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:
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.
- Are you working for a quality organization whose mission appeals to you? Does the work you're doing make a difference that you value?
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.