7 Tips for Surviving Your First Professional Job

You did it! You made it to graduation and landed a full-time professional job. All your years of hard work have finally paid off. You might feel like taking a moment to catch your breath, rest on your laurels, and enjoy your accomplishments. That’s entirely understandable. But a new chapter has already begun. Now you’re at the very beginning of a whole new learning curve.

“In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

— Oscar Wilde

It turns out that achieving your goals can be pretty damn stressful. If you find yourself suddenly understanding what Oscar Wilde meant, use these strategies to survive–and even thrive–in your first professional job.

1. Fake it til you make it. In taking on this new role, there’s a good chance you feel like a total impostor. You may feel out of your depth, paranoid about your performance, like you don’t deserve your success, or even wondering whether you’ve somehow stumbled into someone else’s life.

There’s some good news, though: this feeling is totally normal. Many people feel like a phony in their first “serious” job. Women, people of color, and first-generation graduates may be especially likely to feel out of place. Connecting with others who’ve felt the same way can help. It’s also a good idea to review your successes and remind yourself that you do, in fact, deserve to be here. And sometimes, you just have to keep showing up and doing your best to fill these new shoes. With time, you’ll adjust, and you’ll learn to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

If you find yourself feeling a lot of anxiety or obsessing over the possibility of failure, consider getting some mental health support to ease the transition.

2. Ask for feedback–and put it into action. When you’re brand new at something, there’s a lot to pick up, and you don’t know what you don’t know. To help you learn the ropes and to ease your performance anxiety, solicit feedback early and often. You’ll definitely want to check in regularly with your supervisor to see how you’re doing and how you can improve. But talking to the boss can be pretty stressful–you don’t want to bug them, and you may not feel free to talk about what’s really on your mind. So also consider asking for feedback from more experienced peers.

A coworker who’s been at the organization for longer, and who seems to be in good standing and have a solid grasp of the job, can be a great source of information, feedback and advice. And it’s a little more low-pressure than talking to the higher-ups. (Just be sure you choose someone who’s in the boss’ good graces, not somebody who’s one strike away from getting the boot.)

As you get feedback from your supervisor and coworkers, it’s important to put it into practice. Do your best to incorporate new information and advice, and once you’ve had a chance to implement suggestions, check back in to see how you’re doing. Lather, rinse, repeat.

3. Embrace your new schedule. Maybe you’ve been working hours much like your current schedule for years. But if you’re like a lot of recent college graduates, you may have spent the better part of the last 4+ years staying up til 2 in the morning and sleeping in til 10. Suddenly switching to an 8-to-5 schedule can feel like permanent jet lag. Or, you may find yourself working 10, 12 or even 24 hour shifts that tax your mind, body and soul.

Whatever the situation, it’s important to embrace the new demands on your time. Avoid the temptation to try to function on your old sleep schedule. You may need to go to bed much earlier or build in time to recover from long days. You’ll also find that you need to change your approach to chores and errands, spending time with friends and family, and finding space in your schedule for hobbies and exercise. On that note…

4. Look after your health. If you’re overwhelmed, you may find you just can’t keep up with your usual standards of self-care. You may sleep less, exercise irregularly, or start eating less healthy food. That’s okay–there’s bound to be some bumps in the road as you adjust to this big change. Don’t beat yourself up about it. But, as you are able, do attend to your health and wellness. You need your strength and energy to take on this challenge, and stress management is more important than ever. The simple things–like sleeping enough, eating well, and getting some exercise–can make all the difference in how you feel.

5. Beware lifestyle inflation. After years of having a bank account balance in the single digits, it can be really exhilarating to suddenly draw a larger paycheck. It’s a huge accomplishment! If you do find yourself with more money, it’s good to enjoy it, perhaps making a purchase you’ve been delaying until you could afford it. But, be careful not to let your spending balloon to eat up all the gains in your earnings.

If you respond to earning more by spending more in direct proportion, you never really have any more money–you just have a more expensive lifestyle. It may well be worthwhile to make some lifestyle gains over your college student days. But think carefully about what really matters to you, and let those priorities inform your spending decisions. Don’t uncritically spend more just because you make more. Set something aside for the future.

6. Find comradery. Starting your first professional job can be a lonely experience. You may feel like the only one at work who’s clueless. Meanwhile, your friends may be juggling entirely differently challenges and responsibilities.

Growing up, we tend to proceed with our peers at around the same pace–for example, learning to drive or finishing high school around the same time. But in adulthood, we may not even be going through the same milestones at all, let alone within a year or two of our old friends. Major grown-up experiences like going to college, moving away from home, getting married or having kids can all happen in just about any order, in any combination, at any of a huge range of ages–we’re talking multiple decades here–or not at all. And all of those paths are totally normal and valuable.

Whatever experience you’re having, make sure you have some friends in your life who are having it, too. It’s always good to stay in touch with old friends, even as our lives change and our paths sometimes diverge. But it’s also important to make new friends who can really relate to what you’re going through now. Together, you can vent, brainstorm, share advice and support, and, of course, just have fun.

7. Give it time. Getting a professional job is a lot of pressure, and it can be a big adjustment. If you do find yourself feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, it can be tough to sort out the growing pains from a real mismatch with the company or job. It’s a good idea to stick with the job for a set chunk of time–I’d suggest one year–before you really evaluate whether it’s a fit. You want to get over the worst squeeze of the learning curve, so that you can see clearly what you like and dislike about the position.

While you’re still learning the ropes, you might be a little miserable even in a job that you’ll actually love once you really get the hang of it. So stick it out for awhile and find your footing before you consider making a change. Even if you ultimately decide this position isn’t for you, you will have gained valuable skills and experience through your persistence.

On the other hand, it’s also important to be a good custodian of your own wellbeing. Don’t torture yourself. If you find yourself feeling unhappy week in and week out, consider seeking mental health support.


Sometimes, “good things” can be every bit as stressful as “bad things.” Getting a job is no different. Be patient and take good care of yourself as you adjust. And if you realize you’re in the wrong line of work, come see us at Career Services.

Shalom Leo Bond
Career Development Facilitator
UNM Career Services