So, you’ve recently graduated, or are about to, and now you’re ready to start the next big chapter in your life. Congratulations! Oh, the places you can go, the things you can do, the endless possibilities. But what school probably didn’t prepare you for is working in the real world.

Here are a few tips on finding your first job and getting started on the right foot from someone who’s been in the industry for over 15 years:

 

1. Your Name is Your Most Precious Asset

One of the best pieces of advice I got from the Creative Director at my first job was this:
“Your name is your most precious asset. Don’t screw it up.”

I understood what he was saying, but it took a few years for it to really sink in.

The idea is simple – if you burn bridges, are difficult to work with, or do something to ruin your reputation, then you’ll find it very difficult to advance in your career. We’ve all seen when big companies have some corporate scandal, lose customer trust, and suffer the effects for a very long time. A bad reputation can follow you for years and with the prevalence of social media and online networking, it even follows you from city to city.

So remember, always protect your name by playing well with others. Be willing to do things you don’t necessarily want to – and without reward – but helps out your team or community. And, finally, don’t be a jerk. Treat everyone with respect and be the kind of person you’d want to work with each day.

 

2. Your Portfolio is Key

Nowadays, in tech and creative industries especially, a strong portfolio is more important than where you went to school, if you even did. In fact, these fields are filled with many extremely talented self-taught individuals that never set foot on a college campus.

It really doesn’t matter where you showcase your work – your own website or a third party host – but what you are showing off. Like a first date, you always want to put your best foot forward. So only include work that you are proud of, show what you can do, and present it in a clean and easy to use manner.

And please, if you are applying for a job, be sure to always include your portfolio URL on your résumé! If your résumé isn’t compelling and you aren’t including your portfolio, it’s doubtful anyone will reply to you.

 

3. Understand You Have to Start at the Bottom and Work Your Way Up

Your first job, it’s so exciting! You bounce through the doors wide-eyed and bushy tailed and ready to show off your skills on huge nationwide projects. Then you are given the grunt work to do and the glittering dream comes crashing down. This is the biggest reality check for people just starting out their first job.

Though you might be a junior in title, this is where you are going to learn so much about how the industry works, businesses operate, and how to do your job professionally. It’s the bedrock for the rest of your career. Learn as much as you can everyday. Ask your supervisor questions, reach out to other departments to understand how they work, and understand how your work fits in with others. Be a sponge and soak it all in.

It’s true, you have to start at the bottom doing the grunt work before you can grow. College may have prepared ground and planted the seed for your career, but it’s up to you to let it sprout and spring to life. It won’t happen overnight. It will take years of hard work and cultivation, but one day you’ll wake up and realize how far you’ve come as you pass on your knowledge to the new kid walking through the doors.

 

4. Find a Mentor and a Company You Love

A good mentor will be one of the most valuable people to have in your career. This person will not only guide you through the business side of your role, but can help you maintain your sanity in tough times. Ideally, this person has been in the industry a long while and has already gone through the bumps in the road you are about to experience.

But don’t expect someone to volunteer to do this for you. Once you find someone that you feel can be your mentor, you’ll have to reach out and ask them. If they agree, realize how valuable they are to you and show them the utmost respect. Like a good college professor, they nurture your growth and support you when you need it.

Finding the right company for you is one of the most important decisions you can make when selecting your first job. Does your personality match theirs? Do their values match yours? It’s something only you can decide. Finding a great group of folks to work with on a daily basis makes all the difference in the world. You’ll grow, you’ll laugh, and you’ll probably even get birthday cake.

Now, a good mentor and a great company are not mutually exclusive. Don’t fret if you don’t find them immediately, it might take time. Or you may hit the jackpot and find them both at once. More than likely they will be in different places, and that’s ok! Having that neutral outside voice to guide you will be a great resource.

 

5. Don’t Start Your Own Freelance Business Immediately

Finally, many people freelance while in school to help pay the bills or try interesting new things. That’s great! Keep that quest for learning and exploration, it will be huge in your growth. But, just because you’ve done some side work for friends or family, doesn’t mean you are ready to set up shop just yet.

The simple matter is that most people coming right out of school are taught the foundation for their job, but have no idea how to turn that newfound knowledge into a viable business. It’s just not part of the school curriculum, well, unless you are a business major. TIme management, understanding how long it takes you to perform a task, client relationships, and being able to handle multiple projects are just some of the very real skills you’ll learn working for a company. After being in your field for a while, you’ll see how things work, then you can break off on your own.

Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t do freelance on the side at your first job. By all means! If it’s a fun little side project, go for it! But take it from someone who has done their own thing, work your way up to working for yourself. Knowing how your industry works will make the transition easier. And let’s not get into contracts, amortized assets, finding healthcare, quarterly taxes, selling yourself, billing clients, figuring out how much you’re worth… the list is endless!

 

Hello, World

So that’s my two-bits worth of free advice. Now it’s up to you. Your career is waiting to sprout from the ground and grow into something incredibly rewarding. All you have to do is be willing to tend the garden.