Working life

How to do well in your first job after university: tips from graduates

21 Jun 2023, 15:41

How can you get the most out of a graduate scheme or job? We’ve put together seven top tips from recent graduates to help you make a good contribution and enjoy the experience.

A woman with two thumbs up, signifying she is on track for a great career

It’s natural to want to impress in your new job or during a graduate scheme. In fact, one quick look at some of the most searched-for questions on search engines suggests that many students are worried: they include ‘how long does it take to adjust to a new job?’, ‘how do I survive my first job?’ and ‘how do I get the most out of my first job?’ Calling on the expertise of recent graduates who have started work at big employers, we let you in on some things you can do during your graduate programme to impress your managers, develop your confidence and make the most of the experience.

These top tips originally appeared in targetjobs’ sister publication, the UK 300 , which showcases the 300 most popular graduate employers in the UK and includes interviews with a selection of graduates at these well-known organisations.

1. Focus on your job

It sounds obvious, but fully understanding what your core job is and how to do it well is the single most important thing to bear in mind. Most of the objectives that you will be set during your probation period will be based around assessing whether you can carry out the basic requirements of the role. Although the rest of this article covers some other ways you can impress, they should not be undertaken at the expense of getting your main work done.

‘My advice for new graduate starters is to focus on doing your best and on delivering something tangible,’ says Helena Soteriou, catchment initiatives programme manager at Thames Water. ‘Being able to say at the end of your graduate programme “I did this and it had this impact” puts you in a good position for future roles.’

However, remember that your manager and colleagues will know that this is your first job and that you will be doing a lot of things for the first time; they will expect things to take a bit of time and for you to make mistakes. Don’t feel like you need to rush things in order to be seen as efficient or able. Take the time to double check your work to ensure that there are no errors.

2. Ask questions

Rest assured that as a graduate you’re there to learn and develop your skills – so asking questions is encouraged. ‘When I first started I was afraid to ask questions because I didn’t want to take up people’s time nor come across as stupid, but I soon learned that I should just ask,’ says Davut Jones, a technology graduate at Sky.

Even if you think you understand what you’ve been asked to do, there’s no harm in clarifying by repeating it back to the person briefing you on a task. Addressing any misunderstandings as early as possible will ultimately save time and stress. Asking questions to clarify what you have been asked to do is something you should continue throughout your career, but at the start of your graduate programme you will be given extra ‘leeway’ to do this, so make the most of it.

3. Be organised and take notes

When asking questions it’s a good idea to make a note of the answers, especially for more complex or technical topics. This will ensure you remember what you’ve been told and won’t need it repeating next time you do a similar task. It also helps to show your enthusiasm and commitment. ‘Make notes and be organised and you’ll soon start gaining people’s trust,’ advises Yasmin Tisdall, who is an HR graduate at the insurance market Lloyd’s.

Miriam Smith, a trainee area manager at Lidl GB, agrees: ‘My advice for graduates in the workplace is to ask loads of questions and keep a log of what you’ve learned. Be the keenest bean there; work hard for people and they will support you in return.’

4. Take on more responsibility… and then do a good job

Managers are often impressed by graduates who volunteer to help out with tasks that go above and beyond their day-to-day role. Be careful, though, not to take on too much work or make unrealistic promises (especially while you are still working out how long different tasks typically take to complete and getting the hang of managing your time). This can backfire if you aren’t able to complete it by the deadline. ‘One thing I’d advise all graduates in their first roles is to make sure you’re making a good impression,’ says Yasmin. ‘Be enthusiastic and say “yes” to things, but within reason; it’s not a good impression if you agree to take on tasks you can’t complete.’

5. Ask for opportunities

Sometimes an exciting project or task won’t be directly offered to you and it’ll be up to you to express your interest. Even if you aren’t able to be involved on that occasion, it shows willing and may lead to you being asked to help with something similar in the future. Suad Mohamed, a product manager at BT, says: ‘Throughout my career so far, I’ve learned that if you don’t ask for opportunities, you don’t get them. If there is a project […] that you’re interested in working [on], you’ve got to make it known by networking and putting yourself out there.’

6. Get involved in the wider organisation

Taking opportunities isn’t limited to your job role; it can also be a good way of getting to know people in different areas of the organisation, such as through diversity networks and social activities. Zoe Duvall, a management consultant at Mott MacDonald, was an early careers champion for its social responsibility global practice: a network to share knowledge and good practice across the business. She explains: ‘Building a network is something that can be quite daunting, but I found it happened naturally for me by being interested in what other people do across the business and saying “yes” to things outside of my comfort zone. You learn so much by just giving something a go.’

‘My advice to all new starters is to take the opportunities given to you,’ says Alex, a software engineer at GCHQ. ‘That could be helping out with a new project or with running a diversity event. It’s a good way to make friends and professional contacts. I’ve ended up doing a lot of stuff that I never would have anticipated and most of that has come – at least partly – from having a network of people I can draw on.’

7. Find your passion… and a mentor

Having something in common is always a great conversation starter and this is just as true in your professional life as in your social life. Matt Bingham, a mechanical design engineer at Rolls-Royce who has completed the nucleargraduates scheme, suggests: ‘My big networking tip is to do some wider reading about the industry and to find a topic that you’re passionate about – this has really helped me to connect with more senior people in the industry as a graduate.’

Once you have formed connections based on these shared interests with others across your company and industry, they can become an invaluable source of support and guidance for you in your future career. Davut at Sky explains: ‘On top of my buddy, my graduate programme manager and my rotation managers, I have so many informal mentors. For example, I met a senior colleague through one of my rotation managers and, through regular catch-ups over coffee, he has given me a complete technical overview of the company.’

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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