Your 1st job after grad school: What to ask of your employer and yourself

A graduate during the commencement exercises at Yale Law School. Fresh from school, how do you break into international development? Photo by: Jens Schott Knudsen / CC BY-NC

Career coaches may dole out advice on how to get that first job, but how do you navigate the first few years after graduation, which tend to be critical to your professional development?

Recent graduates and those settling into a new professional reality need to recognize and plan for various milestones during the first year to lay a solid foundation for growth. At no other time in your professional life will there be as blank a slate as your first year; all you have are your expectations and those of your employer.

It’s time to step up to the plate and learn the game at the same time.

You will have to make best-guess decisions based on what you know about yourself, most importantly, and what others — such as professors, mentors and family — tell you. I’m a firm believer in listening to your heart first, but others may see you fitting into a puzzle differently than you do. Don’t despair though; there is almost always middle ground. There are enough different kinds of positions and ways to excel in them that you can carve your own path.

I left the Peace Corps, for example, thinking I would go to graduate school to get that out of the way, then I would get back to Africa in some way (without any idea of exactly the kind of job I would really do). After moving to the Bay Area, I took a job as a Peace Corps recruiter. I’d never thought about recruiting, but it seemed like a fun job with great benefits — and I ended up enjoying it for almost four years while I completed my first master’s degree. It was that time as a recruiter that ended up qualifying me for a recruiter job at IRD, and once I was at IRD, I was able to finally transition to the program officer position that I had been aiming for when I came back from the Peace Corps.

So imagine you’ve just completed graduate school. Luckily, you’ve got your first full-time job lined up (unless you’re starting up or owning your own organization, in which case this blog post might not be for you). Most master’s graduates are qualified for a higher-than-entry-level position, such as program officer or associate program officer.

You may not be a director, but you’re not the most junior person at a team meeting either.

Here is what you can expect during your first year:

You got the job. Here’s what your employer expects or perceives:

1. Unless you went to graduate school as a mid-career professional with a longer employment history, you were hired because you showed promise.

2. You have a great background that prepared you for the mission you were hired to contribute to fulfilling.

3. The interviewers and hiring managers liked you enough to want you around every day. At the least they think they won’t mind you.

4. They needed you in that position as much as you wanted to get the job (at least that’s what you convinced them of in the recruitment process). You’re filling a role they need someone to play. They need your gifts.

5. You’re important to the organization, and they want you to succeed. No one wants to waste his or her time on a gamble that won’t pay off.

You got the job. Here’s what to expect of yourself:

1. Learn. Know the organization. Know the people you work with. Read every document possible that has any bearing on the programs or activities under your purview. Read the rulebooks, the laws and the regulations. How does this place actually work? How does task X really get done? What are competitors doing better or worse and why?

2. Think. Brainstorm ways to improve every system around you, all the time. Always welcome ideas. Share them. You have to be confident enough to speak up, even if you’re the new person.

There have been many cases, even recently, where I think, “I should stay quiet, these people all have way more experience than I do, they’ve already thought of that…” Then, more often than not, someone else comes up with the idea I had been too timid to share. Why shouldn’t you contribute? You’re at the table, right?

3. Identify mentors. Rarely do you find a perfect all-purpose mentor. You may have several mentors in your career. Recognize the strengths of those in more senior positions, and ask lots of questions! You don’t know everything, and that’s OK. You were hired because you knew a little bit already, so try to pass that on, especially to those less senior than you, and anyone else who will accept what knowledge you have to offer. Keep doing it.

4. Communicate. Do this with your boss, especially. Schedule regular meetings, reviews, emails, reports, and make sure they’re organized and concise. People need to know what you’re doing. Take care to be thorough and accurate. Know what is expected of you and communicate your expectations. Remember: If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.

After a few weeks, ask yourself:

1. What job in this organization looks the most fun, fulfilling and rewarding?

This is totally subjective to you. Many people at many levels do jobs in different styles. One country director or grants manager will run things completely differently than another, but still will get the job done. Once you’ve learned about the kinds of jobs you like and the tasks that you like doing, get better at them. You won’t advance unless you deliver.

2. What do you really not like doing?

Once you’ve figured that out, ask yourself: Why don’t I like doing that? You may surprise yourself. It may be that something simple within an unloved job duty is derailing you from realizing it’s not that bad, or that you actually do like doing the task. Maybe you have preconceptions about the kind of person who likes doing those things and didn’t think you were one of those people. Keep an open mind. You never know what you’ll end up liking. Try difficult things and be brave.

At the end of 6 months:

1. You should have an idea about the sustainability of the organization.

Ask yourself: How is my job security?

2. You should know how to be effective, where everything is and who to tap for the best solutions you can’t provide yourself. Take it to the next level — make the system work more efficient and show your value to the organization in the process.

Ask yourself: How do I get things done and deliver?

At the end of one year:

1. Take your pulse. You should know if you want to stay with the organization, if it is a positive environment for you professionally and personally. Are your career goals the same as a year ago? Is what you enjoy now what you thought you would enjoy? Do you really want to do  X (like manage people, do complicated detail-oriented tasks, write a lot, live abroad, etc.)? Keep track of your big wins and areas for growth. Check your job pulse often.

2. You will change. That’s OK. You have had several months to learn a new way of working, a new system — it’s inevitable that you and the system would change each other. You should have learned new things about yourself that may have even changed your career goals. You should allow yourself, without disappointment, to accept your evolved professional goals and new perspective, and to try to be positive about your new direction.

3. Write it down. Even if you’re going to cruise in what you’re doing for a while, make sure your CV and your LinkedIn page are current.

4. What do I need to get better? Do you need more training? Certifications? Another degree? If it’s time you need, do the time. Be patient. Get better at it and your time will come.

5. What is next? Are you happy to cruise for a while? Otherwise, you should have your eye on the next level up. You know the jobs you like and what you want to try. What is the position you want next, and what do you need to get there. If you feel sincerely that you’re ready and the organization can’t give you that promotion, then another organization needs your gifts.

6. Rinse and repeat. During your first few professional years, you’ll get better at a lot of things and know a lot more, and you’ll become fluent at your job. If you’re delivering and growing, momentum and advancement should follow. Hopefully you’re happy with what you’re doing!

Looking for more advice on how to jumpstart your career in international development? Join Scott Webb and other industry experts next week for an interactive discussion. Stay tuned to Devex for more information.

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About the author

  • Scott Webb

    Scott Webb is an international development professional with more than 15 years of experience in a wide range of roles. He is currently a career and academic adviser with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He was previously with Catholic Relief Services working as a technical adviser for emergency human resources, and before that with Relief International as a senior program officer supporting projects in Syria and Sudan/South Sudan, and in various roles with International Relief and Development.