Before landing your dream job, you may have to pay your dues. Statista found that 14 percent of U.S. workers are underemployed, or working in a position they’re overqualified for.
New grads especially have to be patient when it comes to starting a career. Many of us need to start at the bottom and work our way up.
It’s easy to get impatient if you’re an art history major spending your days as a dog walker. But even the most entry-level position can help you learn important life lessons.
5 lessons from your first job out of college
To find out more, I spoke with college graduates about their post-graduation jobs. Here are five lessons these grads learned from their first job out of college that helped them become the people they are today.
1. You have to be your No. 1 advocate
As a student, your path is pretty clear each year. Your school and professors let you know what’s expected of you. Although you’re responsible for choosing a major, you mostly have a clear structure to guide your actions.
But when you enter the workforce, you might not have much guidance for career development. Instead of looking to an authority for answers, you have to put yourself in charge of your professional destiny.
“My first job out of college was with a defense contractor, and I learned how I am now in complete control of my career,” said Jim Wang, now a personal finance blogger at Wallet Hacks. “I had to not only be my No. 1 advocate, but I had to find my own projects [and] plan my next move in the company.”
When you start working after college, you must be proactive about your career. So ask questions, seek a mentor, and take deliberate steps in the direction of your goals. “In the real world, you have to decide everything,” said Wang.
2. Your attitude will shape your experience
After graduating with her bachelor’s in English Writing, Sarah Donawerth took a job as a cashier at Michaels, an arts and crafts store. “I was preparing for grad school, I needed a steady source of income, and I couldn’t find anything [else],” said Donawerth.
But even though she was underemployed, she realized it was important to keep a positive attitude about her job.
“It was hard to summon the enthusiasm to help someone stock shelves, but I made sure that every day I went to my job with the attitude that I would do my best,” said Donawerth. “While others were grumbling that it was a stupid job and they were miserable, my mood stayed remarkably high.”
In the end, her optimism and hard work paid off. “I have happily hung up my red vest and am now the social media accounts manager at … an arts and crafts magazine publisher,” said Donawerth. “My experience at Michaels was one of the reasons they hired me. I had knowledge of their industry and the proven track record of hard work.”
Donawerth was able to leverage her experience into a position that better fit her skills and qualifications. Plus, her outlook made her experience a positive one.
3. Stay open to unexpected opportunities
Vincent Nero is now the VP general manager of Successories, but he had no job lined up after graduation. “In the midst of the recession with no job lined up, I got a call from my summer internship boss who was moving a business down to South Florida,” said Nero.
Despite his hesitation about moving, Nero accepted the position. “Was Florida on my radar? Did I want to move across country? Did I want to work for this company?” said Nero. “The answer to all those was no, but I said yes. It’s important to be open to new opportunities.”
Even though he wasn’t sure about the outcome, Nero decided every opportunity that came his way was a learning experience. And this openness paid off. “Eight years later, I’ve worked my way up to running [a] multi-million dollar company,” said Nero. “All because I said yes.”
Even if you can’t see it right away, there are lessons to be learned from your first job out of college. And by staying open, you could discover your next great role.
4. Learn the ins and outs of your company
Not everyone lands a job in their target field right after graduation. David Batchelor, co-founder of DialMyCalls, learned this the hard way. “My first job was working at the movie theater for $4 an hour,” Batchelor said.
Despite the measly pay, Batchelor learned important business lessons from this role. “There are a million companies who sell a million widgets and services,” said Batchelor. “[But] most of them fundamentally run the same way. So the earlier you start to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, the better off you’ll be.”
Batchelor has since used the business lessons he learned to co-found his own company. “I’d recommend everyone … to learn all the ins and outs of the company you’re working at,” said Batchelor. “The pay itself was nothing great but the experience I got at that job was priceless.”
Even if you’re not interested in business, your organization can teach you about how people come together to work toward a common goal. And this is a lesson you can carry with you into all future roles.
5. Keep on keeping on
Unless you’re extremely lucky, you’ll have to put in a lot of hard work before achieving your professional goals. Although it might not be easy, encountering obstacles is totally normal.
“When I graduated, I worked as a waiter to pay my bills,” said Zachary Painter, hiring manager at Resume Genius. “It was fun for a time, but I wasn’t really happy. [It] helped me realize that I wanted something long-term and professional; that’s when I buckled down and began freelance writing.”
Painter didn’t find immediate success as a writer. To support himself along the way, he picked up different side gigs. “I had a brief stint repairing leaks in pools; I worked as a shoe salesman; I worked in the kitchen of a country club,” said Painter. “But I made sure to keep writing.”
He now works as a writer, career adviser, and hiring manager. “It wasn’t easy getting here,” Painter said. As for the lessons he learned from this first job? “Success is granted to those who persevere.”
Use your first job out of college as a growth opportunity
The transition from college to the workforce isn’t always an easy one. You have to adapt to new environments, expectations, and colleagues. As a new grad, you probably have to start at the bottom of the totem pole.
But even the most sub-par job can teach you things. “Almost everyone has parts of their job that they love and parts they wish they never had to do again,” said Martha Schmitz, a senior adviser at Mentat.
By identifying which aspects of a job you love — and which ones you hate — you can clarify your career goals. “Even if your first job out of college isn’t exactly what you imagined for your career, it’s important to make the most out of the experience,” said Schmitz.
As you develop work experience, you’ll learn about your career decisions and how to reach them. Plus, you’ll learn how to market your skills for post-college jobs.
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