What I Wish I’d Known Earlier About Building a Career

The fall season represents new beginnings.  For many graduate students, the fall season also marks the time when “on campus recruiting” or other events force a focus on what job the student is going to go to after graduation.  These events require eager students to identify the specific type of work they want to do, the location were they want to work, the type of entity they want to work for (e.g., big corporation, government agency, non-profit, etc.), and, though not often discussed verbally, the things they are willing to sacrifice to have it all.  Many seasoned professionals have offered students sage advice during this recruiting process; I am no different.  This summer I shared some of the career and life lessons I learned from my careers in business and law to several legal interns in my office.  Below I share my top five pieces of advice I wish someone had the courage to tell me about balancing my life and pursuing a career.

1) You can’t do it all at the same time so prioritize.  The often shared myth that it is our God-given right to do it all, and to do it all right now, is just that . . . a myth.  The reality is much different.  Just as a typical school year has different semesters each with different classes and responsibilities, your life has different seasons and in each season a different priority.  Verbalize and commit to a priority for each season.  And, don’t worry, the priorities you have in this season – whether it is pursuing a joint degree, developing a specific skill set, having a family, or pursuing entrepreneurial interests – may change in the next season and the career path you choose now can also change.  Take myself for an example, I am on my third career.  I spent years in business, entrepreneurship, and now the law.  I had successful careers in each field because I prioritized my goals, pursued my passions, focused on developing skills, and took calculated risks – lessons I often learned the hard way.

2) Conduct informational interviews.  Lots of them!  I first learned about informational interviews during business school.  An informational interview is a conversation with a person in the career or position that you are interested in and is designed to find out what that person actually does, how they obtained that position, what skills are required in the role, and the pros and cons of their work.  In reality, many students conduct informational interviews to find an advocate in the company they want to work for and to informally interview for a position.  What a missed opportunity!  Talk to as many people as you can about their careers and career paths; knowing the different jobs that are out there – and not just the jobs that recruit at your school – will help you decide what you really want to do with your life and what career path is right for you.

3) Pursue skills not job titles.  I know, easier said than done.  But developing a strong skill set, especially early in your career, will give you the leverage you need to obtain your dream job on your terms, not to mention the skills to be successful in that role. Spend the first part of your career developing skills – such as researching case law, developing legal strategies, advocating for clients – and learning how your business or practice area works.  When you show others the skills you developed and the value you can add, the job titles and prestige will come.

4) Take calculated risks.  Calculating risks and rewards is different for each person.  For some, beginning your career in a different state may be a calculated risk if your current state has fewer jobs in your chosen field, starting your career at a small employer instead of a larger one may be a calculated risk you take to obtain more hands-on experience and mentoring than you would receive at a larger company.  Whatever your risk calculation may be, do not be afraid to “go against the grain” and take a chance to position yourself to have the career you desire.

5) To thine own self be true!  This one lesson encompasses them all – to thine own self be true.  Only you know the best career path for yourself, it is the path that develops the skills that you want to develop, permits you to do the work that interests you, and allows you to pursue interests you may have outside of your career.  While classmates and colleagues may take a different path, be content in the path that works for you and that accounts for your life situation and interests.  Therein lies true success!

Michelle D. Thomas

Michelle D. Thomas is a former contributor to Shattering the Ceiling.

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