In Your First Professional Job


You Can Have a Meltdown or Learn to Manage Your Transition

Dara started her job with a consulting firm within a month of graduation. Excited she dove into the work. Her first engagement required the team to be on the ground at the client’s office on Mondays by 9:00 am. Dara and the team worked until 8:00 pm most days and on Thursday night, each caught the last flight back to their respective cities. Friday started with an 8:00 am team conference call and on Sunday, she was back on a flight. Dara called me about two months into her job. The work was interesting but she felt she had lost control of her life.

My heart ached for Dara. She worked so hard to land her dream job.

Ready or not, we all go through numerous transitions in our lives—leaving high school to go to college, college to go to work, changing jobs, getting married, having children. These become those periods of emotional spaces where we have cut ties with what we know and have not quite settled into what is new. Some, by choice or opportunity; others, like Dara’s come from natural ends—graduating from college, and still others are unwillingly imposed on us such as an uninitiated breakup in a relationship. Whatever the circumstances, navigating this grey zone of transitions can be difficult, presenting us with new problems and demanding us to respond in new ways.

Here’s what I’ve learned from clients about this transition period.

Admit that you’re in a transition. One of the surest ways to make your transition harder is to avoid acknowledging that you’re in one. Transition is a “passage from one form, state, style, or place to another.” By naming it, you actually make it a “state” that you’re in rather than “being.” By naming that you are in a transition, you will be open to the fact that not knowing what’s ahead is a natural part of this state. It’s very likely you friends are feeling the same way, support each other through this transition.

Expect your schedule to change. Dara likes the work she is doing and the people she is working with, but traveling is grueling and working eight or more hours each day takes some getting used to. Don’t expect to be able to go out with friends several nights during the week like you did in college. From my own experience, I know how hard it is to learn to turn work off, but doing so is essential to staying in control of your life.

Expect to feel depressed and anxious. You just spent four years developing friendships. You started school together, depended on each other, lived through dramas together and now you’ve all moved to other cities in pursuit of careers. These are important relationships you’re leaving behind. Acknowledge you’re experiencing a loss, and that loss is a major change in life. Whenever you move forward you leave something behind, and this creates what psychologists call a state of grief. When you are out of our comfort zone your imagination runs wild and you worry about an unknown future.

Realize this is both a new and old chapter in your life. While you need to acknowledge your loss, you don’t want to get stuck in the past. Acknowledging that a door is closed is healthy; spending your time staring at it is not.

Yes, this is a cliché, but the next step after an end is a new beginning, a new chapter, and keeping this in mind can give you a sense of a fresh start. Although the particular circumstances are new, the process itself is familiar. You have made transitions before. Try to remember what it felt like starting college. You know the terrain; you’ve acquired experience and skills along the way. You can do this again.

Have realistic timeframes and expectations.  Although she knew what percent of travel to expect, there are going to be days when Dara is going to think she never should have taken the job. This is a natural reflection of her state of mind. She needs to be patient, realize that it may take her a year to feel confident in her job, months to begin to make new friends.

There’s a new reality of time. Jack is another client I’ve recently heard from. He was very adept at planning his college schedule so that in four years he never had a class before 10:00 am. He was having a hard time facing the reality of going to work every day, five days a week, from as early as 6 or 7 in the morning to 6 or 7 in the evening. It’s not like the 8 a.m. class that you often skipped. Show up late one too many times and you’ll find yourself unemployed.

Another time-related reality is free time and vacation time. In college, you get used to taking long winter and summer breaks. Most colleges also have mid-semester breaks. Unfortunately, most employers are not that generous with time off. You may be lucky to get two weeks of vacation in your first job but even with those two weeks, because you are one of the newest employees, you may not have much choice as to when you can take your vacation.

The final time factor is time management. Clients who are Division I student athletes have learned to manage their time because of the demands playing sports puts on them. Not all students learn this in college and if you had a hard time managing projects and other activities, you will struggle to manage your time once working. As a client said, “College didn’t teach me working 40+ hours a week.”

You don’t have to plan every part of your day down to the minute, but creating a loose structure for your week will make you feel organized and maybe even more at peace. When Dara mapped it out— work, chores, exercise (she training for a triathlon,) time with friends, down time—she suddenly had time for everything she needed and wanted to do. The human brain is wired for routine.

Acting unprofessional in the workplace has consequences. A certain amount of college is a rite of passage, a time to try different things, to be a little crazy or irresponsible. In college, acting unprofessionally might result in a bad grade or a lecture from a professor. In the workplace, acting unprofessionally can get you fired. I advise clients that in their first year learning the company’s culture, and how to operate within it is a priority.

There are somethings you just have to figure out or experience on your own.When Sam started his job, he felt he needed to have all the answers. Talking with him it was clear from how he described his manager’s behavior that the pressure he felt was self-imposed. There are some things that you just have to figure out or experience on your own. When you first start out you will never have all the answers. You should always have the drive to seek out new knowledge and learn from your mistakes.

Believe me when I say that one of the most overwhelming issues you will face as a new professional is that college did not prepare you for many of the challenges you will face as you make the transition from college to career. Your future is unpredictable and most of the time you’ll feel that you have no idea what we’re doing. Making things up as you go along as you go along is how we all function in the real world. This realization can hit recent college graduates and new professionals hard.

While the first year out of college may be one of the most exciting of your life, it can also come with its fair share of anxiety and uncertainty. You’re in a transition period.

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