How college grads can succeed - or fail - in their first jobs

Young man on the job talking to a coworker.

Many college graduates are uncertain of how to set themselves up for success in their first job. Check out what tips can make the transition a positive one.

College graduates from 2008 and onward have entered a tough economy and a competitive job market that they may not have felt prepared to face. After four years or more of classes, papers, labs, homework and exams, it's hard to hear that there isn't necessarily a dream job waiting for them, or in some cases, any work at all.

How can recent graduates survive the uncertain economy and still start a career? With some adjustments to their perspective, planning for the future and developing a new work ethic, it's possible. Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder, author of "The Unemployed College Graduate's Survival Guide: How to Get Your Life Together, Deal with Debt, and Find a Job After College," tackles this subject and has some tips for success.

"I know that you were hoping to cash in your academic chips at the pay-off window of life at this point, but there is simply too much competition for employment right now to allow you to do that," Snyder says. "You're going to have to shrug it off and adjust your expectations and your behavior to match reality. So let's talk about some productive strategies and attitudes that will help you move forward into a bright future."

Starting at the bottom of the ladder
If you don't have a new job lined up after graduating, where can you start searching for work?

"As a new entrant to the workforce, you will probably be looking for an entry-level job within an established organization," Snyder says. "Entry-level work, by definition, implies that you lack prior experience in the field. Typically, entry-level workers are assigned the least desirable tasks within an organization -- sometimes called the 'grunt' work. This is how you are expected to 'learn the ropes' of a business."

No matter what job you start off in, remember that your main goal in this economy is to find a way to earn a paycheck, even if the work isn't what you dreamed of in college.

"You're still going to have to pay your dues, though," Snyder says. "The truth is, you are in competition with a lot of other capable workers for good work. Everybody wants to do the most interesting work and be paid well for it, but there is only so much desirable work to go around. Those with endurance and patience are most likely to reach the level where they can claim the plum assignments. Remember: No one owes you interesting work. You have to earn it."

How not to succeed in your first job
If you find a job that leaves much to be desired, don't consider your time to be wasted or opportunities to be lost. There are always ways to advance in any job or company. Yet, a negative attitude is more detrimental to your career than any entry-level work.

Snyder says that by doing any of the following, you won't succeed in your first job:

  • "Show up every day with a surly, condescending attitude. Assume you are better than everyone else at your job and be sure to drop not-so-subtle hints to let them know that you feel you are too good to be working there. Make sure that your body language communicates disgust, or at least abject boredom with the job. Roll your eyes as a silent rebuke to others and sigh loudly, if necessary, to indicate your contempt for them and for your job duties. Complain incessantly about how unfair everything is. Act superior to everyone, including your stupid boss who doesn't know anything.
  • "If your managers and co-workers still don't seem to get the message that you are better than they are, then tell them outright that your job stinks and you deserve better than to be working in this dump. Be sure to act insulted by all of your tasks and assignments. That will surely convince them to start giving you some more important work.
  • "Complete simple tasks sloppily and carelessly, if at all; obviously, they're beneath you and not worthy of your full attention. You are not going to bother showing management what you are capable of accomplishing until you start getting some better assignments. Expect your managers to recognize your inward greatness and promote you to the position you deserve when they finally wake up and see how deserving you truly are."

Navigating a tough economy is its own challenge, and accepting any job will help propel your career. A negative attitude will hurt your future, but having a positive mindset and treating your new job as a stepping stone will advance your career more than you may realize.