How to Be Successful in Your Career

Four Methods:Excelling at WorkLooking for a MentorPlotting your Long-Term StrategyFinding Another Job

After you’ve received the schooling and training you need for your chosen career, it’s time to enter the workforce. As you work up from entry-level jobs, there are some strategies that can work well for people in any profession as they strive to excel in their chosen field. From documenting your work to finding a mentor, asking for suggestions from your boss to making a long-term plan, being successful in your career is possible for anyone.

Method 1
Excelling at Work

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    Learn your job. Any new job requires a training and adjustment period. Ask as many questions as you need to in order to really understand what you’re doing and what is expected of you. If possible, talk to the person who did your job before and ask for suggestions. Take notes if it’s difficult to keep everything straight. Figure out how your co-workers’ jobs fit into the company so that you know who to ask about what.
    • Does your job change based on the time of year? If so, figure out how it’s going to change before it gets crazy.
    • What are the specific duties of your job, and are they written down? If so, it can be useful to refer back to what is required of you as you’re getting a handle on what your work entails. If they aren’t written down already, write them down yourself.
    • Who do you report to? Do you go through the same person each time?
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    Make good habits. Start off well and show your boss and co-workers that you are a good and reliable worker. Show that you are invested in your work and work well as part of a team.[1]
    • Be punctual -- both arriving at work and hitting deadlines
    • Complete your tasks so that others can complete theirs -- it’s not just about you
    • Listen respectfully to co-workers and your boss
    • Be professional -- keep your personal and work life separate
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    Ask for suggestions. Tell your boss and co-workers that you are serious about this career and want their help to be successful. Ask for helpful suggestions about your work so that you can improve. Even if not all of the advice you get from your boss and co-workers is good, some of it will be, and people usually appreciate being asked for help.
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    Present solutions, not just problems. All of us need help at work at different times, and it often turns out that you go to your co-workers and bosses with problems, not solutions. Rather than just ask for help, think through possible answers to your problem, and present them as well.[2]
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    Take initiative. Identify tasks and skills you want to acquire to move further in your career. Talk to your boss and co-workers about ways to help you gain new work experiences that can help you. Think about ways you could work with other departments or groups to gain new experiences and work with new people.[3]
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    Document your work. Make sure you keep track of the work you do, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Every 3-6 months, write a few paragraphs about what you have achieved in that time, and include any numerical data about your work -- number of accounts secured, amount of money in grant funding, etc. Even though it won’t appear in this form on your resume, it’s a good way to track your progress. It can also be a great point of discussion for you and your mentor.[4]
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    Assess your work. Are you doing well and feeling fulfilled at your job? If not, what could change so that you would feel that way? Is the work easy or challenging? Think about whether this is a job that you are willing to stay in long-term, or if you feel like starting a new job search immediately. Sometimes it’s worth sticking with a job so that you can show you followed through with a long-term project, for example, even if it’s not fulfilling to you, realizing that it’s important to learn how a project comes to fruition. On the other hand, if you are unfulfilled, poorly compensated, and with no possibility for advancement, you probably should start looking for a new job as soon as possible.

Method 2
Looking for a Mentor

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    Identify people in your field you admire. Think of 4 or 5 people -- it’s possible that some will be unable or unwilling to act as a mentor for you. If you don’t have some kind of relationship with each person, initiate contact. Ask to become part of their network, email them with some kind words about their work, or ask a mutual friend to introduce you. Establish some kind of relationship with each person.
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    Be clear about what you want. Do you want someone with whom to discuss both life and personal choices? This would necessarily be different than a person with whom you have a specifically professional relationship. What kinds of information do you want to discuss with your mentor, and what kinds of advice do you think you need? You need to be sure you know what exactly you want before pursuing a mentor.[5]
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    Ask for advice. To see which person might be the best mentor, ask all of them a work-related question and see their response. Did they give good advice in a way that made sense to you? Did they perhaps not even respond? How the possible mentor responded can tell you a lot about their suitability. If they didn’t even respond, chances are they would not be a good mentor.[6]
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    Identify your first choice person. Figure out which of the people you think would be the best fit for you. He or she might not be the one at the highest point in their career, but instead someone you could see having a close working relationship with.
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    Talk to your potential mentor. Tell him or her the kind of skills or advice you are hoping to gain from him or her. Realize that he or she might be too busy to take you on in a mentee relationship, so have a gracious response ready for that scenario. If your first choice is unavailable, move to the next person on the list and ask again. If the person is local, meet face to face to ask if he or she will be your mentor. If you have a long-distance email relationship with the person, write a formal email to ask. Some possible approaches might be:[7]
    • Dear Ms. X, I have admired your work since I first saw your “Bingo!” campaign and realized I wanted to work in advertising. I am currently working at ZVT but hope someday to own my own agency as you do. I am looking for career advice and wondered if you would be open to giving me advice occasionally as a business mentor. I realize that you have a busy career, but I hope you will consider my offer.
    • Dear Mr. J, As a fellow alum of the Wharton School, I have been impressed by stories about your business acumen for years. I’ve recently moved to the Bay Area and am looking for career advice in your field. Would you be open to getting drinks with me one night and answering some of my questions? I know that you are a very busy man with many other colleagues wanting your advice and mentorship, but I hope that we can find a time to meet.

Method 3
Plotting your Long-Term Strategy

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    Make a plan. You can start with where you want to be in the next year or few years, and then craft a plan for your career as a whole. You might consider some of the following questions when working up your plan:[8]
    • What is your passion, and does your current job feed it?
    • Does your current lifestyle and job make you happy, or do you find yourself wanting something different?
    • What does success look like to you?
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    Identify your next career move. Since you’re building your career, where do you want to go? You’ll need to determine if you want to stay at the same institution or company, or if you will need to find somewhere else. Decide what kind of change you want to make -- a lateral move at a bigger company, a move up at a similar company, a switch to nonprofits -- whatever it is, start doing research. How often do the kinds of jobs you want come up? This can often be key in planning a next move, if the kind of job you want is rare. When one comes up, you will need to pursue it strongly.
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    Discuss your career with your mentor and family. Figuring out how you want your career to turn out on your own is one thing, but a mentor and your own family can often have different perspectives. Talk to others to see how feasible others see your ideas.

Method 4
Finding Another Job

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    Network with your contacts. If you’ve decided to move on from your current job, reach out to friends and colleagues in similar positions elsewhere. Let them know what you’ve been doing. If you are close, confide that you are considering making a job change and are starting to look for other work, in case they have any ideas.
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    Do informational interviews if you’re looking for a different kind of position. Sometimes the job we think we want isn’t actually the job we do want. Informational interviews with people who have already had success in your chosen career can be very helpful in steering you toward jobs and giving real-world advice. Prepare yourself well for an informational interview -- there might be opportunities at some point at your interviewee’s workplace, and you want to make a good impression. Know about the company and the person’s position within it. Some questions you might want to ask in an informational interview include:[9]
    • How did you get your job?
    • What is a typical day like?
    • What do you wish you had known when starting out in this career?
    • Would you still choose this job if you were starting over?
    • What are the most rewarding and least rewarding parts of your job?
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    Start early. Finding a job can takes months of applications and planning. Look at a variety of job sites in your area to be sure that you see all of the possible openings in your chosen field. In addition to general job websites, see if there are profession-specific sites that will apply to you more narrowly.
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    Prepare a strong job application or resume. Make sure you are clear on what they are asking for and explain how you are well-qualified for the position. Even if you don’t get the job, you might be working with the people at the company to which you applied at some point in the future, and you want to show your professionalism.[10]
    • Have someone else read and proofread your application documents. A second pair of eyes will help to identify any mistakes you may have made.
    • Focus on quality over quantity by focusing on specific jobs for which you are qualified and submitting exactly the information in the format they want.
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    Practice interviewing. Most jobs will require some kind of interview -- from a 15-minute chat to multiple days of interviews and events. Be sure you know what kind of interview you will be attending and start preparing yourself.[11]
    • Do research on the company or institution at which you’ll be interviewing. You want to be prepared for their questions about how you will fit there, and have your own questions for them.
    • Make a list of possible questions and have a friend do a mock interview with you. If it doesn’t go well, do it again.
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    Consider your job offer. You might receive multiple offers, or you might wait a long time for just one. Regardless of your situation, you need to decide what you are willing to accept in terms of compensation, benefits (or lack thereof), room to move up within the same company, etc. No job is perfect, and few of us stay in our first jobs for the rest of our lives. Think about whether the job you are considering is right for your career path, or if you want to stay where you are.

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Categories: Learning Techniques and Student Skills