Somehow, every guidance counselor and academic adviser failed to mention the inevitable big, scary abyss at the end of your college career. It’s a period of uncertainty that sets in even before you’ve had a chance to enjoy a post-grad sigh of relief. For those who went straight from high school to college, school has been the norm for sixteen years.
Then, suddenly: no school. No routine. No plan.
As a one-year survivor of this tumultuous time, my advice is this: don’t panic about your first career choice, but choose wisely. You’ll probably go to a dozen different interviews – at least. If you’re lucky, you’ll know someone who knows someone who’s hiring an entry-level graduate. You’re putting yourself out there, networking and connecting with a new feverous passion and hopefully it’s paying off. Eventually, you have to make a decision.
With any luck, you’ll have a few different options of where your first job will be. Don’t take this decision lightly. You’re laying the groundwork for your career and you want to put yourself on a path for success from the very beginning. I’ve outlined five suggestions for how to choose your first post-grad position based on my experience (which includes landing an awesome first job and running an internship program where I’m managing folks who are going through this right now). I expect that these suggestions will vary by industry and skill level, but hopefully there are a few takeaways that will help you choose your first position wisely.
1. Don’t Stress About Salary (seriously!)
This is easier said than done. I know – you’ve finally graduated. You’re sick of being a poor college student, you’ve got student loans up to your sideburns and all you want is to be able to afford decent alcohol. Telling a recent grad not to worry about the money is like telling a starving man to eat his vegetables first.
Making a respectable salary is important, but keep in mind that a) your salary isn’t permanent and b) there truly are more important aspects of your first job. Your pay will fluctuate and it will only increase as you achieve your professional potential. You have to prove something before you rake in the big bucks. Prove that you are reliable and trustworthy. Prove that you can meet deadlines. Prove that you can be proactive and follow through on new ideas. Prove that you can make an impact on the organization as a whole. Once you show how awesome you are, the dough will flow. Getting a raise that you truly deserve is a fantastic feeling.
2. Find an Advocate
The good news about this post-grad abyss is that you don’t have to face it alone. Be proactive in finding a mentor within your company. Seek out someone who is collaborative, someone you admire and, above all, someone you trust. Then, show them you’re worthy of their mentorship. Having an advocate for your professional success means that you have someone who will vouch for your abilities with other team members and give you honest advice when you seek it. This person is your coach and can continue to be even after you’ve left the company.
During interviews, keep an eye out for someone that might fit this role. They will most likely ask about your strengths, how you want to grow, and where you want to be in five years. Do what you can to find out if the work environment is one where individuals are encouraged to learn from each other. As talented as you are, there is a lot to learn. You’ll need someone (or a couple folks) in your corner.
3. Get a Sense of Culture
Let’s do some (somewhat subjective) math. On average, I work about 55 hours per week. In one year, I could spend as much as 2,860 hours with my coworkers. With about eight hours of sleep per night, I’m awake for about 5,849 hours in a year. That means that I spend almost 50% of my conscious life with my teammates at work.
And somehow, we still manage to go out for drinks together some Thursdays (and the occasional hike up a mountain).
Before you choose your post-grad position, do your best to make sure you fit in with the company dynamic and culture. This is difficult to gauge as an outsider. Decide what you want in a company before you go into the interview. Then, ask the right questions. This will vary depending on your priorities, but here are some examples of cultural indicators:
- Is camaraderie and group dynamic important? In your interview, notice if “team” is used to describe groups of employees.
- Do teammates spend time together outside of work? Are there company outings and events? (If, like me, you’ve watched too many episodes of The Office, company parties might make you cringe. In a world without Steve Carell, though, it’s a perfect time to get to know your teammates on a personal level. This, in my experience, has a positive impact on productivity because you can be more honest and open with your co-workers. Friendship and/or mutual trust fosters creativity and collaboration at work).
- What’s the vacation policy?
- Are you team-oriented or highly independent? Take notes on desk setup within the office space – is it siloed or collaborative?
- How is the team organized? Ask to see an organizational chart to get a feel for the hierarchy and workflow.
- What are the people like? Ask your interview about their background and why they chose to work there.
Please, please, please ask questions during your interview and learn as much as you can about the company while you have the chance. Your interviewer will appreciate the interest you show and you’ll be able to make a wise decision about your compatibility with company culture.
4. Be Prepared to Commit
Don’t go into your first job thinking that you’ll be there temporarily until something better opens up. Loyalty is so valuable, especially at an entry-level position where coworkers expect you to be a flaky 20-something. Jeanne Hopkins, one of my mentors and CMO at SmartBear, says she recommends new grads stay on at least two years at their first company. “Otherwise, you have a strange story to tell in future interviews,” she says.
Time and experience with one company will open up your opportunities for leadership and innovation. It’s easy for management to say, “Let’s put Ben on this project, he’s been here long enough to know how it’s done and how to improve upon it.” You become more confident in your abilities in a familiar setting. Once you know the status quo, you can create opportunities to push the envelope and make a positive impact on the business.
The other benefit of sticking with your first job is that you develop a strong foundation to begin your long career. Relationships aren’t built in a day, you know. The people you work with at the beginning of your career are the ones that will lift you up as you move forward (see Tip #2). You never know when your co-worker will need someone with your exact skill set 10 years from now. We’ve got a long career ahead of us. The more strong relationships you can establish early on, the more opportunities you’ll create for the future.
5. Have a Growth Plan
Before you commit, find out if there is potential for you to move up within the company. Look for a job that will give you opportunities to move up, not just the skills to move on. Your first job with a company could also turn into your second job, and your third, as you move up the ladder and morph into different positions.
I started at SmartBear as a social media manager. Over the past year, I’ve pursued (and been given the chance to work on) different types of projects. In addition to my expertise in social media, I also gained experience in content creation, marketing automation, and project management. I outgrew my initial position and am now a marketing programs manager responsible for social media, paid media and customer marketing. It’s important to know that there is potential for mobility within your first company – you’re going to grow quickly!
Whatever company is lucky enough to bring you on, be prepared to go above and beyond the call of duty. Prove that you are a team player, a hard worker, and are passionate about the success of your company – because it’s tied to you forever.