inspiration

First Job Advice

My first job was an interesting one. (I worked at a tech startup for 13 months right out of college.) I wouldn’t change it at all because it was a valuable experience no matter which way you slice it. There were plenty of good days and there were plenty of bad days, but they all added up to a great first job. One where I walked away knowing a lot about myself and with skills I either didn’t know I needed or didn’t have at all. There’s really only so much you can learn at school and in internships– sometimes you have to dive headfirst into the water.

This post is actually an edited and extended version of an answer I gave on Tumblr. (In case you didn’t know, I answer all sorts of questions over there! But there’s a long queue, so if you want something answered ASAP, I recommend contacting me directly.)

Although I’ve been working for myself for almost three years now (?), what I learned at my first job is still so ridiculously important. I think you’re going to learn a lot whether or not you’re prepared for it, but a bit of advice can’t hurt.

First Job Advice

1. First in, last out. I made it a habit to be the first one in the office (literally unlocking the doors, turning the lights on, putting the coffee pot on, etc.) and being the last one out. At the very least, I’d leave with my manager. There’s a lot of research behind having face time with your coworkers and this is a solid way to do it. Plus you look committed. Even if you work in a large office, being the first one from your team to arrive ensures that you get to greet everyone who walks in!

The office I worked in was small (at the beginning there was fewer than ten of us), but even as the number of employees reached thirty or so, I was the first face people saw when they came into the office. I always made sure to say “hello!”

2. Your actions become your reputation. Similar to the first tip, what you do becomes what you’re known for. Good or bad. I made the mistake of not shutting off. I’d answer emails whenever because I never set boundaries. I’d answer the email, pick up the phone, put out the fire even if it was 8am on a Sunday. I became known for that so when there was a problem, I was always the first call. Not good for my work/life balance. Will you be early or late? Will you be friendly to everyone or a gossip? Will you dress appropriately or skip washing your hair for three days? Will you finish assignments on time or will you miss deadlines?

3. Nothing is “beneath” you. This was probably the biggest mistake I saw made at my old office. (There was one girl who didn’t think she should have to print labels for water bottles and it was so bad we nicknamed the event “watergate.” It may or may not have been a bigger deal than the actual Watergate scandal.) If someone asks you to take out the trash, do it. If someone asks you to grab a coffee, do it. If someone asks you to shred paperwork, do it. It doesn’t matter if you graduated from an ivy league with a 4.0. You’re establishing yourself at your first job. And even though these tasks seem unimportant, treat them like they are important, because really, they are. (Don’t forget #2! If you’re treating the trash task with professionalism you’re telling your manager that you’ll handle anything and everything with professionalism.)

** I do think there’s a difference between being a team player and being taken advantage of by a higher up. Use your best judgement.

4. Try to figure out questions on your own. At a new job, especially a first one, there will be a lot of stuff you don’t know. Between figuring out your role, learning new procedures, and navigating company culture, there WILL be questions. But try your best to figure out the answers on your own. That way when you have a real question that can’t easily be answered, it won’t be a crying wolf scenario! This is such an important way to establish competency.

I think this was the hardest thing for me to grasp. In school, pretty much everything you want to know you can ask someone. Gosh, even the professor lays everything out pretty neatly on the syllabus and exam questions have clear prompts and you know exactly how your projects are going to be graded. Not so much anymore. Break the habit of needing to know how to do everything now. The real kicker? No one cares how you do it as long as you get it done. (You know, within reason.)

5. Find a buddy. Find someone at your company who’s around your age and experience level. She’ll be your coffee break buddy. Your lunch buddy. Your sounding board buddy. Your “shit I forgot a tampon” buddy. Especially when the going gets rough, it’s nice to know that you have someone on your side that you can talk to.

Be careful to make sure your buddy is a positive one and not someone who is going to drag you into office drama or taint your view of work. There are good buddies and there are bad buddies. Make sure you have a good buddy on your side and make sure that you’re being a good buddy.

6. Cry outside. And if you have to cry, excuse yourself.I take what I said before back, this was the hardest thing for me to grasp. Take five minutes to get fresh air and GET OUT of the office. Sit in your car, walk around the block. Do what you have to do to compose yourself. (Always loved the advice from Kelly Cutrone.)

One thing that really helped me was picking a theme song and listening to it whenever I felt overwhelmed or upset at work. Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” was mine and it saved my butt too many times to count.

7. Don’t gossip. This is a no-brainer. Offices are notorious for rumors and you don’t want to contribute to any of that! I hate that this is the case, but office politics is a real thing. (At least where I worked it was.) I carefully navigated the politics situation and tried to back out of conversations that I knew weren’t going to contribute anything positive.

Are you worried about something in particular with a first job? Is there something you wish you had known sooner at your first job? Would love to add even more advice in the comment section here!

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43 Comments

Kaitlyn A Melo

This came at a perfect time for me. JUST had my first day at my new job TODAY! This is my first post college job – thank you so much.

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Zoe

#7 cannot be stressed enough! There’s so much drama going on at work right now and I feel like every single time I have an interaction with a coworker they have something negative and snarky to say about my boss. By keeping my mouth shut and leaving those conversations when necessary, I’ve managed to stay on my boss’ good side and I’ve even been given more responsibility and liberty to do the things at work I love to do. If you need to complain, go to happy hour after work and do it. I just think it’s so unprofessional to participate in that kind of talk at work- not to mention, it could get you fired!

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Emily

But being the first one in, last one out isn’t always great for work/life balance either! For companies where some people are in the office anywhere from 7-4 to 9-7, you’d could easily be working 12 hour days every day with that philosophy! It can also make it seem like you can’t handle your workload if you’re in the office so much

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carly

Agreed! I think you have to use your best judgement. But getting in and out around the same time as your manager is a good rule of thumb.

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Sara Buxton

My first job right out of high school was as a nanny. I got the job off of craigslist and it seriously taught me more than any job I’ve had since! It wasn’t a good time, but I still use those lessons today.

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Angel

Hi, Carly!
I’m starting a new job in a few weeks. I will be teaching reading classes online! Teaching is something I’ve done before, but teaching online courses is not. Do you have any advice about making a home office comfortable and productive? I’m especially concerned about sitting in an uncomfortable chair at my desk for 8 hours a day.

Thanks!

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carly

I would make sure you get a comfortable chair!!! And come up with some kind of separation. Both physical and mental. I think the biggest challenge you’ll face isn’t sitting in the same place for eight hours (you will because you have to get the work done), it’s that you’ll need some kind of cue to know when you’re home working and when you’re home NOT working.

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Nicole

I really enjoyed this post! I am a veteran at my work, but I see so many new people come in straight from college with such a sense of entitlement. They get too comfortable too quickly. It is so important to realize your actions speak louder than words, and if you come off as being brazen or lazy, that is what people will think of you! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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Christina

These are great lessons that I have had to learn working full time this summer in an office with its fair share of office politics. Thanks for the insight!

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Anna H

What’s your advice to someone who has been in their first job for almost 3 months and still isn’t loving it, but the job itself is considered really good (experience and salary-wise)?

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carly

Personally I’d stick it out and start interviewing for new jobs right around the time I had been there for a year. Work is work and especially if the experience is great and the salary is good, it’s worth staying for at least a year. It’s TOTALLY okay if your first job isn’t your dream job. (I think I should have added that as a note.)

Just remind yourself that the job is a good stepping stone to getting to where you do want to be.

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Bri

Needed that advice!! I’ve been at my post college new job for a few months and I almost dread going to work but it is a good job with good pay. It’s nice to remember that it’s not permanent! You have to take advantage of the learning opportunities.

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Wendy

A caveat to try to figure things out on your own, one of my former supervisors said if a task is taking your more than a half hour to figure out, you’re wasting time and ask for help, be it a coworker or google.
There’s merit to “first in, last out” but only if you’re doing productive work. If you’re there for the sake of being there, then it begins to become a work/life balance issue and no one likes the office suck up either. In addition to nothing is beneath you, a good tip is don’t wait until someone ask you to refill the copier paper. If you see that it needs doing, just do it.

Lastly, sometimes the best part of a first job is that it can really help you understand what you are and are not looking for in a position and an organization. It may not be easy and it may not be perfect(no job is!) but hopefully there is very little crying.

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carly

Yes and yes and yes!

I should have added the note that if you really don’t know how to do something, ask… but make sure you tried everything you could think of first!!!

Great tip about doing a task before being asked to!

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Audrey | Brunch at Audrey's

At my first internship, I was so worried about making friends with co-workers! I don’t emote very much outwardly, so it can be more of an effort for me to make friends, especially as all my co-workers were older than me and led very different lives from me as a student. They were all so nice though! Your tip about being the first in and last out would definitely help with a situation like this 🙂 -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

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Lizzie

I absolutely agree with #2!!! I am an internship supervisor to a group of 22, and I’m trying to instill the notion that if you respect your time, other people will too, especially when it comes to general professional correspondence. It’s tough; students are on 24/7 and don’t quite understand. They either want to impress you/their supervision by answering at all hours, or don’t care about his/her colleagues’ boundaries because it simply doesn’t affect them yet. Or, alternatively, they think I’M nuts for asking them not to email me before 7a and after 8p/weekends! There are only so many times I can ask. What do you think? Is it worth the trouble of asking, or do actions speak louder– i.e., not responding until we’re back in office Monday morning?

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carly

I would do both. Make it clear verbally (maybe even written?) and through your actions.

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Mary Lane

In addition to #4, feel out your boss: mine thought I was uninterested in the work because I was figuring out too much on my own and not asking her enough questions.
Carly, I occasionally get emails on nights and weekends that need to be responded to before I reach the office the next day. Do you have recommendations for checking emails, but still not being attached to my phone while I’m at home? I would be interested in seeing a blog post about common problems at the office and how to handle them!

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Shanaya Cossette

This is perfect advice. Will definitely be referring back to this post frequently- so helpful!! Thank you Carly!

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Krystal // The Krystal Diaries

These are great tips. I’ve been working in an office setting for years now and I’ve seen it all. I highly believe in crying outside. I’ve seen so many young girls cry in the office and I think it always hurts their professional reputation a little.

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Elisabeth

Very interesting and very accurate post, Carly! Wish I had this when I first started to work.
I would add another advice: always be polite and nice to everyone (from the big boss to the cleaning lady).
The person you do not like or do not feel good with today might be the very one you will need in a few weeks or months. She will more likely help you if you were always nice to her (smiling, saying hello, goodbye, have a nice weekend, etc.) than if she feels you are nice only because you need her.

Good luck to everyone having their first job; the first is always the hardest because everything is new!

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Ashlee

This post was very helpful and I found myself nodding consistently along the way. I’ve been in the “working world” for just about a year and a half now.

I don’t know if “first one in, last one out” is the philosophy I’d preach, simply because of work/life balance. But I do agree that showing up early (or around the same time as your manager) is a very smart move. When I first started my job, I was always scooting in on time or just over. I always felt frazzled and rushed in the mornings. So I enacted a new routine and now consistently show up ~15 mins early. It has done wonders for my morning productivity and often, I’m one of the very first few people in the office which I feel like will shine through at yearly reviews.

Finding an office buddy in a similar stage of life is also pretty essential for a happy office life. I worked at a tech startup for 9 months with only three other employees beside myself and they were all men in their 30s who were married with kids. Work, though challenging and fun, was often times lonely and very isolating. You certainly don’t need to become BFFs with anyone from work, but having a casual friendship with someone you can grab lunch with and talk about work with is great! Sometimes getting too emotionally involved in work relationships can be a hassle and lead to the other unwieldy things like gossip/drama.

I also think that setting boundaries is a good idea. During my first internship, I was always eager to please. I would field work emails during off hours and was always *gently* told that I was not expected or needed to do work out of the office a few times. I think this was really beneficial for me and I thank my coworkers for taking the pressure off and making sure that I knew I wasn’t *OMG FAILING* if I waited until the next day to answer a follow-up email.

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carly

I agree with and understand what you’re saying about finding work/life balance with the first in/first out point. I think the major thing I was trying to address, but didn’t get across, was that sneaking it right at 9 and leaving at 5pm ON THE DOT is not something I’d recommend doing as it’s obvious the person is looking at the clock ready to go the minute it ticks 5pm. (Something I saw plenty of 20somethings, and interns, doing!)

Great points about setting boundaries and not getting TOO close with friends!

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Tai

The “first in, last out” is tricky I think. If you’re paid hourly, I think it’s absolutely appropriate to leave at 5 on the dot. The organization I work for doesn’t want people working overtime, so I feel like it would be disrespectful of me to work 30 minutes extra, unless I had something urgent that needed to get done. And this is something my boss understands. She is paid a salary, and often stays really late, but would never expect me to do the same.
Also, I don’t think you should ever be afraid to ask questions. Even if it’s a simple thing like, “where do you put the outgoing mail,” it’s better to ask than try to figure it out yourself and get it wrong. Hopefully, your new coworkers and boss understand that you don’t know how to do everything yet and will be happy to answer questions.

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Lindsay

Hey, Carly! I absolutely LOVE this – I’ve been at my first job for just over two months now, and these are so true and so helpful! You said you started at a tech startup that was small at the beginning – my firm is six people in total! While a few other coworkers are five or six years older than me, and even though we share a space with a few other businesses, nobody’s really my age What’s your advice for making do without a “buddy” and not feeling totally alone?

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Shirley L

Gonna butt in here and hopefully be of help. 🙂 I don’t think 5-6 years is a huge age difference but that does depend on where in your adult life you happen to be. My advice, since you work at such a small office, is to find the next best thing – either someone who is nurturing like a mentor or older sibling type of person, or the one who maintains a fun youthful personality, or the one you have the most in common with. I too have worked in places or on teams where my colleagues were significantly older than me and in a much different phase of life. So the above types of people to link up with were the next best thing in terms of having an ally, a friendly face, confidante, or just to bounce ideas with. 🙂 Best of luck on finding your work buddy!

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Hannah

Hi Carly! Thanks for sharing these tips! I’ve been at my first post-grad job for about 3 months now, but I’ve been with the company for over 7 months. I’m starting to feel pretty insecure about my age. I’m only 22, but I have more responsibilities than people in similar positions. Additionally, I’m managing 2 different people who are both 4 years older than me, and they’ve started to talk down to me. I would love any advice you have on being young in the office (and managing people who are older than you). Thanks!

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carly

I was in a similar situation and it was NOT easy. But one thing that really helped me was meeting with a more experienced manager at least once a week, outside of the office, to pick her brain and learn from her!

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Helena

I’ve worked at my company for about a year and a half. What are your tips on asking for a raise?

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Jen

Loved this post! Actually very valuable advice. Stuff like this is the reason I love reading your blog – not sponsored posts.

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Joanna

I remember when you left that tech job. I actually canceled my membership from that site right around the same time. For some reason, even though I liked the concept, I don’t think it was well executed. I work for a small startup that is also a family business. Talk about potential for drama! Literally 90% of the office is related to each other. Gossip is the biggest productivity killer. Just don’t do it.

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Yelle

I completely agree with this list. I have to say – the gossip one is a big one for me. I’m not into talking about my coworkers or others in the same organization. It’s just not productive. And, now that I’m further in my career, if my coworkers gossip when in conversation with me, I call them out on it. I have 0 tolerance there!

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Sonya

I have to disagree with the “first in, last out” advice because it is terrible for a work/life balance. I am 35 and have been in the workforce for 11 years now and having a life outside of work job is SO VERY important for one’s sanity, mental health, and work performance. If you’re just there for appearances, it definitely doesn’t mean you’re always doing quality work. I’d say that performance and quality work within your set hours (and being on time) are more important than just parking yourself at a desk. As someone else mentioned, people will start to wonder if you can’t perform your work tasks within a regular, 7.5-8 hour working day.

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Hannah

This post came at such a perfect time, thank you so much Carly! #3 is so important and one thing I do constantly at my job. I’m a recent graduate who’s been at a temp job all summer but have been applying to full-time positions. I would LOVE to see a post on dress code attire. My office is pretty laid back, which I struggle with. I think it’s important to be dressed up for work, but I don’t know how to find a happy medium at a more casual place like my job!

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Kaitlin

I’ve been out of college for over four years now (yikes!) and think this is great advice! As others have mentioned, I think the one point to be weary of is being the first in and last out. At my previous position there were people that did this but it’s hard when the first person is in at 5 am and others don’t leave until late at night. I definitely understand the essence of what you’re trying to get at! If you’re not being productive and just sitting around to save face then it’s best to head home.

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Sophie

A bit unrelated to this post, but where is your dress from? (In the image you used.)

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