Advice to new graduates: How to survive Corporate America

Welcome Mr and/or Ms College Graduate!

You have finished college and are ready to enter the workforce. You are going to hear a lot of unsolicited advice and clichés like “youth is wasted on the young” and “only 40 years until you can retire” and “keep your nose to the grindstone.” Some of it is good advice and some of it is Lost in the Translation. You don’t know what it really means until you experience the Life-Suck that is Corporate America. What I’m going to tell you hopefully separates the cream from the crap.

My advice is going to focus on Corporate America and not so much on its cousins Academic or Legal America. Those institutions are a little different in terms of infrastructure, governance and culture, but we all face a lot of the same challenges at any job. You’re always gonna have a boss demanding thing of you, or a co-worker who drops the ball on a project or the Office Admin who won’t give you the resources you need.


Now let’s assume you’ve already landed that first post-college Real Job. Let’s also assume it’s a typical entry-level job at some typical company where they make something the general public consumes but you work in the Corporate Headquarters so you have no idea how that widget is actually built or what it truly does. This is about 80% of the jobs in Corporate America. Presumably, you are in a field of work that is somewhat in line with whatever you majored in at college. If you are an archaeology major biding your time until a curator croaks at your local museum then you have a bigger problem to solve.

So you’ve probably watched The Office, read or at least heard of Dilbert and watched Office Space enough to recite every line backward in your sleep. Corporate America exactly like that…at times. After all, where do you think Scott Adams, et al got their ideas. There are countless WTF moments in Corporate America. But mostly, Corporate America is boring. It’s a lot of shuffling of paper (electronic and real) that doesn’t amount to anything. And unlike college where you studied for an exam and then moved on to the next course, Corporate America is a lot more like Groundhog Day in that you repeat the same things over and over again. Only the font changes.

The first thing everyone tells you is You have to Pay Your Dues. What does that really F-ing mean?

This conceptualization has been around since the dawn of time. The Classic Icon being someone fetching coffee and picking up dry cleaning. This term comes from the literal phrase for “paying one’s dues” such as union members or other literal memberships were and is now used in the more figurative sense of putting in a lot of time doing nothing important before you get to do anything Significant.

What it really means:

You are going to do a lot of meaningless, mind-numbingly boring, and perhaps even pointless things for a long time. When you’re just out of college, it’s easy to get a big head about what you can do in the workplace. Unfortunately, in Corporate America, everyone does a lot of meaningless, mind-numbingly boring, and perhaps even pointless things for a long time before being given any real responsibility. Some really good resources on paying your dues can be found here and here.

Here’s the thing to always remember. You are not working on Cold Fusion, World Hunger, or the Cure for Cancer. Therefore anything you are working on isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. It is however important to the person who is signing your check. And they don’t want to take the chance on an unknown newbie like you screwing it up because it costs money to fix. If someone has to stop what they are doing to fix your mistake then they aren’t working on what they need to be doing. That’s why in the beginning you are only given tasks that wouldn’t make a big difference if you did botch them up. Just don’t botch them up because otherwise, you’ll never get more substantive work.

You should expect to have to pay your dues. You shouldn’t have to expect to pay those dues until the second coming. If you’re not learning anything or advancing, it’s time to look at yourself and figure out what actually sucks: the job or you. If after a reasonable amount of time — your first review or one year, whichever comes first — you have not been given any “substantive assignments” it’s time to re-evaluate the situation. It’s possible your position is a Sinecure, many entry-level jobs are. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you look it up.

Sinecure –an office or position that requires little or no work and that usually provides an income

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It will allow you to log some time in the workforce and hopefully build your experience and KSAs and bide your time until you figure out what you really want to do when you grow up. Oh, you noticed that term KSA: Knowledge, Skills, and Ability.  All I want to say about KSA is that YOU are responsible for your KSA development. You might get lucky and work for a company that has good in-house training and continuous education initiative take advantage of it.  If your company doesn’t offer this, it is up to you to seek it out on your own time.  Your future depends on it.

Good luck and remember, only 40 years or so until you can retire!


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