Few times in a young person's life are as stressful as the first year out of college. If all goes well, you land a dream job in your chosen profession. But now everything hangs in the balance. Do well in your rookie job and it could put your career into overdrive. Your employer may shower you with promotions, pay raises, and increased responsibility, and you'll be able to leapfrog ahead of the competition in your next position. Do poorly, and you may be sent down to the minors.
The good news: Barring any serious infractions, relatively few people get completely sidetracked in their first year on the job, as most employers allow for a learning curve. The bad news is the reputation you make for yourself will be yours for a good long time—the corporate equivalent of your permanent academic record—coloring the way people see you for many years.
Rookie mistakes are hard to avoid, but easy to learn from. Here's some advice to keep you sailing straight.
MISSING FACE-TIME: Face-time is your No. 1 priority. You want to do your job well, but almost as important as superior performance is making sure your superiors know you're working at the top of your game, and that's not always easy.
One way to ensure this happens is to choose your assignments carefully. Pick projects that put you in contact with people who will add to your network and advance your career. Don't bury yourself in a long-term assignment where people can lose sight of you. Choose high-visibility projects where your strengths will shine.
However, visibility is an advantage only if you have a unique skill that sets you apart from your peers. So spend some time assessing yourself and the competition. "When you identify what makes you unique relative to others in your environment, it provides you with the ability to differentiate your specific strengths from theirs," write Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell, authors of Sink or Swim, advice on how to succeed in the critical first 12 weeks on the job.
"Having this awareness allows you to know when and where to effectively apply your skills, clearly communicate your abilities, and identify opportunities for further development," they add.
TUNING OUT: You probably networked your way in, now network your way up. Internal networking raises visibility, connects you with mentors, and gives you a deeper understanding of company culture and the needs of your employer that you can fill.
This doesn't have to be complicated. Identify someone high up in the corporate food chain who you don't normally interact with—your boss's boss, for instance—and talk to him about anything, from corporate goings-on to baseball standings. Stay behind at meetings to chat up the powers-that-be. Or volunteer to sit on a corporate committee or task force.
"There's more than meets the eye," Sindell and Sindell write. "It's the juicy part of really learning to successfully navigate through your new company by understanding the unwritten rules and ways that work gets done."
PLAYING PRIMADONNA: HR personnel weren't impressed with the young new recruit who called up complaining that the project he was put on was "too boring" and that he wanted off. He was immediately advised to "suck it up and be happy you're not getting coffee" by a senior manager at the company.
Sticking with a job that may not be stellar at first is still worth your time. Besides visibility and experience, hanging tough through a job you don't want shows long-term commitment and puts you in a better position to land an assignment you do want.
"If you jump too much, you're going to appear as someone who doesn't know what they want," says Sheila Curran, the executive director of Duke University's Career Center and co-author of the recently released Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career.
DISSING SUPPORT STAFF: Curran recalls a student who was called back for a second interview but wasn't hired because she was "dismissive" to the receptionist. The same kind of land mines lie in wait for new hires in their first year on the job.
"Students don't realize that everyone from the people in the recruiting office to the person managing their on-site interview schedule may have a relationship that can help or hurt them, depending on how they're treated," Curran says.
OVERDOING IT: Show 'em what you're made of, but don't overreach. Ed Houlter, a professor of human resources at Louisiana State University, advises against trying to make a "big splash" in the first few months, warning that taking on a huge, complex project as a newcomer could easily result in a costly and high-profile failure.
A better strategy for making a good first impression is to work on smaller projects that will allow you to exceed expectations. Volunteer to take over a project from a colleague who hands in a mediocre performance every year. He'll probably be grateful, and with a modest investment of your time you can do a far better job.
Better yet, propose a new way of doing something that saves time or resources, expands the market for an existing product or service, or in some other way affects the bottom line. Even if your boss doesn't buy it, you just earned brownie points: You're now the guy with all the bright ideas.
"Competence trumps GPA," Curran says. "Beyond that, it's persistence, personality, and a keen understanding of the way the world works that sets you aside from your peers."
WATCHING THE CLOCK: The bigwigs at your new company get to leave early for the Hamptons on summer weekends, take two-hour lunches, and spend the afternoon on the golf course. But for mere mortals, the road to success is almost always paved with long hours and hard work.
That means getting in early, leaving late, and eating lunch at your desk if necessary. Getting in before your boss and leaving after she does, if only by five minutes, is never a bad idea. If nothing else, it leaves her with the impression that you're devoted to your job.
As with anything, there's a point at which working excessively long hours is counterproductive. If you've got very little on your plate, and you're still working an 80-hour week, you're no longer devoted to your job, you're incapable of managing your time, and possibly incompetent. As first impressions go, that's not a very a good one.