Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Oct 21, 2009

Things I wish I knew before joining the corporate world

by Miss Minchin, Dean of Students

1. Your undergrad major doesn't matter, but your Alma Mater can help open doors.
I went to a great private liberal arts college that no one has heard of except college recruiters. Since I was planning to be a cultural anthropologist or a clinical psychologist, I wasn't aiming for name-drop-ability in business situations while shopping colleges. I wasn't even aiming for business knowledge. I studied behavioral sciences because I knew I couldn't make a living as "just" a writer.  But since I couldn't take 5 more years of being a poor student, the reality of my more than $20k in student loans sunk in and I joined Corporate America. I saw how well-known schools created opportunities for other recent grads. Executives would go out of their way to help the young whipper-snapper who went to the same school and reminded them of theirselves at that age. Bigger and better endowed schools can offer better support and larger alumni networks, and a known name makes for easier conversation ("you know, it's one of the X-colleges... it's in X-state.... it's near X-big name college..., ....X-celebrity went there" "Oh, I love that guy").  I avoided any post college jobs with big name firms because I thought I had to have a business or accounting degree to get in the door. I later realized that just having a degree in any subject was enough.  I probably wouldn't change the school I went to because I loved it (well maybe I'd find more ways to reduce my student loans), but I might have gone for the literature or writing major I really wanted to do.

2. You are your job; and internships teach you a lot more than entry-level skills 
Since I had no idea what I wanted to do (except not be poor anymore), I took an entry-level Administrative Assistant job in a big city after college. I had scoffed at internships at accounting firms during school while I applied for fellowships to study dance in India and volunteered for social causes instead. When my plans changed, and I became an "Admin", I was not prepared for the shock of job role hierarchy. People assume you do what you do because that's all you can do, that's all you are qualified to do, or that's all you aspire to do. If you are not in a job that is on a clear growth track, it's really hard for people to imagine that you have more to offer, and you will be "type cast" making it much harder for you to change roles without having to leave the company. And you'll be the one who has to listen to complaints about the free bagels you order or be asked to make copies of faxes and faxes of copies instead. This is not to say there is anything wrong with being an Admin, but if that's not your chosen career path you are better off  taking another entry-level job in an industry you might be interested in.
This is where internships come in handy. No one grows up thinking "I want to be a Senior Internal Auditor, HCM, Level 2" but this could be the perfect job. You won't discover this without exposure to it, and interning while still a student will give you a great opportunity to learn about what you might like and not like about corporate life. If I could do things differently, I would do an internship (or take that fellowship to study dance in India).

3. It's not like school.
In the corporate world, there is no straight line, no curriculum or degree program. If you work really hard you don't automatically move up to the next grade. There are no exams or report cards to measure your progress, and in your performance review you should be happy to get "Cs". No one is going to necessarily mentor you or train you. Success is a combination of luck, skill and negotiation. Presentation skills are very helpful too, and hard work is sometimes important.  If I could do things differently, I would take some speech/presentation classes to get comfortable speaking in meetings, giving presentations, and pitching ideas persuasively. I would have more realistic expectations for how to establish a career and I would seek out more learning opportunities in each role.

4. Corporate jobs aren't the only way to make a living wage.
Career counselors love to tell young people to follow their dreams and the money will follow. I knew this was just hippie fluff they were peddling, because no one I ever met made a decent living from something that made them happy. I mean, that's why it's called work. But now that I'm older and more jaded, I think they're right. The best time to follow your dreams is when you don't have responsibilities and house payments. If you do anything long enough you will become an expert. Why not become the sought-after expert on Peep swordfighting if that's what makes you happy? Apprenticing is an underutilized method for learning a skill, and careers are forged from the skills you aquire and the expertise you possess. When you pursue your interests, build skills and become an expert, a career will find you. If I could do things differently I would have found ways to apprentice with successful people who I admired.

What things do you wish you knew before you joined the work force?

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