Selecting the Best First Job for You

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:18 PM EDT

Your first job sets the tone for the rest of your career. Choosing the right first job takes careful research and planning, and there can be pitfalls along the way. If you aim low, your career path may be limited as a result. If you choose the wrong company, it could set you off on a track that might take years to change. The following points are questions to consider as you prepare to network and market yourself:

  • What kind of career have I prepared myself for?
  • Am I financially able to hold out for the best job?
  • How prepared am I to launch a professional job campaign?
What You Need to KnowIs my first job really that important?

Yes. Companies no longer offer lifetime employment or even the guarantee of promotion to qualified employees. Good workers are often let go in restructuring or downsizing, and the average person works for seven or more firms in their lifetime. When you are looking for your second job, which may be out of choice or because of circumstances, employers will place a lot of importance on your previous job title and the prestige of the company where you first worked. It is extremely difficult to move from an entry-level job at a small or unknown organization into a higher position in a well-known organization. However, it is much easier to go from a good professional position at a recognized company into a better position at an even more successful organization.

Is there any merit in being a "big fish in a small pond?"

Some people prefer to take a higher-level job in a smaller organization, rather than starting out in a large company. This can be a smart move, particularly if you do not consider yourself to be highly ambitious, or if you are more comfortable in a smaller setting. One of the benefits of doing this is that you will learn more about the total organization than if you have an entry-level position in a large company.

I would like to work in the non-profit sector. Do different rules apply there?

Regardless of the type of institution you work for, your first job is still important. Non-profit organizations have their own hierarchy in terms of prestige, power, status, and success, just as for-profit organizations do. While this hierarchy may not have as much meaning for those interested in non-profit work, or influence their career choices so heavily, it still has an effect. Ideally, you are better off establishing your career by working first for a well-known and successful non-profit organization, rather than starting out with a small, idealistic, but unknown and unconnected organization. If you truly want to have a positive impact on the world (which is most people's motivation for working in a non-profit organization), you are probably better off if you make your first move in an organization with resources and clout.

What should I ask myself in planning an overall career strategy before I look for my first job?

The most important question you should ask yourself is "Do I want to be a specialist or a generalist?" If you are really passionate about a particular field (such as engineering, biology, music, finance, or medicine) and you know that this is what you want to pursue, then you probably are a specialist. If, on the other hand, your interests lie in becoming an organizational leader or an entrepreneur, you are probably more of a generalist. As a specialist, you will want to choose a first job that allows you the opportunity to progress more deeply in your field. As a generalist, you would be wise to choose a first job that will offer you opportunities to learn about a number of fields, and to expand your confidence and leadership abilities.

What to DoBefore You Start Your Job Search, Be Clear about the Life and Career You Want

As you think about looking for your first job, you will no doubt already have done a great deal of career preparation through your education and perhaps through some additional training. Now is a good time to remember why you chose this field. Is it still relevant to you? Will it give you the kind of lifestyle you want? Will it provide you with enough money to enjoy that lifestyle? If not, you may need to rethink your career plans.

Create a "Work Purpose Statement"

The following exercise is adapted from Zen and the Art of Making a Living (see below). Complete each of the following sentences:

  • The people I want to serve are…
  • The way I want to contribute is…
  • The scale I want to work at is… (for example, individual, community, national, global)

Now combine the essence of each of these sentences into one statement about your work purpose. It needs to encompass the that includes who you want to serve, the way you want to serve them, and the scope of the impact you want to make.

Explore Possible Career Roles and the Lifestyle Associated with Them

Make a list of at least 10 different career roles that would be compatible with your "Work Purpose Statement." Now select the three that are most interesting to you. Using personal contacts, the Internet, the library, and any other resources you can think of, try to get a good sense of what it would be like to work in each of these career roles. Find out what a typical day is like for someone who functions in this role.

Be Realistic About Your Financial Situation and Your Timescale

Determine how much time you can afford to spend on looking for your first job. If you do not have enough financial support to allow you to wait for the "perfect" first job, then decide on your minimum criteria for accepting a position. These criteria could include salary, working conditions, relation to your chosen field of work, location, or any other criteria that are important to you. At the very least, if you are accepting a job that does not fit in with your "Work Purpose," make sure that it gives you the time and opportunity to keep looking for a better position.

Get Ready to Begin Your Job Search

It's now time to create a professional résumé, draw up a contact list, prepare for your interview, and create your networking plan.

What to AvoidYou Feel You Should Pursue Someone Else's Dreams for You, Not Your Own

Parents and teachers, often with the best of intentions, can have a strong influence on a person's career path. However, this is not always the best route to take. Someone may say to you, "Your parents and grandparents are all teachers (or doctors, or lawyers, or in business). Of course that is what you will do. It's family tradition." But this does not focus on your unique interests and abilities. It does not take into account your own potential and what you feel called to do.

You Go to Work for a Family Member or a Friend Because That's the Easiest Thing to Do

It has always been assumed that you would one day join the family business. Or your parents encourage a family friend to hire you. It seems so easy and convenient to take up this type of offer. But by doing so, you are putting your career and your life's direction into someone else's hands, rather than taking responsibility for yourself. It may be that one of these opportunities is perfect for you, but you need to consider it like any other job offer. Take time to analyze the situation and follow the steps above, so that you can make a rational and informed decision.

You Take a Job Because It Pays Well

If you run a successful campaign when looking for your first job, you may be offered several alternatives to choose from. While it is tempting to take the one with the highest salary, this may not be the best choice. It may seem to make the most sense when you are starting your career, especially if money is tight, but it is actually short-term thinking. If the job does not fit your personality or your sense of purpose in life, you may soon be looking for another job. On the other hand, if you stay, you will probably be miserable. It's much better to take a long-term view, asking yourself, "How will this job get the skills I need to fill my work purpose as well as my personal and professional goals?"

You Jump at the First Offer You Get

If you have applied for several jobs, it is usually a mistake to take the first offer. Sometimes people lack confidence or feel desperate to have something in hand. They may be afraid that if they ask a potential employer to wait, the opportunity will be lost. But employers usually understand this situation and will give you some extra time while you wait to see if other job offers come in. Even if you get an offer from your number one pick, there is nothing wrong with saying something like, "Thank you so much. I'm really interested in your offer, but I would like to take a couple of days to think about it." If you eagerly accept a position without taking a little time to think it over, you may find that you have rushed into something while overlooking some of the possible drawbacks.

You Don't Concentrate on Finding Work You Love, Because People Tell You that the Job Market Is Bad or It's Not Practical

By trying to help, people can sometimes be overly cautious. Don't listen to them. It is amazing how incredibly creative and resourceful you can be if you are determined to make your dream come true. You may have to work harder and it may take a little longer to find the kind of work you would really love to do, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Where to Learn MoreBooks:

Boldt, Laurence. Zen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design. Revised ed. New York: Penguin USA, 1999.

Bolles, Richard. What Color is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers. Revised ed. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2007.

Web Site:

Job Hunters' Bible: www.jobhuntersbible.com