Career Advice for New Grads: What I Wish I Knew Before My First Job

Congratulations to the graduating class of 2018. For four (or more) years, you’ve poured your blood, sweat and tears into your studies and extracurricular activities, all in preparation for this day. Every all-nighter, every stress-inducing exam, every term paper will be worth it when you finally receive that long-awaited diploma, which has the potential to open the doors to your dream career.

This time six years ago, I was in your shoes. Days before graduation, I had officially accepted a full-time, entry-level job at a marketing company in midtown Manhattan. I fully believed I was ready to take my first steps into the “real world.”

I felt like I had the hang of working in an office from my part-time internships during college. How different could it be? I’d arrive at 9 a.m., sit down at my desk, do my work and go home eight hours later. I’d get a steady paycheck and paid vacation time, and make some great new friends. That’s what I thought, anyway.

I had a lot of expectations going into my first day on the job. Some of them turned out to be correct, but many of them were quickly shattered. The year that I spent at this company taught me a lot of valuable lessons — both about my career and life in general — that I took with me when I moved on to my next corporate job. Below are just a few of the things I would go back and tell my 21-year-old self, in the hopes that the newest members of the workforce can benefit from them. 

Work might follow you home.

Many first-time members of the workforce make the naïve assumption that work will end when you leave the office. This is how it was at my internships: I never had to worry about what happened once I walked out the door. But when you’re a full-time, salaried staff member, your responsibilities can and will extend outside the confines of your desk. With today’s cloud and mobile tech, people don’t follow the “9-to-5” mentality anymore. While you shouldn’t be expected to respond to your boss’s emails at midnight, there are going to be times when an after-hours emergency pops up, and you may need to be the one who deals with it.

… but don’t let work become your life. 

Just because you can work from anywhere at any time does not mean you should. Yes, you will have to stay late or come in early sometimes, or miss out on a social events because of a big project. But you’re an entry-level employee. You’re not running the company, and the company certainly isn’t paying you enough to spend every waking moment doing work. Set a time each night when you’ll stop checking your emails. If you’re working for a company that expects you to be on-call and working 24/7 (when you were hired for a 40-hour-a-week job), that’s not a place you want to stay at for too long.

You won’t earn everyone’s respect. 

Most of us know that respect in the workplace needs to be earned, especially as an entry-level employee. However, you also have to realize that there will be certain people in the office who will never respect you. They will never see you as anything more than a means to a corporate end, no matter how hard you work or how valuable your contributions are. Don’t fight it, and don’t lash out because of it. Find the ones who do respect you and stick with them.

Speak up about problems (but don’t gossip). 

If there’s a serious problem with the way your boss is running things, you need to speak up. Ask for a private meeting, or if you’re too afraid to approach your boss directly, bring it up to the next person in command. If you don’t say something, the situation will never change. What won’t help anything is gossiping with your fellow lower-level colleagues about how you’re planning to apply to other jobs just to get out. You never know who’s listening, or who will bring that second-hand news back to the boss.

Perception matters, so give 100 percent, even if there’s no reward. 

You’re not always going to get credit for the work you do. As frustrating as it is to receive little to no recognition for the hours you spent slaving over a project, don’t use that as an excuse to slack off and fade into the background. That’s something your bosses and colleagues will immediately notice, and it won’t do you any favors when it comes time for evaluations, promotions, or even future job recommendations. On the flip side, if you establish a reputation as someone who gets things done, solves problems, and eagerly accepts new challenges, you’ll be one of the first in line to climb the ladder.

Your job description will change as you go.

No position is static. When you first start working, your duties should at least resemble the ones listed in the job description. But as your skills develop and the company’s needs change, you may (and probably will) be asked to go in a different direction, take on more work, and tackle some new challenges. You shouldn’t feel stressed and overworked 24/7, but if the boss asks you to do something you weren’t necessarily hired to do, welcome the project as an opportunity to grow and learn. You never know if the experience will come in handy at a future job.

Make time to recharge and take care of yourself. 

Most full-time jobs come with the benefit of paid time off, and they’re there for you to use. Don’t avoid taking a vacation day because you’re afraid your boss will think less of you for taking a day off. Even taking a single day off every couple of months can help you recharge and keep you from burning out. If you’re running yourself into the ground by working nonstop, your performance and overall attitude will start to decline.

Have an exit strategy. 

Unless you hit the corporate jackpot and find a job where you can swiftly move up the ranks, it’s more than likely that your first job is just going to be a stepping stone to bigger, better things. There’s nothing wrong with that, and most companies have come to expect high turnover rates in their lower-level positions. Keep an eye on companies you might want to work for in the future, and network with other people in your industry — both great ways to begin planning your exit, even if you’re happy where you are for the moment.

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