There’s one dreaded question everyone starts to ask each other during senior year of college: “Where do you want to work after graduation?” When I was a senior four years ago, I’d recite my memorized answer to classmates, family, and my professors, rattling off a list of glossy magazines I’d love to work at. They were big titles — think Cosmopolitan, Glamour, The Atlantic, even The New York Times. Spoiler alert: I didn’t end up there. And I’m actually glad I didn’t.
Had I landed one of my “dream” jobs right away, it actually wouldn’t have been the dream job I imagined after all. That’s because no matter where your first job is — even if it’s a company you’ve always admired — it’s still your first job, and it’s not going to be all you built it up to be.
Your college major, campus activities, and internships usually hone in on what you are passionate about. It’s there whether you’re the newspaper editor in chief, captain of the field hockey team, or sorority president. Let’s be honest: You’re at the top of the food chain. But after college ends, you’re basically a freshman all over again. Sure, your entry-level role is an important cog in the machine that makes projects come to life, but you’re not exactly at the center of the action.
After graduation, I quickly learned that a 21-year-old wouldn’t be reporting on the hard-hitting journalism I had equipped myself to write in college — at least not right away. I found myself at a celebrity news publication as an assistant social media editor. It’s nothing to scoff at, and I was grateful to have a job, but it was pretty far off from what I envisioned myself doing. At the time, I endlessly whined a lot to the group chat, declaring that if I had to craft another tweet about the Kardashians, my brain might implode (don’t worry, I survived). But there’s plenty I took with me that made the whole experience valuable.
Your first job teaches you some important things that aren’t related to what you studied in school. You learn what this whole “work” thing is actually about; you might learn that when your boss emails and asks you to do something, you should confirm you received their message and will get it to them by the deadline, rather than give radio silence until they follow up asking why you’ve been ignoring them even though you’ve been hard at work on that project. Now is when you’ll learn that it goes a long way to be friendly to the IT department who you’ll need to have your back when you accidentally jam the office printer and don’t want anyone to find out. Now is when you’ll discover that waking up on time is easier than having to send an early morning ping letting everyone know you’ll be late because you mismanaged the time it might take you to commute in the rain. Now is when you’ll realize it’s best to skip that fourth round at happy hour with your friends on a Tuesday night before a big client presentation. Now is when you make mistakes and grow from them, and it’s also where you figure out what not to do at the next job.
And it’s not all just life lessons that you’ll take with you. I was able to impress my boss while hustling hard during many late-night award show shifts, enough so to score a recommendation letter for future jobs. I befriended coworkers around my age, who all went on to new jobs as well, giving me a wider network of connections who can pass my resume along when I need it. And of course, it’s where I found my “work wife,” a former coworker who I still talk to everyday — yes, as in actual, real-life friends! In fact, a few of my closest friends today are people I met through work, and to be totally honest, we probably bonded the most when we had something to complain about and could both relate to it.
It’s normal to feel frustrated at your first role, like you’re not fully utilizing the degree you just worked so hard to earn for the past four years. But there are some perks you may not realize are perks yet. Are your coworkers nice people? Are your hours reasonable? Do you have decent vacation time? Are you learning a new type of skill set? Those aren’t things to take for granted.
The good news is that after this, you won’t have to be a freshman ever again. The only way to go is up. And when you get to your next gig, you’ll be able to introduce them to an even more stellar version of yourself.
And I know what you’re all wondering about me. “Has she made it to her dream job yet?” Technically, nope, if we’re talking about that very specific job I described to everyone during senior year. But have I found myself at jobs that I love? Yes, and I never would have guessed they would be my new dream jobs — and I never would have gotten on that path if not for my first job and what I learned there.