Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time meeting with students who are considering how to approach their careers. Now that I’m about a decade out of school, I feel like I’m far enough away from college graduation to have some perspective but also a close enough proximity to still remember what it was like in those early days while looking for a job. (Read: Spending an entire summer doing crossword puzzles while helplessly sending resume after resume into the ether. Hello, summer of 2009.)
As this time of year is one of many transitions (I’ve received a half-dozen email intros in the last couple of weeks requesting advice to this effect), I thought I’d convert a presentation I sometimes give at universities into a blog post.
So here are my top tips that I always tell students who ask:
1. Stop thinking about your degree like a degree: Think of it as an amalgam of skills.
I really wish I knew this back in school. Graduating in 2009 with a degree in journalism wasn’t great for me. (I couldn’t get hired as a full-time journalist. No jobs.) Instead what I landed on was a “senior writer” position (note: I was also the only writer) at a 10-person HR consultancy and software startup in Philadelphia. In this role, I did so much more than write and edit: I learned how to convey thoughts effectively for different client audiences, how to work alongside technologists, how to adapt project plans to client specifications, how to ask good questions, and how to think strategically about business.
In every job I’ve had since then, I’ve used my journalism degree. Because of what I learned in school, I can write, I can ask good questions, I can talk to people from all different backgrounds, and I can distill information for different contexts. When you break down your degree into the component parts, you realize that you’re suddenly a lot more marketable than you may have thought.
2. It’s not about what you know. It’s about what you can learn.
Let’s be real: As an early entrant to the labor market, you can’t possibly have enough requisite prior experience to accommodate most jobs. (I don’t care how many internships you’ve had; it’s different when it’s a full-time thing.) But that’s okay. Nobody is expecting you to know all of the answers right off the bat. And more and more (particularly for entry-level roles), I’m seeing companies shift away from asking, “What skills does this person need to possess?” and more toward asking, “What characteristics and behaviors might indicate whether they will be able to meet expectations?”
I see a lot of companies in tech looking to hire people for agility and versatility, in addition to interpersonal communication skills. If you can prove you’re a fast learner (and show examples about how you’ve been thrown to the wolves but overcome tough projects), you’ll be an incredibly marketable candidate.
3. Your first job doesn’t matter. You can explain any career pivot that early on.
It really doesn’t. I promise. I know it feels like it’s the end-all, be-all decision of your life. But there’s a very low probability that your first job will become your lifelong career, so give yourself a break when making this decision and lower the pressure. Rather than ask, “What should my first job be that will push me on a long-term career trajectory in the right path?” you might consider asking, “What do I want to learn the most in my first, real-world work experience?” That’s a much easier question to answer.
You might be thinking: “But what if I start in the wrong place and then have a hard time finding my second job? People will think I’m all over the place!” I say, go take a look at that person’s LinkedIn profile who you are worried may look down on you for this. Chances are, you’ll see an equally meandering path. Some of the strongest candidates I’ve seen for roles are those who come from different backgrounds — an opera singer who becomes a lawyer and knows how to project her voice in a courtroom, a teacher who becomes an HR professional and understands the importance of a strong culture better than anyone, or a biomedical engineer who becomes a sound designer for Broadway shows (full disclosure: that last one’s my husband). It’s not about the pivot, but being able to rationally look back on that experience and talk about how it informs your next step.
4. If you want to work at a startup, accept that change is your best friend.
The shift from being a full-time student to becoming a full-time working professional may be the strangest one of all time. All of the sudden, after 16+ years of straight learning, routine exams, and a relatively fixed semester schedule, you’re thrust into an environment that operates under completely different timelines and communication styles.
I wish I knew earlier on that when I joined Stack Overflow, I would essentially change my job every six months. In the four years that I worked there, I had 4 different desks, 4 different managers, and 4 different job titles. This stressed me out to no end. The company grew so fast that our needs constantly changed, and this in turn impacted what my strategic priority would be at any given time. When I stopped panicking about this and finally settled into this new norm — that the company was completely different every six months — I was able to roll with the punches a bit better. If this is something that stresses you out in principle, just know going in that this will be a challenge for you. And if you are interested in working for a startup, try to get yourself in the right headspace going in. It’ll save you a lot of anxiety.
5. If you want to work in the tech sector, no matter what role you have, think of yourself like an entrepreneur.
Last but not least, if you want to work in tech, don’t think about putting a box around your job and your position. Look at it as an open, ever-changing a fluid thing. If you can solve this problem today faster than yesterday, that’s improvement. If you can look around and see an opportunity to make a product or a buying experience more effective, start figuring out how to get it done. All of the best changes I’ve made in my career haven’t been executing the job I was hired to do — but picking up an extra piece of work in a tangential direction. When I worked as an editorial assistant at Prevention Magazine, I started to pick up project management pieces for our special interest publications and eventually got assigned that project full-time. When I worked in marketing at Stack Overflow, I spent so much time meeting with our strategic customers that I eventually started getting asked to attend high-profile sales meetings.
The other reason why this is so important is that in early-stage startups, you’re not the only one running a mile a minute: Everyone else is, too. This means that it can sometimes be hard to find that perfect manager or mentor who will guide you on your path. There may be times (many times) when the answer to the question you’re asking doesn’t live within the walls of your office. In those situations, the more creative you can be in your approach to problem-solving, the bigger of an asset you’ll become on the team, at the company, and in your career.
This is a short list of tips and tricks that I tend to fall back on regularly when talking to students or other folks early on in their career. But I also think these things are true in any mid-career pivot or transition.
In the end, in today’s fluid job market, agility and versatility is key. So don’t look for ways to put yourself in a box; seek out opportunities to expand what’s possible and give yourself more surface area in your career.