What to Consider When Choosing a First Job

Posted by The Editors on June 16, 2011
What to Consider When Choosing a First Job

A thousand-mile journey starts with a single step. A lifetime career starts with a first job, which can make the decision about the kind of position to pursue daunting. Before letting your worries get the best of you, read on.

To Plan or Not to Plan

There are two kinds of careers: planned and unplanned. There are two kinds of retirement: gated-community-in-Ft.-Lauderdale and trailer-park-in-Tempe. And there are plenty of people who believe that there's a direct correlation between the kind of career you choose and the kind of retirement you wind up with.

And maybe there is, but so what? A lot of people in their early-20s think planning a career is stifling. Two years as an analyst, two years to get an MBA, five years as an associate. A stint as director. A long, lucrative tenure as vice president or partner. All as neatly laid out as a solemn military march. Where's the spontaneity in that? Where's the chance for improvisation, for adventure, for living on the edge? Where's the room for that unforeseeable, serendipitous event that, when you take advantage of it, will catapult you to fame and riches?

A lot of people look at obsessive career planning and think, "Thirty years to chase the dollar sign so you may die in Florida," to steal a line from an old Steppenwolf song.

It isn't that they don't want money or a comfortable retirement. It's just that planning is so...predetermining. So confining.

But compared to what? I mean, some pretty basic things can't be planned. The family you're born into, for a start. And for most people, where you go to high school. If you're lucky, you get some choice about where you attend college, but it isn't exactly something you plan for much ahead of time, unless you come from one of those families where the last eight generations went to Yale and the previous one helped found it. Let's just hope that wherever you went to college, you spent your time there wisely, took courses that matched your interests, got decent grades, and clicked with a few professors who will write you glowing reference letters.

The Next Step

Now it's time to choose that all-important next step. You can do one of two things: You can choose a first job in accordance with some guidelines—that is, make a plan—or you can drift into life without a rudder.

If you like to plan, you're probably already thinking seriously about your aptitudes, how much money you want to make, the hours you want to work, kind of company culture you want to work in, how much money you want to make, where you would be willing to relocate, and how much money you want to make. If this is you, here's the irony: You and the person who absolutely hates the notion of planning have the same attitude toward planning a career. You both think that once a plan is complete, all that's left is to follow it.

Wrong! The whole point of a plan is to change it as you go, as you would change how you hold a compass during a hike, to keep the needle pointing toward N. Your workplace will change, your life will change, and what you want will change. In fact, there are likely to be more changes in your career than in the careers of any previous generation of Americans.

So your plan will have to change, even if you've planned every detail. Especially if you've planned every detail. In fact, the single most important thing about a plan is that it's changeable! You may find that your plan doesn't work; okay, you change it. In doing so, you learn something about what you want and don't want. That's a gain you might not have realized without a plan to measure yourself against.

The Bottom Line

Take your best shot at a career plan now, and refine it as you go. Think you want to work with people? Plan to be a teacher or a salesperson or a social worker or a management consultant. Think you want to work with numbers? Plan to be an accountant or an engineer or an investment banker. Research the industries you're interested in. Find out where the jobs are and what qualifications they require. Map out the steps that will lead to your first job in a field that appeals to you.

And by the way, planning doesn't have to involve looking for a job at all. Plan to travel the world for a year, teach English in Taiwan, serve a stint in the Peace Corps, or—here's an idea—start your own business.

Just don't drift. Make a plan. Any plan. Remember, a plan is not a straitjacket; it's a pair of rollerblades. You can always change direction if the road gets too bumpy.

And don't worry about that trailer park in Tempe. There's a lot to be said for the low-maintenance convenience of a mobile home, the easy conviviality of a close community, and the dry, allergen-free climate of Arizona.

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