3 Must-Haves to Go from First Job to Dream Job

Leaders rarely start in the perfect job, but they follow these steps early in their careers to eventually land the ideal role, says Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry and author of  Lose the Resume, Land the Job.

For the approximately 2 million college undergrads entering the workforce this year, my number one advice is to look ahead -- but not too far.

Yes, you need to get a job, which given the 4% unemployment rate will be far easier for you than it was graduating classes a decade ago. But if you try to plan out your entire career from day one, you’ll quickly become frustrated and discouraged.

While a meaningful career of purpose  and passion is the ideal goal, it’s unrealistic to expect that to happen with a first job. Even if you’re lucky enough to have an encouraging boss, great colleagues, and career-building experiences right from the start, you probably won’t start out where you end up. Even if you stay with the same company for your entire career, there will be a gap from your first job to your dream job.

My advice for college graduates comes not only as the CEO of a firm that places professionals in a new role every three minutes, but also as a dad. My daughter wanted to move to another state after she graduated from college and landed a job with a marketing agency there (thanks to a sorority sister contact). After six months, she wanted to move back to California and tapped a broader network of professionals for advice on targeting opportunities. She landed another marketing position, in which she developed digital marketing expertise. Only at this point did she have a real idea of her passion, which was brand strategy. Thanks to an introduction made by her second employer (yes, that really happens sometimes), she landed a position she truly loves and is passionate about--her third job in four years.

Moral of the story: Don't think you can see the finish line from here. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Shortening your time horizon to between 12 and 18 months for your first job accomplishes three key things. 

You can’t start at the destination. 

Finding your passion and purpose is a journey. In the beginning, when pay probably takes precedence over passion (those college loans are coming due), your priority is to find a decent job. But don’t expect it to be perfect. Learn all you can (especially about yourself), gain some experience, find out what you like and dislike, and move to the next opportunity (it’s easier to get a job when you have a job). Consider this: millennials are changing jobs four times in the first decade after graduation. Some initial job hopping is acceptable–and even expected.

You don’t know what you don’t know—so don’t think that you do. 

Graduates might think a job is perfect or a particular field is their real calling. They’re sure that this is what they’re meant to do! But how can you know when you haven’t tried something before? And face it, when you’re just starting out you may not have a real sense of purpose. Engage in the discovery process to find out what makes you happy, which could take a few years. Don’t expect to know everything—you’re still learning.

It’s supposed to be ambiguous. 

College academics build on a process: economics 101 to economics 201, algebra to calculus, and so forth. Life doesn’t follow that same track. Most people try out a few different roles early in their careers; they start off in sales, but discover they really like marketing. That can make an early career path seem ambiguous. There is an added benefit: learning how to deal with such ambiguity. In fact, having a tolerance for ambiguity (finding a way forward when things are unclear) is considered a career-building skill. So, what might look like career zig-zagging can work to your benefit if you are adaptable and have an open mind.

Be realistic! Along the way, and especially at the beginning, there will be jobs that you like more than others and some that might be disappointing (you’re not doing anything remotely close to what you had imagined). Such is the nature of a first job, which might be the price of entry to a great employer where you can spend your career.

Any job is a good job if:

  • Your boss is not a jerk.
  • The culture fits your personality.
  • You wake up ready to go in the morning (preferably without the alarm clock or at least without hitting “snooze” twice in a row).
  • You are learning.

The last point is the most important. The only way to bridge the gap from your first job to your dream job is by learning all you can about a particular industry, company, and role—and especially about yourself.


A version of this article ran on Forbes.com.