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Caitlin Melvin thought the school-to-work transition would be easy, but the recent graduate from The University of Ottawa, received a rude awakening shortly after she started searching for her first job out of school.

"I thought I would land a job earning at least $50,000 after graduation, [in reality]I was in and out of jobs that paid a couple of dollars more than minimum wage, while spending my spare time frantically searching for a job," says Ms. Melvin. When her plans didn't immediately pan out, her debt load, and her self doubt, increased. Ms. Melvin now works part-time serving to pay down her debts and stay on top of her finances as she works her way into her chosen field.

Life after graduation can come with a with a financial slap in the face. You live in a post-secondary bubble for three or four years, and then graduate with expectations of what your job will look like – and pay.

Compensating for low-paying starter jobs with a part-time job is the reality for many new graduates. It's also necessary if you're taking on an unpaid internship. Unpaid internships are a controversial topic for some, but not for Lauren Friese, founder of, a career website targeted at students and recent graduates. Ms. Friese says working for nothing is absolutely worth it, and in many cases, far more valuable than forking over additional money to pursue another degree. With an internship, paid or unpaid, you're gaining real-life industry connections which are key to getting a foot in the door that leads to paid work.

If you're considering taking an internship, it's important to work for someone you trust and who has a reputable business. You want to intern with someone who you feel will help you move to the next level, or will be open to offering a paid position in the future. You'll want to be strategic with your part-time jobs as well.

Rachel Hall, who currently lives and works in Denver, Colo., worked two part-time jobs while in school. She was a temporary fill-in executive assistant to one of the biggest real estate developers in her city, as well as a bartender at a downtown hotel. Her goal was to gain experience in her chosen field and make connections with potential clients or individuals who could help her get her foot in the door after graduation.

"I can't remember the number of times people would ask what I was studying in college or what I wanted to do after bartending. I would let everyone know my part-time work was keeping me busy until I finished school and could pursue a career in real estate," she says. Her part-time work landed her a job with a top developer and her role as a bartender allowed her to network with potential clients or those who could help her. "Get it out there – let people know your next move," says Ms. Hall.

Indeed, networking is key to landing your first job out of school, according to the authors of The Canadian Student Survival Guide, Graham McWaters and Winthrop Sheldon. The authors say a referral as a result of networking generates 80 per cent more results than cold calls, and almost 70 per cent of all jobs are found through networking. Networking doesn't cost much, and there are a number of free resources available, such as, to help current students and recent grads find the right fit. Workopolis Campus and Young Canada Works are also sites specifically aimed at students and recent graduates, offering paid and unpaid opportunities.

With youth unemployment in Canada sitting at nearly twice the national rate, about 14 per cent, more and more young Canadians are turning to short stints of unpaid opportunities to gain experience and entry into their area of interest. It's a start.

"As a recent grad I know I'm not the only one who's had a rough start," says Ms. Melvin. "But a rough start doesn't mean a rough ride forever." The faster you are able to connect with the right people, the smoother the transition from school to work will be, and the faster you'll start to see the return on your investment in your postsecondary years.

Angela Self is one of the founders of the Smart Cookies money group. Read her weekly column on managing debt and saving money at