A Guide To Your First Entry-Level Job

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By Alison Green

As another class of college seniors prepares to finish their final semester of school, they might focus on finals and job interviews – but they should also think about what awaits them once they get those jobs. There's plenty that will be new to them about the work world, some of it pleasant (paid vacation!) and some of it less so.

Here are 10 things that entry-level workers don't always realize in their first jobs – but will hopefully figure out quickly.

1. The salary you accept when you take the job is the one you need to live with for at least a year. People new to the professional workforce don't always realize that and think they can negotiate a raise after, say, three or six months. Attempting that won't go over well with most employers, since the convention is that you typically can't ask for a salary increase until you've been on the job for at least a year.

2. When you were in school, making a mistake on a test or a paper or handing in work late only affected you. But at work, mistakes can impact your boss, your co-workers and your company. People might end up staying late to fix your work, miss their own deadlines or lose important business because of you.

3. Being smart and having potential is no longer enough; what you actually achieve is now what matters. In school, teachers often favor the smartest students and even cut them slack on things like being prepared for class or even on being respectful or working hard. But in the working world, reputations and careers are built on actual work; being smart won't give you a pass if you miss deadlines, aren't prepared for meetings or don't meet your goals.

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4. You have to book time off around holidays. It's not like school, where you automatically get a week or more off around Christmas and New Year's. And many offices are open the day after Thanksgiving; it's not a holiday, despite what school schedules might have led you to expect. And speaking of longer vacations ...

5. Two weeks is the most time you can take off at once in many workplaces. Those days of lengthy vacations may be a thing of the past. In many workplaces, two weeks is the uppermost limit of how much time you can take off at once. In fact, two weeks might be the full amount of vacation time you're allotted per year, and if you use it all up at once, you won't be able to take any time off the rest of the year. (But this does vary by workplace; some offer double or even triple that, particularly as you move into more senior roles.)

6. Unlike in school, great performance on the job isn't just about waiting for assignments and doing them. While in school it was often enough to simply do your assignments, at work you should be identifying ways to drive your department's work forward and taking initiative to do things better. If you sit around and wait for someone to tell you what to do, you might not get much done. That said, you also need to know the parameters of where you can take initiative and where you can't, which isn't always spelled out explicitly (and therefore can really confuse new workers).

7. You need to look politely interested in meetings, no matter how boring the topic. Yes, you might see senior folks checking their phones or looking bored – but they've usually earned the right to do that. As a junior employee, nodding off or being obviously distracted will reflect far worse on you than it does on senior colleagues; you're expected to look attentive, no matter how sleepy the meeting might make you.

8. Your attitude really matters. You might do good work, but if you appear unfriendly, rude, disinterested in others or defensive, you'll find it hard to advance – and could even end up losing your job. Being polite and cheerful isn't optional if you want to thrive in most workplaces.

9. A lunch "hour" is often 30 minutes. Forget what you've seen on TV or read about in books; in many workplaces, 30 minutes is the maximum you can take for lunch, and people often don't even do that and instead grab something and eat it on the go.

10. Your boss wants you to get to the point. In school, you might have learned to delve deeply into every aspect of an issue, but most managers want to hear the upshot first and then decide whether to ask for more background. This is true in face-to-face conversations, but it's especially true in writing; few managers have the time or inclination to read multiple-page memos or lengthy emails. Short summaries with bullet points are generally preferred.

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