(Article adapted with permission from Alloy Education/Career Recruitment Media)
Now that you’ve graduated it’s time to enter the real world (the workplace) where your schedule isn’t as free, but there are definitely perks, like that paycheck at the end of the work as compensation for your hard work. So as you trade in your backpack for a briefcase, you’re embarking on a new adventure and a totally different phase of your life. The transition from student to professional isn’t always easy, but what you learn from your first job can benefit you greatly throughout your entire career.
Your first year on the job is an amazing equalizing experience. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter who got straight “A’s” in school and who failed freshman physics. You get the chance to begin again on a level playing field with your peers. It is also the opportunity to take what you learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world.
Whether your first job is at a huge international engineering firm or a four-person technical start up, the skills you build will develop and strengthen throughout your career. Read on for the top ten tips on how to make the most of your profession experience.
Ten Tips for Success
Expect a Learning Curve
Particularly in technical fields, there can be a discrepancy between what you studied and what you will actually do in the work settings. When Jason Levin graduated from the State University of New York at New Paltz with an MS degree in Computer Science in 2004, he landed a job as a software developer with a financial risk management software development company. During his nine months working there, he was struck by the difference between the abstract concepts he had learned in school and the practical applications needed in the workplace. “There was a gap between the way the material was presented in school, which was theoretical,” says Levin, “and the company’s expectations.” The challenge for him was learning to put these theories into practice, but as he continued to work at his new job, he figured out how to mesh the abstract concepts with the real world work. Doing so helped him to advance his technical skills.
One of the best ways to learn is by example. Watching your colleagues and managers will help you discover a wealth of information about the protocol and corporate culture in your new workplace. Notice what time your co-workers arrive in the morning, when they leave in the evening, and what they wear. Are people friendly on a personal basis or are they all business? Also, be aware of how they conduct meetings, the ways they communicate with each other, and how they manage their time. And when you are unsure, don’t hesitate to ask questions about work tasks or office structure.
Sure, you’re the new kid on the block, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to offer. It can be easy to feel discouraged and insecure about everything you haven’t mastered yet. But remember to focus on the many skills you already bring to the table. Organizations have a choice about which recent graduates they want to hire, and you beat out the competition. You earned your position, so have faith in your abilities, and your supervisor will as well.
But Don’t Be Arrogant
Even if you have several great internships under your belt, your first year as a full-time employee is likely to be a vastly different experience. While your prior jobs and courses have taught you a great deal, it’s important to acknowledge that you still have much to learn. Carrie Bernstein, now 34 and the director of information technology at Standard and Poor’s in New York, recalls her first job in what was then JP Morgan’s technical training program on Wall Street. Bernstein, who has majored in statistics at Cornell University, realized that her majors didn’t matter for success in the program. “Organizations are looking for well-rounded individuals who can think for themselves and expand on a topic” she says. In her program, she worked along side History and English majors as they all received the necessary technical training to perform their jobs. The moral of the story is that no one comes in with all the necessary knowledge to do his or her job. Seek help and collaboration when you need it.
Be Thorough and Conscientious
If you make a mistake while creating a computer program for a class project, the worst is that you will do poorly in the class. In the workplace, however, a mistake can have far broader implications. While his school projects focused on concepts, Levin found that in a workplace, the focus was on the user. “At work, I learned to be more thorough and careful, because people are actually using these programs,” he explains. Since one incorrectly typed number would make an entire program go wrong, Levin shifted his focus to think about the user more specifically. This caused him to become a more careful and analytical computer scientist. Ultimately, this new mindset helped him when he was ready to move on.
As important as organization was when you were a student, it is even more crucial now. Procrastination is simply not an option in the workplace. Determine what you need to do to stay on top of your projects. Keep your schedule close at hand, in whatever format works for you. Also, prioritizing your pressing commitments and working on them first will help you stay on track.
Each workday is not going to be a walk in the park. Even at the best first job, at times, it may feel like you are being overworked, underpaid and taken advantage of. However, try to keep a positive attitude, and realize that everyone faces the first job blues. It’s part of the rite of passage that transforms you from a student into a full-fledged professional. Instead of focusing on the negative, always think about the transferable skills you are gaining from your experience. Even if your boss is harsh, your co-workers unfriendly, and your commute is long, there is always a bright side. Communication, leadership and technical skills are just a few of the abilities that you can take away from your first job that will benefit you in the long run.
As you gain more experience, you’ll learn a lot about your career possibilities and probably find some new doors opening to you. Your first job paves the way for your future career, so take advantage of all the professional development opportunities during this time. Join professional associations and attend conferences. Both in and out of your office, you should find a mentor who has a job that you admire. Mentors can offer support, encouragement and valuable advice about how to build your career and move up to the next level. Moreover, by developing good relationships with both colleagues and supervisors, you have an automatic network to tap into as changes occur.
Look to the Future
Obtaining and developing transferable skills is one of the most important things to take away from your first job. Levin explains how his first position also taught him about what companies are looking for: “after working, you have a much better idea of what employers want,” he shares. Within a few months, Levin had a real world project experience. Furthermore, skills such as working well under pressure can be transferred not only across companies, but also across industries. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard to adjust,” says Levin. He used the skills he developed at his first job to find his current position. He is now a software engineer at LBI Software Engineering in Woodbury, N.Y.
You’ve got plenty of new responsibilities to attend to. But admit it, it probably feels pretty good to do so well at your first real job. (And that first paycheck probably isn’t so bad either!) This is the time in your life when overabundances of opportunities are in front of you. A first job doesn’t set your career in stone; rather, it can launch it in any direction that you want for the future. Once you learn to balance work with your social life, let loose and do the things you enjoy. Meet friends for dinner or go out and spend a little of your earnings on something you covet. Enjoy your freedom, and make the most of it!