The last year or so, I’ve noticed a definite shift in my attitude to work. I’ve got a few years’ experience under my belt and things are better than they were when I started out.
But I could have made my life so much easier if I’d done a few things differently back then. So here are a few thoughts about my approach to my career.
Experience is more important than qualifications
Everyone will tell you this whilst you’re still at school, or university, and it’s incredibly annoying. You feel like they’re belittling the effort you put into your studies. And everyone has always told you to work hard because it’s important to get good grades, so they must count for something, right?
It’s always difficult to get experience when you’re young and looking for those first couple of jobs, which never seem to materialise because – shock – you don’t have enough experience. It does help to have qualifications, but there will always be someone who has already done the job, making them a better candidate.
It’s one of those truths that feels like the universe is playing some great joke on you: nobody really cares about your exam results after a certain point; it’s all about your ability to do the job you’re being paid for.
This was hard for me for a while because I was always the girl who did well at school; regardless of the subject (okay, except maybe PE…) So when I started work full-time, I expected that trend to continue. But I wasn’t really prepared for the differences between education and work and it took me a while to get used to things, which was demoralising.
But I got there, and you will too.
Do more work experience
I wish I’d done some work experience whilst I was still studying. I always had a part-time job for extra money, but working in a pub or a shop didn’t really help me when it came to working in an office.
Even a couple of weeks somewhere would have helped and it would have given my CV an extra dimension. Making the effort to take on work experience or voluntary work does make you stand out when you’re looking for your first job.
Your job title doesn’t always reflect the work you do
I’ve had a range of jobs, from assistant to manager, but I actually had the most responsibility and worked the hardest in my entry level jobs. I was always willing to take on more work to stretch myself, but it often meant that I was stressed out and skint, because I worked way beyond my salary grade.
It’s been worth it in the end, because that knowledge and experience helped me to climb the ladder, but it was hard for the first few years.
Don’t stick with a job you hate without reason
I’ve been there and it’s not pretty. Chances are, at some point you’ll have a job that isn’t much fun. Even a job you enjoy can have down days, or unpleasant elements to it.
It might be worth sticking with a horrible job because you know that it will last for a set time and then you can progress, or get a pay rise or a promotion. Perhaps you hate the job itself, but work for a great company that gives you plenty of benefits, or you work with brilliant people.
These are all valid reasons for sticking around.
But if you reach a point where you’re getting little back for your hard work, don’t feel you have to stay. There are other jobs out there and you might find one that is a better fit. Life is short and most of us need to spend much of it at work; don’t make yourself miserable if you don’t have to.
Don’t set unrealistic standards for yourself
I’ve worked for some awful bosses, the kind of people who expect everything and give nothing but criticism in return. Sure you want to work hard and do your best, but don’t kill yourself to impress someone who is never going to treat you fairly.
It also helps to have boundaries. If you’re on a low wage and you’re the junior team member, it shouldn’t be up to you to take on most of the work.
And think twice before you agree to take work home with you. In a good company, showing that willingness to work extra can help you get ahead. But in many places, it will just mean you get extra work dumped on you, without proper time to complete it. Once you start answering emails at home or working on assignments out of the office, that will become the expectation. You’ll be able to keep it up for a while, but it will run you down eventually.
You don’t always need a plan
Maybe you’re about to graduate and you don’t have a clue what job you want to do. Or you studied for a degree because you enjoy the subject, rather than because it would prepare you for a specific job.
That doesn’t mean you’re stuck. Graduate schemes can be a great place to start. Often they’ll give you the opportunity to try out roles in different departments and decide which suits you best. They’re often better paid than the standard entry level job too.
Losing your job isn’t the end of the world
The job market hasn’t been great the last few years. In fact, all the jobs I’ve had since university have involved some sort of uncertainty, whether it was the promise of a team restructure or the out-and-out declaration that my job was at risk.
I spent years fretting about what would happen if I lost my job against a backdrop of reducing budgets and personnel cuts, but nothing dramatic ever happened to my role. Until one day, I found out I was being made redundant in three weeks.
And you know what, it was fine. Unusually for a worrier like me, I didn’t stress too much about my situation. In total, I was out of work for five weeks before I found another job.
If I find myself in a similar situation in future, I know that I have enough experience now to have a good chance of being hired somewhere else.
Consider a temporary job
Conventional wisdom tells us that we should always be looking for security. I’ve taken on a couple of temporary roles in the past that have led on to other things, so they can be worth it, especially when you’re starting out and you don’t have the financial commitment of a mortgage or a family.
It can be hard when you’re starting out in a career, but it does get easier. The more you can prepare yourself at the start, the quicker you’ll get to grips with working rather than studying.
Do you have any tips you would give to your younger self?