How to Build a Career Right Out of College

If you’re like many recent college graduates, working hard at an entry-level position, you may be worried that you’re not on a solid track to developing a stellar career. If you’re a soon-to-be college grad searching for that first job, you might be anxious about finding and getting that “dream” job.

While it’s important to keep career development front of mind, it’s also OK if you don’t know exactly what your career path will be yet. In fact, sometimes it’s even better. Instead, keep an open mind, and pay attention to other factors important in identifying and developing a career.

Some people are lucky, no doubt. They knew they wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a firefighter or a dancer while still in grade school. But for most of us, the process of building a career takes a little time and effort. In your first few jobs, the key is to learn about and try your hand at different positions, responsibilities and work environments.

Chances are high that you’ll find things you love doing that you never expected, and that the dream job turns out to be more of a nightmare when it comes to the day-to-day work. Instead of going in with sky-high expectations, start with the attitude that you’ll be flexible, you’ll learn and you’ll probably discover a good direction. Doing so will relieve much of the pressure to get on the career fast track – while boosting your career development at the same time.

No matter what position, role and responsibilities you have, you can start identifying and building your career at any job you have with these tips.

  • Get a head start with internships. Seek them out early in junior year for the upcoming summer. Target companies that offer interesting work assignments and tracks to full-time employment upon graduation.
  • Talk with your school’s career office, and the profs and leaders in your major, whether you are a student or an alum. Many companies invest in building relationships directly with these people, as they’re looking to gain access to students who are interested in a career with their businesses. You’ll only find out about the unique opportunities to meet directly with hiring leaders when you ask!
  • Know that one thing leads to another. An entry-level position that seems less than perfect might just lead to something that is perfect for you. Someone interviewing for a coveted marketing position could be impressed with a basic knowledge of bookkeeping you picked up. Work at a tech company could lead to a communications position in technical writing.
  • Look for connections. Think of a career as a series of connected positions where you’re setting a foundation and building skills. With more and greater skill sets, you’ll be able to move to higher-paying and higher-level positions. If you’re really interested in research, but your first job is in sales, figure out the things you do each do that are research-oriented. Maybe you’ve had to study a certain demographic or industry, or simply have accumulated your own anecdotal research on a retail store floor in order to attract more customers to your area. Focus on developing and highlighting those skills to take to your next position.
  • Understand that it’s possible to turn many jobs into careers. Here’s an example. Most people would see working as a waitperson at a restaurant as just a job, not a career. They do what the manager assigned, count their tips and watch the clock, anxious to go home. But some people see the position very differently. They might look to one day become a manager, a chef or even an owner of a restaurant. They pay attention to how the business works, and if they have time, they’ll help in the kitchen, ask plenty of questions, and learn how scheduling or accounting work. Often, these are the people who earn promotions to supervisory and managerial positions – and sometimes become owners of their own restaurants.
  • Network. Networking doesn’t mean showing up at events with a business card and asking for a job. It refers to creating ongoing engagements with colleagues, with people in positions you’d like to have, and with people who have good information and insight into your desired profession and career. Whether your first job out of college is your dream position or a temporary job, look to build relationships inside and outside of the workplace.

Almost every profession has a group (online or off) to further education and connections. Career groups share job leads and opportunities. Online, resources such as LinkedIn offer effective ways to get in touch with people you’ve worked with or know socially. They, in turn, can introduce you to others you’d like to get to know. Invest a little time in learning to use these online groups beyond simply “connecting.”

Don’t neglect networking opportunities outside of work. Neighborhood organizations, church committees, volunteer organizations and workout groups can expand your network. You never know where you’ll meet your next employer, manager or mentor.

A career involves important experiences and learning that will fuel your professional life for years to come. It pays to work at building it, but in doing so, remember to work smart, not just hard.


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