Maneuvering through Your First Professional Job

Chelsy Meyer  | 

The professional career track is a little different than other jobs you may have had in the past. Your first professional job is probably one in your field of study, requires a little more experience than other opportunities you may have had, and is the jumping off point that will guide you through the rest of your professional experiences. When maneuvering your way through your first professional job, it’s important to understand the benefits that you should be offered, how you fit within your company’s culture, how to identify if you’re being underutilized, and to have a plan to meet your career goals.

Finding a Company with the Right Benefits

When you’re choosing the right company, there are many factors to consider. The nuts and bolts of your career choices should include some insight into the benefits they will be offering you. Employers aren’t required to offer many benefits, but in order to remain competitive with companies looking to hire similar applicants they offer benefits packages designed to keep employees happy. Some benefits to ask about include:

  • Health Insurance
  • Retirement
  • Life Insurance
  • Paid time off, holiday, and sick leave
  • Parental leave

This might not be the biggest factor in finding the right company for your first professional career, but it should be one of the factors to consider. Retirement, especially, is a perk that will can really pay off the longer you save — especially if your employer offers a match. Some company benefits coincide with their culture and what they offer is a lot more modern. Meal options, paid volunteer days, student loan reimbursement, or paid training days are all additional benefits some companies offer. Asking about them may be the deciding factor between companies if you’re trying to find the right employment fit for you.

Benefits, literally, are non-wage compensation. These can carry tax-related perks, and do a lot for your financial standing without necessarily showing up in your “salary.” Having employer health insurance or working somewhere that offers child care can mean more for your finances than extra money on your paycheck.

Fitting into Company Culture

Company culture is your company’s personality and, for many newbies to the professional job scene, it’s a big factor in deciding where to work. It’s not all about how many figures you’re earning, it’s also about being happy with your career, and that’s where company culture comes in. Adaptability is key in many situations, but it’s important to note the aspects of company culture that you aren’t willing to compromise on. Take a look at the company’s reputation among employees as well as clients. Ask about how the they view professionalism, dress code preferences, employee engagement, and how they view their place in their community. Familiarize yourself with some company models and decide what’s your ideal situation, what would be your worst situation, and what you’d be willing to work around.

Culture can mean a balance between work and life, a sense of purpose, recognition at work – all kinds of things. Many new, younger companies may pay well but have a poor culture. Some employers may be the right culture fit may but don’t carry the ideal paycheck. Over time, these things may even out, but it is important to know when to make the switch; the longer you wait, the more likely you are to have debts or other financial obligations that won’t tolerate any disruption to your income. Changing jobs or being unemployed can be a hard hit on your financial health, credit score, and may potentially push you into more debt, so timing is everything when finding your ideal culture/salary balance.

Paying your Dues vs. Being Underutilized

Being a new employee involves a bit of time spent at the bottom of the totem pole at your workplace. However, it’s not such a bad thing. Maybe you have to go grab coffee for everyone, or you get saddled with the least exciting projects, or you don’t get invited for lunch outings — it’s all a part of being a young, new employee in a new setting. For some, it can be difficult to see the difference between paying your dues and being underutilized. Throughout your career, you should always feel like you’re contributing and growing. If you ever feel like you’re being treated poorly or unfairly, it’s time to say goodbye to this employer. There’s not an exact rule and every situation is different, but communicating your needs and expectations with an employer is key in making sure an employer that is not taking you for granted.

An unfulfilling career can lead to burnout and a solid paycheck may not be worth it if you don’t feel valued or engaged. Waiting too long to correct this imbalance can end up hurting your career, driving you to burn bridges, and could ultimately hurt your financial standing with a bout of unemployment. Going into debt for a degree is a choice made with the understanding that your future career will help pay the debt that degree created. If you’re undervalued or underpaid by your degree standards, you’re not only unhappier, but your finances take a hit too. Delinquent loans cause issues with credit, qualifying for other loans later, or even your ability to get hired by another company.

Sticking with Your Goals

Before entering the workforce, write down your goals. Write down your dream company, your dream position, your dream accomplishments, and your dream work culture. It’s important not to lose sight of those things as you enter the professional workforce. Goals may change as you dive into your field and meet the realities of each company, position, and workflow, but keeping sight your initial aspirations will help you stay on track. Of course, you won’t walk into any professional environment and right into the corner office signing everyone’s paychecks, but there are steps to get there. Your employer will ask about your goals and how those goals fit within this company; think about that question and how you and your company can help each other.

The right company will recognize that you have personal, financial, and professional goals. You know you’re in a good spot when you get the opportunity and support to pursue all three. That may be as simple as employer-match 401(k) contributions, or it may mean company day care to save you some childcare expenses. Sometimes work-life balance has a financial, as well as a personal preference, aspect to it.

Maneuvering through your first professional career can be intimidating, but it’s a feeling every professional has had while entering a work force they are passionate about. You may be the youngest, the newest, or the least experienced, but everyone you’re working around has been that at one point in their career as well. When finding a job you love, it’s important to understand the benefits you need, the culture you will be happiest in, how to pay your dues, and to keep an eye on your goals in the process. No matter what you do, work ethic goes a long way, so staying focused and driven will help steer you in the right direction no matter where your professional career track takes you.

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Chelsy is a writer from Montana who now lives in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She enjoys talk radio, cold coffee, and playing Frisbee with her dog, Titan. Follow Chelsy on Twitter @Chelsy5

This post was updated February 28, 2019. It was originally published June 11, 2017.