Advice for Young Graduates: Making the Most of Your Second Job

Recently a former student named Kim sent me a thoughtful email reflecting on her first 12 months working as a researcher in a non-profit organization, concluding with the question, "How do I prioritize among ALL the things I want in my next job?"

As a professor who loves to mentor, I get this question often from talented young alums serving in one- to three-year first jobs as administrative assistants, marketing associates, events assistants, political aides, paralegals, Peace Corps members or teachers.

These aren't the former students who have entered longer-term training programs in corporate management or in finance, or who have begun graduate school programs in medicine, law, public health, or the Ph.D. While they have many questions, for sure, theirs tend to center on how to succeed in their chosen fields in ways that reflect who they are and what they value.

In contrast, Kim represents a large and gifted group of well-educated 20-somethings, typically curious and creative, who are finding their way professionally. However, when they sense that their first job has an expiration date (which may not be correct), some worry that they need a perfect next job where they can achieve a promotion, earn more, relocate, make more of a difference, use their education and experience, and still keep options open.

We who are older know that it's rare to have it all, in any job. We know that entry-level positions are harder to find in today's constrained labor market. And we know that today's young graduates have a great deal to bring to the table and will benefit from formative early professional experiences. All of that can be hard to balance, which is why Franklin & Marshall College has created a full-time alumni career adviser role to help our recent graduates navigate among opportunities, reflect on their goals and expand their networks significantly.

Of course, there's no owner's manual that makes it clear when and how to leave a first job, or if one should. Those answers depend on the goals and needs of the individual, the nature of the job itself, and whether one has met the expectations of the employer. For that reason, rather than directly telling my mentees what they should want in their second jobs, here's how I like to reply:

Dear Kim,

Great questions -- and I'm glad you wrote to a mentor outside of your workplace. Too many people announce to work "friends" that they're ready to leave their jobs. And then, once that news gets around, they may feel dismissed as a short-timer.

So, here are some questions you might ask both about the job you have now and prospective next ones:
  1. Are you working for a quality organization whose mission appeals to you? Does the work you're doing make a difference that you value?

  • Does your role give you the chance, with extra initiative, to continue growing? Would it benefit you to try to expand your understanding of the organization's mission, spheres of work and competitive context?
  • Have you met the expectations of your supervisors? Has the organization invested in your development? Would colleagues you respect or who went to bat for you be disappointed if you left now?
  • Does the organization attract talented colleagues? Have you found a suitable mentor, or can you?
  • Can you strengthen foundational skills, like communicating well, managing budgets, building consensus or analyzing complex data sets? Are you learning about how you do and don't like to work?
  • Is your next step necessarily a next job? Are you ready for graduate school?
  • Does your job give you the flexibility after hours to support a cause, to learn a new city, to be in a relationship, to write or draw or dance or tutor or read deeply? If yes, don't take that for granted.
  • Are they paying you actual money -- which supports your daily needs and enables you to pay loans, learn to live on your own, and save for graduate school or another goal?
  • Kim, no job can meet every one of these objectives, but every job should meet some of them. Research suggests you'll hold at least three or four jobs in your 20s, while also going to graduate school -- ideally learning tons along the way about the types of work and environments that bring out your best.

    Stay positive, work hard, reflect regularly, and keep learning. It's not a race. In your 20s, you don't need to be doing your life's work to be living and working well.