The (Un)Importance of Your Early Career Choices
This is chapter 2 of a 6-part series called A Handbook for the Next Generation of Ambitious Female Leaders. The series is based on 18 interviews from top women and aims to empower young women in the transition from university to their first full-time workplace. Read the intro to this project here, and read chapter one here.
When crafting up my set of interview questions, I wanted to base them as deeply as possible in conversations that I have had with my friends and Hyper Island classmates over the past few months. Our current passage between university and first full-time job is an important one, as it’s a transition from one phase of life to another in a lot of ways.
Things I’ve heard that tend to come back in various conversations are things like “There’s too many jobs to choose from”, “My study was too broad - I don’t know what I want to do”, “My study was too specific, and it’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life”, “I got a job offer, but I don’t think I want to work in that industry”. All of these are first world problems, but nonetheless very real.
“Every path is as different as people are” - Nadine Ridder
First of all, relax.
Most women involved in this project never envisioned an ‘end station’, nor do they know where they want to be in the following five years. It’s OK to stay in the same field or even at the same company since your first internship, and it’s equally OK to try a bunch of different positions and industries if your curiosity is a little bit all over the place.
I find this ‘spectrum of OK’ reassuring, as it reinforces the absence of a fixed formula to follow. Although, granted, that doesn’t make decision-making any easier.
“At the crossroads you always know which exit to take” - Vivian Opsteegh
Planning your career too much can limit your options. Many women interviewed hold the opinion that young women today overthink everything (sound familiar?), and are too serious about their career planning and professional development. Marianne Stok and Machteld Rijnten went on to say that when they were in the same position 20 years ago, nobody was thinking that much.
It’s good to plan to some extent as it does help in setting personal goals, but consider it in constant flux. Welcome curveballs with open arms and don’t be afraid to deviate from your original plan.
“Give yourself the freedom to try new things and explore your personality - all facets of it. You are what you make of yourself” - Oana Bouraoui
The most important thing is to know yourself, but that is easier said than done for most. Take time and be proactive in exploring what it is that you like. Elizabeth Gilbert puts it pretty nicely in Big Magic: “Instead of trying to find your passion, follow your curiosity”. Or as Susan Credle shared with me, “If you go into the diamond business and find emeralds, go into the emerald business.” One thing will lead you to the next.
What is it about your day that gives you most energy? Which classes do or did you love preparing for? What events do you like? What do you like about them? In my experience and to my surprise at the time, interests don’t fall from the sky when you start university. Make an effort.
Which conferences, webinars or meet ups can you attend to gain insight into a topic you’re (even faintly) interested in? Go. Which websites post regular columns on something you care about? Read. And, what has been key for me, which people in your city work in positions that sound interesting to you? Reach out and have a conversation with them. LinkedIn is your best friend in this.
One pro tip that to those writing a thesis is to take time to think about your topic and write about something relevant that you find truly fascinating. It’s a massive piece of work so make it worth your while. Arwen Smit, the first woman interviewed of the bunch shared that she got a job at Facebook right out of uni because of her thesis topic and findings. Make conscious choices.
Then, newsflash: it helps to have a mentor. Indeed, this is a topic spread thin across the Internet as well. Think about this for a minute. Isn’t it always easy to tell your friends what they would be good at and what would suit them job-wise? Don’t they usually agree with you and mention how exceptionally observant and wise you are? It helps to have someone in your surroundings who knows you and your skills almost better than you do. This should be someone you trust and who genuinely wants the best for you. Cristiana Belodan was especially vocal about the importance of mentorship. That role of a mentor can come from a friend you look up to, a parent who supports you, a professor who has taken you under their wing or a boss who is committed to your professional growth.
Ultimately you are responsible for your own decisions, so learn to listen to and trust your gut feeling.
“Don’t look for what ‘the thing’ is to get into. Decide what you like and make that a thing” - Anneli Rispens
When that moment comes when you have to apply to your first full-time job, follow your curiosity. You can be curious without being committed. Don’t worry about looking for what the ‘cool thing’ is to get into. Decide for yourself what you like and make that a thing.
“Try not to be led by your ego or by salary” - Maartje Blijleven
Find a place to work that’s aligned with your values as a future professional. There are so many companies out there to choose from, and they all struggle to find top talent in line with their way of seeing the world.
Find a place that’s committed to your personal and professional growth. Solid training and coaching are good things to look for. An established workplace with a good name and reputation in any given field can give you professional confidence, but always remember that you may learn less (quickly) in a rigid structure than you could in a fast-growing start-up for example.
Whatever you do, Louise Meijer advises not to choose something because it’s a ‘smart career move’. Avoid being seduced only by the presence of ping pong tables at the office, and try not to be led by your ego or by salary.
“There’s a danger of being boxed based on your first choices” - Jessica Greenhalgh
Many women mentioned, however, that you tend to be put in a box relatively quickly. It is sometimes complicated to change sectors when you have begun to establish a bit of professional reputation, or have several years of experience in one.
Expand your horizons and try new things, but as soon as you realise that what you’re doing is not it, move quickly to the next thing that might be. Carlota Casellas shared that she managed to change roles within her industry, but this was definitely not an easy step.
When you feel like you’re doing something that brings you joy, Susan Credle encourages committing to a company for at least three years.
“Until you’ve done the job, you have no idea how it will actually suit you” - Amy Wanke
In conclusion, the choice of exploring different fields or being laser-focused in one is very personal, and it’s generally a good rule to do what gives you the most energy and makes you genuinely happy. Strive to make decisions based on knowledge of yourself. To acquire that knowledge, explore your interests and be crazy proactive in doing so. And ultimately, you have no idea how a job will suit you until you actually try it.
Charlotte Rubesa is Strategy Trainee at 72andSunny Amsterdam