Your first job after graduation


Entry into "the real world" should be a time of excitement, enthusiasm, and exploration for most college graduates. School, for the time being, really is over. Now is finally the time to apply some of the knowledge and insights acquired during all those school years. A substantial salary assures financial independence. All kinds of doors are opened presenting a world of new opportunities.

The transition from the world of higher education to that of the first career job is a dramatic one. Most college seniors are not aware of the magnitude of the transitions and adjustments that need to be made on virtually all fronts, and are ignorant of the consequences for not making these adjustments in a mature and speedy manner.

What a shock it can be to discover that the new graduate once again drops to "freshman" status at the bottom of the corporate ladder. Just as a college freshman has to learn the ropes of the new environment, the recent graduate starting a career job faces a whole new world. The difficulty is that the real world is less tolerant of mistakes, offers less time and flexibility for adjustment, and demands performance for the pay it offers.

The graduate who enters this world with open eyes and with enthusiasm invariably does better than the one who naively expects life to continue as before. The purpose of this monograph is to present some of the realities and opportunities of the first career job to help the new graduate make the transition successfully.

The world of work

It could take an entire book to describe the first year of employment for the new college graduate, the problems faced and the opportunities presented. This monograph is intended to describe briefly some of the major issues you may face. Some books that focus on the topic are listed at the end of the monograph.

The transition from school to work career need not be a negative one, though many of the items below might make it appear that way. The key variable is the recognition of the differences between school and work and a willingness to adjust rapidly to these changes. Fighting the changes, or denying the need to adjust, causes nothing but frustration and failure. Wise graduates will recognize the necessary behavioral changes that must be made with the transition from school to work, accept them, and go on from there

Dealing with the clock 

College life offers incredible flexibility in how you spend your time. Many students avoid morning courses like the plague, stay up till 3:00 a.m. most nights, cut classes and get notes from their friends, and goof off for weeks at a time, then work at a frenzied pace to finish the term in decent shape. If you had a tendency to follow this sort of schedule in college, forget it.

First of all, you can't cut work. If your starting time is 8:30, you are advised to arrive early and alert. Excuses for tardiness or absences will not be appreciated and recurring behavior of this type will result first in a negative image, then in dismissal.

The workplace will not care that you are "not a morning person." It will not be interested in your late night escapades, or the fact that your car would not start. You are expected to be punctual and ready to perform at the start of the day.

Many professors' grades are based upon exam scores and maybe a term paper. They don't care if you never show up for class, as long as you learn the material. This might be fine on the campus and you might have enjoyed the leniency, but recognize the fact that it is not accepted in the real world. Even if you get more done in six hours than others do in ten, you will be punished for tardiness.

Develop a reputation for being punctual. Get plenty of sleep and arrive early and alert for each day's work. One of the easiest ways to make a good early impression at your new workplace is to demonstrate consistent punctuality.

College life allows for all kinds of mid-day breaks. You could relax during a major part of many days and study on your own schedule. The job will probably call for you to be working continually through the day. Sure there will be time for lunch, and brief interludes during the day, but you won't have time to leave the office and go for a swim, take a nap, etc. This straight-through schedule can be a rude adjustment.

When does vacation start?

It is a good idea to get some time to unwind between graduation and beginning your job, because it will probably be your last vacation for a while. Many jobs offer two weeks vacation per year to new employees, and usually you cannot take a vacation day until at least six months have passed. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's are just short holidays.

All the years you've been attending school you got used to long vacations after each term, a summer vacation of three months, a liberal holiday schedule. Now you find that it's week after week of work with no big break at the end of a project. You may be asked to work weekends to meet a tough deadline, just a part of the job.

You may well look back enviously on all the free time you had during your college years. Remember them fondly, but don't resent the demands made by the job. You paid the college--your employer is paying you.

Which is more important: Image or substance?

Substance is very important and much will be expected of you. In the workplace you must recognize the importance of image as well.

In college, those who assign grades don't care much about image. You may dress radically, doze through classes, drink heavily many nights of the week, use profanity liberally, complain about the establishment, and so forth. College is meant to be a time for self-exploration, and many of these activities are tolerated as long as acceptable grades are maintained. (And grades are not assigned based upon image, but upon whatever other criteria the professor has set.)

In the workplace, image becomes much more important than it was in college. This seems superficial to many graduates, particularly those with a penchant for rebelliousness, but there are reasons for the importance of image. Many of the first impressions you make will be based upon image and these impressions affect how you are viewed within your organization, by clients or other outside contacts. These impressions project an image of your entire organization. Image should not be treated lightly.

A major part of image is how you dress and groom for the job. Clothing is important! Your attire is one of the first things people will notice about you and you must pay attention to it.

Most college students have not accumulated a collection of business suits and accessories by the time they graduate. They expect to "get by" for a while realizing that they might look shabbier than colleagues from time to time.

This does NOT work well! You need to be able to dress appropriately the first day, the first week, the first month on the job. This means an up-front investment in clothing that will allow you to be appropriately attired on a daily basis.

It should be noted that appropriate attire differs from organization to organization, and even from one workplace to another within organizations. Many frown on facial hair for men, flashy hairstyles for women, dangling jewelry, and other attention attracting features. Impeccable personal hygiene should be an obvious demand. You will have the chance to make personal statements through appearance in later years, but do not risk your initial credibility with such individuality during your first year on the job. Determine before your first day what attire is appropriate on the job and dress appropriately.

The boss: Ally or enemy?

Your boss is not like your college professors and should not be viewed in a similar manner. The professor had all the answers, encouraged argument and debate, laid out guidelines to assignments (generally well ahead of a due date) and was expected to be fair and objective. Your boss, on the other hand, will often send you to get the answers, will discourage arguments, will be vague as to how to complete a task, and will often come up with last minute assignments, unclear priorities, and vague directions. The sooner you can accept this change from professor to boss, the greater your chance at success.

Your boss controls a great deal of what can happen to you during your first year. If you come into the organization with a willing attitude, demonstrate poise and maturity, and work well with others, you will begin to be chosen for the better assignments. If you fight the system, grunt work will become your specialty. The more you complain about it, the more the boss will pile it on. The more enthusiastically you complete the grunt assignments, the more quickly you'll be moved into the better ones.

If your boss is not your ally, you have big problems. You might sometimes view her as the enemy because she may be demanding more than you want to give, intruding on your free time, and causing you to lose sleep at night. Accepting all this requires you to take on a realistic perspective regarding the world of work and how it differs from college.

One of your biggest responsibilities in the new job is to make your boss look good. This means completing work on time and with excellent quality, acting like a professional at all times, and maintaining a positive attitude. If you regularly do what you can to make your boss look good you are already progressing in the right direction.

Your boss is expected to train and develop you, not to become your best friend. Don't expect to form a buddy relationship with this person, and it is not recommended to use her as the sounding board for your personal or financial problems. Too much awareness of these problems can affect her view of your maturity, professionalism, and competence. Not all of us handle our personal lives as well as our jobs, and they should be kept separate.

Let's discuss a hypothetical situation. It is Friday afternoon and you have plans at the lake for the whole weekend. Suddenly your boss calls you in and loads you down with files so that you can prepare a detailed report for an unexpected Monday morning meeting. She apologizes but the meeting was just scheduled and she also has to prepare for it.

You are now left with several possible choices. You can go through with the weekend plans and try to do your work in quiet moments here and there, and by pulling an all-nighter on Sunday. You might not do your best work but you feel it's unfair to expect you to change plans that have been made for weeks.

You can explain the situation to your boss and see if she'll reassign the work to someone else. She seems pretty reasonable and might not hold it against you.

You can cancel the weekend plans and do the best possible job on the report. You get a good night's sleep on Sunday so you go to work on Monday fresh, alert, and confident of your information. Your boss recognizes and appreciates your effort and knows that she can count on you, a point she makes clear to some of her superiors.

Career-wise, the choice is clear. You sacrifice personal plans, at times, to do the best job possible if you want your career to advance. This may happen a number of times during your "freshman" year and if you are not responsive your boss will probably write you off.

Is it fair? Probably not, in the college frame of mind. However, in your career where you and others are competing for advancement, it certainly is fair. Willingness, flexibility, and cooperation count for a lot in your boss' eyes, and in the view of others with whom you work.

Suppose you're working for a good organization but got stuck with a "lousy" boss. She is demanding, unreasonable, poor at training, and everyone agrees that she's going nowhere. Remember your goal is to move up, and you will not have this boss forever. The idea is to perform and learn as best you can so that you can be promoted out from under her. There are intolerable bosses, to be sure, but many college graduates either quit prematurely or dig themselves into an irreparable hole through negative attitude and weak performance under circumstances to which they overreact. Your initial boss is not forever, and if you can survive a year with a particularly tough boss, that alone can be viewed as a feather in your cap. Before you lose your temper or take any rash steps that could jeopardize your career with the organization, take time to think things through.

Can you trust your peers?

Competition for grades in college can be fierce in some cases but does not usually get in the way of friendships, trust, and personal openness. Few faculty members pit students one against another, and students generally help one another by studying together, sharing class notes, and tutoring.

In the job setting, you are faced with a different situation, somewhat paradoxical in nature. You and your peers are working for the same organization with the objective of helping the organization fulfill its mission. That is why they are paying you. In order to function effectively you must be able to work well with others. You will be continually called upon to engage in teamwork to get a task or project completed. At the same time, you are competing with these peers for recognition and advancement.

Entry level positions vary greatly in personal contact. You may have very little contact with your peers in the organization or you may work side-by-side with a whole group of them. It is important that you cooperate, get along well, and develop relationships of mutual support with them. Those who stay with the organization will be advancing with you as you assume management roles and your ability to work with them will magnify in importance.

Inevitably, however, you will come across some people who insist on playing games. They may think they are masters of manipulation, and they will deceive others, take credit for ideas not their own, attempt to use personal relations in place of job performance, misrepresent their real influence or power, etc. Obviously such co-workers cannot be trusted, but you must also be careful around them for they can be vicious enemies. Such deceptive tactics will sooner or later cause their downfall, so don't let such people discourage you or bring you down with them.

When you begin meeting your peers, be friendly but don't immediately join a clique. Spend some time observing how people act, who performs well, and who takes a positive view toward the job and the organization. There is a good chance that one or more perpetual gripers will try to befriend you and add you to their group, spending lunch hours talking about how bad things are. Keep your distance. Look for those who are doing well on the job, and whose personalities you can relate to. The gripers are going nowhere.

Finally, don't use co-workers as confidants. A peer may someday be your boss, or you may be his. Laying out all your feelings, fears, anger, emotions, dreams, etc. to a colleague can come back to bite you when you least expect it. Your innermost feelings should be saved for those who are outside the organization.

Hopefully, some of your co-workers will become good friends. The above paragraphs are not meant to discourage your willingness to establish on-the-job friendships, but you need to be cautious. Unlike college where you can add and drop acquaintances at the drop of a hat, job-related relationships must go on even where two people may have little in common personally.

Do subordinates correct your spelling?

Many new hires have the idea that an army of subordinates will be on hand to perform all sorts of undesirable tasks. Unfortunately (for a new hire), this is rarely the case. In fact, it is often the entry level college graduate who is asked to photocopy reports, deliver memos, proofread documents, tally columns of numbers, and even run errands. The better your attitude in handling these chores, the sooner you advance from them. They are all a part of "learning the ropes."

You may well work in an environment with "hourly" employees. (You will be "salaried," meaning management or professional and expected to work as many hours as are needed to get a job done.) Hourly employees are generally paid less than salaried, have lower status jobs with less advancement potential, receive extra pay for overtime work, and are the life-blood of many organizations.

Too frequently the new college graduate arrives on the scene and treats the hourly secretaries, sales clerks, production workers, technical aides, etc. as personal subordinates. If you fall into this pattern you will probably jeopardize your potential to succeed. Hourly employees are very well attuned to the arrogance of many new college graduates, and if they sense this arrogance in you they can respond in ways to make your life miserable. Never act in a condescending or superior manner to those with less education or lower positions. It is just not right, and it will scuttle you.

Let's take an example of how this can happen. A management trainee at a large retail store is put in charge of the small appliance department. He arrives on the job and immediately lectures the lead salesperson about how he is going to straighten up the department (based upon college coursework and a summer job at another store.) The lead salesperson has been in that department over twelve years, listens to his lecture, and decides not to support him because of his arrogance. That poor management trainee is in for a tough time because of his lack of sensitivity, but the veteran salesperson will not suffer at all.

Treat all people well! Develop a reputation for being good to work with. Before you try to order a secretary to bring you your coffee, or drop a stack of papers on someone's desk and insist that it be copied in five minutes, think about how you would like to be treated if the situation were reversed.

As a new hire, subordinates are not at your beck and call. Many of them will have been in their jobs for years, are highly valued employees, and do not exist to cover the deficiencies in your background. They will not correct all your spelling errors, or all the other first-time errors you might make--unless they like you.