College-to-corporate shift brings new rules

Getting Started

Your Money

December 05, 2004|By CAROLYN BIGDA

THE MOMENTUM generated during four years of academic challenges sometimes comes to a grinding halt when you enter the corporate world.

Instead of working on stimulating projects that let you flex your intellectual muscles, you're an assistant whose primary interaction is with a copy machine and filing cabinet.

But don't fret too much. To advance in the corporate world, you have to play by its rules, which for many of us can be a difficult lesson.

"Every generation has had to deal with this," assures Jared Shapiro, co-author of Going Corporate: Moving Up Without Screwing Up (St. Martin's Press, $13), who started as an aspiring screenwriter in Los Angeles.

Though Shapiro's book covers the finer points of corporate behavior - from bathroom etiquette to holiday parties - a resounding theme in his advice is to network.

"The business world is more about building relationships than just putting your nose to the grindstone," says Alexandra Levit, who moved up the ladder in New York public relations firms and wrote They Don't Teach Corporate in College (Career Press, $15).

Unlike academia, where diligent studies earned you high rewards, "your promotability depends not on what you do, but who knows what you do," Levit writes.

The most obvious are the managers charged with your annual review - the gateway to promotion. If you don't feel comfortable bragging about yourself, a record of your responsibilities and goals can serve as a subtle billboard.

The record-keeping you'll have to do before and after your review helps you better manage your schedule, mixing routine duties with more substantive pursuits, such as reading industry journals or attending seminars.

You'll also be able to track progress toward short-term goals.

Undertaking challenges not specifically outlined in your job description will develop your skills and prove you're capable of the work.

But these goals should be reasonable. For instance, offer to take notes during a meeting that you normally schedule and build from there, Levit suggests. Setting goals too high may only increase your frustration if you don't succeed.

Also, don't worry if your ideas are not always accepted. One editor told me that during his first year of reporting at a major magazine, not one of his story ideas was approved.

Nonetheless, his enthusiasm and confidence were well-received. Managers understand that you are still learning.

Finally, pace yourself. Says Shapiro: "I left my first job too early because I didn't realize my boss wasn't ready to promote a 23-year-old past co-workers with 10 years of experience. I had to wait it out and put in my time."

On the flip side, Levit cautions that managers are sometimes reluctant to promote competent assistants if you've proved yourself too valuable. An assistantship should last no more than two years. Beyond that, you should consider switching jobs.

A more significant problem is when you lack the motivation to get promoted.

"Many young people get a job to get a job," says Marilyn Goldman, a career counselor in Rockville. "They have to go somewhere, live someplace and probably heard this is a nice company."

If you've got a case of the career blahs, a counselor can help you identify your interests and point out jobs in related fields. First check with your alma mater's career center for available services.

You can also find a certified counselor through the National Career Development Association's Web site ( A session generally will cost a few hundred dollars.

That investment could pay off substantially though, considering the alternatives: trekking miserably from one job to the next or, worse, enrolling in a pricey three-year law school simply by default.

E-mail Carolyn Bigda at

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