By Michella Chiu '13GSAS of the Columbia Career Coaches Network
Whether your first "professional" job is important or not has been a prevalent debate, in which there are a multitude of answers and opinions. The sheer number of answer and opinions provided can be all right or all wrong. In reality, there are factors at play that are important and there are factors that are not. If you are a graduate fresh out of college, you need to judge what is important for you to consider with your first job and what is not vitally important.
From our experiences working with clients, the industry one joins in his or her first job may actually not be as important as it was in the past. Many people have two to three careers in their lifetime, and many find their second or third career more fulfilling and satisfying than their first. Also, the new trend in the job market is to offer more and more project-based or function-based positions. This also explains why we are seeing more contractor positions available within large organizations. After that, "job functions" become more important to consider instead of the industry per se. While it is impossible to generalize the needs of different industries, skills involving communication, technical adeptness, and the ability to take ownership of projects and work are universally applicable to all positions regardless of industry. It is, therefore, highly advisable on one’s first job, to polish those skills.
Since all positions are about functionality, the position you obtain in your first job is more important because the skills you acquire through this work and your responsibilities will define what opportunities are open to you, and eventually your career trajectory. While job candidates might argue that one can always put transferable skills into application, many recruiters jump to another resume if they do not find the right experience in the first 10 seconds of reading. Another important thing to think about is the "ceiling" of growth in that position: Is there potential growth from this first position you are occupying? Is there a limit to where you can go? If your answer is yes, be prepared for career transition, perhaps sooner rather than later; there is also a high probability that you will have to learn additional skills outside of work to prepare you for that change.
Then, how can students or fresh graduates can be better prepared for their first job—what they may consider their prime opportunity? Graduates fresh out of college should explore their career interest and acquire the skills they need for that first position out of the gate. Then, on their resume, they can use the terms of that industry to describe what they have done in school projects that replicate those skills. Additionally, students need to rethink the meaning of "networking." In the past, people valued business networking pretty highly. People now are looking for more in-depth conversations that are educational and informational. This is why social mixers gathering a random group of professionals from different industries may not work anymore. In this situation, prospective job seekers should portray themselves as subject-matter-experts (SMEs) in a particular field of knowledge to highlight their background and qualifications. They can do this by thinking further: What is the trend of my industry? How can I contribute to a discussion on future trends? How can my work from the past lead to new understanding of an industry?
Understanding your strengths and experience, then communicating that on your resume and to a prospective employer verbally, can help you find a "first job" that suits your skill set. There lies the beginning of your personal and professional growth. In this process, gaining a better understanding of where your career may take you will be a recurring learning opportunity.
Michella Chiu (BA, MA, ABD) is a Career Coach and PhD Program Lead of Prime Opt, a career coaching center she founded together with Andy Chan. Chan is an experienced Data Analyst who has worked with Fortune 100 companies to help professionals with international background find a job in the U.S. Chiu is now a legal professional, and has had careers in marketing, PR, business management, and higher education. She holds graduate degrees from Columbia University and Princeton University, and is a member of Columbia University’s Career Coaches Network. She also holds a certificate in Strategic Leadership Skills as Supervisors from University of Washington. Chiu consulted with her business partner Andy Chan for this piece.