This is a guest post from Lisa Lessley Briscoe.

My friend (and fellow Bearcat) Lisa writes: “I was just poking around on GRS (I don’t usually read) and noticed that you’d posted an entry for college graduates recently. Funny how summer rolls around and you start thinking about stuff.” She’s passed along some additional advice for those just entering the workplace.

Congratulations, you just graduated from an excellent liberal arts college!

You worked incredibly hard to complete your degree and now it’s all behind you: general education requirements, a wealth of extracurricular activities, those classes for your major and minor, perhaps a semester abroad, and a thesis and its accompanying oral defense. You’ve invested a great deal of time, effort, and money into your degree and now you’re ready to conquer the world.

Where to live? Pack up that futon and wave goodbye to your family! You find a city that suits you (say, Seattle), settle in after an age-old argument with your housemates over who gets which room, and get started on the job search.

Sure, your resumé isn’t bursting with experience (after all, how far can you stretch your meager retail and accounting clerk duties from summer jobs?), but you know you’re smart, energetic, and ambitious, not to mention the liberal arts clincher: you’ve “learned how to learn.”

You mail your resumé to a number of prospective employers, but no one calls back. You try to network, but no one knows of any available jobs. Your mother begins asking how long you’ll look before you decide to move back home. Things are bad.

What to do? The rent must be paid, not to mention the car insurance and grocery bill, even if it’s just Top Ramen. Ah, well, it appears that Queen of the Photocopier is the best title you’ll get. Your roommates are bank clerks and receptionists, and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local pizza joint becomes a regular event in your week. (One roommate sneaks out extra slices in her pockets.) You are underestimated, frustrated, and misunderstood.

I was there, believe me. And I feel your pain. Looking back fifteen years later, here’s what I wish someone had told me…

You lack experience. Regardless of all your education and energy, you just don’t have it. And there’s no way to gain that experience without working for a while. It stinks and it’s unfair, but that’s the way it is. To really excel in a field — any field — you must be in it day after day.

Out in the world, you need to have something to show, and you often have to earn it by tedious drudgery. While you’re busy being a peon, some people will completely ignore your existence, some will assume that you aren’t capable of an intelligent thought, and some will be downright condescending and mean. It’s profoundly frustrating.

However, working for a few years as a copy clerk, a receptionist, an office boy, a customer service representative, or whatever, does not condemn you to a permanent career in that position. When I turned 25 and found myself working as a receptionist, I was profoundly depressed. I was certain that I would be stuck in that chair with a headset forever. It may take a year or two, but you certainly can transition into something else if that’s what you want.

Now, here’s what I really wish that I’d known… If the less-than-entry-level jobs are virtually unavoidable when you have just finished college, use them to your advantage. So, you have to be a receptionist/copy clerk/customer support rep for a year or so; make the most of it. Take a job in a field that interests you. Use your time to be exposed to the jargon, attitudes, and daily vibe of the field. Sure, you may have limited exposure, but every little bit counts.

  • While you’re answering phones, you’re also meeting people in the field who will be invaluable contacts later on.
  • While you’re transcribing dictation, you’re learning the terminology used in the field.
  • While you’re numbering legal documents, you’re seeing how a court case is supported.

For example, I worked for a few years at a law firm, a field that had never held much interest for me. I almost put myself into law school, in large part because of some experience and a glowing recommendation from a partner in the firm. (Why I didn’t go is a long story; suffice it to say that I’m glad I didn’t do it.)


Law-firm Lisa, circa 1993

Want another story? My husband applied to a number of architecture schools without much success a year or so after graduation. The following year, he worked as an office boy at an architecture firm (while working as a barista on the weekends). The combination of resources for creating a more sophisticated portfolio and references from within the field produced a completely different experience the second time he applied: he had a number of excellent choices for school.

Okay, one more that doesn’t involve graduate school. After parting ways with the law firm, I decided that I wanted to be a technical writer in high tech. My year of purgatory as a receptionist was unsurpassed in misery, but I transferred straight out of that into the job I wanted and soon thereafter into a company where everyone wanted to work.

My primary regret now is that I didn’t do those peon jobs in fields that fascinated me. Why not be a receptionist at an art museum? How about a translation company or one that did language classes? There was a world out there that I didn’t reach out and grab, and I regret it.

Now that I have job experience, my job searches are different. It is unnecessary for me to take an entry level job to get where I want to go. And my liberal arts education certainly is an excellent asset when it’s paired with experience. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But for you, O recent college graduate, do your drudgery but make it count… Pick the field and then the job; I certainly wish that I had.

Thanks, Lisa! The recommendation to find an entry-level job in a field that interests you is spot-on. I wish I had done this, too. For more advice about starting a career, check out:

Look for a second guest-post from Lisa in mid-July.

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