10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Career

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Members of the EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Advisory Council (YPAC) reflect on lessons learned earlier in their careers and offer advice in a letter to young professionals.

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Credit: leolintang / Shutterstock © 2018

The EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Advisory Council (YPAC) advises the EDUCAUSE president/CEO and is made up of younger professionals and emerging leaders in the EDUCAUSE community. The perspectives and priorities of younger professionals are crucial to the future of EDUCAUSE. This council provides an opportunity to give voice to this key demographic, helping EDUCAUSE become an ever more balanced, inclusive, and responsive association. The council invites the EDUCAUSE young professional community to engage in the discussion through the Young Professionals Constituent Group.

Dear Young Professional,

During this time of year, many of us are reflecting on the past and looking to the future. As we look back to earlier stages in our careers, several of us can remember times when we thought that we were not experienced or skilled enough for a role or project. We still often have those moments; it may be that the feeling never really goes away. It is likely that the people we view as "experts" or "leaders" still sometimes feel uncomfortable doing something new or taking a risk. Being uncomfortable can be a good indicator that you are learning and growing!

This sounds contradictory, but understanding that discomfort is natural in the career development process may help you become more comfortable in actively identifying opportunities and taking risks. Success often doesn't come without a few mistakes along the way, so don't worry if you trip here or there. If you see an opportunity, dive in. Even when it may not be an exact fit. Careers often do not climb a single ladder. They turn left, then right. They jump across organizations to other "ladders" and even create paths that are entirely new.

To help guide you in this journey, we have distilled some of our lessons learned.

  1. Network. It's not just you — everybody cringes at this word. At larger meetings, at conferences, or even on the train, don't be afraid to introduce yourself. You are never too early in your career to offer knowledge to somebody else. Jump in and introduce yourself. It gets easier. "What's keeping you busy these days?" is a go-to ice breaker. You can learn a lot about some interesting projects! —Jackie Milhans
  2. Follow your personal vision. Have a plan and personal vision, even if it changes. Have an authentic answer someone asks you where you see yourself long term. It is OK if your plans and personal vision change, but the process of constructing a plan and articulating what you see in your future yields the benefits of thinking through the steps of how to get somewhere. It is also acts as a reference when things change or new opportunities come your way. Ask yourself if it fits with the plan. If so, is it what you really want? If not, should you change the plan? —Kevin Duvall
  3. Ask for help. If starting your first management opportunity, don't be afraid to ask for help or specifically for management training. Find a mentor or coach to help provide support and act as an unbiased sounding board and resource. Consider a personal reflection exercise of writing out your personal leadership philosophy, so that you can better communicate your values, management style, and leadership style. Don't make assumptions about what your manager or your direct reports know or understand; ask what was heard in your communication with your team and ask for clarification of expectations from your manager. —Orlando Leon
  4. Listen for leadership. Early on in my career I thought I was too quiet to be a good leader. I wasn't the one at the table who was always talking, and I didn't have all the answers. What I have come to realize is that expressing good, well-thought-out ideas gains more respect than just talking for the sake of talking. Also, it's OK to not have all the answers — no one does! A good leader is one who listens, learns, and then leads. —Nicole Weber
  5. Trust your gut. Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and jump into an opportunity you feel utterly unqualified for. Other times you serve yourself better by taking a breath and waiting a while in a role that makes you happy and brings quiet growth. Only you have the wisdom to decide the best route for you. Trust your gut. No one's path in higher education is a straight climb with expected step intervals. It is often slow and flat until it's not, and you may need to jump across ladders when the time is right. Don't judge your career progression by someone else's. Hone your instincts, grow as much as possible, and be prepared for a journey full of twists and turns. —Shauna'h Fuegen
  6. Hire your boss. Who you work for and report to matters so much to your overall productivity, contributions, growth, success, and happiness. In addition to researching the organization and the team you will be joining, take the time to research your immediate supervisor, as that person has the potential to greatly influence your time at work (and perhaps even outside of it). As they say, people don't leave organizations, people leave their managers. —Milos Topic
  7. Cultivate relationships. Remember the adage "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." It doesn't matter how smart you are if nobody listens to you or follows your lead. If you want to be the most effective change agent and leader, you must care about the people you are working with. —Ryan Bass
  8. Perception is reality. One of my most profound realizations stemmed from my earlier years as a dancer: life's a stage where you are always performing and there is always an audience. In every aspect of life, your words, actions, and self-presentation create a perception. In every interaction you're establishing your "brand," so be intentional about it! (1) Develop your story: What are your values? What do you want to be known/recognized for? How do you want to make others feel? (2) Do a #realitycheck regularly: Are you living up to your own expectations? Do others view you the way you expect? (3) Be imperfect: Fail gracefully — acknowledge mistakes, accept responsibility, and, most importantly, walk away with wisdom from your less successful experiences. Life is your stage, so own your performance and captivate your audience! —Tina Pappas
  9. Embrace fear. Do not let fear paralyze you. Most of your regrets in life will be the result of conceding to fear (fear of failure, rejection, looking dumb, etc.). While fear is natural — believe me, everyone experiences it — you must learn to embrace it and be willing to be uncomfortable at times. Reach out to a peer or leader about a mentorship, speak up about a different approach or idea in meetings, push yourself to write an article or present at a conference…continually expand your comfort zone. You have something special to bring to the table, but the world will never know if you let fear keep you hidden in the shadows! —Jonathan B. Hardy
  10. Lead from where you are. You do not need a fancy title or 20+ years of experience to lead people. As Sheryl Sandberg notes, "Leadership belongs to those who take it." Leaders are passionate, influential, and actively listen to those around them. Too often I see my colleagues afraid to take the lead on something because they believe that leadership is reserved for those in senior positions. I know this not to be true. I encourage other young professionals to lean in, take the initiative, and lead from where they are. —Kelsey Lunsmann

To close, remember to stay engaged and stay involved. Don't be afraid to jump in or to make mistakes. This is your arena too. And remember, if the opportunity you want doesn't exist, create it. So, let's get moving! We are here if you need help along the way. Engage with us through the Young Professionals Constituent Group.


The EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Advisory Council


We'd like to thank the following members of the EDUCAUSE Young Professionals Advisory Council who contributed to this article.

  • Orlando Leon, Chief Information Officer, California State University, Fresno
  • Nicole Weber, Director of Learning Technology, University of Wisconsin–Whitewater
  • Shauna'h Fuegen, Senior Academic Technology Consultant, Bates College
  • Milos Topic, Vice President and CIO, Saint Peter's University
  • Ryan Bass, Associate CIO, Technology Infrastructure, Portland State University
  • Tina Pappas, Assistant Director, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
  • Jonathan B. Hardy, IT Director, University of Georgia
  • Kelsey Lunsmann, IT Service Management Process Manager, University of Oregon

Jackie Milhans is Manager of Computing and Data Support Services at Northwestern University.

Kevin Duvall is Senior Technology Analyst at University of Virginia.

© 2018 Jackie Milhans and Kevin Duvall. This work is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.