Do’s and Don’ts of Choosing Your First Job

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I currently live in southern California, but I’m originally from the midwest. When people find this out about me, the number one question I get is “how come you decided to come out here?”  In my post Everything Happens for a Reason, I describe the fateful occurrence that eventually led me to accept my first job here.  And in Things to Consider When Job Hunting, I point out some important things to keep in mind when you start looking.

However, when the offers come rolling in, how do you decide how to pick your first job? How do you even figure out where to start or what to take into account? That’s what I’m going to get into with this post.

DO: Figure out Your Top Life Priorities to Tackle

Do you have loans to pay? Do you want to start a family? Do you have familial obligations that will require you to move to a certain area? What are the top three things you need to worry about when taking this first job?

DON’T: Pick Your First Job Just Based on How Much it Pays

Getting paid is important–especially if your top priority is to pay off student loans; HOWEVER, you also need to take into account other factors.  For instance, what are your work hours like? What kind of vacation time do you get? Do people actually take vacation time off?

If you’re a physician, what is the call schedule? How many hospitals will you be covering? 

Ask questions about the culture of the place where you’ll be starting.  Does upper management get along with everyone? Is there a sense that you will be heard if you voice concerns or your opinion? What is the turnover rate at that center/institution/hospital?

If you are being asked to take on administrative tasks, do they have the appropriate support system in place to help you succeed?

On that note…

DO: Take Lifestyle Factors Into Account

You’re finishing up training, or school, you’re tired, you’re probably malnourished in some way, and you will hopefully take some time off before starting your first job.  During your time off, you’ll rejuvenate, love life again and come into your new job ready to go.

The last thing you want is this job to scramble up your life again.  So again, look for the red flags: are people in the department looking ragged and burned out (if you don’t meet anyone but the chairman, director or recruiter, then you know there’s something wrong); is the department cohesive and supportive of its staff?

What’s the cost of living in that area? Maybe you’re eyeballing a state without income tax. Will you have to live far away in order to afford rent or to buy a home? What will your commute be like? If you have children, what is the cost of childcare and is it readily available? 

DON’T: Hesitate to Negotiate Your Contract or Salary

I feel I hear this a lot amongst trainees who are about to graduate: they don’t think they have anything to use in a negotiation, especially for their first job.  To anyone entering the job market, you ALWAYS have something to use in a negotiation; you have yourself, you have your talents, you have your expertise in your chosen field.

My advice to everyone I talk to is this: if you’re being offered a job, even if it’s your first job, then the job wants you, and THAT is your leverage. 

So use it. 

Ask questions, ask to take out things from the contract you don’t like or disagree with, ask for a specific start date that is convenient for you.  Best case scenario, they agree to everything; worst case scenario, they say no to everything.  But their “no” doesn’t mean they’ll retract their offer, and at the end of the day you’ll likely be able to come to some sort of compromise that works for both you and your job.

DO: Remember That This is Not a Permanent Decision

I feel like there’s a lot of anxiety with deciding where to go for your first job due to the fact that everyone is terrified of making the wrong choice.  However, most of us go into the job market with an idealistic view of what our career will look like.  We think we know what we want, but the reality of it can pan out to be very different.  Only once you start working will you realize what works and what doesn’t work for you.  So even if you do make the wrong decision on this first job, just remember: its not permanent.  You can change it.

DON’T: Forget Your Career Goals

Most everyone on their first job, I feel, takes a huge sigh of relief that they’re finally done with school or training and finally making a pay check.  All those shopping sprees are waiting for you, all that free time just waiting to be filled with lazy days and fun activities that you haven’t had time take part in for so long.  

This is just a friendly reminder that, while you deserve all the shopping trips and lazy days in the world, you still need to keep in mind what all that schooling and training was for in the first place.  Burnout can happen really quickly if you’re stuck in a job that isn’t letting you grow, or move up, in the way that you may have imagined for yourself. 

With that in mind, then, make sure to scrutinize each offer you get with the question: will this position allow me to pursue the career trajectory that I want for myself?  If not now, then is there room for growth later?

Whatever that path looks like for you, you need an atmosphere that will allow your goals to flourish and not get swallowed up by the daily mundane tasks that will be expected of you.

DO: Keep Your Cool if You Run Into Conflict

It’s possible that the best atmosphere you find for your first job, for your goals and lifestyle wants, may end up being at a place where the pay is not the best.  So then you have to weigh that with those life priorities you have for yourself. It’s hard to know which is the best move forward, but sometimes all you can do is what you think is best at that time.  

And remember, this isn’t permanent. 

DON’T: Spend Your Bonus Right Away

Some places may offer sign-on bonuses.  No matter if you think you found your dream job, or if you were on the fence and unsure, I advise not to spend it all right away, especially if you don’t have to. 

Sign on bonuses come with a caveat: you must remain at the job for a certain contractual period.  If you leave before that time is up then you will be responsible for paying that bonus back, in FULL.  I’ve heard many stories of people spending their bonus almost right away on some huge purchase (car, home etc) and then absolutely hating their jobs and then being stuck.  

If you must spend your bonus, I encourage that you immediately start setting aside the same amount of money–just in case you need to leave for any reason and have to pay it back. 


What advice would you give to someone starting out at their first job? Any regrets or anything you’ve learned from your own experiences and choices? Comment below!

Images courtesy of unsplash.

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3 thoughts on “Do’s and Don’ts of Choosing Your First Job”

  1. Pingback: Weekend Toast 4/12 | BeThree

  2. This is perfect timing as the next crop of fledgling attendings are about to take flight in a month.

    I would also advise against buying a home immediately with your first job. There are multiple reasons why this is a bad idea: 1) you do not know if you will actually stay long term in that job as the reality of work there may be different from the first date impressions you get from the interview 2) you do not know much about the neighborhoods etc yet that you might be drawn to later only after being there for awhile.

    You are correct about don’t just sign with the highest paying job. In the back of my mind when I see offers that are far higher than others, I think to myself, what are the issues there that make them need to make such a high offer. A lower pay in a LCOL area goes way further than a higher pay in a HCOL area.

    1. Thanks! And yes totally agree with your thoughts. It’s so important to take everything with a grain of salt and really consider the full picture-including salary, work atmosphere and lifestyle. It’s so easy to fall into that trap of just making tons of money and not paying attenion to the rest of what makes up your life outside of work!

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