This month marks 11 years since I left college with a shiny Bachelor of Arts degree and the panic-inducing question, What should I do after graduation? I had gone to an out-of-state college and signed a lease through the summer, so the plan was to look for a job until my lease was up and then retreat home if necessary. Luckily, I found a job two months after graduation, and I was so thrilled with landing my first “adult” job and being able to support myself that I didn’t really think about the way my career unfolded there over the years.
Now that I have over a decade of experience, I have some practical advice for young adults who will be graduating this year and are headed into professional, full-time work for the first time. The work of building a career doesn’t end when you’ve landed your first job. And you’ll want to be much better than me at asking questions and honestly evaluating your future.
Question 1: Is there a path forward for you?
I knew on the first day of my first job that there was, quite literally, nowhere for me to go. I was the only copyeditor/proofreader, and the rest of the marketing department was made up of graphic designers. There was no ladder for me to climb in that department, and the only way to go anywhere would be to transfer departments and switch jobs entirely. But I liked my coworkers, the office was close by, and I could survive on my salary, so I just shrugged and went along with it — for nearly five years.
I naively assumed that everywhere was like this, and that there really wasn’t much in the way of advancement for my profession if I wasn’t going to be at a full-fledged marketing agency or in publishing, neither of which was something I wanted to do. I thought that was just the way things were.
As it turns out, that’s not how it works at a company that cares about retaining its employees. My current employer has literally created new job positions for me, including new responsibilities and higher pay, not once but twice. I have also been given educational opportunities, both online and in seminars. I feel like the company I work for now is invested in providing chances for growth for its employees.
Question 2: What would it take to keep you?
One of my biggest mistakes at my first post-college job was always asking how bad it would have to get in order for me to leave. I never found an answer, even though I took work home on the weekends for unpaid overtime and I was given less than a 2% raise my first year there. In fact, I might still be working there if I hadn’t been let go in the third or fourth round of downsizing. (Yes, I stayed despite all signs that things weren’t going well because I figured I was irreplaceable. I was very wrong.)
There is a much better question to ask yourself when it comes to your job: What would it take to keep me? After all, every day you’re at your current job is a day spent that you’re not working somewhere else that might offer a better salary, different perks, or a career path closer to your dream job. If I could give just one bit of life advice for 20-somethings, it would be to regularly ask yourself this question and set actual conditions for what will kick off your job search.
Whether those conditions are a raise under X%, or not being promoted to Y level by Z time, or getting a lackluster bonus, set your bar for what your employer needs to do in order to keep you. Then, start searching if they can’t clear it. Be better than I was at deciding it was time to move on.
Question 3: Do you want to keep doing what you’re doing right now?
Even if you happened to land your dream job straight out of college, there are always going to be aspects of work that you find tedious, unfulfilling, or downright frustrating that are likely to be the same no matter where you go (overlong meetings, unnecessary reply-all emails, etc.). What you should focus on first when you ask yourself this question are the core parts of your job.
Maybe you’re a skilled graphic designer, and getting assigned to create the eighth version of a product’s packaging makes you want to scream. Maybe you’re a technical writer, and creating instruction manuals for home appliances makes you want to call in sick. Maybe you’re just out of law school, and it turns out that doing tax law professionally is even worse than it was in class.
It’s normal to go through low periods at work (or, at least, that has been my experience). My advice to you would be to look at the substance of your work and figure out if that is what is causing you misery. Because if it is, now would be the best time to start figuring out how to change careers, industries, or your focus, whether that’s within the same organization or not. It doesn’t make sense to jump companies if you’re going to end up doing the exact same thing that you hate somewhere else. Your first few years in the workforce aren’t only for gaining experience; they’re also to help you learn what kind of work you’re willing to do.
If you don’t mind the actual work you’re doing but still feel like you don’t want to continue with the way things are, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at whether there’s something else wrong: a work culture you’re incompatible with, an employer’s behavior or stated mission, a dysfunctional supervisor or coworkers, or a dozen other issues that don’t have anything to do with the actual work you perform. If that’s the case, starting up a job search for a better environment may be the best thing you can do to improve your life at work.
I wish I had thought to ask myself these questions when I was early on my career. I’ll settle for asking them now, when there is still plenty of time to figure out my answers and make any necessary changes as the years go by.
Image via Unsplash