Twelve pieces of advice for new graduates

As you set out on your career path after college the following advice is worth considering

You’ve been in education for your whole life, but now you’re facing the world of full-time work. It can be a big adjustment, while being the new person in any work environment can feel daunting.

We asked two experts for their advice. Sinéad Brady is a career and coaching psychologist who prepares executives, individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses for the future of work. Dr Mary Collins is a chartered psychologist and executive coach who has been working in leadership development and talent management for over 15 years.

1. Do your own CV

“You can consult with a career advisor but ultimately you should write your own CV, cover letter and application, rather than paying someone to do it for you,” Brady says. “This is because, if you have struggled with getting the details and collating the information for your own CV, you will understand it better. The purpose of the CV is to get an interview but if you have handed control to someone else, you may feel disconnected from it and, in the interview, may not recognise your own words being fed back to you in question form.”

2. Be strategic

Your first job sets the scene for your career,” says Collins. “You don’t have to select the role with the highest salary, but perhaps the one that is the best match for your skills, experience and personality,” Maybe they have the best learning opportunities and career pathways if you are ambitious.”

3. Find a good place to work

Graduate packages are shiny by design. Just as graduates are selling themselves to companies, companies are equally trying to impress potential new hires. But it’s only when you’re in the door that you’ll really get a sense of what the office culture is like.

“Ideally seek out someone who is working there or has worked there,” Collins says. “Check out and see what it is like: while you might see polarised views, if 90 per cent of the reviews are negative, it might be best to steer clear.”

Collins also suggests paying attention to how you are treated in the recruitment process.

“From the first point of contact, how responsive are they and how respectful are they? How are the jobs advertised? What is the selection process like and, from the outside, what can you notice about the culture?”

4. Fitting in at the office - and getting out quick

What if you get the job - and hate it? “Covid-19 has made us reestablish and rethink what we are willing to accept,” Brady says.

There are some red flags worth looking out for, which can give graduates a sense that the office culture is somewhat dysfunctional.

“Look at the turnover rate in the office,” says Brady. “Look at the leaders and managers and see if you respect how they operate, and if it is how you would like to behave when you are more senior. If not, that is a warning sign. Listen to your gut.”

But what if your gut - and your eyes and ears - are telling you that this is not a nice company to work for? What if you wake up in the morning with a deep feeling of dread about the work day ahead? What if you see bullying, harassment and toxic behaviour? Should you run for the exit, or is it important to stay for at least a year?

“If you are looking for the exit and have an exit strategy in place - perhaps to complete the programme and be gone in a year, try to disconnect emotionally from the job,” Brady says. “So you may not invest yourself as much as if you saw a full future in this organisation. Lean on friends and supportive colleagues. It can help to get a mentor outside the organisation, perhaps someone you know or can be introduced to by family and friends. Go to industry events and build up a network outside of the organisation.”

5. Dealing with office problems

In a hybrid world, you can sometimes miss the body language and reactions, or you can miss the chats after the in-person meeting. It can lead to reading more into things than you need to, says Collins.

“In a difficult workplace, your first port of call should be your direct line manager - unless that’s where the problem lies. But it’s always best to start informally and have an honest conversation. If the problem persists and you have raised the issue, you can go to HR, ideally informally (at first, at least). Really focus on your own resilience and mental health and emotional resilience as well.”

6. Get a mentor

On that note, a mentor can really make a difference in the early stages of your career.

“A mentor is ideally 5-10 years ahead of you,” Collins says. “Think of a chess move: a mentor is ideally a level above you and not directly your boss. They are someone you respect and admire, who can guide you and share their wisdom with you. They are in a position that you aspire to.”

Asking someone to mentor you might feel awkward, but mentors get a lot of it too: mentoring someone means you have to think about what worked well for you in your own career and to get back to the basics of what matters in your job and your career.

“I had someone come to me after a conference and asked if I would mentor them,” Collins says. “Most people are so honoured and delighted to be asked. A lot of organisations, particularly in the Big 4 [accounting and professional services firms] already have a formal mentoring system in place but, if not, find someone you respect and admire - and ask them.”

7. Know your worth

“What pay you negotiate at the start of your job is critical as, over time, you will get small increments on what you agreed,” Collins advises. “It can be helpful to have a mentor in the same sector who can advise here, but also look at salary benchmarks from and, for global salary surveys, Willis Towers Watson.”

Pay is important - your landlord won’t accept “experience” or “exposure”in lieu of rent - but it’s not the only thing you should consider in a job.

“Be smart around your negotiation and look at the full compensation and benefits package,” says Collins. “Will they sponsor you for a masters or some continuous professional development? Can you buy extra holidays if you want to travel? Is there bonus potential?”

8. You don’t need to know everything

“In your first role, you may feel that you should know more, but your degree has taught you how to learn, not how to do the job - that is what you do in your graduate programme or in the company,” says Brady.

“You may have some work experience but you are ultimately apprenticing what you have done in your degree and, in the first few years, you are learning the trade of your profession. Be ok with this, ask questions and, if you don’t understand something and need help, say it: any organisation worth its salt will want to help. “Whatever you think of [entrepreneur] Elon Musk, he does sit on the floor with new graduate hires and encourages them to ask questions, and those questions can be the Eureka moment that causes you to ask more questions.”

9. Make the best of hybrid working

Collins encourages graduates to set clear boundaries between their work and home lives, especially if they are working from home.

“When it comes to hybrid working, the best companies are intentional about when they bring people into the office: they pick a day when everyone has to come in and they use that face-to-face time to collaborate and innovate together.”

When you are working from home, however, it can be tricky to properly separate work and home life.

“At the end of the working day, remove all traces of work equipment,” Collins says. “Even changing your clothes can help.”

10. Consider work styles

“You don’t know who you are reporting to or their work style,” says Brady. “You don’t know if they like updates first thing in the morning or to be left alone and you don’t know how they want that information presented. So ask the person you report to: when is the best time for me to come to you with updates? Do you want them face-to-face or by email and do you want them in visual format, bullet points or a paragraph?”

11. Tactical Thursday

A work practice that helps you take stock and decide how you can improve and what you want to change, Brady advises graduates to ask themselves five questions, perhaps every Thursday

  • What went well this week?
  • Where were the challenges?
  • What was in my control?
  • Who could I ask for help?
  • What could I do differently to improve on last week?

“When you’re in the mud, it can be hard to figure it all out, but these are five questions that can help you build a snapshot of the organisation,” Brady says. “If you embed it in your weekly practice, you can catch things before they become an issue and also see patterns and changes over time.”

12. Have a sustainable career

How much effort do you want to put into your career? “Take the notion of a sustainable career to your heart,” Brady advises. “Make sure what you do now does not prevent you from having a career in the future. If you have to commit 60 to 70 hours a week now, sacrificing family, friends and hobbies, that might seem ok in your 20s but you will struggle later when you have caring responsibilities. If you have to work as though you have no life now, that will not change for you in your 30s, so ask if this is the industry you should be in and, if not, how can you transfer your skills.”