Starting Your Career? Breathe. And Read This.

College student in contemplative pose at her desk

May 30, 2019

  • Talent Management
  • Leadership Development

At the end of my senior year of college, I found few job opportunities of interest that made use of my liberal arts degree in Religion and Gender Studies. It didn’t help that one of my professors told me the only real option I had was to get a Ph.D.

“I can tell you, this,” she said.  “Heading up the lunchtime book club at your office-job isn’t going to cut it for you.”

With no desire to obtain a doctorate, my thoughts began to spiral. I kept thinking about how I would never be able to find a job that would make me happy.  I was sure I wouldn’t be able to support myself or make worthwhile contributions to the world.

Let’s fast forward two years.

I now have a job that I love. I feel challenged by my work and believe that what I’m doing makes a difference. I wish someone had told me that things would work out, that starting a career doesn’t have to be so daunting.

Here is the advice I wish my professor had given me:

Take educated risks.

Today, many people start their careers before having long-term obligations like marriage, kids or a mortgage. I encourage using this time to take educated risks in your career—exploring opportunities that are relevant to your interests and abilities, but are significantly less easy to test-out when long-term obligations are at play.

The summer after my graduation, I was offered an internship at the NPR headquarters in Washington D.C. I took a risk by actually accepting the internship and moving to a new city. I had little to no journalism experience, but I did know that I was drawn to storytelling.

Had I not taken that risk, I may not have truly explored my passion for storytelling, leading me to my current position as a communications professional.

Seek out opportunities to expand your skillset.

View every chance to learn something new as a valuable opportunity to hone foundational skills for your career, rather than just a one-off experience. Even if you’re not doing what you love, take note of the skills you’re developing, and seek out whatever opportunities you can to develop new ones.

When I was at NPR, I was hired as a development intern, not a news intern. I realized pretty early on that fundraising was not my passion, but took advantage of meeting with reporters and signed up for NPR’s in-house classes on editing audio and managing a studio.

As a result, I collaborated with another intern to make an internal podcast about the Development Department. I used the podcast as a storytelling sample for future resumés—including for the job I have now.

Seeing every moment as an opportunity to grow can really open doors early on. 

Have a broad vision.

From a young age, we’re asked to identify ultra-specific career goals, regardless of how prepared for them we are. Focusing on these goals, however, can actually hinder effective career planning by limiting career options.

I’ve found that developing a broad vision for a career is a much more productive approach to shaping a career path. For instance, once I realized how much I loved storytelling during my time at NPR, I found it far more effective to apply to a variety of jobs related to storytelling rather than just positions as a reporter.

Case in point: there is more than one role that will allow you to feel fulfilled. Focus on the skills you want to build and let them be your guide in broadening your search over time.

Advocate for your healthy workplace.

Whether you’re working with other people or alone, at a cubicle or in the outdoors, your workplace and colleagues will impact your well-being and experience. As I interviewed for full-time storytelling positions, I made sure to ask the following questions to my interviewers:

  • What’s the work-life balance like here? What are the expected daily working hours?
  • What opportunities are there for learning new skills? Is there a budget for professional development?
  • What do you enjoy most about working here? What do you struggle with?

Most importantly, I paid particular attention to the personality and working-style of my potential manager. At some point in their careers, half of employees leave their current job because they dislike their manager.

I view the role of a manager similarly to the role of a professor. Just as a college course is often only as interesting as the professor teaching; a role at work is often only as good as the manager supervising. If the manager isn’t a good fit for you, the potential role won’t be either—no matter how perfect the job title or responsibilities may sound.

Appreciate the process.

Starting a career is hard. It takes time, adjustment and overcoming all sorts of obstacles—both the foreseen and the unexpected.  But it is also exciting, and an accomplishment worth celebrating.

For me, that means reminding myself of how far I’ve come. In just two years since that discouraging meeting in my professor’s office, I’m creating content every day for a variety of communications platforms. I’m even writing pieces related to my degree—such as sharing stories about large scale initiatives promoting gender equity in the Jewish community.

As time goes on, I’m sure my goals will shift and the skills I want to focus on will evolve. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay—because I have the agency to build and shape the direction of my career path.

And so do you.