A Guest Post By Sarah D. Huckins, Graduate Student, American University, PR Expanded Blog Contest Winner
Six months after graduation, the novelty of being in the “real world” may be beginning to wear off. Student loan grace periods are coming to an end, you may be wondering at what point will you be able to finally put your degree into practice. According to a report by Burning Glass and the Strada Institute, 39 percent of Communications and Journalism majors will be underemployed in their first job. While this statistic is an unfortunate reality for many graduates, it doesn’t need to define you. Everyone needs to start somewhere. While you may find yourself in a position that doesn’t explicitly align with your professional goals, there are ways to make the most out of any role.
For many college graduates, it is isn’t economically viable to hold out for the perfect first job. With mounting debt (the average student in the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loans) many graduates need to take whatever employment opportunities are immediately available to them. For me, that meant starting off in retail at Patagonia when I first moved to Washington D.C. But what began as a means to pay rent ended up being an invaluable professional experience. Any job can support your professional growth, but first you’ll need to learn what questions to ask of your employer – and more importantly of yourself. The following five strategies helped me to go from seasonal sales associate to Environmental Coordinator at Patagonia and led me from D.C. to Jordan and back again in pursuit of my professional goals.
- Be your own advocate.
Understanding your passions and skills and illustrating them to others is the first step is advancing yourself in a role. Some work environments have structured processes for goal setting, but even if yours doesn’t, take initiative. Ask yourself what is important to you and create goals within your role and share them with team leadership. I was interested in Patagonia’s Corporate Social Responsibility, so early on I worked to learn more about the company’s environmental programs. It’s possible that your managers may not be able to provide all the support you’d like, but by communicating where’d you like to go – and showing that you have the determination to get there – managers and leadership may think of you if new opportunities arise.
- Take on work that builds marketable skills.
Don’t resign yourself to work that isn’t fulfilling. Even if you perceive your work to be completely unrelated to your undergraduate course of study, there are always ways to make strategic connections, particularly to the field of communications. Does your organization have a social media account? Offer to help create new content. Does your organization have a customer list-serv? Offer to help craft an upcoming newsletter. Does your organization host events? Offer to help with planning and marketing. What about other opportunities for developing in-demand soft skills?
For me, these two strategies involved aligning myself with Patagonia’s environmental mission. Environmental advocacy was much more relevant to my long-term goals than sales, so by expressing that to managers and by working to promote sustainability within the store from an early point, I was well positioned to apply for the role of Environmental Coordinator when it became available.
- Learn from your co-workers.
If you find yourself at a job in service, or in a role not in a typical office setting, your co-workers may be your most valuable asset. It is likely that you’ll be working with people who have a wide variety of personal and professional backgrounds and learning from their experiences can only help you. By making connections with your co-workers you might be exposed to something you never thought about before or be able to think about a concept in a new way.
At Patagonia I worked with an undergrad studying food insecurity, a Master of Divinity who studied dual narratives, and two mid-career professionals who had worked at environmental nonprofits, just to name a few. Fostering connections with these individuals, and others, helped me to consider new variables and issues as I pursued my goals.
- Take advantage of opportunities for professional development.
Some employers offer professional development opportunities, whether it be workshops and trainings or subsidies for continuing education courses. But even if an employer doesn’t offer an opportunity directly, it’s possible that they would support you if you found one independently. Ask your managers what opportunities are available to you, or if they would allow you to use company time to attend meaningful trainings at other institutions.
Patagonia’s support of employee activism creates an incredible opportunity for professional development. I found out that as a benefitted employee of over a year, I could travel anywhere in the world for up to 10 weeks – and get paid to do it – if selected for the company’s Environmental Internship Program. I was incredibly fortunate to be chosen to participate, and I was able to spend two months in Amman, Jordan interning at a nonprofit dedicated to promoting community-based environmental stewardship.
- Know when it’s time to move on.
All beginnings need to come to an end. The final step in understanding how to make a job work for you is knowing when you’ve gotten all you can out of an experience. It is important to recognize when you’ve outgrown an opportunity. Your first job is necessary to begin building your career, but when you sense that your role is no longer serving you, it’s time to leverage the skills and connections you developed into finding the next experience.
If you’ve found yourself in a work environment where you needed to use these strategies, or if you’re looking for more inspiration from others who have worked their way up, continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Sarah Huckins is a Program Associate at the US Water Alliance and a Master’s candidate at American University’s School of Communication. She previously worked as Environmental Coordinator for Patagonia’s Washington D.C. store and interned for EcoPeace Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @SarahDHuckins or on LinkedIn.