I can admit it now; I was completely clueless about a lot of things in my first job out of college. From navigating complicated office hierarchies to knowing exactly what to wear in the workplace, and just exactly how I was supposed to figure things out myself when I had no idea what I was doing. It took me a while to understand the etiquette and unspoken rules of the workplace that now seem so obvious.
Of course, I learned with time and would probably not trade my then-naivety for anything else. It did, after all, force me to learn lessons that are so drilled in my head now as a working person. If it wasn’t for my cringeworthy expectation that I was always going to be given clear instructions and then realizing I was wrong, my brain wouldn’t be set to the “automatically anticipate needs” mode that it’s on today. If it wasn’t for me being completely unhappy (and useless) in my first job, I might not have been brave enough to take the plunge and pursue the career that I really wanted.
I don’t have any regrets, but there are things that I wish someone told me before starting my first job out of college. I spoke to three twentysomethings who are 3 to 5 years into their working life about what they wish they knew before day one of their entry-level job.
1. It’s Okay Not To Know Everything, But It’s Equally Important To Be Resourceful
Starting a job means learning a whole new set of skills, and doing tasks that can seem alien to us. Liz Wessel, CEO and cofounder of WayUp–an online job marketplace for recent grads and college students–tells Fast Company that as a new associate product marketing manager for Google, she remembers asking so many questions and “always apologizing.”
But as Wessel reflects on her time at the tech giant, her willingness to ask questions actually benefited her as an employee. “I was able to move up the ranks much more quickly.” Now, as an employer, “you love someone that asks questions,” asserts the 27-year-old.
Of course everyone is busy, so while asking questions is good, it’s equally important to take the initiative to find the answers yourself. Erin Nordloh, a senior account executive at PAN Communications, says that in addition to asking questions, “it’s important to be resourceful,”–particularly in an age where everything is searchable on the internet. Nordloh recalls a time when she was about to write an email to a colleague to ask a question, and then decided that she would type her question into Google before pressing send. She found the answer right away.
2. Vetting Your Manager Is Equally As Important As Vetting The Company
For Caroline Cotto, a culture content creator at HubSpot, one of the things she wished she did in her first job–a researcher at a nutrition lab–was to dig deeper into what it’s like to work with her boss. “In the interview process, it’s critical to make sure you are not only being interviewed, but that you are interviewing your potential future manager. For me, it turned out that that my manager at the lab was an inspiring researcher, but her commitment to the research left little time for truly investing in the personal and professional growth of her staff.”
Cotto also said that part of the “interview” process would involve having coffee dates with a few employees. “If I could go back in time I would have made more of an effort to really understand what the day-to-day lives of the people in the lab were like, what the team dynamics were, and what the management style of the lead researchers was like before I took the position based on the description.”
3. The Job Description Might Change As The Company Evolves
In college, your responsibilities as a student are pretty clear-cut: Go to class, complete the assignments, study for and take the exams.
But companies evolve, and in today’s world, that change can happen quickly. You might be hired for a specific position, but later find that your day-to-day duties are completely different. Wessel says that she’s seen this topic come up in conversations with WayUp’s partner companies–and sometimes the employee fails to adapt to the change. “You have to have a sense of flexibility with the job you take.”
4. Acquire Skills And Knowledge That Will Be Practical In The Workplace
Nordloh credits her five internships as crucial preparation in hitting the ground running on day one, while Wessel says that taking classes outside of her major that she knew would be practical in the workplace has immensely helped her career. “I think in college, especially for people who major in the liberal arts, they don’t realize the value of taking a few courses that might be outside of their major such as a finance course or a design course.”
For Wessel, that course was Photoshop, which she admits she’s used more in her working life than any courses in her major, political science and government.
5. Finding Your Dream Job Might Take A While
It took Cotto a couple of years to find her ideal job. After spending a year as a Fulbright teaching fellow in Taiwan, she did a brief stint as a communications and nutrition assistant for the UN World Food Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She then returned to the U.S. and started her job as a researcher in the nutrition lab, but three months into the job, she realized that she was passionate about corporate wellness and corporate culture–which she discovered through the lab’s work with corporate obesity. That led her to apply for a position at HubSpot, which she originally didn’t land. Luckily for Cotto, the company decided to create another position for her.
“I think the American education system sets us up to always be thinking about what’s next. We live 18 years of our lives thinking about the next step of going to college, but when college ends and the next step is ambiguous, it’s easy to feel lost.”
“I think, especially for students of prestigious universities, there’s a lot of stigma if you’re kind of ‘floundering’ and you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do after graduation,” she says.
She urges those people, “If you try something and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It just means that you haven’t found an opportunity that recognizes your skills and talents.”