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How to Survive Your First Job in DC

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I feel cheated. Gypped. Bamboozled. College professors wax on about how getting a bachelor’s degree will lead to a sweet, cushy job. Maybe it was true when they went to college, but in today’s world, and especially in DC where everyone has a Master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. So, we graduate with these rose-colored glasses expecting that our degrees with let us skip those crappy jobs answering phones, filing papers, and watering the 700 office plants.

Unfortunately, this is exactly where most entry level employees find themselves, even with a degree. The point is, whatever you majored in—engineering, marketing, graphic design—your first job will probably not be what you imagined. However, this is not to say you cannot survive (and even enjoy) your first job. I have compiled a few simple rules from my experience that I believe can make all the difference in the world.

#1 Make Friends with People in Your Office

Not only are your coworkers some of the best resources and references for future jobs, they can make slow Mondays pass by infinitely faster. While it may be tempting to while away the hours doing “research” on your computer (Nicki Minaj wore what to the Oscar’s?!), getting out from behind your computer is probably the best thing you can do. Forging office friendships shows you are an engaging person, someone people want to be around, and showcases your stellar communication skills. You never know who will be in charge of the next interesting project and someone is more likely to pick you if he or she knows you’re an easy person to work with.

#2 Don’t Be TOO Good at Your Job

This is advice I rejected at first. As a classic overachiever and straight “A” student, I couldn’t fathom being less than excellent at something. But, seeing how things work in the business world, this is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten. If you are the best note taker in the company, you can be sure that you will never get out of that position for as long as you work in that environment. If you are the only one who can understand your boss’s crazy, color coded Outlook calendar that takes fifteen minutes just to load, you can bet that no one else will schedule his meetings for him. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do a good job, but if you’re the go-to person for specific tasks, it is very difficult for bosses who dislike change to see you in a new capacity. Always do a good job, always finish the task at hand, but don’t become the only person your boss trusts to make his coffee.

#3 Cultivate Outside Interests and Hobbies

Sometimes, your job will make you depressed. If you wonder why you spent four years getting a degree and are now living in a cubicle, it is important to take some time to do things for yourself. Think about what you’re interested in. Do you like writing? DC has a decent poetry scene, underground magazines, and tons of local papers where you can showcase your talent. Art? Take a class—there are tons of studios in and around DC that will even let you rent workspace and sell your creations. Theatre? Volunteer at the Kennedy Center. There are literally thousands of ways to get involved or expand your horizons in and around DC. We live in the Nation’s Capitol! Take advantage of the opportunities around you.

#4 Learn the Office Culture

Every office has its way of doing things and its unwritten rules. Whether it is expected that the most junior employee keeps the kitchen stocked or if the first person to arrive makes the coffee, understanding the culture in your office is crucial to your success and comfort. A big part of this is learning to play (or at least understand) office politics. In an effort to be helpful, it is tempting to send out an email about a project you know is coming up or post something to the company website without jumping through all of the hoops required for approval. Don’t. While employers appreciate your proactive mindset, those hoops are there for a reason. Even if some steps don’t make sense to you, it is important that you follow them.

#5 Dress the Part

Chucks and a t-shirt may be your weekend wardrobe, but most offices require you to dress business casual. Use this as an opportunity to go on a shopping spree and add some quality pieces to your wardrobe like a tailored blazer and a few pairs of dress pants. Also, keep in mind that some workplaces are more conservative than others. In my experience, the government is the most conservative and does not like female employees wearing skirts above the knee or wearing any revealing tops. And, since we live in DC, there’s a pretty good chance you work for the government or work at a consulting firm.

One of my friends in college said she picked a boy in every class she had, deemed him her classroom boyfriend, and dressed for class looking to impress said boys. This approach works for the office as well. Even if you’re in a relationship, it’s fun to have an office “boyfriend” as motivation for you to get dressed in the morning. Tempted to wear a ponytail two days in a row? Nope, not if you want to catch that hottie in auditing’s eye. Does he look like he dreams about girls rocking messy ponytails? Didn’t think so.

Even if you think you aren’t going to be at your company for a long time, you spend at least 40 hours a week at work. You will see your co-workers more than you see your best friend. It is in your best interest to make the workplace somewhere you don’t dread. Colleges tell us that our degrees will teach us to think critically, communicate at a higher level, and give us the tools to succeed in the real world. But, really, all we learned in college is how to network, and how to drink.

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