By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Person writing on paper at desk in front of laptop

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

One of the most important things that we want all young professionals (really, all professionals) to learn how to master in their first years after college is the importance of intentionally seeking out opportunities to grow your skills and abilities. The first few years after college are a prime learning time – learning how to be a professional, learning what you do and don’t like about work, learning about your personal values and strengths – and it’s important to capitalize on this time to build your skillsets and your mindsets, so that you can leverage them for future opportunities down the road. This is the time that you will learn more about yourself that at any other time of your professional life. But you only do so by having experiences that force you to build intellectual muscles and push you out of your comfort zone.

It can be easy to get focused on the resume-building aspect of this time. I often hear young professionals complain about how their jobs or their roles don’t give them anything tangible to put on their resume, that there is nothing of interest to show for all of the time that they spend at work. While it may be true that entry-level positions can at times feel meaningless and like busy-work, when you get too focused on the actual work product at this point in your career, you’re missing out on the story you’re starting to tell about yourself as a new professional. And, you’re missing some critical opportunities to take ownership for your career path.

Instead of moping about your no-fun entry-level job, think about doing these three things to grow your skills and abilities in intentional ways:

  • Connect your current experience to your future goals. Everyone, at some point or another, works a job that is less-than-fulfilling. Whether that’s all it ever is, is up to you and your attitude. Think about where you’re trying to get to in the future. How can you re-frame this current experience as a stepping stone on that path? If you’re spending your days filling out excel spreadsheets, what are you learning about data management and its value to the overall mission of the organization? If you’re doing administrative work supporting a higher-level manager, what are you learning about managing priorities, budgeting, and scheduling? The point is, not every job task is going to feel meaningful, but it all has the potential to add meaning to your path. Your resume isn’t just a laundry-list of experiences and accomplishments. It’s up to you to figure out the story that piece of paper is going to tell about you.
  • Seek out additional opportunities and responsibilities. Starting with your current role, be intentional about looking around for other opportunities to stretch yourself and to contribute. Is it possible to volunteer with another team’s project? Can you identify an issue of importance to the organization and do some research on how to address it? Set some six-month to one-year goals for yourself, share them with your manager, and ask for their feedback. If he or she doesn’t support your search for higher-level responsibilities, seek out opportunities outside of work through volunteering, civic organizations, or even a side gig to broaden your network and stretch your abilities. Be intentional about what you join or create, and why; each experience tells the story of who you are, what you care about, and how you choose to fill your time.
  • Seek out learning opportunities. When you are just starting out in your career, many of the hurdles that you face are a result of you lacking critical experience and knowledge that would allow some of those doors to be opened for you. Unfortunately, the only way to gain experience is through experience. But knowledge can be gained in a multitude of ways. This is a great time to think about certifications you might acquire, classes you can take, or other ways you can build your knowledge base. Again, be intentional. Someone who has gone out and acquired thirty-five certifications just to do it looks scattered and like he’s lacking commitment. Go back to those future goals. What do you need to gain to get you closer to that long-range vision that you have set for yourself?

You can’t necessarily change how others treat you, or the level of responsibility that others allow you to have. But you always have control over how you approach your work, the extent to which you seek out opportunities, and the story that you are telling about yourself. Owning what’s next is always about you taking ownership for your path.