The First Job Advice Letter

It is coming down to the end of the semester and the Class of 2014 will very soon leave us for Whatever’s Next.  For some of them it will be their first real job.  For others, graduate or professional school.  Others are still looking for employment; fear not – 98% of the graduating class of 2013 was in either jobs or graduate school within 6 months of graduation (with 77% of the class reporting).

Your seniors have had four years to learn the Wake Forest system and figure out what to do and how to do it.  Soon they are going to have to learn a new system and new expectations at their first destination after college, be it in a job, graduate school, etc.

I had a wonderful young Wake Forester that I mentored a few years ago, and when he left for his first job, this letter below was my parting gift to him.

As with The Worry Letter that was featured in the Daily Deac last fall, I invite you to write your own First Job Advice letter to your senior.  (Or start thinking about what you would say to your student when his/her time to graduate comes).  We might not agree on all the items in the letter – and that’s OK.  Think about your jobs and your successes (and failures) and decide what you would say.  This might make a nice and heartfelt graduation gift.


I have been thinking a lot about what I want to say to you as you leave for your new job.  I am sad for Wake Forest and happy for you, and I understand your trepidation to leave what you know and venture into something new.  Change is scary.

You are smart and talented and have a wonderful character, and those are all the building blocks you are going to need to be successful.  Don’t worry about where your new colleagues are from or feel like their schools or their pedigrees are better.  I mean it when I say I would bet on you against anyone else.

If you want my unsolicited advice, I will put on my mentor hat and give it to you.  A lot of these are things about work that I had to learn the hard way, and I am firm believer in paying it forward and trying to spare other people the agony of learning from mistakes.  You are starting in a new place and you want to make a good impression, so here’s what I’ve learned as my best guidelines for work:

  • When you first take a job, you need to pay your dues.  People are watching.  Come to work early and leave late.  Do not clock watch.  There will come a time – after you have earned your stripes – that you can adjust your hours.  But it isn’t now.  Even if your other friends leave early, stay longer than they do.
  • Observe the people who have been at the company for a while.  Who appears to be well respected? Figure out why.  Who gets talked about in bad terms? Figure out why.
  • Emulate the people who are respected and successful – and be sure not to be fooled simply by who is popular.  You want who is well-regarded.
  • Look for what isn’t being said along with what is.  Notice people’s body language.
  • Find a mentor.  Someone who can help you navigate the organizational waters and be a Sherpa.  Look for someone who seems to have a heart for helping younger people, and be sure this is someone in the Well Regarded group.
  • At some point you’ll make a mistake and your boss (or another colleague) will give you feedback.  The natural reaction is to explain what you did and why and get defensive.  When we are mentally trying to justify how we can explain our actions, sometimes we’ll stop hearing the feedback and we risk losing the lesson.  Instead, be silent and absorb it, even if it’s painful.  Thank the person for the feedback, and mean it.  Ask them what they would have liked to see you do differently.  And then next time, be sure to do it.
  • There should be no job you are above doing.  Don’t pass off the stuff you hate to your assistant or someone lower on the totem pole.  If there’s unpleasant stuff to do, do it yourself (or offer to help the colleague).
  • There are people in every organization who aren’t at the top of the corporate ladder, but they are the right arm of teams or bosses, the ones who get things done, gatekeepers.  Get to know them – learn their names, ask about their kids, listen to their stories.  Don’t just pay lip service to those things – mean it.  Be genuinely interested.  And always, always treat them with respect.
  • Never lord your education (or your salary) over other people with less.  Treat the CEO and the janitor with the same amount of politeness and dignity.  Everyone will notice.
  • Don’t feel obliged to try and be someone you aren’t.  If you don’t want to hang out with the young colleagues in your group until 2 am, don’t.
  • Be cautious about dating people in your office.  If the relationship goes badly, you have to see that person all the time.
  • One of the most profound gifts you can give other people is your undivided attention.  Learn to listen well and really hear people and focus when they are talking to you.
  • Make the choice to be ethical every day.  Plenty of other people won’t be.  At the end of the day, all you have is your character and your reputation.  Once you stain those, the memory lasts for a long time.
  • Pay it forward and mentor the next generation.

You’ve been a star at Wake Forest.  Now it’s just going to be in someone else’s sky and not Wake Forest’s.  But you will still be a star.

Categories: advisingcareermentoring


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