Surviving Your First Professional Job Search
My tennis coach used to make us sprint up the steepest third of a humungous hill next to my high school.
The whole time I was running, I would just focus on breathing and meeting my goal.
The funny thing was, when I reached the top, my legs would turn to rubber and my body would still propel me forward from all of that momentum. It always took a few beats before I got my bearings.
That’s the exact same feeling I had when I graduated from college.
I was so used to school deadlines, work responsibilities and all the complications that come with a busy social life. When school ended, so did my campus job, and all of my friends scattered for the summer. With no job lined up, I was left struggling with what to do next.
I thought I had done everything to set myself up for career success — I had professional work experience, references and a high college GPA. So what was the deal?
The biggest realization I had was discovering I wasn’t actually at the top of my hill. The hardest part of the climb still lay ahead. And this time, no one else would be running with me.
Catch Your Breath and Reconnect
With no real plan or employer lined up, I had no choice but to move back home. Luckily, my parents were supportive and happy to welcome me.
This sounds strange, but I came to the realization then that my parents actually had lives before they had children. They had real world experience and advice that was helpful. I stopped thinking of them so much as authority figures and more like wise friends.
For example, my dad told me to reconsider my applications to newspapers on the east coast. He said none of them would have heard of my school and it would be too much of a risk to consider me for employment. He ended up being exactly right.
Set a Realistic Goal
The one plus that I had going for me was that I knew exactly what I wanted.
My goal was to get an entry-level position in the newsroom of a daily newspaper with a circulation of at least 25,000. This really helped me narrow my job search and focus my efforts.
I knew papers with circulations of 50,000+ would never consider me, but I also knew I had the experience to graduate from small-town papers.
The unemployed college graduates who struggle the most are the ones who don’t know what they want to do. If you fall into this category, the first thing to do is choose a goal and an industry where you would like to start. It doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck in that career field forever — it only means you can better focus your efforts.
Get a (Part-time) Job
You’ve probably heard the expression, “It’s easier to find a job when you have a job.” It’s a cliché because it’s so true.
Having a current job shows potential employers that you are, in fact, employable. There are a lot of crazy people out there who can’t work well with others and aren’t dependable enough to hold down a steady job. By having a part-time job, you’re demonstrating that you’re not so much of a risk.
I got a part-time job at my hometown newspaper. After I’d been home for a few weeks, I stopped by to say hi to everyone and see how they were doing. (Remember the summer I worked there?) The publisher happened to be in that afternoon and she said I could start working half days that summer. The next day, I was on the payroll.
Later, when I did finally land a job, my boss said a big reason he called me was because he saw on my résumé that I was already working in our career field. Even if you aren’t working in the exact position you’re seeking, being able to include on your résumé that you’re already employed in the same line of work helps a bunch.
I used to think that networking was only for people who didn’t have the expertise or work experience to get a job on their own merit. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I’m also not the most outgoing person, so the thought of networking kind of freaked me out. I learned pretty quickly, though, that there are plenty of ways for the more introverted types to network.
My professors had a lot of media contacts around the state, so I made sure to tell them I was looking for a job and I got a handful of leads from them. I also was applying at every opportunity and if anyone responded, even just to say they couldn’t hire me at that time, I would email back to ask what I could do so that I could match their criteria for the next time they were hiring.
Go On As Many Interviews As Possible
When I followed up on some of those leads my professors passed along, the newspapers told me they were looking to hire someone with more experience. A couple of times I asked if I could interview anyway. It ended up being great for me because I gained interviewing experience while also networking with some of the papers where I wanted to work. My idea was that it if they did have more of an entry-level opening in a few months, maybe they would keep me in mind.
Even though I knew I truly wanted to be a news reporter, my search was so rough that I also started applying for copy editor positions. Most of these positions require written exams to prove that you know your stuff, so it was also really good for me to get experience interviewing and taking those tests.
I remember, though, that I ultimately never got a copy editing job because I just didn’t have any professional experience as an editor or a designer. So that’s another thing I would go back and tell my younger self — make sure you diversify your skill sets so that you can have more flexibility.
My dad has this fancy bottle of riesling wine that my sister-in-law had given him for Christmas. He hadn’t opened it because he didn’t have a special occasion for it, so he made a deal with me. He said as soon as I met my goal and got a job, we’d open the bottle.
Periodically throughout that summer, he’d tease me and say the bottle was getting dusty. But it was great to have that little physical reminder of my goal. And when we popped that bottle open, it was sweet for a lot of reasons.
I know San Angelo has a pretty low elevation. But for me, this is where I reached the top of my mountain.
Though I left the newspaper industry years ago, landing that first job at the San Angelo Standard-Times is still a point of pride for me. And even though I’ve changed courses, I still have no regrets.