In the ideal world, post-collegiate life comes with a job offer related to your major. In that perfect entry-level job, you are given the guidance to move up in the company and advance your career.
Of course, this scenario is, well, unrealistic. No matter how hard you work in college, landing a job in your desired industry post-graduation is not guaranteed. And it’s not always because you lack the skills and experience either, sometimes there’s too many candidates for too few entry level jobs, or companies you want to work for just don’t have the budget to hire and train someone new right now.
Whatever the reason–sometimes you just have to take a job that’s not exactly what you set out to do. But is it possible to still advance in your career when you’re stuck (for now) in a crappy entry-level job? I asked career professionals who’d gone through career changes themselves–here’s what they said:
1. TREAT YOUR JOB LIKE IT’S YOUR DREAM JOB
So cold-calling prospective clients and entering data on a spreadsheet is really not what you want to be doing out of college. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way to bring the same level of energy and enthusiasm to this role that you would if it were your dream job.
Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at recruitment software Jobvite, says that this is one of the most important mind-sets to have when you’re starting any job. “Part of it is that, even if you know that you don’t have your dream job, you’ve accepted it. Go into it as if it’s your dream job. People can tell if you want to be there. You never know what you’re going to learn.”
Bitte herself started out working as a receptionist in a consulting firm before working in HR after spending four years studying international relations. But a coveted internship at the United Nations showed her that the nonprofit world wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and she decided she would be better off working in private corporations. Her receptionist role led to an office manager gig for a PR firm, where she was involved in company admin, as well as HR and finance. She ended up tackling more and more HR projects, began taking night classes taught by professionals in the industry and eventually landed a recruiting job at Apple through her instructor.
2. TAKE ON CHALLENGING PROJECTS
Part of bringing your full passionate self to work is to look for opportunities where you can take charge and be of value. Bitte says that the beauty of having an entry-level job that’s not in your desired field is that you’ve got nothing to lose. “You can take a risk. Look for projects that are really meaty that some people might shy away from.”
Daniel Ospina, an organizational design specialist who started his career as a chef, echoed this sentiment. “Instead of focusing on the industry or the job title, focus on the problem that you want to solve and look for insights from a variety of sources. Most problems these days are best approached with a multidisciplinary perspective. Coming at them from a different angle can be quite valuable in the market.”
Everyone likes a self-starter. Many skills, like communication and project-management, are also relevant to almost every industry. Having a few successful projects under your belt can only benefit you when you go for your next interview, particularly if there is a way of quantifying your success.
3. MAKE AN EFFORT TO NETWORK WITH YOUR COWORKERS
You’ve probably heard this advice many times before, and we know, it’s extremely tempting to give this the old eye-roll. But this is a crucial thing to do when you want to remain on the lookout for new opportunities.
“I think networking is absolutely critical.” Bitte says. “You just never know who’s connected to what in your network.” You might find, for example, that the account coordinator you had lunch with yesterday knows a recruiter at a company you’re dying to work at. Or that the CEO’s assistant is related to the project manager of the contract position that just opened up–which you’re considering putting in an application for.
Or they might just have connections to people who work in the industry you want to get into, and that’s valuable in itself. Rebecca Zucker, a partner in leadership development consultancy Next Step Partners, previously told Fast Company that this is a great way to find out exactly what you can do to bring yourself closer to where you want to be. You might think you know what skills you need for that wish-list job, but it’s much smarter to go and ask someone who’s currently there.
4. START A SIDE PROJECT RELATED TO YOUR DESIRED INDUSTRY
Just because you’re not working in your desired industry doesn’t mean you can’t develop your expertise in it. Ospina suggests trying to gain experience while you’re still in the job (that way, you can still pay your bills while you make yourself a more attractive candidate for your dream job). “These exploratory projects can be organizing a community of interest, hosting themed dinners, creating small conferences, or interviewing people in the industry for a podcast or blog. By providing value to others (for example, through exposure or simply a nice meal) you can grow your network. Over time, that which you have given others will serve you the most.”
5. WHEN YOU LEAVE, MAKE SURE THAT YOU HAVE A GOOD STORY
From a recruiter’s perspective, Bitte says that the key to turning an irrelevant experience into a relevant one is to have a good story. Take the example of someone who someone who landed a PR role but would really prefer a journalism job. They might want to articulate their passion and commitment to journalism but frame their experience from a learning angle; i.e. they had the opportunity to learn how things work from that side of the media. They might then want to think about how the lessons they learned through their PR job make them a better journalist. Perhaps it reaffirmed their commitment to the profession, or it gave them some fresh perspectives they never would have gotten otherwise.
Lihi Gerstner, an architect turned entrepreneur who cofounded space-renting and listing platform Splacer reminds graduates that the start of their career is the perfect time for experimentation. In other words, getting a job in an unrelated field doesn’t make you doomed to adulthood failure.
“Every job should open new doors and possibilities. It’s important to be open to experiences and not be afraid to get your hands dirty–you are young, this is the time to learn and to experience new things. You’ll always have time to decide what you want to be ‘when you grow up.’ “