big internship business comes from college students. Eighty-two percent of graduating seniors will have completed at least one internship, according to Mark Oldman, co-founder of Vault, a media company for career information, and author of Best 109 Internships. “In the United States an internship is no longer an optional benefit but an essential stepping stone for career success.”

The time to start looking for a summer internship is now. Some industries, like finance and journalism, typically have deadlines in the fall. Other industries have spring deadlines. But regardless of deadlines, the earlier you start the better an experience you are likely to have.

Brown University holds meetings in November to get students started on the internship process. “Internships are a really important part of career exploration so you should start as early as possible,” says Barbara Peoples, associate director in the Career Development Center at Brown University.

No matter what your age, an internship can help you to know as much about what you do like as what you don’t like. It’s very hard to tell which sort of job you’ll be happy in, and Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, says working summers in a few different industries is a good way figure it out. “Don’t ask people, “?Does your career make you happy?’ because most people will say yes. Instead, observe people in their work to see if you think they look happy.”

Oldman points out that the benefits of an internship extend way past college. “Increasingly recent college grads and even career changers of all ages are doing internships. They are a great way to ignite career interest. But they are also a low risk way to sample a new industry without committing yourself.”

No matter what age you are, you should follow the same advice for evaluating opportunities. Here is the list of characteristics that make for a good internship, according to Oldman:

Substantive work.
Mentoring opportunities.
Some sort of pay.
Chance for gaining permanent employment.
Good quality of life.

So, how do you get one of these plum internships? For everyone, the best source is, of course, your network. But in most cases, people have not been great at networking before they need an internship.

For college students, the next best resource is the campus career center. A career center measures its success by how many students actually get jobs, so they have a vested interest in making sure you get an internship since that makes you more likely to get a job when you graduate. Besides, one of the most important aspects of succeeding in a career is learning to ask for help, so get started now, when the stakes are not so high.

It might seem that you cannot go wrong in the internship department, but it is not without controversy. Many internships are unpaid — toeing the line of labor laws and sometimes even crossing it. And some internships pay, but not nearly as well as, say, a summer job in construction, or a job corralling ten-year-olds at overnight camp. For people who do not have parental funding or a nest egg of their own, subsidizing an unpaid internship is often out of the question.

But Peoples says that even if you are not doing unpaid labor in the field of your dreams, you can benefit from your summer work. You should “know what you are seeking from a summer experience. Even if you are working at a summer camp, think about goals like becoming a supervisor or working in a different area.” Peoples says that “everyone should have learning goals.” And in fact, the process of crafting goals for personal growth on the job might be the most important internship lesson of them all.

For those of you about to start another year at school, here’s a list of things to keep in mind: Twenty things to do in college to set yourself up for a great job when you graduate.

1. Get out of the library.
“You can have a degree and a huge GPA and not be ready for the workplace. A student should plan that college is four years of experience rather than 120 credits,” says William Coplin, professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College. Many people recommend not hiring someone with a 4.0 because that student probably has little experience beyond schoolwork.

2. Start a business in your dorm room.
It’s relatively easy, and Google and Yahoo are dying to buy your business early, when it’s cheap. Besides, running a company in your room is better than washing dishes in the cafeteria. Note to those who play poker online until 4am: Gambling isn’t a business. It’s an addiction.

3. Don’t take on debt that is too limiting.
This is not a reference to online gambling, although it could be. This is about choosing a state school over a pricey private school. If that’s still too tough financially, then consider starting at a community college or look into online degrees vs traditional ones. Almost everyone agrees you can get a great education at an inexpensive school. So in many cases the debt from a private school is more career-limiting than the lack of brand name on your diploma.

4. Get involved on campus.
When it comes to career success, emotional intelligence — social skills to read and lead others —get you farther than knowledge or job competence, according to Tiziana Casciaro, professor at Harvard Business School. Julie Albert, a junior at Brandeis University, is the director of her a-cappella group and head of orientation this year. She hones her leadership skills outside the classroom, which is exactly the place to do it.

5. Avoid grad school in the humanities.
Survival rates in this field are very close to survival rates on the Titanic. One in five English PhD’s find stable university jobs, and the degree won’t help outside the university: “Schooling only gives you the capacity to stand behind a cash register,” says Thomas Benton, a columnist at the Chronicle of Higher Education (who has a degree in American Civilization from Harvard and a tenured teaching job.)

6. Skip the law-school track.
Lawyers are the most depressed of all professionals. Stress in itself does not make a job bad, says Alan Krueger, economist at Princeton University. Not having control over one’s work does make a bad job, though, and lawyers are always acting on behalf of someone else. Suicide is the leading cause of premature death among lawyers. (Evan Shaeffer has a great post on this topic.)

7. Play a sport in college.
People who play sports earn more money than couch potatoes, and women executives who played sports attribute much of their career success to their athletic experience, says Jennifer Cripsen, of Sweet Briar College. You don’t need to be great at sports, you just need to be part of a team.

8. Separate your expectations from those of your parents.
“Otherwise you wake up and realize you’re not living your own life,” says Alexandra Robbins, author of the popular new book The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. (Note to parents: If you cringe as you read this list then you need to read this book.)

9. Try new things that you’re not good at.
“Ditch the superstar mentality that if you don’t reach the top, president, A+, editor in chief, then the efforts were worthless. It’s important to learn to enjoy things without getting recognition,” says Robbins.

10. Define success for yourself.
“Society defines success very narrowly. Rather than defining success as financial gain or accolades, define it in terms of individual interests and personal happiness,” says Robbins.

11. Make your job search a top priority.
A job does not fall in your lap, you have to chase it. Especially a good one. It’s a job to look for a job. Stay organized by using Excel spreadsheets or online tools to track your progress. And plan early. Goldman Sachs, for example, starts their information sessions in September.

12. Take a course in happiness.
Happiness studies is revolutionizing how we think of psychology, economics, and sociology. How to be happy is a science that 150 schools in the country teach. Preview: Learn to be more optimistic. This class will show you how.

13. Take an acting course.
The best actors are actually being their most authentic selves, says Lindy Amos, of communications coaching firm TAI Resources. Amos teaches executives to communicate authentically so that people will listen and feel connected. You need to learn to do this, too, and you may as well start in college.

14. Learn to give a compliment.
The best compliments are specific, so “good job” is not good, writes Lisa Laskow Lahey, psychologist at Harvard and co-author of How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. Practice on your professors. If you give a good compliment the recipient will think you’re smarter: Big payoff in college, but bigger payoff in the work world.

15. Use the career center.
These people are experts at positioning you in the workforce and their only job is to get you a job. How can you not love this place? If you find yourself thinking the people at your college’s career center are idiots, it’s probably a sign that you really, really don’t know what you’re doing.

16. Develop a strong sense of self by dissing colleges that reject you.
Happy people have “a more durable sense of self and aren’t as buffeted by outside events,” writes Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California-Riverside. When bad things happen, don’t take it personally. This is how the most successful business people bounce back quickly from setback.

17. Apply to Harvard as a transfer student.
Sure people have wild success after going to an Ivy League school but this success is no more grand than that of the people who applied and got rejected. People who apply to Ivy League schools seem to have similar high-self-confidence and ambition, even if they don’t get in, according to research by Krueger.

18. Get rid of your perfectionist streak.
It is rewarded in college, but it leads to insane job stress, and an inability to feel satisfied with your work. And for all of you still stuck on #6 about ditching the law school applications: The Utah Bar Journal says that lawyers are disproportionately perfectionists.

19. Work your way through college.
Getting involved in student organizations counts, and so does feeding children in Sierra Leone or sweeping floors in the chemistry building. Each experience you have can grow into something bigger. Albert was an orientation leader last year, and she turned that experience into a full-time summer job that morphed into a position managing 130 orientation leaders. A great bullet on the resume for a junior in college.

20. Make to do lists.
You can’t achieve dreams if you don’t have a plan to get there.

Here’s some career advice. Stop obsessing about how smart you are. Instead, get some exercise and you’ll perform better at work — athletes do better in the workplace than non-athletes. Even off the field. This advice is true in a wide range of scenarios — across age groups, job descriptions, and types of exercise.

Athletes make more money because their self-confidence and competitive nature makes them choose jobs that pay more money, says James Shulman, author of The Game of Life: College Sport and Educational Values. “This happens from every group of athletes from the liberal arts colleges to big-time sports. It is not affected or skewed by a few people winning million-dollar NFL contracts or anything like that.”

Another reason athletes make more money is that they fit in better in today’s workplace, which values emotional intelligence over academic intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the “soft skills” that enable smooth running interpersonal relationships at work — such as the ability to read peoples’ nonverbal cues and the ability to manage oneself within a team.

These skills are not taught in a classroom; however, someone with athletic experience is likely to have picked them up. “Sports teach workplace values like teamwork, shared commitment, decision-making under pressure, and leadership,” says Jennifer Crispen , a professor at Sweet Briar College who teaches a course in the history of culture of women’s sport.

Also, playing sports helps people succeed because it teaches skills such as, “time management, mental toughness, and focus,” says David Czesniuk, manager at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

This is especially true for women. Crispen told me, “Eighty-one percent of women executives played organized team sports growing up.” These women attribute their success, in a part, to the fact that they learned the values that playing these sports teaches.

Mariah Titlow, a biologist, has been involved in sports all her life. “Sports have given me better focus and discipline,” she says. “I’ve done gymnastics, swimming, dance, field hockey, track. Sports increased my confidence, made me a happier person, and taught me how to get through something tough.”

Elite colleges are aware of this connection, which explains why it is easier to get into the Ivy League if you are an athlete. And employers know that athletes have an advantage in the workplace, so hiring managers like to see candidates with athletic experience.

For athletes, this is great news. Non-athletes should stop complaining about the unfair advantage, and instead, take steps to confer some of the advantages of being an athlete on themselves. Here are some ideas for getting started:

If you’re in school, join a team and approach it with dedication, because that’s an integral part of your education. “Your body and your brain are connected,” says Titlow, “so the benefits of sports spill over into other parts of life.” The career benefits of being an athlete are not necessarily related to talent, they have to do with focus and commitment. So get some.

If you are out of school, there are still opportunities to join teams that cater to adult beginners. But if you can’t image doing that, at least go to the gym. It’s no coincidence two thirds of female business executives and 75 percent of all chief executives, exercise regularly, Crispen said. While you do not gain team-oriented benefits from individual exercise, you do cultivate business essentials such as self-discipline, goal setting, and self-confidence.

In fact exercise in the morning notably improves your workplace performance that very day, according to research from Leeds Metropolitan University.

Still feeling like a couch potato? That couch time is costing you money: The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that good-looking people make 14 percent more than ugly people. Part of this discrepancy is because, `’The perfect leader is someone who is able to control other peoples’ perceptions of him. Everyone has a secret — a weakness or a raw nerve they don’t want to be touched. For a person who is overweight, the secret is out.” says executive recruiter Mark Jaffe.

Before you hem and haw about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, just go to the gym. You know good-looking when you see it, and you know ugly when you see it, and a body that’s been exposed to regular exercise at the gym is probably not ugly. You might not get that whole 14 percent of extra pay, but your career is going to benefit one way or another if you exercise regularly.

Many twentysomethings talk about feeling undervalued by corporate America. Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman are doing what many others are doing to solve this problem: starting their own company. At universities like Harvard and Carnegie Mellon 30-40% of graduates end up starting their own business after five years, and the trend is poised to go up.

The entry-level job inherently undervalues someone who is bright and driven, according to Paul Graham, partner at Y Combinator, a Cambridge-based venture capital firm that funds startups almost exclusively from very young people. He sees entrepreneurship as the great escape.

“For the most ambitious young people, the corporate ladder is obsolete,” says Graham. For the last hundred years everyone started out at the bottom. Even if the candidate held extreme promise, corporations put the candidate as a trainee on the bottom rung so he didn’t get a big head. Graham writes, “The most productive young people will always be undervalued by large organizations, because the young have no performance to measure yet, and any error in guessing their ability will tend toward the mean.”

So, if you are smart and energetic, you might be better off working for yourself. Ohanian and Huffman started their own company before they even graduated from University of Virginia. Today they are twenty-two, and running their company, Reddit, out of their Cambridge apartment. Huffman turned down a job offer at a software company in Virginia so that he could write the software for Reddit, which is a little like social book marking and a little like RSS feed: Think “the five most emailed Boston Globe stories” only not just the newspaper but the whole wide web.

The value of people in their twenties is touted fervently at Google, a company always on the lookout to buy companies from young entrepreneurs. On a blog entry about a conference for entrepreneurs in their early twenties, Chris Sacca, principal for new business development at Google wrote, “I was instantly struck by the sheer energy of the crowd. No one was running off to check in with their assistant or jump onto a mindless conference call with sales finance.”

Graham estimates that a top programmer can work for $80,000 a year in a large company, but he can be 36 more times productive without corporate trappings (e.g. a boss, killed projects, interruptions) and will generate something worth three million dollars in that same year if he is working on his own. Before you balk at those figures, consider that Ohanian and Huffman started their company in June 2005 and by November 2005 they received a buyout offer from Google, (which they declined in favor of continuing to build the company on their own.)

But not everyone is sitting on a great idea for a company. For those who eventually want to start your own business — once your find an idea — use the time beforehand to learn the right skills. Jennifer Floren, CEO of Experience and an entrepreneur herself, recommends going to a small company “where you will usually be able to see first hand what each part of the company does. At a big company you won’t get such wide exposure.” Also, “look for opportunities to be creative or take a leadership role, two good types of experience for an entrepreneur to have.”

If you have spent some time in the workforce, consider becoming a consultant, which essentially is making a business out of yourself. “You should have at least five years of workplace experience before you go on your own,” says Laurie Young, co-principle of Flexible Resources, “because you are offering your experience.” Also, you need marketing skills to sell yourself.” It takes a certain kind of talent “to show people you have skills they can use.”

Alexandra Levit worked in public relations for Computer Associates and then struck out on her own, as a consultant in publicity and marketing communications. In terms of making the transition, Levit advises that you “try lining up a few jobs that you can have before you take the leap,” and be prepared to spend “about 30% of your time marketing yourself.”

Levit provides a snapshot of reality for all entrepreneurs when she says, “Don’t expect the drawbacks to be only financial. You need a lot of self-discipline to sit down in your home office and work without any external pressure. Working for yourself means you’re responsible for every aspect of the business,” and this means, ironically, even the boring, entry-level job that you would have done in a big company.

Ohanim can attest to this, too: “I am spending a lot of time right now doing our taxes. We merged with a company and they kept terrible records.” But, he says, “I really like the notion of not having to look to a superior, to have independence and be doing the entrepreneurial thing.”

The September ritual of selecting classes usually takes place in a fog of bad criteria: uninformed friends, overly invested parents, and the never-ending quest for no early morning classes. I have some advice to add to the mix: If you plan on going into business, take courses that typically aren't listed among the traditional requirements like accounting and marketing. Even if you don't want a business career, give my suggestions some thought, because you'll have to work at some point, so you might as well make a little money at it. And besides, these courses will help not only your career, but your life.

This class will be a terrible ordeal for non-theatrical types, because they'll feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. But acting class is one of the fastest ways to learn how to convey what you mean. Successful people can do this by using verbal and non-verbal cues.

We each feel many emotions simultaneously. Leaders manage their emotions so they convey the appropriate one at the appropriate time. Acting class will help you to understand if you're doing this well, and if not, how to improve. I'm not implying that all business people are actors. In fact, I mean the opposite: business requires honesty, and a good actor must tap into his or her true emotions to act honestly. Most incompetent leaders try to lead with emotion that isn't genuine. You will avoid this by taking an acting class.

Intro to Psychology
Somewhere among the textbook pages of theories and statistics you'll find invaluable nuggets of information on how people perceive each other in the workplace. The most interesting lessons are about how people make judgments about others and try to control the judgments that others make about them.

You will learn that visual perception is everything and first impressions are hard to overcome. Once you understand why, you'll be able to make a better first impression. You'll also learn why people remember negative traits more than positive traits; if you divulge weaknesses during job interviews, hiring managers will remember them more clearly than your strengths.

Emotional intelligence is an ability to understand other people, and many pundits believe that emotional intelligence is more important than business skills when it comes to success in the corporate world. A literature course teaches you to empathize with characters and understand other peoples' values. So your best business text might be a novel.

People who work out regularly are more likely to impress interviewers and get promoted than people who don't. Knowing how to work out correctly is a big factor in whether you'll keep it up once you're working. However, it's a learned skill that takes time and a good teacher. At college you've got tons of time (compared to when you have a job, a mortgage, kids and a dog) plus use of the gym is free.

Take a bunch of classes — swimming, pilates, karate. Something is bound to stick. And it's easier to learn them now than when you're 35 and bored with the your gym routine.

What you love
Having a balanced life and making time to do what you enjoy becomes harder after college. Use this time to figure out what excites you, not what excites your parents or grad schools. Growing up doesn't mean getting drunk on a school night. It means ceasing to worry about or rebelling against what others want you to do and starting to figure out what makes you tick. This isn't easy. But if you continue taking classes that you think you SHOULD take, you'll be unprepared for work.

Review the course catalogue honestly for what really interests you. Ask yourself what you'd take if you could choose anything. Then take it. You'll learn about yourself. The class may be boring or it might be a great topic that you love learning. This is the same process you'll use to find a career. You will probably do it two or three times in your life. So get good at it now, while someone else is paying your rent.

Whether you're thinking of a top-tier MBA or a PhD in anthropology, there is a right way and a wrong way to approach graduate school. You need to understand your dreams, and what is required to achieve them. Also, you need to understand the marketplace, and what it values.

If you dream of climbing ladders in the Fortune 500, get an MBA. The degree a VIP ticket to corporate life and a prerequisite for the top ranks. And if you have the luck of being in your 20s, don't wait, get the degree now, when it can get you a better starting job after you graduate. If you've already made headway in your career, you'll still need that MBA, but when you're older it's more like a career lubricant than a jump start: The degree has little impact on where you are now, but prevents you from getting stuck later.

Think twice before cashing in your chips for less respected school. The top five or ten business schools have a much, much higher value in the business world than all the other business schools. If you attend the third tier school, do it at night because the cost to your checkbook and your career growth while you're in school do not outweigh the benefits of the degree you'll earn.

For some people, though, graduate school is not so much a way to fulfill a dream as a way to put off finding one. Thomas Benton, a pseudonym for an assistant professor who writes a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education, blames much of the flight to graduate school on grade inflation and fragile egos: “Humanities majors are used praised from professors. Many recent grads return to school when they discover that not everyone thinks they are as great as their humanities teachers did. Humanities don't have the objective standards of business. Going back to grad school allows people to reestablish their ego. But it is short lived because they have to face the same market when they get out.”

So be honest with yourself. If you're going back to school because you're nostalgic for the days when you could get a good grade and a pat on the back. If you're looking for grad school to give you breathing room from the realities of adult life, you probably need a social worker more than you need another degree.

Besides, breathing time in grad school only delays future feelings of suffocation. For example, MFA programs do not make you more creative, they make you more qualified to teach. And the academic job market is a nightmare. One out of five people who enter English literature PhD programs will get a job in that field. The rest will find themselves back at square one, waiting tables, albeit with improved literary banter, and looking for a career.

Lost humanities students with an eye for cash and stability often enter law school because other professional schools require too much math or science. Yet the land of lost lawyers is full, too, which confirms that if you don't have a passion for what you are going to learn in graduate school, you shouldn't go.

If you still think you might be best off at grad school, then here's a checklist of things you should do before you apply:

1. Try other jobs first. The people who do best in graduate school are those who don't use it to escape their terrible job life. So find decent alternatives to going back to school, and if you still want to go back to school then you should.

2. Determine if an advanced degree is necessary. Talk to people who are where you want to be in five years to ten years. If those people got there without a degree, then you probably can, too.

3. Take the passion test. Are you reading about your proposed graduate topic now, before you are in school? If you're not passionate enough about the subject matter to read about it on your own, then you should find something to pursue that excites you more.

Students who want a job or internship in June need to start looking in the winter. Those who wait until spring to search set themselves up to be bottom feeders in the job market. The hardest part of a search is starting. Here is a guide to help you start sooner.

Companies that are popular and prestigious offer internships that are snapped up by spring. An intern offers free or underpaid labor in exchange for a line on a resume. It's a raw deal, but don't underestimate that line.

At the end of college, students with great summer internships are in a separate category than everyone else. Most companies hire full-time staff from their pool of summer interns. Of course, an internship is not a sure bet to success, but it's a sure bet that you have a chance to prove yourself in an industry where you think you'll be happy.

Real-Life Jobs
Look, I don't want to be the one spreading this news, but someone's got to do it: Unless you're planning to go to grad school, or planning to camp out at your parents' home indefinitely, running an effective job hunt is as important as getting good grades during your last year in college. Hunting for a job is a full-time job. You need to send resumes out regularly, scour job listings and company listings, conduct regular soul-searching missions, and you need to leave time and energy to stress about your lack of success in all these areas.

You can take time now, during school to do this, or you can wait until June. In June, all the good jobs will be taken because the students obsessed with getting a great job start hunting in the winter, and top companies accommodate those students. You're going to have to suffer through a job hunt sooner or later, so why not do it when there are still great entry-level jobs to be had?

Your Strategy
Find companies you'd like to work for. Some companies have very structured application processes on their web site. Others will have very little. For the latter, find the name of the human resource manager and send a cover letter and resume asking for a summer internship or a job. If you get a job from a mere 40 resumes, you will be beating all the odds. You should send out 100, but I don't want to overwhelm you. And hey, don't forget all your parents' friends and your friends' parents' friends.

Most colleges have a career center. Use it.
My 21-year-old brother wrote a letter to his roommate's dad asking for an internship at his pharmaceutical company. My brother ended the letter with, “I look forward to your speedy reply.” Quick quiz: What is wrong with his ending? Answer: This is the way you sign a letter to someone who reports to you and is in trouble and needs pushing around. If you did not know that answer you should never send a letter out without a trained counselor reading it first.

If you did know the answer you should still go to your career center. The first rule of successes in business is to know how to leverage available help. The real world is not filled with career centers waiting for your visit. So go there now, while you can.

Most of you have not witnessed extreme gender inequality during college, and most of you do not think of yourselves as activists. But I have news for you: The corporate world does not offer equal opportunity, and most of you will need to become activists to create lives which include children and work.

But you probably spent your school years hearing that you can be anything you want and that having kids is not something to worry about now. Both of these ideas are misleading.

Most likely, you cannot be anything you want if you expect to have kids; you cannot be a mom who goes to weekly tap dance lessons or weekly baseball games and a mom who runs a Fortune 500 company or leads the United Nations team to Rwanda. You have to give up one of those dreams because kids are not compatible with the amount of work required to move up through the management ranks. You need to consider this when planning your life.

“Sexism at the top remains strong,” says Barrons Business Daily in an article touting the successes of women in the workplace. Men may always outnumber women at the top because women are not willing to make the “sacrifice of friendships and family life that the jobs normally require,” it states. The New York Times magazine chimed in with a cover article highlighting how more women with business degrees from top schools are leaving the work force to stay home with children.

Here are some facts to consider:

Sixty percent of male managers have kids at home as compared with 40% of women managers. Corporate life was set up so that one person in a couple works and one stays home with the kids. For all the effort men and women have given to changing this system, it remains relatively unchanged for senior executives.

These facts come from a recent study commissioned by Congress, which shows that men and women climb the corporate ladder together, and then women with children begin to lag, earning lower salaries. Meanwhile, childless women managers remain on par with the men.

Those women with children who continue to climb are more likely to get divorced than the men with kids who continue climbing, says Barrons magazine.

The congressional study tells us that women struggle with career issues that don't affect men. Women, not men, typically must choose between a high-powered career and raising kids. And so far, we have not found an answer. Each woman who gives up something — a career, a kid, time at the office or at home — will tell you the decision was tough. And the jury is out as to what works. The next generation of women will have to try new ways to juggle family and work.

Some schools, bless them, are helping women prepare for future balancing acts. At one top medical school, a panel of surgeons fielded questions from students ready to select a specialty. The discussion turned to a surgeon's notoriously long and unpredictable hours. A student asked the panel members if they would choose surgery again. The four men on the panel each praised their wives at home for supporting them and said they would choose this specialty again. The lone woman on the panel said she would not choose the specialty because surgeons have so little flexibility and she has had to sacrifice family time to succeed.

At this particular school, women choose their specialty with care: Ophthalmology has become popular because it allows for a family life.

Consider these issues when you select your field. If you want a family, find and build a career that is compatible with having a family. If you decide on a family-unfriendly career, find a spouse who will take care of the family (a common solution for women at the top).

Graduation speakers nationwide are touting opportunity, equality, and ambition. I wish I didn't have to be a wet blanket , but someone's gotta do it: Girls, get ready for a corporate world built by men, not women. Think of the workplace as a constant test of your ability to create the life you want. Think of yourself as a trailblazer.