If there is one critical thing you know now to advance your career that you did not know in college, which would have been beneficial, what is it?
What a forward-looking question, and what a difficult one to answer! The unfortunate, short answer is: it depends. To elaborate: the answer to this question can depend on a parameter as broad as the industry you have chosen or as specific as the company in which you are employed. That being said, here are some things that come to mind:
- Do your research. First, understand what it takes to be successful in your career, or, taking a step back, how to get your foot in the door. For example, becoming a doctor or lawyer requires going to medical school or law school, then licensing and credentials are required. Some careers, such as being an actuary, are reliant on personal progress on a series of exams. Still others do not require a specific educational background to get the first, entry-level job, but may require industry credentials to get ahead, such as the CFP or CFA in finance or the CPA for accounting. I’ve found that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great place to start.
- Get ahead on licensing. During your research, you may have discovered that to get ahead in your career of choice, you need to prove yourself with some credentials like the ones I’ve mentioned above. Sometimes the credential requires your company to sponsor you, and others require passing exams as well as obtaining a certain degree of work experience. Again, do your research, and get started on these as soon as you can; the ones that do not require company sponsorship are a great place to start, even while in college. Pursuing these credentials not only sets your future self up for success, but you can benefit in the short-term as well. For example, the process of preparing you for the credentials often expands your level of domain expertise, helping you do your job better, or, if you’re in college, help you understand the career better. In addition, the very action of preparing and sitting for exams shows your dedication to your career, which can be helpful during interviews, during career discussions with your manager, and even when he/she is deciding who to give a new project or responsibility.
- Brush up on key skills. I am a big supporter of the strengths-based approach to career development, which says that you should develop yourself according to your natural strengths because you typically get a better return on your investment. However, I also believe that there are a key set of basic skills that you need to master to either get the job or to succeed at your current level so that you can move on to the next job. For example, if you are an investment banking analyst, you need to know how to build a financial model in Excel. If you are a public relations associate, you need to know how to write. If you are an executive assistant, you need to be organized and know the key contacts within your organization. So ask yourself, what key skills do you need to succeed on a day-to-day basis in this role? If there is a skills gap, what can you do to fill that gap? Without mastering these skills, you will find it very difficult to convince someone that you are ready for the next step in your career, or even to hire you in the first place.
- Pay attention to details. Regardless of career, paying attention to details will only help you appear more professional. These can range from paying attention to comma and apostrophe use, which can make a big difference in clarity or sometimes even save your company millions of dollars in lawsuits (see: Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute,https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/us/oxford-comma-lawsuit.html) to using the right time zones when setting up a calendar invite for a meeting. Spell people’s names correctly (my husband, whose name is Pablo, once received a LinkedIn message addressed to “Pedro”). Arranging catering for an event? Make sure that there are vegetarian options.
- Take advantage of your “honeymoon period.” Relevant for relationships and presidents, this is also relevant for jobs and careers. There is no better time to establish yourself as curious, eager, and humble than in your first few weeks in a new job or role. Assume you know nothing – even within the same firm, different teams will have different ways of doing things; ask as many questions as you can – this will be the one time that you will be forgiven for asking for people’s names repeatedly; and always take notes – actually, do not stop doing this, since you should never assume that you will remember it later.
A final two cents: stick it out, but change is okay. No job is going to be perfect, and there are highs and lows to every career. Expect long hours and steep learning curves, and the terrible bosses and the irritating colleagues. On the other hand, if you have tried and tried, and despite the sweat and tears, you dread waking up and going to work, or you realize that the lifestyle is simply not worth the money anymore, or that the robots have come and there is simply no future to where you are, it is okay to change. The grass is not always greener on the other side, and it may take determination, time, and sacrifice, but life is too short for regrets.
Besides, you will always have the support of your family, friends, and AAPAAN.