What I Wish I'd Known at the Start of My Career

Monday, June 29, 2020 / 12:29 PM

The first time I stepped foot into a professional newsroom for work, I carried with me every anxiety and fear that came with having imposter syndrome. I'd love to be able to tell you that those feelings went away with every career move I made, but that would be disingenuous. 

I often felt insecure about asking for advice (or connections), and so when I applied for internships or jobs, I sought to mimic the career paths of my more successful friends. Truthfully, most of my early career steps – and missteps – felt a bit like diving into a pool before learning how to swim. I recognize that I was lucky to have been able to move seamlessly from internship to internship to full-time work with little pause early in my career, but I don't want people to assume it's because I had it all figured out. 

Recently, I was talking with someone who's just starting out in their career, and she asked me what things I wish I'd known when I was just starting out after college. Here are a few of the things that immediately came to mind:

1. Stay in touch with your supervisors.
After leaving NPR, I did a fairly good job staying in touch with my fellows interns. But after a single email update or two, I'll admit I fell out of touch with my two direct supervisors – people who I assumed were too busy to hear from me. A journalist's inbox (and my supervisors were managers of very large teams) can be a nightmare, so rather than continuing to send emails out without any idea if they'd be read, I didn't put in much effort. I regret that because my supervisors had been supportive during my internship, and as I pursued management in my own career path, it would've been great to have gotten their perspectives and advice too. 

One great way to stay in touch is to connect on LinkedIn or via social media (Twitter, most likely). You don't need to send email updates every month, but I always appreciate hearing from my former interns or freelancers when they move on to new jobs or have exciting work published. I have at least two younger journalists I've helped in their careers who have added me to a newsletter blast they send out once a year to say "hello" and share any updates. I appreciate that effort to stay connected. 

2. Ask for feedback – and be open to what you hear.
I'm not going to lie: I was guilty of not following this advice early in my career. I distinctly remember an editor being critical of a headline I wrote, and rather than ask her for additional input or advice, I ignored her. Granted, she went about giving her critique in a less-than-helpful way – but despite that, I should have been more open and receptive because I was less than a year into that job. 

I'm all about feedback. I think it helps both you as an employee, as well as your manager, figure out the best and strongest way to work and to grow. Early in my career, I think I was afraid of feedback because I was afraid of non-constructive criticism after witnessing too many toxic workplace relationships break down because of it. But the solution to that isn't to not seek feedback. If you feel like your manager isn't the type of person whose feedback is helpful, then who else can you seek it from instead? I've had several colleagues on teams I've worked for throughout the years who I didn't report to, but who always made the time to help me grow. Those people have also helped and supported me later in my career.

As a manager, it's important to know how to articulate feedback and advice for others in a way that's productive for all parties. (For example, telling someone to "try harder" is not exactly the best piece of advice.) I remember one time a freelancer was pitching stories to me, and while I accepted a handful of their pitches over the course of their time writing for me, there were pitches I rejected too. They asked me at one point if I had more direct feedback for them on how to pitch better (in an effort to respond to as many pitches as possible, I didn't always directly explain why I was turning down a pitch – which, looking back, I would do differently now). The freelancer's request made me think, and I set aside about half an hour to write out an email to them going line by line through one of their pitches and explaining how the story could be stronger. It was advice that I noticed they took to heart in their future pitches, and it challenged me to step up and be a better editor/leader.

3. Save hard copies of your work.
This one's a little tricky when it comes to working in digital news environments. At NPR, one of the things I was most proud of was my work building the Intern Edition blog and social media presence. But the blog went offline not-too-long after my intern class left. There were so many stories on there that could've helped show future employers what I was capable of. The audio for many of those stories do still exist on Soundcloud, but it's not the same as seeing packaged content on the web.

It's always hard to know what sites will stay up/stay the same after you move on from a place. Sometimes, sites go down. Sometimes, back-end changes for the company cause formatting to be completely off. I always recommend choosing some of your best work, and then saving PDF print versions to your laptop or to a hard drive. That way, you can still share examples of your work with future employers.

4. Document your successes.
A couple of months ago while catching up with an old colleague, he asked me if I remembered a specific situation that happened...and, to be honest, I barely could! He reminded me that I saved the day, and I felt embarrassed my memory wasn't as clear as I hoped it would be. I'm not saying write down an agenda of every single thing you do during a day, but when you have a big "win" or something you're proud of, jot it down at the end of the day – in a physical notebook or on your phone's Notes app. That helps when you're moving through your career because then you can talk about specific things you've done. 

Over the last year during my fellowship at USC, I kept a list on my phone of various things I did or accomplished. At first, I felt a little silly doing it because I wasn't sure if I was doing it for my own vanity or for practical purposes. But, let's be honest: this industry can be tiring. I believe in trying to find positivity through the dark days, and so there's nothing to lose by keeping track of the things that make you proud.

5. When one door closes, don't be afraid to knock again.
Not many people know that my first internship at Education Week was actually one I'd been rejected for. In my fourth year of college, I finished coursework for both of my majors a quarter early, so I was able to spend the last quarter working at both of my jobs and applying for internships. Five days after I applied for an internship at Ed Week, I got an email from an editor who let me know the internship had been filled, but suggested I give it another shot: "Your cover letter suggests you are a good writer; I encourage you to try again next year."

Two and a half months later, it was June and I still had no internship offers. I moved onto a friend's couch and started applying for fall internships that I came across. Then, I noticed a new internship position open up at Ed Week so I emailed that same editor who told me back in March to "try again." They immediately connected me to the person hiring, and two weeks (and a handful of interviews) later, I was offered the internship to begin in August. 

That success story isn't an exact template for how to get every internship or job you want. There've been plenty of times I've followed up directly with people who have rejected me before and never heard back – but I still think it's always worth a shot. The way I see it: I'd rather have someone tell me "no" than be the person who says "no" to herself first. You never know where or how you're going to find your next opportunity.

Looking back on my career, particularly the first couple of years, I've realized how often I got in my own way, whether it was because of stubbornness, a lack of confidence, or anxiety. And not that those feelings have disappeared entirely: I think I still struggle, but I've also come to realize that I'm not alone in that. If I can help show that it's OK to feel those things and that it doesn't mean you're not "cut out" for this industry, then I'm happy to do it. 

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