Voices: On Advice for New Professionals
The concept came to me late one night when I was on a brainstorming binge—a monthly feature of a relevant topic, ranging from periods to professional advice, interview-style. Not a novel concept, but the novelty lies in who's being interviewed.
My best girlfriends are some of the strongest, smartest, and most sensational women I know, and I was eager to pick their brains for this one. I pitched the concept to them the next morning and, unsurprisingly, each responded with a quick and resounding 'yes.' What was surprising was that even though these are the people who know me and who I know best in this world, I learned something new about them, our friendships, and me.
Their responses were so them that I could hear them as I read, and so I've decided to call this series Voices (which you can search through the tag as these posts accumulate). A special thanks to B, G, and L, the best friends that anyone could have. And thank you for reading! I hope you learn something, too.
introduce your professional self
L: My current position is an HR Associate (15 months). My prior experience includes HR Generalist for 2.5 years, Benefits & Compensation Administrator for 2 years, HR Intern for 6 months, and Executive Intern for 4 months.
G: I am a full-time backpacker and have been traveling for 11 months. I previously worked in finance in New York City.
B: I am a registered dietitian and a nutrition researcher. I’ve been working in the nutrition field for almost 6 years now, but after some time working in hospitals, I decided I wanted to work with people on everyday eating behaviors to improve their lifestyles. I started doing research on child nutrition and enjoyed it so much that I am now completing a PhD in the field.
how did you end up in your current field or position?
L: I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in Human Resources after taking an Intro to HR course the spring semester of my junior year. I didn't know at the time what exactly within HR I wanted to do, but I knew that the subject was broad enough where I would be able to make a career out of it one day.
G: Traveling the world was a longtime dream of mine and I decided to stop dreaming and focus on making it a goal. After a few years of saving up and getting my life in order, I quit my job to see the world.
B: I knew the moment I stepped onto a college campus that I wanted to improve and save lives through nutrition, so I worked my butt off to get there. Nutrition is essential to life. When my patients were unconscious and hooked up to tubes and machines, I provided the exact ratio of nutrients to help them fight through their ailments and keep their organs from shutting down. I helped them train their bodies to eat again after months living off tubes. After spending so much time treating the severely ill, I wanted to start reaching people before they even got to that point. So, I decided to become a researcher and study nutrition to find the best and most effective ways to help people. Research means constantly looking for the next best thing. Cutting edge stuff.
what did you study? what are your degree(s) or credentials?
L: I was a double major in psychology and human resource management as an undergrad, and went on to obtain my Master's in HRM shortly after I graduated. I worked full-time while attending classes part-time at night, so what would have taken others 1 year full-time to get their Master's took me 4. I took my time because I wanted to maintain work-life balance and take advantage of my employer's tuition assistance programs to pay for my graduate education.
G: I studied economics as an undergrad. I have over 5 years of work experience at a bank in location strategy, site selection, re-engineering, project management, and communications.
B: When I was an undergraduate, I studied nutritional sciences and psychology. I found it especially fascinating to connect food, health, and human behaviors—why people eat what they do, how they form eating habits. I also completed my registered dietitian credentials in clinical nutrition because I was interested in working closely with the medical field and wanted to learn even more about nutrition and counseling people to live healthier lifestyles.
what is the most interesting thing about your current field or position?
L: The most interesting thing about my field is how human resources has evolved over the last 20-30 years and how it continues to evolve to this day.
G: My work experience and skills are versatile, so I don't have to stick to one industry. I can do the same type of work for a range of companies in different industries.
B: To me, one of the most interesting things is getting to make your own discoveries. Research means that you get to be the first to find the answers, to solve the problems, to learn something that no one else has even heard of yet! It also means that there are no set guidelines to your daily tasks. Every day at work looks different for me depending on what I’m trying to accomplish. I also get to learn about things completely unrelated to nutrition, because good research requires you to include well-rounded work. Over the past few years I’ve had to teach myself how to build a website, how to use graphic design programs, about culture and family traditions from different countries, and even to practice different languages. It’s definitely a field that will keep you on your toes.
what is the least interesting thing about your current field or position?
G: When I was working, the hours could get a bit long, but at the same time, the work was mentally stimulating, so I didn't notice much.
B: Despite my love for the actual work, there's still this judgmental norm and to be honest, I don't really fit in at work. Most of my peers act as though we’re supposed to be stressed 24/7 with no time for fun and leisure. If you make it obvious that you aren’t fitting into that category, you sometimes get those sideways glares as if you aren’t working hard enough or something. But I've learned that if I manage my time during work hours, I can go home, see a movie, climb a cliff, or explore a new city. My co-workers definitely look at me funny. At first it was tough to get used to because I wanted to fit in and I wanted them to think I was as good as they are, until I realized that I am and I don't need to prove it by living life their way. This is still a social aspect of the field that I think really needs to change to provide a more positive working environment.
what is or has been your proudest or greatest accomplishment in your current field or position?
L: I am most proud of attaining my Master's degree while working full-time. It certainly wasn't easy, but I knew it would pay off in the long run.
G: My greatest achievement has been traveling the world solo for a year.
B: My area of research is very specific, and sometimes I wonder how much of a difference I’m really making. I had a very recent experience that made me feel like I am succeeding at making an impact. When I was traveling, I met a doctor from another country who also works with young children and underserved populations. We talked about work and the barriers and struggles that we each face. She told me about the families that she tries to help every day, about young kids who are suffering because of poor nutrition, leading to diseases and terrible financial situations for their families. She explained how her team doesn’t have the resources they need to treat the children they work with. I told her about my research and the tools that I’ve developed here in the US. She was so excited and asked when I was going to publish my work so that she could use them for her patients. Talking to her reminded me why my specific field of interest is so important. That there are so many people out there who I’m going to reach and help through what I do every day.
what is the most challenging part of your current field or position?
L: Data analytics seems to be a hot topic for the HR world. Many firms are battling the concept of Big Data and how to transform their already existing databases into predictive analytics.
G: For travel, it's saying goodbye to the amazing people I meet. I spent the last week getting to know, traveling, and making lifelong memories with a Finnish guy, a French guy, and an English girl—scuba diving, eating and drinking, dealing with a lady who sold us bad ferry tickets, almost getting stuck on an island. We went our separate ways yesterday and I'm going to miss them. For corporate America, NYC is fast-paced, and I was constantly working on grooming myself professionally for leadership roles. I was also constantly studying changing trends in banking and technology for my previous role.
B: One of the biggest struggles in research is failure. You need to learn to live with, and sometimes even love, failing. In order to always be doing good and cutting-edge research you need to come up with ideas that no one else has thought of or studied yet. That sometimes means coming up with something outrageous or unheard of. I think I fail at least once a week at something, whether my project idea gets rejected, someone tells me my research isn’t worth publishing, my study is ineffective, or no one wants to join my study. But I can’t let that get to me. I have to continue being just as motivated, maybe even more motivated, in order to achieve another success.
what is a common mistake or misunderstanding you see in your field?
L: A common misunderstanding is that people work in HR because they "enjoy working with people" or because they "are a people-person." Although this may be true, most HR professionals find the work to be rewarding because they can make an impact on the business and drive a strategic people agenda using the company's most valuable assets: its employees.
G: In banks: A common misunderstanding is that working at a bank is cutthroat. It's not! Every industry has those cutthroat positions, but a majority of roles at a bank are very pleasant to work in. Banks have been under a lot of scrutiny in recent years, which has led to them focusing more on diversity, professional training, integrity, etc. There are also many roles that don't require a finance or math-related degree. There are communications roles that look for people with strong writing skills, graphic design artists for the marketing team, techies to make banking more innovative, etc. In travel: The world is not as scary as it appears in the media. As a young solo female traveler, I have never felt uncomfortable or in danger in any of the countries I have been to. People are very nice and always willing to help. When you start traveling, you automatically start to hone your 'gut feeling' reading ability.
B: These days, there are so many people out there who call themselves nutritionists and try to counsel people on what to eat and how to be healthy. The problem is, nutrition is WAY more complicated than most people realize. I’ve studied nutrition for almost 10 years and I’m still learning new things. Yes, there are general guidelines from the government that anyone could look up online, but if you want or need individualized help, you really need to be careful where you go. Unless someone has really studied nutrition and specific health conditions, they wouldn’t know how different people’s bodies react or respond to different diets and foods, not to mention issues with allergies, food interactions, and medications that affect nutritional health. One thing that I always emphasize with my family and friends is: make sure they have credentials (RD, RDN, MS, PhD), otherwise, you are paying for the same information you’d get online, if not receiving potentially unhelpful information.
how do you maintain work-life balance?
L: I block off time in my work calendar to take lunch or go to the gym. I stay true to the time commitment I have made to myself because you need to be in good mental health to do your best work.
G: I set expectations at work. It is so important to communicate everything with your boss. I want to be able to grab drinks with friends after work, go to whatever fitness class I was into, and spend time with my family. Once my boss knows my expectations, I work with her or him to make my personal life expectations fit with my work expectations.
B: There is so much pressure to work harder, sacrifice your personal life. Of course, you need to be responsible to do your part in society and support yourself and your family in the future, but honestly what does that mean if you aren't living a happy and fulfilling life? I honestly find work life balance to be one of the most challenging things in adult life, but it’s something you need to work for. I always put in my full effort when I’m at work to make sure I’m efficient with my time in the office. I use a task-tracker on my phone, so whenever I’m doing a specific work task I will turn it on and log hours. This may sound silly at first, but it makes sure I don’t get distracted or side tracked. I’m guilty of taking work home with me, as many of us are, but I schedule me-time too. Literally, I’m not joking, it’s in my calendar. I treat my personal life with as much emphasis as I do with my career. I put everything in there from meetings, to work deadlines, to dinner dates, to gym time.
how do you manage professional relationships? have you had a colleague become a friend? how did you make that transition?
L: I am very friendly with all of my coworkers, but I am not friends with them. I do not friend them on Facebook during our employment together, but may occasionally friend them after. One of my close friends was a former colleague, but we made sure to be professional while interacting at work.
G: I like to maintain my professional relationships as strictly professional if I work with them directly. All relationships are rooted in some level of friendship, and I let our working environment determine how close I get. I do have a lot of colleague friends but it just happens that most of them worked in different parts of the company than I did.
B: Work relationships can be tricky sometimes. I feel like it usually takes longer to transition into the full friend status when it’s a colleague, mainly because it’s difficult to tell when you can be less professional. I’m actually friends with several coworkers of mine. Some became friends quickly and other friendships took years to develop. It really depends on how closely you work with the person and how you are expected to interact at work. The main way I’ve gotten to know my coworkers on a more personal level is through work-outings or events. We usually have a lunch or dinner every time we get new hires and I take advantage of that time not only to talk to the new employees, but also to connect with some of my coworkers outside of the office. After my first year here, I coordinated with some of my peers to create potluck events. This was the best way for us to bond since we all love food and we could be more casual outside of the office.
have you ever had a colleague or superior who was difficult to work with? how did you handle that situation?
L: Yes, and I typically don't say anything to anyone because I like to keep the peace, but there was one scenario when I provided some negative feedback to that person's manager. It was extremely nerve wracking, but it turned out the manager was receptive to this feedback and it wasn't their first time hearing about it.
G: I've had unreasonable bosses and very difficult senior colleagues. I have to be strategic in how I communicate with them and navigate their personalities. With some people, I have to be very direct and matter-of-fact, and with others, I have to be more conscious of their sensitivities. But at the end of the day, it's MOST important to maintain composure and be cordial.
B: I’ve definitely worked with some very difficult people over the years, and it is something that I think you can never really be good at. It will always cause stress or anxiety, but you have to take it one day at a time. I had one coworker that was a gossip and liked to cause drama. I even found myself being the focus of that gossip at times, which really got to me. I tried to remember that it isn’t a reflection on me, but on her at the end of the day. I just tried to keep things as short and on topic as possible every time we had to interact. It was still extremely frustrating to watch every little thing that I said or did around her, but it was the only way for me to prevent any more drama at work. For the most part, this worked out well. It still doesn’t make difficult people any more enjoyable to work with though.
how do you manage relationships (family, friend, romantic) while working full-time?
L: Again, I am a big scheduler and I keep everything in my Google calendar. There are times when work consumes my entire life and for weeks and months at a time, but when it's a slow season at work, I make sure to plan friends and family time. I would also encourage planning small vacations with friends and family so it gives you something to look forward to when work gets crazy.
G: When I was working, I made an effort to FaceTime with friends and family every day. Now that I travel, I still maintain this practice. I'll catch up with friends at least once a week, and I talk to family every day. In the age of technology, WhatsApp, Skype, and FaceTime make it easy to stay in touch.
B: This is quite a challenge, but it goes hand-in-hand with the work-life balance. I’m still trying to figure it out as I go. I do feel like there is never enough time to coordinate between work, my family, friends, and my romantic life, particularly because my family, many of my friends, and my significant other all live in different states than I do. Whenever I have a long weekend, vacation days, or a holiday, I try to spread them out among all my loved ones. Since I have a lot of long-distance relationships in my life, we often make trips out of our visits. Sometimes we meet somewhere in between for a weekend. It’s nice because it gives us time to explore new places and it feels like a little getaway. And I’ve learned a lot about traveling on a budget! It takes a lot of planning ahead and coordinating schedules, which can give me a headache at times, but it’s so worth it.
how did you manage money at the start of your career?
L: I budget my money by categories using an app that aggregates my financial information and revisit my budgets on a bi-monthly basis. I found myself to be eating out 8 meals/week on average, so I set a goal to eat out only 4 meals/week, which saves a ton. After graduating undergrad, my boyfriend and I looked for apartments that were close to work and super cheap. We didn't care about the amenities or frills, rather, we just wanted the cheapest rent. Also, we asked our family members for furniture they didn't want to start our first apartment together.
G: I was very bad at managing my money when I started working. I was constantly going out with friends, renting an apartment, and paying the minimum on my loans. Over time, I got a lot better at managing my finances. Today, I use the Mint app to manage my money.
B: The start of my career was a pretty rough time for me financially. I worked a full-time job (which I was very happy to get straight out of my program) and on top of that, worked a per-diem job on the weekends. I admit, I was a bit of a workaholic with 6 days a week, but that was what I needed to do to get comfortably on my own two feet. I wouldn’t recommend this for a long-term solution, but I actually really enjoyed my per-diem job. I chose something that was low-stress and not necessarily related to my career, but just to put a little extra money in my pocket to help me start my adult life. I was able to support myself in a cozy one-bedroom apartment. Not an exciting location, but hey, I had a place to call my own. I also started a savings account ASAP. I made sure I put some money in there every month, even if it was just a little bit. I’m so glad that I did that! It made me feel much more comfortable and secure to know that I was creating something that I could fall back on if something went wrong early on in my career.
what three things would you focus on when searching for or starting a job in your field?
L: I would ask myself these three questions when searching for a new job: 1. Am I able to maintain a healthy work-life balance in this role? 2. Do I see myself here for 3 or more years, where I can continuously be challenged and grow? 3. Will I be passionate about this job? If I can answer "yes" to any of these questions, I would say that that job is worth exploring.
G: Fit: Does a company have a culture I can fit into? Working Dynamic: What is the team like? It is a collaborative team or more of a dictatorship? Networking: Get on LinkedIn and start contacting people in roles that interest you. Get firsthand knowledge on how to prepare yourself for the job.
B: Interests. As adults, we spend such a huge portion of our lives working, so we better enjoy it. I also think it’s important to find something that challenges you. I personally get bored easily, so I need a job that makes me think and allows me to learn and try new things. Environment. Work environment and atmosphere are things that I’ve learned to be a priority for me. I also think it’s important for your work environment and mentality to mesh well with your lifestyle. For example, if holidays are a big deal for your family, work somewhere that also prioritizes holiday time. Otherwise, it’s a constant struggle between work and your personal lifestyle. Long-term goals. Even if you are just starting out, you want to make sure that what you start has the potential to lead to what you want. If there’s no light at the end of that tunnel, maybe it’s better to find another tunnel. It doesn’t have to directly lead to your end-goal. Most people don’t stay at the same job or company forever. But it should be a step to getting you there, whether it’s improving a certain skill, or helping you gain specific experiences.
is there anything you would have done differently in searching for a career or at the start of your career in retrospect?
L: No. Everything happens for a reason. Every job I have had has served its own purpose in shaping my career and me as a person.
B: I think that it’s really hard to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re 18 years old. I went into my first career because it’s what I decided to do when I got to college. It turned out not to be the right fit for me. I wish that after I finished school, I actually took some time to think about what I really wanted to do professionally instead of just taking the first job that fit my degree and experience and what I had been planning for. I’m glad that I did figure it out, and now I’m pursuing a new career. It would have saved me a few years if I really thought this through though and realized I didn’t have to do what I thought I was supposed to with my degree.
where do you see yourself in the next two to five years?
L: Hopefully at the same firm still within HR, but one level higher. Would also love to have purchased a home and had my first child within the next 5 years!
G: I would like to start my own business, but not sure in what yet.
B: I don’t know where I’ll be physically, but I’m okay with that because I could be happy in almost any geographical location. I’m just hoping that in 2-5 years I am a doctor, doing research that I love, in a great work environment with other people who are passionate about their work. I want to be making a difference in my field. I want to continue making new discoveries and sharing knowledge with the world.
what is the worst professional advice you've received? what's the best?
L: The worst advice I ever received was to take the job that nobody wants. I understand where my colleague was going with this: don't discount any opportunity because it may be something great for your career. But if it's a job nobody wants, including yourself, there is no point in investing your time or energy in it. The best advice is something along the lines of being patient, having perseverance, and not giving up too quickly. No one ever told me that, but I would like others to know!
G: Worst: You should passively mention that your raise was too small. WHAT? No, I walked into my boss's office, directly asked for a specific raise, and got it. Best: It can be difficult to figure out what you want to do, so first figure out what you don't want to do and be open to everything else.
B: The worst advice was actually something I’ve heard a lot. When you disagree with things at work or with your boss, people often tell you to just keep your head down, get through it, just do what you’re told. Worst advice ever. I’m not saying to start a fight or be dramatic and outrageous at work, but speak up. When I see that something being done inefficiently, I get frustrated. To me it’s a waste of time, energy, money, etc. So I’m not just going to sit through and do it that way. I’m going to say something, make a suggestion, explain my point. It doesn’t always work, but at times it has. And I think everyone is more grateful for it. It you bring it up respectfully and professionally, the worst that can happen is your boss says no. The best advice I’ve heard is to not be afraid of failure. I think the biggest thing that will hold you back in your career is to be afraid of being rejected or getting something wrong. But if you don’t do anything worth failing at, you’re not doing much. I have to thank my dad for this one. He’s always instilled that mindset in me. The only thing you can truly fail at is not trying.
what advice would you give to your past self (at the start of your career)?
L: I would tell my past self to save more at the start of my career and to shop smarter by looking for sales and discounts. Although my income was maybe half of what I am currently making and it was a challenge to just make rent, I wish I had saved even $20 a month. Thankfully, I feel like I have since made up for 3-5 years of barely saving by saving more aggressively and diversifying my savings portfolio.
G: Learn to say no to your boss and set clear and direct work expectations.
B: I would tell past me…to slow down. I still need to tell myself that. Be patient. You can’t just start at the end, that’s why they call it the beginning. I tend to live in the future, always planning, thinking about the long-term, what I want for the end-goal. But you have to work your way there. Start enjoying the journey of getting to that goal, instead of wanting to jump to the end. I still have to learn to be in the moment, enjoy what I do in the day-to-day, because every little thing is what will build up into my dream career.
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