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How To Ensure That Your First Job Out Of College Doesn’t End In Catastrophic Failure

First Job Out Of College

Don’t panic, but you’ve been hired – and it’s at a major corporation! It’s time to come to terms with the realization that this company actually exists somewhere, and it’s not just a brand logo. As you walk through those big double doors on your first day of work, you may experience a feeling that you haven’t had since you saw your middle school history teacher in the supermarket: “Hey, this can’t be happening! You don’t exist in real life!” It’s a surreal moment.

And congrats on that – this time of year, the workforce is overloaded with recent college grads competing for entry-level jobs, and you made the cut. On the other hand, the corporate world is quite a bit different than academia, you’re in for some serious adjustments, and there’s plenty more where you came from.

That’s not to say that you’re merely a cog in the machine, or that the corporate world is a black hole that sucks away your creativity, flexibility, and “blissful requiescence” (read: summertime). The corporate world is full of opportunity, innovation, and the ability to make a difference in your community – as well as benefits, competitive pay, and a stable workplace. However, like anything we haven’t done before, these jobs are not without their hurdles. To that end, we’ve got some guidelines and “words of wisdom” for you that will help avoid the common pitfalls of people new to the corporate world, and how to avoid them.

Survival Notes For Your First Corporate Job

1. Your new job doesn’t owe you anything. (No, really…)

Let’s face it: in many ways, your first job won’t be a dream come true. You won’t always do what you were hired for, and sometimes, you’re going to feel like it’s beneath you.

There’s also a good chance that you’ll receive minimal formal training, and, despite your hard work in college, you’ll feel unprepared for your first job. Finally, and unfortunately, you won’t start out making a lot of money, and earnings for recent grads are trending downwards (8% lower than they were in 2007, according to CNN Money). Prepare for the perfect storm of not making a living wage at the exact moment that your student loans kick in.

Sounds pretty dire, right? The good news is that just about everyone goes through it, and we pretty much all come out alive. The goal here is to do your work well, prove yourself on your day-to-day tasks, and really prove yourself when you get the chance to do the kind of work you dreamed of when you started college. Building a career is a long-term strategy that starts by you proving you can do the easy stuff, and tackling progressively more advanced projects as you gain experience – and earn the high opinion of your managers.

2. If you don’t stay organized, you’re gonna have a bad time.

If you were an overachiever in college, you’re going to love (also: loathe) your corporate job. College work is structured, with beginnings and endings, clear-cut feedback, and built-in rest periods. In the corporate world, a workload can be ambiguous and virtually endless, feedback is open to interpretation, and you’ll get about eight to ten paid vacation days a year. The potential for burnout abounds.

Pace yourself, carefully manage your priorities, stay organized, and set healthy work/life boundaries. Overworking leads to lower productivity, and helps neither you nor your employer. Additionally, working long days, every day, is seldom rewarded or even appreciated – some managers may smile on your stolid work effort, but others will worry that late work is the product of poor time management.

Instead, focus on outcomes, successes, and positively impacting your company. Take notes in meetings, and even when chatting with your boss. If you promise to do something, write it down, and always do it. And stay on schedule – knocking it out of the park is great, but get it done on time.

3. Patience is a virtue, and silence is golden.

The perception of today’s employers is that colleges have not prepared their graduates for the working world. A global study conducted by the Gallup/Lumina Foundation found that only 11% of American business leaders feel that colleges are preparing students for workforce success. Whether you believe that’s true or not, chances are that your manager may share these sentiments.

That being said, at your first job, while you’ll be eager to please for sure, temper that urge just a bit. Hold out on trying to change the company right away, even if their problems seem obvious to you. In many cases, a little time, experience, and more complete perspective of how the company works can give you a deeper understanding of what’s happening and why. Don’t make emotional or impulsive decisions, and remember that some problems are best solved by doing nothing at all.

4. Demonstrate accountability

When you start your job, you’re probably not going to get as much training as you feel you need. A recent study found that while 77% of 2013’s college grads expected their first employer to provide formal training, only 48% of 2012’s grads actually received that training. Despite the lack of training, 63% said they needed that training in order to get their desired job.

This means that you are accountable for taking the steps to grow into your job, and to teach yourself the business. This involves seeking feedback beyond your year-end review, developing your problem-solving skills, and identifying and taking advantage of any resources at your disposal. Proactively report your accomplishments to your boss, and don’t be afraid to ask questions – but do as much as you possibly can to figure out solutions yourself before you seek that assistance.

Lifehacker said it best: “Wanting to learn is an excellent quality, but so is initiative.” Show that you’ve got it all.

5. Mind your manners.

On a day-to-day basis, you’ll likely work with only a handful of your coworkers. The lion’s share of how you’re perceived by the rest of your team will hinge on your manners and presentation around the office.

In the words of our dearly departed Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maximize on those feelings by following these simple golden rules:

  • How you dress counts. A lot. Iron your clothes, and dress better than most of your coworkers.
  • Introduce yourself to as many coworkers as possible. Learn their names quickly, and use them in conversation.
  • Great or menial, tackle each new task with enthusiasm. Don’t complain, and don’t avoid it.
  • Stay off your cell phone and social media while you’re at work.
  • When you ARE on social media, share only positive things about your job and coworkers, no matter what your privacy settings are.
  • Don’t gripe about your coworkers at work, and think very carefully before openly criticizing or making any negative statements about projects or coworkers to your team or managers.
  • When talking to your coworkers about your personal life, don’t tell them anything you wouldn’t tell your parents – or, better yet, your friends’ parents.
  • Protect the time of your coworkers and managers. Keep your e-mails short, always assume they’re busy, and only ask for their time for things you can’t do yourself. And, even if it’s just getting coffee, never act like your time is more important than anyone else’s.
  • Finally, if you are legitimately sick, use a sick day. A strong work ethic is a virtue, but no one wants to be around you when you’re sick and miserable, and they definitely don’t want to get sick too.


6. There’s no “fired” in “team”.

At the end of the day, if you’re a perfect fit for your office’s culture, your coworkers love you, and you’re an excellent team player, chances are strong that you’re coming back to work the next day. Treat your teammates like your second family – they’re the people you’ll need on your side to make projects run smoothly, to support you when you take initiative, and to keep you loving your job.

The coworkers you meet at your first job are the beginnings of your growing professional network, and they will reappear in your professional world often and in unexpected ways. Make no enemies, and avoid anything that could contribute to a toxic workplace. Pair yourself with positive team members, and steer clear of slackers, naysayers, and complainers that would taint your positive vibes.

Be sure to enter your office every day with a generous and positive attitude. Recognize and give credit to others for their accomplishments, give meaningful compliments, and use the word “we” when speaking of your successes. If a great coworker makes a mistake and you’re in a position to fix it, do it for them – quickly and quietly. Build sincere and lasting professional relationships with your team members and, if possible, never eat lunch alone.

7. Own your experience.

You just spent several years paying to learn a marketable skill – for the next few years, someone will be paying you as you continue to learn it. During these years, salary won’t be as important for your long-term interests as the experience you gain on the job. Remember that, statistically speaking, your first job out of college won’t be the job you spend the rest of your life in. Take advantage of the experience to learn and grow as much as you can, so if you do move on to a new job, it’s an even better one.

A former boss of mine once told me that successful people spend their time doing things that unsuccessful people don’t want to do. Get ahead by using a portion of your spare time to keep up to date with your industry, participate in professional groups, attend career-related meetings and conferences, and to read professional blogs and books. Make good contacts and keep in touch with them – particularly those who recommended you, have helped you in your career, or who you partnered well with on projects. Don’t just develop your industry knowledge and skills – make some time to focus on your people skills and collaboration skills as well. You could learn more than you expect.

If your career is naturally beginning to evolve beyond what you went to college to do, allow that growth to continue. This is how specialists and subject-matter experts are created, and you may find yourself falling into a role that’s even better for you than you’d hoped. Along the way, build a personal portfolio of your strongest accomplishments: get them in writing now so you don’t have to remember them later.

And please, start saving money today. Your future self will thank you.

8. Don’t go it alone.

From Finding Forrester to Batman Begins, every person who achieves greatness starts out with a great mentor. In the workplace, a mentor is a powerful ally and advocate for your career, who can share insights on the company and teammates, give you a new perspective on a situation, and introduce you to new people. A professional mentor is positioned to help you identify your strengths and areas of improvement, make you ask yourself the important/tough questions you need to ask, and help you make the most of your first work experience.

Some companies offer formal mentor programs for new grads, but you may not be told about them unless you ask. Otherwise, it’s still possible to find someone who will informally take on this unique, often unspoken, coworker relationship. If you’re lucky, you may find two – one that’s very experienced and late in their career, and another who’s just a few years down the road from where you are, and has a fresher perspective on where you stand.

Strong mentors will share an outlook on life with you and will have a sense of humor, strong listening skills, a sense of intuitiveness, and will be comfortable giving feedback to you. Their attitude will be upbeat and positive, and they’ll be proactive and driving your success. Poor mentors are often controlling, judgmental, or claim to know it all.

Whether your mentor is assigned to you or the relationship happens organically, it’s important that you do what you can to ensure that it’s a two-way street. Look for ways to pay them back, even if it’s just a well-timed thank you card, or you picking up the tab for lunch after a heart-to-heart talk. Support your mentor – they’re going to do things for you that you could never repay.

Ready To Bail? Hold Up A Minute!

Let’s face it: the prospect of a corporate job is pretty intimidating. However, your first job is going to be a challenge no matter how big or small the company is. And you didn’t just go through years of sleepless nights, term papers, takeout dinners, deadlines, and finals because you believe in taking it easy or playing it small, right? Staying out of your comfort zone is how you grow!

The corporate world is filled with opportunities that may be harder to find in smaller startups or privately owned businesses. In large companies, the talent base is greater, the experiences broader, and there are many ladders to climb.

Here at Accounting Principals, most of our days are filled with positive experiences and inspiring professionals who challenge each other to learn and grow in their careers – and perhaps a little fun too. It’s not as bad as it’s cracked up to be, I assure you.

If you are looking to make the switch from college to corporate, Accounting Principals is here to help you launch your career. Let us hook you up with a great opportunity by submitting your resume with us today!


Accounting Principals

We're Accounting Principals--a leader in finance and accounting staffing. In fact, since 2010, we've been part of Adecco Group, a Global 500 company and leader in staffing services around the world. But this isn't staffing as usual. We take quite a different approach than most staffing agencies. A people-focused approach. We believe in forming real relationships with both our clients and our candidates. We want to understand the needs on both sides.