Nearly two years after I received my diploma and strolled across the map, I can say with confidence that my Hamilton education prepared me to handle the challenges we inevitably face when we leave the Hill. At the same time, the professional world I’ve come to know is rife with frustrations, lessons, and triumphs I couldn’t have foreseen in my days of late-night essays in KJ and even later-night trips to the Diner. Here’s what I wish I knew when I began my first job post-graduation:
Your first job may not perfectly align with your dreams—and that’s more than okay.
Like many Hamilton students, I graduated with the goals of helping people and making our world a better, fairer, more inclusive place. I dreamed of working for the government, an advocacy organization, or on a political campaign—and then I wound up in public relations. I came to realize that there are many more paths to helping people than I saw from my vantage point as a college senior frantically sending off my resume. As a Media Specialist I secure earned media placements for organizations and companies seeking to spread important messages. I help to inform folks across the country about issues ranging from health care policy to maternal mortality to childhood obesity to emergency preparedness to food safety. Like any first job, it is far from perfect. But it gives me the opportunity to raise awareness of issues I care about every day.
“Office Politics” is Inescapable.
There is no sugar coating it: when you begin an entry-level job, you exist at the bottom of the professional hierarchy. That comes with challenges, including feeling undervalued by colleagues due to your age and lack of career experience—more on that in a bit. But I have learned that “office politics” extends beyond the frustrations that a young staffer may have with their workplace. Employees at all levels of management and experience are subject to similar social and systemic dynamics that we dealt with on campus: cliques, bullies, a leadership team implementing decisions you weren’t consulted on and don’t always understand—sound familiar? We don’t leave drama behind in school. Drama throws on a suit and a pair of heels and follows us right to the office.
Work-life balance is hard!
As time goes on, this dreaded buzz term becomes more and more difficult for me. In an ideal world, I could flip my work switch off when I leave the office for the day and not think about my job until I arrive again the next morning. But what if a client emails me after hours? What if a reporter reaches out late in the day to book a live TV interview? In the smartphone age, it is all too easy to yield to these questions and check the Microsoft Outlook app on my phone.
While this is a work in progress for me, I’ve committed to several rules of thumb to separate my work life:
- Do not check work email after hours unless I am expecting an important message
- Do not check work email on vacation under any circumstances
- Remove Outlook app from the home screen of my phone while on vacation to resist the temptation to break the aforementioned rule
- And most importantly: use all of my vacation days every year
The bottom line? Work-life balance is tough, and what works for me may be different from what works for you. Give yourself the time and space to figure it out.
College graduation doesn’t mean the end of new friendships.
It can be difficult to make friends in adulthood. Let’s face it, it’s far more natural to bond in Dunham quads, 20-person classrooms, and at Commons tables than in a traditional office setting. But I realized a few short months into my job that the idea that we can’t forge meaningful friendships post-graduation is even more of a myth than the Bundy ghost. I have become friends with a small handful of incredible humans who would have my back in a heartbeat, and I would do the same for them. My closest friend from work is more like a soulmate whom I feel I’ve known my entire life. Sure, it can be tough to break the ice with coworkers or even people you meet outside of work. But in my experience, these relationships are no less special than my connections with Hamilton friends.
Recognize the power of you.
If you take your first job with a company or organization that has a traditional, hierarchical set-up, as I did, you will find yourself at the bottom of the proverbial food chain on day one—and in my case, for many days to come. I had a lot to learn about the industry as well as the day-to-day of my role, and I am still learning every day. But I learned an equally important lesson along the way: I am competent and capable and talented, and my contributions and ideas matter. Recognizing my worth in the workplace gives me the confidence to speak up in meetings, communicate with clients, and respectfully challenge my colleagues when I disagree. Even when you find yourself on the lower end of the hierarchy, don’t underestimate your own power. They hired you for a reason, after all.
Expect the unexpected.
Above all, I quickly learned to accept that there is so much I do not know—not only about the nuts and bolts of communications but also the broader professional world. To this day I still get surprised by developments I didn’t see coming. But a first job wouldn’t be a first job if it didn’t throw curveballs. I happily embrace the unexpected. My job is unpredictable and challenging, but it is never, ever boring.
Natalie Adams is currently a Media Specialist at Subject Matter, a Creative Advocacy firm in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Hamilton in 2017 with a Comparative Literature major and a Government minor. At Hamilton, Natalie was a COOP Senior Fellow for Education and was also involved in the Spectator, the Green Apple, dance, and leading orientation trips. She is a Semester in Washington alum and a forever Jan.