A cycle of excitement, fear, fatigue and anxiety are just some of the emotions that swirl through your heart, your head and your stomach as you navigate the ups and downs of your first real job experience out of college.
Sure, you may have had internships here and there. A foot in the door opportunity to perform at high levels and work as if you were an actual employee, but the reality is, until you’ve done that job for longer than a period of three months at a time you have no idea what it’s like to really be a working woman.
“As an intern you do it for a short time so you don’t see the cumulative effects of the fatigue, the stress, and in some cases boredom,” explained Steve Langerud, workplace advisor and director of professional opportunities at DePauw University.
“For three weeks you can do anything, and for three weeks almost anything can be kind of exciting but after you’ve been there for six months, it’s like oh my gosh this is not what I signed up for. But you don’t know until you’re in the middle of that, that’s just the way it is.”
The day in and day out grind can get to you and the emotions can run high. “Initially, people are really excited. They’re excited to have a job, they’re excited somebody wanted to hire them,” says Langerud.
“Then that’s followed by fear, ‘now I have this job do I really know how to do it?’ ‘do i have the skills?’” Langerud says a lot of that fear has to do with learning the logistics of finding things and navigating the social culture. “And then after they’ve had their first success at work then it’s into competence.”
But in rare cases, you might be lucky to have a first job experience like Tammy Tibbetts. Tammy heard about her first job through word of mouth and networking.
“I didn’t have the typical first job,” explained Tammy reflecting on her experience post college. “I worked directly under my boss and he gave me a lot of opportunities. And within a couple months I became the website editor of a new website they were launching and I became the youngest web editor at the company. So it was like a career fairytale come true.”
She landed that opportunity while she was the assistant to the director of content at Hearst Digital media. So the responsibilities she got a chance to tackle while in that position weren’t limited to what was in the job description.
To open yourself up to chances and opportunities in the workplace, Tammy says: “It’s all paying attention to the details and mastering the basics but also soaking up every bit of knowledge you can from every nook and cranny?”
And while she says the opportunity was the beginning of a career fairy tale, she knew it wasn’t her dream job and she wasn’t married to the position. And along the way she had mentors and workplace advocates to cheer her on and guide her through the experience.
“The reality is that you’re not going to wind up in your dream job right out of college because — you may think its your dream job but you’re going to find another dream job along the way,” said Tammy who is now a few years out of college.
She’s a 2007 graduate and after her stint as an assistant/web editor extraordinaire she became the social media editor at Seventeen magazine. But most recently, she left that position to run the nonprofit she founded on a full time basis. It’s called She’s The First, an org created to sponsor girls education in developing countries, that she founded in 2009.
But as Tammy points out, experiences like hers, while possible, are rare. Your first real job out of college is often a reality check, and an emotional roller coaster all wrapped up with paycheck.
“It’s a cultural shift,” explains Langerud. “College is building people up everyday, and you get into the world and people aren’t looking out for you that much, there’s other stuff to do, and the pace, they’re going fast, they don’t have time to think and meet and ponder and meditate, it’s like ‘yea, we have work to do, we’re doing it fast, we’re doing a lot of it, and we gotta keep going.’”
As a recent graduate, you may be working at your dream company but the position itself may not be the most fulfilling. Entry level positions often require a lot of grunt work, and the day to day is more gritty than glamorous.
“I’m exhausted,” said recent grad and full time HR professional Rosie.
“I never have time for anything any more. By the time I get home, I go to the gym and go to sleep. It’s like clock work.”
She was shocked at how much energy a full day of work took out of her. “Honestly, my friends will invite me out and I used to think ‘oh I can do it’ because in college I could stay out all night and be on time for an 8am class. So I thought oh, it’s the same thing, but not at all, I’m always exhausted.”
And since she graduated early, Rosie is the first of her friends to be out in the working world and she’s second guessing that choice. “I wish I was back in school, because it was so much easier than waking up, working 9 hours a day, then going to sleep and waking up to do it all over again.”
Rosie graduated in December of 2011, one semester early. After moving back home and searching for countless jobs in her dream field– public relations– she could not find anything. So, when she got a call back for a job in human resources she jumped at the chance, just to have something to keep her going and to jump start her career.
“I moved back to Dallas and I was like Dallas is a big city, there’s no reason I shouldn’t find a job. And then I got back and I was like ‘wait what?’ So many people were like you need 2-3 years of experience. I live back with my parents now. I thought I’d be doing great big things, but eh you know not so much.”
In fact, most young women who feel the pressure to start their careers right after school may feel frustrated that they aren’t immediately living the dream. According to PEW RESEARCH, 66% of young women ages 18 to 34 rate career high on their list of life priorities so its especially frustrating to them if they can’t see how where they are now in their career is connected to where they hope to be in the future.
“It’s been 6 months since I’ve graduated, and this is not where I imagined I would be,” Rosie said reflecting on her experience so far. “You have a big idea in college of what life’s going to be after post grad and you really have no idea until you’re out of college and you have to do these things.”
Rosie says she doesn’t see herself in human resources down the line but values the skills she gained during her time there.
“It’s been a good learning experience I will say that. I work in compliance and recruiting. So with recruiting I see what people are looking for and what makes you stand out.”
That’s the right attitude according to Langerud who says that in the beginning the skills you develop at your job trumps the title.
“I think one of the big things that students have to think about is the difference between what things are called and what skills they use,” said Langerud. “Where am I going to develop the skill that’s going to help me get to where I want to be? It doesn’t matter where you develop it, it matters that you can demonstrate that you can do it.”
And, through all the ups and downs, the feedback and the push-back the true fundamental for success at work –especially in your first work experience– is simply showing up.
“80% of success is just showing up. It isn’t about the flash, it isn’t about the shining moment. It’s about being there every day, learning the fundamentals, executing the fundamentals, being engaged for yourself and for the people you’re working with.”
It’s a piece of advice that seems almost cliche as career expert explains that he attributes it to Woody Allen– but it hones true.
“You’ve got to be there for things to happen. You’ve got to be there for good things to happen and if you’re not there physically and mentally nothings going to happen. That’s a good lesson in life. You’ve got to show up.”