The First Job Advice Letter

Today is Commencement for our Class of 2022, and since I will be in Commencement activities starting at dark-thirty in the morning, this is a pre-post.

Our seniors are leaving us for Whatever’s Next. For some, what’s next is a first real job; for others, it is graduate or professional school. Others are still looking for employment (fear not – the OPCD tracks this and an enormous percentage of our graduating seniors find themselves employed or in graduate school within 6 months of graduation).

I had a wonderful young Wake Forester that I mentored a many years ago, and when he left for his first job, this letter below was my parting gift to him. If you have a Deac getting ready to start that first job, you might consider writing your own Advice Letter to them.

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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 would bet on you over 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 on time and be prepared. Don’t be the last to get to work or the first to check out at the end of the day.
  • 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. 
  • Look for what isn’t being said along with what is. Notice people’s body language.
  • Find a mentor who can help you navigate the organizational waters. 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 org chart. Chipping in and helping out are always the right answers.
  • 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.
  • Treat the CEO and the janitor with the same amount of politeness and dignity. 
  • 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 company until 2 am, don’t.
  • Be cautious about dating people at your job. If the relationship goes badly, you still have to work with that person.
  • One of the most profound gifts you can give other people is your undivided attention. Learn to listen well 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 your turn to be a star in a new sky. You can do this.

— by Betsy Chapman, Ph.D. (’92, MA ’94)

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