10 things they don't tell you about your first job

How to Get Ahead in Your First Job
How to Get Ahead in Your First Job

Know what you're getting into.

There's plenty that will be new to recent graduates about the work world, some of it pleasant (paid vacation!) and some of it less so. Here are 10 things entry-level workers don't always realize in their first jobs – but will hopefully figure out quickly.

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 this and think they can negotiate a raise after, say, three or six months. That wouldn'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.

Your errors matter more.

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.

Being smart and having potential is no longer enough.

Now what matters is what you actually achieve. In school, teachers often favor the smartest students and even cut them slack on things like being prepared for class, 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.

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 ...

Two weeks is the most time you can take off at once in many workplaces.

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 at once, you won't be able to take any time off for the rest of the year. (This varies by workplace; some offer double or even triple that, particularly as you move into more senior roles.)

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 you could even end up losing your job. Being polite and cheerful isn't optional if you want to thrive in most workplaces.

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 in meetings 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.

Great performance on the job isn't just about waiting for assignments and doing them.

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, like in school, 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 confuse new workers).

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.

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 or not 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.