Career Advice for After Graduate School – Navigating your first few years
So much advice is given on how to get that first job, but what about how to navigate the critical professional development period within the first few years after graduation? There are going to be many forks in the road, hopefully my advice can help you make the right decisions, or at least help you decide when to decide.
Recent graduates and those entering the into their new professional reality for the first time need to recognize and plan for various milestones during the first year of their career, to lay a solid foundation for fulfilling professional growth.
This post is meant for relatively recently graduated professionals entering into their new industry for the first time, and this is mostly based on my experience in the international development/humanitarian relief sector. You’ve got your first full time job, and you’re not starting up or owning your own organization. Most Masters students are qualified for a higher-than-Entry-Level position, such as Program Officer, Associate Program Officer, or similar positions. You may not be a director but you’re not the most junior person at a team meeting.
Here is what you can expect during your first year or two…
The first 6 months:
- Employer Expectations: The employer sees/perceives/expects that…
- Unless you went to graduate school as a mid-career professional with a longer employment history, you were hired because you showed promise.
- You have a great background that prepared you for the mission you were hired to contribute to fulfilling.
- The interviewers and hiring managers liked you enough to want you around every day.
- They needed you in that position as much as you wanted to get the job (at least that’s what you convinced them of in the recruitment process). You’re filling a role they need someone to play. They need your gifts.
- You’re important to the organization, and they want you to succeed. No one wants to waste his or her time on a gamble that won’t pay off.
- Learn! Know the organization. Know the people you work with. Read every document possible that has any bearing on the programs or activities under your purview. Read the rulebooks, the laws, and the regulations. How does this place actually work? How does X task really get done? What are competitors doing better or worse, and why?
- Think of ways to improve every system around you, all the time. Always have ideas. Share them.
- Identify mentors: Rarely do you find a perfect all-purpose mentor. You may have several mentors in your career. Recognize the strengths of those in more senior positions, and ask lots of questions! You don’t know everything, and that’s OK.
- You were hired because you knew a little bit already. Try to pass that on, especially to those less senior than you, and anyone else who will accept what knowledge you have to offer. Do this forever.
- Communicate: With your boss, especially. Regular meetings, reviews, emails, reports, and make sure they’re organized and concise. People need to know what you’re doing. Take care to be thorough and accurate. Know what is expected of you and communicate your expectations.
- If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.
After a few weeks:
- What job in this organization looks the most fun/fulfilling/rewarding? This is totally subjective to you. Many people at many levels do jobs in different styles. One Country Director or Grants Manager will run things completely differently than another, but still will get the job done. Once you’ve learned about the kinds of jobs you like and the tasks that you like doing – get better at them. You won’t advance unless you deliver.
- What do I really not like doing? Once you’ve figured that out – ask yourself: Why don’t I like doing that? You may surprise yourself. It may be that something simple within an unloved job duty is derailing you from realizing it’s not that bad, or that you actually do like doing the task. Maybe you have preconceptions about the kind of person who likes doing those things – you could never have pictured yourself doing those things. Keep an open mind. You never know what you’ll end up liking. Try difficult things, be brave.
At the end of 6 months:
- You should have an idea about the sustainability of the organization. Q. How is my job security?
- You should know how to be effective, where everything is, who to tap for the best solutions you can’t provide yourself. Q. How do I get things done and deliver?
At the end of 1 year:
- The Organization/Employer: You should know if you want to stay with the organization, if it is a positive environment for you professionally and personally.
- Take your pulse. Are your career goals the same as 1 year ago? Is what you enjoy now what you thought you would enjoy? Do you really want to do X? (Manage people, do complicated detail-oriented tasks, write a lot, live abroad, etc.) Keep track of your big wins and areas for growth. Check your job pulse often.
- You will change. That’s OK.
- Write it down – even if you’re going to cruise in what you’re doing for a while, make sure your CV and LinkedIn is current.
- What do I need to get better? Do you need more training? Certifications? Another degree?
- If it’s time you need, do the time. Be patient. Get better at it and your time will come.
- What is next? Are you happy to cruise for a while? Otherwise, you should have your eye on the next level up. You know the jobs you like and what you want to try. What is the position you want next, and what do you need to get there.
- If you feel sincerely that you’re ready and the organization can’t give you that promotion, then another organization needs your gifts.
Rinse and repeat. During your first few professional years, you’ll get better at a lot of things and know a lot more, and you’ll become fluent at your job. If you’re delivering and growing, momentum and advancement should follow. Hopefully you’re happy with what you’re doing!