Grad Guide to Starting Your Career
How can you nail a job interview? How can you dress to impress on a tight budget? Should you go to grad school? We answer your questions on everything you wish you had learned in school -- but didn't -- about your new job.
Q. Finding a job is taking longer than I thought. What am I doing wrong?
A. Don't get discouraged: The average job hunt lasts four months. In the meantime, make sure you are taking full advantage of all your resources. In other words: the Internet is not enough. Only about 15% to 20% of all jobs are ever publicly advertised in any medium, and only 5% of job seekers end up getting their job through an ad. How do the rest do it? Word of mouth, my friend. Get in touch with your college alumni association, join a professional organization or club, subscribe to trade magazines, keep in touch with college acquaintances who graduated before you, find online discussion groups for your industry, arrange an informational interview with someone in your field or consider applying for an internship to get your foot in the door. You also may need to reevaluate your job criteria. Bear in mind you're on the bottom rung of the career ladder. You'll probably have to start at a job with a low cool quotient and work your way up to your dream job. See Ten Job Hunting Myths for more ways to maximize your search.
Q. How can I nail a job interview?
A. Start off by making a good first impression. Your appearance should be clean and professional. Don't chew gum, wear excessive jewelry or choose the night before to experiment with your Kool-Aid hair-coloring technique. Greet your interviewer with a firm handshake and speak clearly. Come prepared with copies of your résumé, a list of references and their contact information, and samples of your work, if applicable. During the interview, maintain eye contact. Sit up in your chair -- don't slouch. And, of course, come prepared to answer all those tough interview questions. Check out Quintessential Careers' sample list of job interview questions for recent grads that you can practice answering with a friend -- or in front of the mirror -- beforehand.
Q. What questions should I ask during a job interview?
A. Toward the end of most job interviews, you'll be asked if you have any questions. You must ask something. If you keep your mouth shut, you give the impression you're not really interested in the job. But ask intelligent questions. If the interviewer just finished discussing the professional dress code, you don't want to ask, "So are jeans OK?" A great question to lead with is "Will you describe a typical day for someone in this position?" Another good one: "What do you think is the greatest opportunity facing the organization today? The biggest threat?" Or: "What are the traits and skills of the people who are most successful in this job?" You can also ask about the dress code, work hours, benefits and opportunities for advancement. Get more ideas of good questions to ask.
Q. I've received a couple of job offers. How can I evaluate them to choose the best one?
A. Congratulations, someone actually wants to hire you. Now you need to ask yourself if you actually want to work there. Your first instinct may be to go with the job that pays the highest salary. After all, you've got bills to pay. While certainly important, money isn't everything. You'll want to compare benefits packages, commute times, opportunities for advancement, work environments, levels of responsibility and job security. And it sounds cliché, but envision where you want to be in ten years. Would one job take you down a different career path than the other? See How to Choose the Right Job for more advice. Then use our Job Assessor tool to help you identify your priorities and evaluate the pros and cons of two job offers.
Q. Can I negotiate an entry-level job offer?
A. Absolutely! You may or may not get what you ask for, but it doesn't hurt to ask. Some job offers are set in stone, while others will leave a little wiggle room -- even for new hires fresh out of school. But that doesn't mean the sky's the limit. Use our salary calculator to find out what your job is worth, and then negotiate around that figure, highlighting the unique skills and talents that you'll bring to the position. And don't say that your salary requirements are a deal breaker unless you mean it. Even if there isn't any room for an increase in salary, consider negotiating benefits such as vacation time, work hours, signing bonuses, starting date or relocation benefits.
Q. How much can I reasonably ask for salary?
A. That depends on your industry and your location. Computer science and engineering grads generally can expect to make in the neighborhood of $50,000-plus, while liberal arts majors tend to start around $30,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And you'll probably get paid more if you work in, say, San Francisco than in Omaha because of the higher cost of living. You can get exact numbers on dozens of careers and find out what the going rate is in your neighborhood with our handy salary calculator. You also can use it to get a preview of your earnings potential over time as your experience level increases.
Q. The position I landed isn't much to write home about. How can I use this experience as a springboard to my dream job?
A. No matter how boring or thankless your job, you can use it to get a promotion or a more fulfilling position. Young adults will, of course, have to pay their dues. Even the most talented workers won't start out with the job of their dreams. After all, you can't get five years of experience in one year. You may have to bide your time -- especially in today's lackluster job market. The trick is to use that time wisely.
Impress the right people, sharpen your skills and seek out opportunities to shine. That'll put you in a better position for a promotion or a new job when the time comes. Get specifics on how to pull this off in Six Ways to Make the Most of Your Job.
Q. What should I wear on my first day of work?
A. What will the cool kids be wearing? Hopefully, when you went in for your job interview, you took notice of what the employees wore, and you asked your interviewer about the dress code. If you didn't, it wouldn't hurt to give your new boss a call or send him an e-mail to clarify. (If you interviewed on a Friday, make sure your impression isn't based on the office's "casual Friday" attire.) If anything, it's better to err on the side of looking too nice or too professional -- you don't want to show up in jeans if everyone else is wearing suits. You might want to buy one or two outfits to wear on your first days, then hold off buying your new work wardrobe until after you see first-hand what everyone else is wearing.
Q. How can I dress to impress on a tight budget?
A. Unless you plan to work at your friend's Internet start-up in your PJs, most grads (male and female) should invest in at least one good suit. This is an indispensable part of your wardrobe -- first of all for job interviews, then for important client meetings or business presentations. You might suggest a suit as a graduation present from your parents to help cover the bill. For the rest of your wardrobe, no matter what the dress code, the key to dressing well on a tight budget is mixing and matching. You probably can't afford to buy two-weeks' worth of new outfits, so buy fewer pieces but in colors and fabrics that you can wear with each other. Build your base wardrobe with neutral colors -- black, grey, navy, brown, white, etc. -- but add color and personality in your accessories -- ties, scarves, jewelry. Then as you earn more money, you can broaden your wardrobe and add more excitement. Also, stick to classics -- you want to avoid buying trendy pieces that may look out of style in a few months.
Shop the sales racks first and look for irregular merchandise. For example, I just bought an $80 pair of trousers for $35 just because it was missing a button. I took it home and stitched a new one on in less than five minutes. You could also stick to discount stores like TJ Maxx and Marshalls, or check out your local consignment shop. The Internet is another great place to find bargains. Use Pricegrabber.com to compare prices. And check out BlueFly.com, Overstock.com, eBay or your favorite brick-and-mortar's Web site for bargains. Just make sure you know the retailer's return policy in case the clothes don't fit as you had hoped. See Dress for Success for Less to learn more.
Q. What should I expect on my first day of work?
A. A blur. First stop: the human resources department, where you'll fill out your tax document, health care and other benefit forms. (Learn more about these forms and how to fill them out in our Grad Guide's "Benefits" section.) Then, you'll probably go through a long line of introductions and get a grand tour of the office. You'll probably remember less than 10% of all this. But don't worry, if you forget someone's name or where the copy machine is, just ask. You're new. People will understand. Just try to have the big stuff down by your first week.
Now let's address what you're really concerned about: With whom will I eat lunch? Don't pack your own lunch on the first day. This gives you a perfect opportunity to go out with your co-workers and get to know them better. If people start leaving for lunch, and no one remembers to ask you to join them, invite yourself in a subtle way by asking, "Where's a good place to get a bite around here?" Just make sure you have cash on-hand. You don't want to hold up the group as you look for an ATM.
Q. How can I get to know -- and impress -- the right people at work?
A. Going above and beyond your assigned duties and doing a stellar job may not be enough. You need to actively reach out to higher ups to develop a relationship and make a good impression. First, consider finding a mentor. This should ideally be someone higher-up than your boss. Volunteer for a project he or she is heading up, or simply introduce yourself at the next company social or while riding in the elevator. Then send an e-mail or stop by his or her office to ask occasional advice or to follow up on something you chatted about previously to build a friendship. You can get indispensable advice, and you might find that contact will come in handy for snagging future projects or promotions.
Q. I constantly hear about the importance of networking. How do I do it?
A. Failing to network can be a big career killer. You'll want to keep in touch to stay atop the latest issues in your field and maintain relationships with people you call on when you need advice. And a contact just may help you land your next job. So how can you plug into the grapevine when you, admittedly, don't know a soul? Get in touch with your college alumni association, join a professional organization or club, subscribe to trade magazines, keep in touch with college acquaintances who graduated before you and find online discussion groups for your industry. Plus, don't be a wallflower at conferences and other functions. And always keep a business card on hand when you're outside the office. You never know when you might run into a potential contact on an airplane, at a baseball game or even when grabbing a cup of coffee.
Q. How can I avoid embarrassing myself at a business meal?
A. There are three main points to remember when dining with coworkers or clients, according to the book Life After School Explained from Cap and Compass. First, you're not there to eat. You may be starving, but you're there to build social ties or close an important deal. The food is just a bonus, so don't treat it as the main attraction. Second, don't try too hard to impress. You're not the star of the evening, so don't try to show off or be an expert. Show that you are interested and informed, but don't call attention to yourself. And third, follow your host. This is the person who arranged the meal (probably your boss). Think of the meal like playing "Simon Says." If Simon orders dessert, you can order dessert. If Simon doesn't order an alcoholic drink, you shouldn't either.
Oh, and never get a doggie bag for your uneaten food. This draws unnecessary attention to yourself and screams, "Hi everybody. I'm poor. I get to eat this for lunch tomorrow," say the experts at Cap and Compass.
Q. As the newest and youngest employee, how can I get respect on the job?
A. A big challenge for any new grad is getting your co-workers, boss and clients to see past your age and notice your merits.
Repeat after me: Respect is earned, not given. That means you've got to work hard, show leadership qualities, exceed expectations, be dependable and professional. And for goodness sake, eliminate the words "like" and "um" from your vernacular. Learn more.
Q. How long should I plan to stay in my entry-level job?
A. At least two to three years. That's the typical time frame before you can reasonably expect to move up to a significantly better position. Time isn't the only factor, though. More importantly, consider job satisfaction. Are you adequately challenged, or are you bored or overly stressed? Are you ready for more responsibility? Are your skills being utilized? Is there any potential for growth in your current position or are you stuck in a dead-end job? See Moving on Up for advice on how to know when it's time to leave -- and how to pull off your new job search while on the job.
Q. Should I go to grad school?
A. An advanced degree could be the ticket to a new career or a stepping stone to faster advancement in your current job. But it could be a complete waste of time and money if you don't use it as a means to a well researched end. Not all grad students find their dream jobs or snag a dream salary. The first question you should ask yourself, says Peter Vogt, president of Career Planning Resources, is "Are you going to graduate school for a purposeful reason or are you falling into grad school to get away from other things?"
If you're tempted by any of the wrong reasons, save yourself the time, money and stress and get a job instead. Breaking out of the routine of school for a while could help you gain greater perspective about your skills, interests and career goals. Besides, you can always go back to school later. When you're certain that graduate school is the right move, ask yourself if you have the time and energy to be a successful student. See The Back-to-School Decision for more advice on whether grad school makes sense for your career and your budget. Then, see Free Money for Grad School for resources to help you pay the bill.
Q. What would it take to start my own business?
A.Young entrepreneurs have to work hard to overcome inexperience and gain credibility. But you can increase your odds of success when starting out and starting up by getting experience, building a winning team and getting good advice from a mentor.
Another big obstacle for any start-up -- especially among young adults -- is money. It's important to have a bulletproof business plan before you apply for a loan or hit up friends and family for cash. See Six Steps to Starting Your Own Business to learn more.