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Finding Your Path in the Career Maze

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Career Advice

"I guess the main reason I took my first job was the Weather Underground wasn't hiring, and neither was the Symbionese Liberation Army, nor the Zapatistas." So says one disgruntled publishing assistant, who claims she accepted her first job mostly out of desperation. A decent salary, tolerable work environs, a phone extension-what more can you really expect, being just out of college?

If you're a senior in college you probably won't want to believe that, in the grand scheme of things, your first job hardly matters. In the postmodern world we live in, people don't graduate to go work for the same company until they retire. A career is not the same thing as a job-it's the sum total of your life's experiences, a work in progress that's never quite complete but gains depth and meaning over time. You can make yours richer by following your instincts and letting the journey inspire you.

THE CAREER MAZE

A career path doesn't have to have a straightforward trajectory; it may be more like a maze than a path. Of course, on-campus recruiting for some industries requires more involvement than others-and in these fields, your first job will most definitely matter. If you want to work in investment banking or management consulting, for instance, you go to the informational sessions in the fall, then on-campus interviews, and hopefully you get an offer and start working your way up within the firm.

Two or three years later you'll probably either start a business, find another job, or else return to school to get your MBA. The experience at the bank, or consulting firm, will often determine where you end up-and who's going to be clamoring to hire you.

If you aren't interested in investment banking or consulting, you'll have to be more resourceful and creative. It may be frustrating when your peers have high-paying jobs lined up in February of your senior year, and you still don't have a clue come May. Just remember: You're not limited by your first job.

Even if you've been working a less-than-impressive job for a few years after graduation, you'll still have plenty of time to find or create your dream job. In the meantime, you never know what doors your first job will open for you; networking is so serendipitous. Pursue what interests you today (or just what is convenient for the time being), and pretty soon you'll be faced with a dozen more options than you had before.

EARN YOUR STRIPES

Often the best way to get to the top is by starting from the bottom. Don't spend six months waiting to hear back from a prospective employer at a record label. Get an administrative job, work part time at a record store, and if you can afford to, get a part-time internship in the industry to make connections.

While you're waiting to hear back from the dream employer, follow up with a letter to human resources and let the company know what you've been up to. Even if you've just been filing and doing data entry at your friend's father's law office, you'd be surprised how much this administrative experience will mean to potential employers.

Initiating a recent grad into the working world can be daunting for employers. One recruiter at an Internet company told a recent college graduate that he only interviews candidates with at least six months of "real world" experience, because he doesn't want to be the one to "disillusion" someone. Spending some time as an admin or an intern shows future employers that you have the mettle and determination to succeed on the job.

BE FLEXIBLE

If you are interested in joining a certain company, it might be wise to settle for a less-than-ideal job there in order to get your foot in the door. One recent grad was dead set on a career in book publishing after graduation. She interviewed with all of the big publishing houses, but got few offers because she maintained that the only job she'd take was editorial assistant to a literary fiction editor. She later came to realize that only a handful of editors in New York publish literary fiction. A good way into that profession is by working at a book store-or for a literary agent-or at non-profit press (many of which are outside New York).

Another recent grad who was intent on becoming an editor settled on a sales job at a major publishing house. After six months, he transferred to an editorial position; and after only two years, he's been promoted to associate editor.

You never know where a job may take you, even if it's in a totally different direction. You may think you want to be a copywriter at an advertising agency, but once you start as an assistant account executive you may realize that you really like the organizational, people-oriented emphasis of the job. Or perhaps you studied journalism in college and dreamed about writing for the science section of The New York Times. After accepting a job in PR at a pharmaceutical company, you may decide to take some science classes and apply to medical school.

Accepting your less-than-ideal job may turn out to be a way to expand your interests and find out what you're good at. Even if you're not in love with your first job, try to think of it as a learning experience. Learning what you don't like is as important as learning what you like.

KEEP PERSPECTIVE

Even if you're dead-set on a particular career, remember that you have your whole life to accomplish your goals. It takes time to gain experience and make connections. Dream jobs are rarely advertised. Many happily working people didn't know their jobs existed before they stumbled upon them.

The Zen masters of the job search know that opportunities often lurk where you least suspect them. Talk to people whose careers you admire and, chances are, you'll find that they didn't go directly from A to B to get where they are. Put yourself in the maze and explore your options. Your path will become clear.

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