My first job out of college was working for an advertising agency, one that was known as an innovative, smaller shop that had landed some top accounts. My job was to answer the phone and to keep my head down when stressed out account managers made unreasonable demands (“Can you get this package delivered to a client 15 miles away in the next ten minutes during rush hour?”) or when my temperamental boss threw a stapler. It was not a good fit.
I considered my options and decided that I needed more office experience, preferably in an area that would help me decide if I wanted to pursue an MBA. I accepted a position as a paralegal at a mid-sized law firm, where I was hired to help with litigation in the financial industry. While I knew I did not want to go to law school, I have never regretted spending two years at that job.
When you are just starting out, what is often difficult to determine is how to evaluate opportunities. I encourage new graduates to ask themselves three questions:
- Will this position add value to your resume or CV?
- Will you be exposed to people who could be useful to you in your career?
Let’s look at each of these in more detail:
Will you learn something that you want to learn?
When I was in high school and college I loved spending my spare time reading magazines, and often thought I could do a better job with the advertisements. It was, therefore, not illogical to think that joining an agency was a good idea, despite the fact that I had no relevant experience whatsoever. But all answering the phone taught me was that people can be very unreasonable when they are under pressure from demanding clients.
The paralegal position involved its share of grunt work—a lot of copying, sorting files, stapling and other minutiae of office life. But I also learned a lot about how the legal system works, and, perhaps more importantly for my future career, a great deal about employment law. I never did get the MBA, but years later, when I was working with a career counseling client who was a scientist, I was able to read a contract he had been asked to sign and recognize that the company was after his intellectual property. I advised him not to sign until he had consulted with an attorney able to negotiate something more in his favor.
Assume that early on in your career you will have jobs that may seem boring or beneath you. The jobs you should leave—or avoid completely—are the ones that will not teach you new skills or enhance the ones you already have.
Will this position add value to your resume?
When considering a new opportunity, ask yourself, “How will future employers view this experience? How will this look on a graduate school application?” When I took the job as a business litigation paralegal, I figured the experience working with banks would appeal to both MBA programs and employers in the financial sector. Given the growth in the area of financial compliance in the years following, my logic was sound. But even when I changed course and decided to pursue career counseling as a profession, that experience was crucial to helping me land my first job in the field, with a top law school’s career services office.
James M. Citrin, CEO practice leader at global executive search firm Spencer Stuart, stresses in his book,, that if you want to be successful in the business world, it’s worth trying to land a position with a well-recognized employer whose brand will help elevate your own. I see the logic to this, particularly if you are striving for a global career or even graduate work outside your home country. But those positions can be hard to come by, and there is something to be said for smaller firms that will give you more responsibility and the steeper learning curve that comes with it. (Hear Citrin and I elaborate on related topics and .) The most important thing is that you have a sense of how your professional brand will be affected by including this new position on your resume or CV.
Will you be exposed to people who could be useful to you in your career?
One of the most important things you can do when starting a new job is to go out of your way to get to know your colleagues. Ask them questions about their work. What problems are they trying to solve? What goals are they trying to meet? Where do they see the industry headed, and how does your employer fit into that picture? What trade organizations should you join? This strategy will help you both build alliances and gain a reputation as someone who is curious and willing to learn. It can also help expose projects or relationships you should be actively cultivating and those you should be avoiding. When someone you have worked with leaves your organization, stay in touch with them. Most of the job market is in word-of-mouth opportunities, and this is how you begin to develop the professional network you will need to stay employed over the long term.