Eight Rude Awakenings In My First Professional Job
Graduating school is just the beginning. Entering the working world has its a new set of challenges.
When I graduated from school, I looked at employment with rose-colored glasses. Finally, I was going to be spending my time earning a paycheck rather than building debt. I had my degree, a Master’s in my case, and felt ready to get my feet wet.
Then, it didn’t happen right away. I spent about two years trying to get into a decent position. It was a battle to get into the workforce, and the end result didn’t seem like a reward. I landed my first “professional” role and was surprised that this is what I fought for.
Admittedly, “professional” is a bit of a vague term. I’m using it to describe the first job that actually paid and aligned with my career objectives when I graduated. Many people will work as a server, in retail, or in an entirely different field.
There’s still value in that work, and there should be no shame in taking an unexpected position because you need the money. I was also young and stubborn, and I wanted to build my “professional” resume quickly. When it didn’t happen right away, I became more determined but more stubborn.
After a couple of years in my first job, I learned a lot. Some of this was humbling, but above all else, I learned I needed to adjust expectations.
School doesn’t always prepare you to work with other people, and the world is very different outside of your college bubble. This transition proved to be both difficult and exciting, but it was certainly not what I anticipated.
Occasionally I evaluate my current position and career trajectory. I wonder why my perspective changed so much after my time in school and how naive I was on graduation day.
School Didn’t Really Prepare You
Sometimes I think of all the time I spent researching scholarly articles and spinning my wheels with statistics coursework. When I got my first job, I used none of this. After three or four months, I would have killed for an assignment as challenging as that coursework.
A lot of the work you will be given is super easy. It could be data entry, correspondence, or administrative duties. When you start in a company, you’re usually regulated to the work that requires the least amount of knowledge.
’Over time, this will help you to learn about the office culture and hierarchy. However, you’re mostly going to be doing this work because nobody else wants to.
You’ll Get the Freshman Treatment
When you entered high school, you started at the bottom. Then you graduated and repeated the cycle in college. After that, you won’t find such a rigid hierarchy with a clear path for growth.
However, anytime you’re in an environment where longevity produces superiority the newbies will be made to feel inferior. When I entered a professional environment, I was surprised to find relics of a high school mentality.
Sadly, you’ll never avoid cliques in your life. Your coworkers are going to have preexisting relationships and you won’t be part of their history.
Even if you are accepted, you won’t understand the inside jokes and won’t want to reminisce on events from three years ago. Fortunately, the professional environment makes this dynamic less severe than high school. People want to maintain their professional image, so they might be more welcoming to new hires.
The Learning Curve Is Rough
A year into your first job you might start to feel bored. A lot of the work you do is fairly simple, and the actual processes will eventually become routine. In the first couple of months, you won’t have this feeling. You’ll get an assignment that needs to be done quickly, but the workflow is completely unfamiliar.
Your trainers probably aren’t teachers. They’re probably one step above you in the hierarchy because your manager can’t be bothered to train you. Then you’re going to be given big projects because your supervisor’s supervisor needs work to get done. Prepare to feel challenged, because sometimes it’s just trial by fire.
It’s Not What You Do, It’s Who You Do It For
In my first professional role, I needed to understand tax returns. I could no longer ask my parents for help; I needed to figure this out on my own. Then, I figured it out. I knew the data I needed and where I could find it.
As far as my supervisor was concerned, I accomplished nothing. All he cared about was the data on his screen. My knowledge was only as good as my ability to put information into our systems and follow arbitrary office policies.
This is something I should have learned in school. Much like those pesky professors who need you to use a specific font and cite sources in an uncommon style, you will need to play by your boss’s rules or your work won’t matter.
Own Your Mistakes
In school, whenever you made a mistake, you’d likely be docked points and corrected. Fortunately, your mistakes at work won’t result in a pay cut, but they influence the ways others view you. When you’re in a new job, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s expected, and it won’t be the end of the world.
When this happens, admit your faults. Nobody cares about your excuses unless they provide actionable steps to prevent future errors. If you want to save face and improve your performance, you need to be comfortable owning your errors.
If you get feedback, accept it. This is usually well-intended, and if you use this feedback to become more accurate then you’ll likely gain some respect.
At some point, you’re going to find yourself in some type of dilemma. Usually, you’ll be able to talk to your supervisor and find a resolution. Then there are the times when this doesn’t work. The best way to build a case for yourself is to keep a paper trail.
Organize e-mails into folders, save copies of important text, and keep an archive of anything that feels unusual to you. If someone is trying to tell you something but won’t put it in writing, there’s probably something sketchy going on. Life is much easier when you can support your emotions with data.
Even if you’re not dealing with employee relations, documenting your actions can be valuable. This prevents you from needing to start a project from ground zero. Or, someone else can pick up a project where you left off. Having too much data can be annoying, but it’s much easier to work with too much than too little.
Advocate For Yourself and Your Benefits
Your first professional job is just that: a job. You get paid for your work, and you get to utilize the benefits you’ve agreed upon. Nobody is going to be impressed if you come into the office while you’re sick or go an entire year without a vacation.
This is a trap I fell into. I thought I would receive favorable recognition for never taking time off. The end result? My supervisor told me I was accruing too much vacation time and encouraged me to take a break. Not the worst outcome, but it didn’t make me a better person.
This does not mean you’re entitled to take any day off without notice. It does mean you should be able to coordinate time off with your supervisor and you shouldn’t be shamed for needing to go to the doctor. If you can’t use benefits, talk to HR. Most supervisors will want to keep the office fully staffed, but they’d much rather avoid HR at any cost.
Group Projects Can Actually Be Good
Collaboration is much easier when employees are forced to work in the same space. Group projects do have value, but now they’re done on the clock.
The group work you did in school was given because class time is limited and professors wanted to grade fewer assignments. When the logistical frustrations are alleviated, the benefits of group work can shine through.
Perhaps this was the most pleasant surprise in my first job. I enjoy working with my colleagues and it can be the highlight of my day.
The Office Is Now Your Classroom
When you’re in school, you’re usually given a syllabus at the beginning of the term. Often, your assignments and learning objectives are clearly outlined. In the real world, you don’t get such a clear summary of expectations.
You have to work for a single supervisor and adapt to numerous changes. If you hated your professor, you’d be saved at the end of the term. If you hate your supervisor, you’ll need to create your own escape plan.
This transition can be difficult, but I found a lot of rewards in the challenge. I had more control over my learning, and there are fewer opportunities for people to tell me I’m wrong. Rather, I found myself in an environment where my objective was to prove my worth and advocate for myself. This is definitely more difficult, but I feel much stronger after the experience.
It would be nice if schools provided better guidance for the real world. Often, the soft skills you learn will make you most successful when working with others. Unless you’re training for a hands-on role, you won’t be expected to have specific knowledge coming into a position. Instead, you will need to adapt to a new environment successfully.
The first time you do this, you’ll feel like a fish out of water. The next time will still be awkward, but it does get easier. Everyone has their own challenges, and school can’t prepare you for every outcome. You’ll become your own teacher, and your successes become a culmination of previous experiences.
Product designer, educator, content marketer.