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The Hard Truth About Career Searching as a First Generation Professional

A woman is climbing up stairs as a metaphor for navigating the career search process. This article challenges search myths and what steps to take to have a success career search as a first-generation professional.
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by Leticia Garay

Where to start? As a first-generation student and then professional, we grow up asking ourselves that question on multiple occasions: through the college admissions process, our major and/or graduate school goals, and into the career searching process. It’s a hard question to answer even when you have mentors or guidance and a big part of it is that we don’t see the career searching process as an introspective process- you’ll see what I mean in a bit.


Ironically, I used to work at my university’s internship and career center as a student adviser. Given this, I thought I was prepared for the job search after graduation. Boy, was I wrong. I’m thankful that I had great staff mentors who saw more potential in me than I did in myself. Through them, I learned of a role, one that I got three months after graduation. Seven years later though, I find myself relearning the process. Career landscapes are constantly changing and the process, though similar, is one you need to practice to get better at. Whether you’re just starting your career as a new first-generation college graduate or you’re like me, a mid-level career professional looking at pivoting, demystifying the career searching process and relearning it is a good first step.


Many of us first-generation professionals think job hunting is a linear process of 1) finding a dream job opening, 2) creating the perfect resume, 3) writing a persuasive cover letter, and 4) applying by the deadline. Except that it isn’t. The hard truth about career searching is that it isn’t linear, easy, or passive. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you realize you can’t stay behind the safety of your laptop screen to land the perfect job. So what’s wrong with this expectation of the process? Well, let’s break it down.


  1. If you’re a first-generation professional like me, you grew up thinking dream jobs included: law, medicine, and engineering. If you ask me, being limited to just three fields sounds more like a nightmare. Which begs the question: what even is a dream job? As a higher education professional, I can tell you there are many jobs you never assume you can make a career out of (seriously though, no one grows up saying they want to help students get into college). It’s hard to know what’s out there when you’ve had limited exposure. There will always be jobs that you didn’t know existed and even more interests you didn’t know you had until you actually try them out so the idea of a “dream” job is basically an antiquated notion, or at least one that requires constant self-reflection and growth to fully comprehend.
  2. No resume is perfect. Trust me, as a recovering perfectionist, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit editing my resume, fixating on the spacing and rewriting job functions. Though resumes are important and there are some common mistakes to avoid, a resume will only get you so far in the hiring process. By that, I mean, it might only help you make it through an automated screening process in some cases. 
  3. Does anyone even read a cover letter? Okay I kid, I don’t actually know since I’m not a hiring manager but the point of the cover letter is to make an obvious connection between what you’ve done and know and how it applies to the job description. The thing is cover letters can only explain so much before turning into a well-written rant, at best. Given this, your cover letter is a limited tool in your career searching process.
  4. While this one seems straightforward, applying is not technically the end of the job application process. So that finish line you thought you had just moved up a couple miles: hope you’re ready for a marathon instead of a sprint.


Now that I’ve completely burst your bubble, let’s talk about how to realistically improve your career search process. While we have a step-by-step guide on how to get jobs you'll actually want, I’ll be breaking it down a little further. I’m definitely not calling you a dummy but this is the career search basics 101 for dummies (past me would’ve been super grateful…):


Step 1: Self-reflection is essential for therapy AND the career searching process.

So I’m not here to tell anyone to go to therapy (though therapy is great, in general) but I am here to give you the newsflash that you need to have a heart-to-heart with yourself if you want to successfully land a job you’ll most likely like. As first-generation, we aren’t always the most introspective because instead of asking “what do I want?” or “what do I need?”, we tend to ask “what should I be doing to get to x,y, and z?” There are a lot of factors at play as to why this is the case and I am by no means trying to make you feel bad. I get it. I was the same way- scratch that, I still am sometimes. However, if we want to make sure we are making the career search process work for us too, we need to know our values, priorities, and passions when it comes to careers and that takes some internal work to figure out. Like I mentioned before, sometimes you don’t even know what you’re looking for. The good thing is that you’re taking the right step by looking for some guidance. 


Start by listing your bare minimum requirements including minimum salary, job titles/positions, remote vs in-person- don’t overthink it, write what sounds most appealing based on gut reaction so don’t worry about it not being “realistic.” Then start thinking more about the details. Some questions to consider: what type of company do I want to work for? Does the industry matter and if so, which ones would you consider? Do I want to manage or create? There’s a reason this is the first step: it’s just to get your mind going. Basically, this is the arrow in your compass telling you the general direction of where you’re going. There are no wrong answers so be honest about what you want.

Want a more tangible way of helping steer your self-reflection? Check out the resources in step 1 of this article.


Step 2: Research your options. 

So now that you have an idea (hopefully, right?) of what job characteristics appeal to you, it’s time to research at which job positions and career paths meet these expectations. Be open-minded during this process but always go back to your list to avoid going down the conforming rabbit hole (we’re not trying to become Alice in Discontentment Land). Using your list as your anchor is important in avoiding impulse decisions driven by imposter syndrome. Not sure what I mean? Let me put myself on blast. About a year ago, I began searching for a new role. Admittedly, I skipped this step and stuck to the erroneous linear path mentioned above, which led me to apply to jobs that sounded good on paper but that had nothing I liked- in fact, the main job responsibilities were ones I actually dreaded. It wasn’t until I started interviewing that I realized I couldn’t take the job offer if it was even presented. I would’ve saved myself some time (and lots of panic) if I had asked myself some personal questions and stuck to those answers.


So maybe now you’re thinking “cool story, how do I avoid being you?”, well start by using online tools that connect you with mentors, career advisers, or information about career paths and/or job roles to start making a list of tangible options available. LinkedIn is also a great one stop search stop for job descriptions (helps with getting an idea of the type of skills you need too), networks, industries, and companies. In fact, LinkedIn lets you “follow” industry experts, who a lot of the time, will do a lot of this leg work for you (you’re welcome for the tip). This way, you further narrow your search and become more efficient with your time.


Step 3: Make LinkedIn your new Instagram, Reddit, or whatever new social media page is cool these days. 

Time to make some new friends! LinkedIn is your best friend for this. Just Instagram, etc keep you connected with friends and trends, LinkedIn connects you to professionals and professions. For those of you who remember MySpace (cue nostalgia), treat your profile like the grownup version of MySpace by keeping it updated with a custom banner, authentic bio, snazzy headshot, and relevant heading that really showcases who you are! All of this will improve your chances of being seen by recruiters. Not sure where to start? Feel free to get some inspiration from other professionals in your sectors and roles- just make sure to keep it real; no one likes a poser! And since you went through all the trouble of making an event, make sure you *actually* (try) to spend a fraction of the time you spend on Tik Tok on your LinkedIn as a research tool. Lastly, remember how obsessed you were about keeping your MySpace current? Keep up that energy with your LinkedIn!


Step 4: Introducing: informational interviews! 

You have your list, research, and platform to access more information- your next step is to do more digging via conversations. Not sure what an informational interview is? Read our article about informational interviews


Asking a stranger for advice is hard but being your authentic self can help break the ice. So lean into your identity. If you’re a first-generation professional, you’re in good company. As more and more first-generation college students graduate, the workforce has more first-generation professionals in the pipeline. Of course, that doesn’t mean imposter syndrome won’t sneak up on you or that you might still feel shy about not immediately knowing what to do, but it means that our experiences are becoming more of the “norm”. Whether you’re connecting with another first-generation professional or not, letting them know your background should make asking questions and connecting easier. 


Step 5: Revise your requirements, if needed. 

As always, LinkedIn comes in clutch (I promise I’m not getting sponsored by them) and offers some certifications you can use to prove or improve your skills. There are other resources out there too such as Coursera, Khan Academy, and even companies like Google have career certificates you can complete to fill in the gaps. See recommended training list. The point is that if you’re interested in a role but you’re missing some essential skill sets, make sure you are looking to fill in the gaps with some learning or experiences. You can also ask your informational interviewee in the previous step for some recommendations.


If you’re hoping to change industries, careers, or are new, it’s helpful to look for your “ideal” jobs and keep a copy of their job descriptions on a Google Spreadsheet or something similar. This will help you keep track of the main types of skills you’ll need to be successful. 


Step 6: Keep your resume updated and customized. 

Yes, your resume doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to be ready AND tailored to the role(s) you’re applying to. Using keywords that are listed on the job description is a good start but make sure they are skills you have- this isn’t about “padding” up your resume. We have some starting points on how to write a resume available too. There are also online tools available to help you build a resume as well as help tailor your resume to the job(s) you're applying to and tools to optimize your LinkedIn profile. 


Step 7: Write that cover letter!

Just like your resume should be customized to the specific job you are applying for, your cover letter should highlight how your skills align with the position’s main or top skills. If you’re having trouble writing a cover letter, 1) don’t worry, most people do, and 2) check out these five tips. Also, there are online tools where AI can help you write your cover letter in less than 15 minutes.


Step 8: Apply!

By this point, it’s easy to talk yourself out of actually applying because maybe you “only” meet 80% of the requirements. But guess what? That’s normal. In fact, you shouldn’t be meeting everything because then you leave yourself with no room to grow and a shorter timeline ‘til burnout. So shove down that imposter syndrome and hit submit! 


Not sure where to look for current job openings? LinkedIn is a great start but here’s a list of other places too.


Step 9: Follow-up

Remember how I said applying for a position isn’t the last step? Well that’s because you should be following up with your contacts regarding the position after applying. Personally this is the worst part of the process because this is really when I start thinking “what’s the worst that can happen?” Logically, though the answer is you don’t get an interview and you stay exactly where you are now, the rejection can feel like a negative critique on your value. So I’ll be honest, more often than not, I haven’t followed up with the hiring manager or recruiter. But following up is important because it shows that you are really interested in the position and keeps you at the forefront of the hiring manager’s mind. And what’s the worst that could happen? Well, rejection is just redirection.


Step 10: Be patient with yourself and the process

Trust me, I get it: it sucks. There’s no nice way to put it. When you’re the first to do many of these “adult” things in your family, you navigate as best you can but it can be overwhelming and quite frankly, frustrating to have to figure it out along the way. So remember: take a deep breath! Or several. As many as you need to stick with it. It’s hard but you’re a trailblazer by nature! And you’re already doing one of the most important steps in the process: learning more. 


The career development process is a life-long journey full of constant learning so stay tuned by subscribing to our blog!


Article written by Leticia Garay