advice for first-generation college students adjusting to professional work environments

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I work with college students looking for co-ops, and was wondering about advice for first-generation college students adjusting to professional workplaces — maybe an “ask the readers” about what they wished they knew? I’m one such person (though it’s been many years since I’ve been in school), so it’s something I try to be mindful of when working with students.

When reading a previous post about lack of ambition, I was struck by the letter-writer’s comment, “It was almost like the follow-up to being a first-generation college student and having no idea what’s going on is just becoming a first-generation professional and having no idea what’s going on.”

I remember being confused and lost while I tried to adjust to a professional work environment, especially since much of my experience upon graduating was in academic research, though I also worked in a bank. The comment inspired me to reach out to you.

Let’s hear from readers who were first-generation college students on this one. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

{ 339 comments… read them below }

  1. Ask a Manager* Post author

    A reminder that I’m asking to hear from people who were first-generation college students on this one. If that’s not you, please hang back. (Otherwise we’ll end up with just general advice for people new to the workforce, and that’s not what this post is about.)

    1. Queen of the Introverts*

      To all of us non-first-gen commenters: Don’t take “don’t comment” as “go away.” This is a really valuable thread to READ to help recognize a lot of the stuff we take for granted is not universal knowledge, and for ways we can help coworkers/employees adjust in a respectful way.

  2. Eldritch Office Worker*

    Would also love to hear what employers can do to make this transition more comfortable for folks. I am also a first generation college student but I figured a lot of stuff out by muscling through and I’m not sure what advice I’d give to someone trying to support past me, but I’d love to be a resource for others.

    1. Cat Tree*

      I’m a new-ish manager and I keep a running list of things that new people might not realize. I go over it preemptively with new employees. For example, I’ll explain when lunch is unpaid and when it is part of the paid work day, or that they don’t need to wait for me to dismiss them at the end of the day.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Your comment reminds me of the LW a couple of days ago who was offended (?) by the lower-level employees who were going to pay for their dinner out, when the company’s policy is that the upper level person should be the one expensing it. (Sometimes this is because the upper level person has a higher allowance, or gets less scrutiny, or has access to a buget line.)
        I felt the LW had goofed by not making the payment arrangement clear at the time they were arranging the dinner.

        So that’s something I think managers should put on your excellently suggested list.

        After my first time of hiring a ground–level employee, and them being shocked at the amount that was taken out for taxes, I started qualifying the concept of “take-home pay” to interviewees when I talked salary: “$XX,000 sounds like a lot, but as you’re evaluating that, you should remember that in NYC, you’ll lose about 1/3 of that to taxes. Of course, that’s paying into your FICA retirement, but you should temper your excitement about the salary.” I also started mentioning that they should ask HR for insurance premium info as well, and that I’d expect them to need some time to gather that info and make a decision.

        As a rookie, I also had hiring managers lay out the timeframe for taking their job, literally saying, “I expect you’ll want to give two weeks’ notice, and then sometimes people take a week off between jobs if they can afford to be without a salary for that time, because you won’t qualify for time off until you’ve been here for a year. So think about and let me know which Monday in this timeframe you’d like to start.”

        1. Artemesia*

          The encouragement to take a week or two off before starting is golden — that is a great way to phrase it too.

        2. ExHRProfessional*

          Mentioning salary amount vs take home pay is a great idea. I had a coworker who was shocked by all the deductions on his paycheck, and wasn’t sure what they were all for and how to tell if they were correct. I ended up sitting down with him and explaining each of them. If you have someone in HR who could do this for new hires that could be very helpful. Especially deductions other than taxes, like parking/transit, HSA, 401k contributions, union dues, etc.

      2. I'm Just Here For The Cats!!*

        Great ideas. I think also clearly explaining what the hours are is a great step too. I don’t remember where I read it (probably here) but someone got in trouble in their first job because they worked 9-5, because they thought that was what all office jobs were (thanks Dolly Parton!) but their office had a start time of 8 or something.

        There was also someone whose office had a lot of wellness activities like yoga, mindfulness that were available throughout the week and they went to all of them meaning that they were only really at work for like half the time. Their boss had to tell them to only select one workshop.

    2. middlemgr*

      At my first internship, my manager sat me down on day one and walked me through a one-pager of intern expectations. Most of these were super obvious (be physically here at 9am and ready to work, respond to emails you receive within 24 hours, no alcohol in the workplace, etc.), but some were still new to me! I’ll always appreciate that they took that time to do that and make sure I was set up for success – I do this today (in a level-appropriate way) for all my new hires.

  3. Marie*

    Work colleagues are NOT the same as friends. It’s a different relationship, with different norms, and different ways of interacting.

    I don’t know how I would explain this to recent grads in a way that makes sense, but that’s something that I embarrassed myself with when I entered the work force for the first time. I kept trying to make friends and relate to my co-workers the same way I related to the people I knew in college, and that fell flat on its face, especially with anyone else at the company who was in a different phase of life than I was!

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Yes. There is a sense of camaraderie in school. It’s everyone’s first day. Or even if you transfer in, you are generally in the same place/stage. You have the same goal, do well, graduate. Or slide through and party. Still, you are all on the same track.
      The work force not so much.
      You are not going to walk into a peer group. Even the people who are doing your job are not where you are. Just relax and see how they interact. Listen more than you talk but ask questions.
      Conversely, if you do onboard with people who seem to be exactly like you, at the same stage, be friendly, but don’t create a new kids’ club just to feel comfortable.
      People will tell you they made their best friends at work.
      I know people who did. That is great.
      But be open to others/everyone. People who want to be your friend will be happy that you are acclimating well.

    2. ursula*

      Yep. If “be funny” is your main strategy for getting people to like you, be prepared to hold that back a bit at work. The primary purpose of work relationships is not to have fun together, but to work well together.
      How do you build good relationships at work? By being pleasant, communicative, asking questions when you don’t know something, taking the work itself relatively seriously, and, secretly one of the most important things: not holding other people’s work up.

      1. The Person from the Resume*

        I think this bears repeating: “The primary purpose of work relationships is not to have fun together, but to work well together.

        And that also a good place to say that if you naturally become friends with certain coworkers that’s great, but being friends (versus friendly) is not a requirement to work well together.

    3. TiffIf*

      I am also not a first generation college student but I was the first generation to graduate when social media started becoming a thing.

      So on the same lines as work colleagues are NOT the same as friends – I had a hard and strict rule of never friending work colleagues on social media unless we were also personal friends outside of work.

      Sometimes a work colleague can become a friend – sometimes not.

    4. Ridiculous Penguin*

      I’m 50 and have been working since I was 14, and I still struggle with this. (To put it in perspective, my childhood and the The Glass Castle in a Venn Diagram would overlap by about 90%.)

      Some of it, too, is being on the spectrum (which I try hard to pass off as being “quirky”), but it’s something I do have to remind myself of literally every time I talk to someone at work.

      1. Journey of Man*

        This! My parents went to college, but did not have professional corporate office experiences to share, and looking back didn’t realize I was a wee bit on the spectrum.

    5. HCW*

      This was what I was going to say, too. School is explicitly a place where people make friends, and work is not. There expected boundaries are very different, and I STILL feel embarrassed (many years later) thinking about the oversharing I did in the early days.

    6. irritable vowel*

      Yes, came here to say this as well – I was a first-generation college student and although I’m not sure this is directly related to that, I definitely went into my first professional job thinking it was, socially, a similar environment to being in college (it definitely didn’t help that I was working in higher ed). Guess what, when your friend group blows up because of some work-related drama that you’re on opposite sides of, that sucks.

      Also, while being a first-generation college student isn’t always the same as being the child of immigrants or the child of working-class parents, I bet there’s a lot of overlap. For me, it was all of the above. My mom in particular spent the majority of her working life working for a boss who was a sexist tyrant and definitely not getting paid what she was worth, but to her it was a steady job and that was the most important thing. So, I would add that first-generation folks going into the workforce should perhaps take their parents’ advice about how to handle work stuff with an understanding of why they might say the things that they do. Don’t keep quiet and put up with mistreatment at work because it’s something they might have felt they needed to do.

      1. doreen*

        I think you are absolutely correct about the overlap. In fact, I’m not sure how much of what I had to learn was related to being a first generation college student and how much was because I had a professional job which was very different not only from the jobs I had in high school and college, but also from my parents’ jobs. One thing I specifically remember was being able to go get a coffee/soda without having to wait for an officially scheduled break or even telling anyone where I was going. Another is that I really didn’t know how to dress professionally other than suits. And as far as advice from parents – that goes in both directions. I remember an incident in a book ( I think it was “Limbo”) where the working-class father told the white collar son that he should have been physically aggressive towards the boss. I could 100% see my father telling my brother that.

          1. DriverB*

            Just also chiming in to recommend Limbo as a huge help. I read it in my mid 20s and just sobbed my heart out recognizing myself in those stories.

        1. Rocket Raccoon*

          My husband is a tradesman and I have gotten some truly AWFUL advice from him about how to handle work stuff. He just does not have any context for how much more subtle (for lack of a better term) things are in an office environment.

          Like he’d be the guy who goes to someone’s desk every time instead of sending an email.

          1. urban teacher*

            I’ve stopped talking to my husband about teacher stress because he really has no understanding.

      2. OhGee*

        I was trying to think about how being first Gen affected me as I entered the workforce, and I really struggled to think of a good example until I saw this. My parents are working class, and my dad in particular found a career (niche retail management) and never left. He worked for maybe 2 different companies my entire childhood. I worked with both of my parents at different points when I was a teen, so they both saw I had (and instilled in me the importance of) a strong work ethic, but they’ve both been horrified by the number of times I’ve changed jobs, even though it has usually been a step over taken to make more money and advance my career. So yeah, if you’re next gen & working class, your family might not have great advice regarding your career.

      3. VNPS*

        Also chiming in as not only first gen college student but also child of immigrants who did not have professional office jobs. I’m not sure how universal this is, but for me it has been a big shift to highlight my own accomplishments and get past the “good grades” mentality. It was so pushed to get good grades, go to a good college/university, do well and get a degree and you will get a good job (although I’m not sure this is just a fist gen thing, as this seems to have been a big push for my generation in general), and then be good at your job and you will be rewarded for that hard work. But I’ve slowly realized that although people will notice you do good work, no one is necessarily going to go out of their way to acknowledge and reward that. Raises and promotions aren’t just handed out, and it is appropriate in these contexts to seek out opportunities, make it known if you are looking to grow, and highlight your own accomplishments/good work. Any kind of coaching in the area of knowing that I needed to be the one to bring these things up would have been helpful (especially asking about raises…I am on my third professional, post-license job, almost 8 yrs into my field, and only asked for, and got, my first raise THIS YEAR).

    7. Ally McBeal*

      Corollary: Do NOT immediately friend all your coworkers on social media platforms. I made this mistake at my first job and never again. I’ll accept most LinkedIn requests and I don’t mind sharing my Instagram, but Facebook (and Twitter before I deleted my account) were thoroughly locked down and off-limits until I’d left the company. I make occasional exceptions for someone if we’re regularly hanging out outside of work (and not just after-work drinks, like actual friend-friends).

      1. Heart&Vine*

        Yes! I came here to say this. Do NOT friend your work colleagues on social media. If there’s even a 1% chance they could stumble on a video of you drunkenly dancing at a kegger or an old political rant you posted freshman year or a picture of you straddling a stripper at your friend’s bachelorette party… you don’t want to risk it. Those things shouldn’t affect how your colleagues view or treat you at work, but once they see it they can’t un-see it. Unintentional bias is a real thing. Keep social media for social relationships, not professional ones.

        1. Ally McBeal*

          Or even something innocuous, like you take a mental health day and go to the beach, someone sees your post and thinks you’re playing hooky or faking physical illness.

          The mistake I referenced from my first job was simply that I posted “ugh today is super frustrating” (listen, it was 2009, social media was even lamer then than it is now), and one of my coworkers left a comment inviting me to their office to vent about it (which I did but I don’t think I posted as such). A third coworker, who apparently hated me for reasons I’m still not aware of, ran and tattled to her manager that I was behaving unprofessionally. I guess she was hoping her manager would talk to my manager and I’d be in trouble for… slacking off? Venting? Fortunately my manager saw through the BS and told me to just unfriend her and keep her at arm’s length from then on.

    8. the cat ears*

      not a first gen student but I want to make sure this gets brought up based on friends’ experiences, and I hope others will fill in with more detail and practical advice —

      — a lot of blue-collar and service industry fields seem to have far different standards for what is appropriate work conversation than office/white-collar jobs. I hear my friends mention casually that their coworker talked about their OnlyFans or they had some discussion of sex or drugs while working in a kitchen, warehouse, or back room of a store. Norms on this vary from workplace to workplace, but when you are new to a given job it’s probably best to err on the side of avoiding any topics that aren’t completely G-rated until you get a feel for the place.

      1. Aerin*

        100% this. When I worked at the Mouse, a bunch of theatre kids + low-wage, high-stress job = I knew way more about my coworkers’ sex lives than anyone should, and thought it was totally normal. Luckily I did not immediately bring that energy to my next job!

    9. jane's nemesis*

      This also happens to many of us when transitioning out of restaurant work. At restaurants, especially when you’re in or just out of college, your coworkers often ARE your friends – you’re partying together after work, and there’s camaraderie in that potentially hellish environment. Transitioning into office work and finding out no one wanted to get drinks after every shift was… weird.

    10. Chris Collier*

      I had worked customer service jobs before and through college, so when I got my first salaried position, I still had the “if you can lean, you can clean” mindset. since my degree is more central than what is been doing before (engineering vs food prep), I found myself breathing myself for not being “productive”, even though the definition of productivity had changed drastically. Yes, I did get a lot done (and was recognized for it), but I found myself burning it quite quickly.

      I think my biggest piece of advice: it’s ok to give yourself time to think through problems. You’re still being productive, even if you aren’t delivering something every minute.

      Another thing I still need to work on: you’re expected to negotiate your salary/benefits. Don’t feel bad asking for better compensation. Usually, worthwhile companies will give you leeway if you go (slightly) over what they can pay, and inform you of their constraints. Asking for way too much, or taking the negotiations too far could still lead to revocation of an offer, but one request for better pay and/or benefits is expected.

      1. Lexi Lynn*

        And don’t trust your parents’ understanding of salaries.

        I graduated in the mid 1980s with an MBA and my mother (high school graduate, less than 10 years of clerical work experience) basically insisted I accept a job paying $13,000 (current purchasing power of about $36k) because its more than she’s ever made and obviously it was a good offer.

        This really hurt me with companies that base salary on your last job. Do your research and don’t undervalue yourself because family are anchored with their working class experience.

        1. Stunt Apple Breeder*

          I got some very good advice about first salaries while I was taking Personal Finance as a high school senior.

          My guidance counselor explained that I was going to be paying back student loans after I graduated from university, so I needed to figure out how much salary I would need to pay those loans back over 10 years. We talked about how that fit into the Personal Finance budget unit. I took that advice as I figured out how much to borrow each academic year and to later negotiate for a first salary.

  4. Not myself today*

    I would have loved some background on office norms. They vary office to office, but it would be very helpful to have a baseline of what behavior is expected so that you could judge what is just a different office culture and what is actually toxic behavior. My first several jobs were with very toxic enviornments and I came to think that was normal and abuse was just part of working for a living.

    1. Shoes*

      Maybe not the best place to put it.

      A business meal is not a social meal. Don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu, unless it’s specifically offered to you. (Usually, it’s not).

      Alcohol consumption. Read the room.

      If it’s offered and you want some, have some. Never overindulge.
      If it’s offered and you don’t want some, pick something non-alcoholic to drink.
      If it not offered, don’t bring it up.

  5. Temperance*

    I’m a first generation college and law school graduate. Since my graduation, I’ve seen a lot of good initiatives for first-gen professionals and support that just didn’t exist even 10 years ago.

    What I wish I knew back then was basic information on *how* to get internships, *how* to write a good resume, and what appropriate follow-up looked like. I was weirdly way too formal with some people when I started my first job, calling everyone “Ms.” or “Mr.” in a place that didn’t do that. I was also annoying as hell checking in on the status of applications with some jobs, to show my interest (cringe).

    Also, something I do with my own interns, that might work for you: let them know that no questions are stupid questions, they can ask you anything about the workplace, etc.

    1. ferrina*

      This was me as well. I was way too formal, and I was too eager to volunteer for anything, regardless of whether it was my job or not. I took on tasks way about my paygrade. I wish I’d known:

      -Check with your manager about strange tasks. When someone asks you to do something that isn’t your job: “let me circle back with my manager to make sure I have time for that.” (blame the bandwidth, not that it’s not your job)
      -You don’t need to volunteer for everything. If your boss is asking for volunteers, volunteer around 50% of the time (30-70% is a healthy range- even if you could volunteer for everything, don’t).
      -Figure out who you want to emulate at work and listen to their strategies. If they have time, get their advice on your work (no more than 30 minutes). If they say something is a bad idea, it probably is (and if they tell you your boss is bananapants, you should probably think about an exit).
      -Ask questions. If you aren’t sure what the end result should look like and it will take you more than 4 hours, spend 20-40 minutes to do a mock-up so you know you’re going the right direction.

      One thing I did right was taking feedback. I actively sought feedback. When I started a project I wasn’t sure about, I sat down with experts to pick their brains. I never took feedback personally- my rule was that the more nitpicky the feedback was, the more I succeeded on the big issues. Folks will only start nitpicking the tiny things when they run out of big and medium problems.

      1. Antilles*

        Along the lines of ask questions:
        Use your resources. If you’re assigned a task, there’s almost certainly a better starting point than you sitting down with a blank piece of paper and starting completely from scratch. Maybe one of your co-workers did this previously and has a calculation spreadsheet you can borrow. Maybe there’s a previous project that had a very similar report you can borrow language from. Maybe Google or a textbook has already solved the exact question you’re asking. Maybe your boss or more senior colleagues already have a decent idea of where the answer should end up and can guide you in the right direction if you’re willing to ask.

      2. Temperance*

        YES! I did that as well! I thought that I was showing “initiative” by doing whatever needed to be done, because that’s how I was raised. Instead, as a woman, I was taking on low-value housekeeping tasks that didn’t help me professionally and only served to make me seem more like admin help.

  6. Angstrom*

    The LW might find useful “Limbo: Blue-collar roots, White-collar dreams” by Alfred Lubrano.

    1. Very twilly*

      Another book:
      “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right”, by Gorick Ng

      It’s written for readers who are likely to be first generation in certain careers.

    2. Trillian*

      I remember an fascinating AAM thread from several years ago on the topic of coming into white collar work from a blue collar background, and navigating the unwritten conventions, rules and expectations. If anyone can turn it up …?

  7. Coffee and Plants*

    Goodness, I wish I had gone into it knowing how to put on a professional front. My parents were not white collar professionals, and I’m very casual in my personal life, which spilled over into my first professional job (though, honestly, that department was also pretty casual). I had to learn quickly when it made me look, well, less professional.

    My advice would be to polish up these skills early, if possible.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Someone told me once that the essence of white collar professionalism is controlling your emotions. Like, you’re sort of visibly displaying emotional control as a mark of professionalism. I think about this all the time.

      1. Sunnyside*

        Agree with all of the above. I’m still not sure I totally understand how to have a professional persona and I’m 15 years into my career (office job and my parents worked blue collar). Understand that your coworkers are not being 100% themselves, and it’s okay to also not vring every aspect of your personality and emotions to work. I think learning to hold some of your personal self back at work is vital, but also will probably never not feel disingenuous to me, ymmv.

      2. OxfordBlue*

        A historical novel I read recently made the point that wealthy people had to learn to control their emotions because horses tended to respond to their riders feelings. That made impeturbability a mark of wealth and power thus causing it to be socially desirable.

  8. Dust Bunny*

    Television =/= reality. Don’t take your cues on dress, behavior, etc. from sitcoms and TV dramas! They are there to entertain, not to set good and/or realistic examples. Ask AAM, a trustworthy coworker, or someone else who actually works at something similar. Generally speaking, the more outlandish aspects of your personality and tastes should be reserved for non-work time, although this obviously depends on what those tastes are and your line of work.

    Also, gut-check. If one of your sources tells you it’s OK to do/wear/say something and you still have doubts, there is probably a good reason.

    1. No formal shorts!!*

      Along those lines, the clothes marketed as “professional” by retailers are often not actually what normal people wear in the office. I remember the formal short push which worked virtually no where, as well as the button down shirts that closed with clasps and looked they like were designed to pull as tight as possible across your chest. Even asking sales people didn’t help, because they didn’t have office experience either.

      Look around at your coworkers, particularly those with more experience, before buying a lot of “professional” clothes.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        This! That’s generally good advice, as norms change from office to office. (I work in a government agency where unnatural hair colors & visible tattoos are NBD, but there are some where that wouldn’t fly.)

      2. Hannah Lee*

        And if it’s a new job, you can go by the place before your first day, when people are coming in or leaving to see what workers are wearing.

        You’d have to use some judgement based on what your particular job is, but if you see a sea of khaki and polo shirts, you know not to show up in a suit. It will get you in the ballpark, and you can dial it in more after you start working and see how your peers are dressing.

      3. 2 Cents*

        I still want to know where “professional shorts” is a thing besides a golf course and Bermuda’s parliament. Because…no. Just no.

        1. Raisin Walking to the Moon*

          @2 Cents, I thought they were mythical, too, but I’ve seen them in Atlanta and Philadelphia worn by university professors as part of absolutely gorgeous suits.

        2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          My child’s class teacher wears them in summer (British schools are fairly formal) and looks very slick. But I don’t think I’ve seen them otherwise.

        3. Nina*

          I’m in New Zealand, these were more of a thing in the 70s and 80s but you can still get them. ‘Walk Shorts’ on Wikipedia covers it with a pretty classic image.

          It would be a little bit weird to wear them in an office nowadays if you were under mid-fifties, but my brother (mid-twenties) pulls the look off pretty well in his non-airconditioned government agency office.

          1. Jodi*

            A few years ago at ACC when they loosened the dress code up they made it clear that business shorts were back on the menu, and included videos of the exec wearing them. I didn’t catch on lol.

      4. Can't Sit Still*

        Professional shorts…with pantyhose. LOL! I had an amazing suit with shorts that looked fantastic. Unfortunately, it violated the dress code. Still does, in fact. My company doesn’t really have much of a dress code, but shorts definitely violate it.

      5. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Oh the lovely tailored looking corduroy skirt I was so proud if in the 90s…until a co-worker said “don’t yothink that’s a little.short?”

        1. Ellis Bell*

          I remember thinking my high necked midi dress was just the thing for summer, but got ticked off because it had spaghetti straps and bared my shoulders, a body part I hadn’t considered problematic. I completely got confused between “body coverage” and “coded professional”.

  9. lsb*

    This is so good to hear. I think the first-generation resources were severely lacking at my college, and it would have done wonders for me professionally if I was connected to more support!

    For me, I don’t think I ever heard the term “workplace culture” before I was wellll into my first professional job. I never realized the complexities of adjusting to different organizations; I guess I always thought of work as a simple routine of going to work, doing work, leaving work. I wish someone would have given me a guide: observe others and how they interact. Go to any “optional” meetings or gatherings, like lunches, where you’ll learn more about how the team functions. If a particular procedure or policy seems odd, try to figure out why they do it that way – there’s not always a reason, but sometimes there is a very good reason. And when you switch jobs, know that all the rules can change and you’ll need to adapt to a new organization (or choose to move on quickly).

    That kind of prep would have helped me tremendously!

    1. Smokey skies*

      Optional meetings and gatherings – yes, go! It may be very nerve racking when you are new but view it as part of your job to get to know the people you share the office with. The flip side of that is getting drawn into social groups and spending too much time chatting during the day. When you are new and don’t know the dynamics it’s easy to miss that two people who ‘chat’ all the time are actually talking about work half the time and have an excellent reputation for hard work. Or, they may have been asked to limit their socialization and well meaning attempts at incision at the office actually have a negative effect on your reputation.

    2. Busy Middle Manager*

      ” I think the first-generation resources were severely lacking at my college”

      Depending on your age I think “parents didn’t go to college” was the norm, so it was sort of assumed.

  10. Miranda*

    Thank you so much for posting this, Alison!

    I mentor first generation high school seniors through the college admissions process and beyond and I’ll admit this is a total blind spot of mine–I grew up with a lawyer parent and thus had a certain amount of understanding of office norms drilled into me. I know this must be a huge source of anxiety for a ton of students though I haven’t experienced it myself. I’d love to know if there’s anything anyone really wishes someone had told them that I can be in a position to help these students out with now before they’re getting into more of their first professional workplaces–I’ll be revisiting this thread with interest.

  11. nope*

    I had no idea that you could actually push back against your manager in some situations. Like if they ask you to do something that you know will mean late nights or too much work to get everything done, that you can say “okay, what should I move down the priority list to get that done, X or Y?”

    That blew my freaking mind as a first gen college student and professional. My family is military and I worked retail and food service, so I spent my first many years of professional work killing myself instead of having a collaborative discussion about how to prioritize.

    1. ferrina*

      “I’m running into a roadblock with X. I looked into it, and we could try Y, but the downside is Z. The other option I’m seeing is L. Is there anything I’m missing? How would you like me to proceed?”

      This is awesome because:
      1. You state what the issue is
      2. You state what your options are. Always research options before you go to your manager- even if there are none, you can say “I tried researching through [Resources], but they didn’t have anything either”
      3. You lay out pros and cons. Don’t assume your manager knows these
      4. You give room for other options. There may be things that you didn’t know about that your manager does. Don’t assume you know everything (and don’t assume your manager knows everything- the goal in this convo is to combine your knowledge)
      5. You have your manager make the decision.

      1. Hannah Lee*

        That’s actually a great thing to keep in mind even if you’re an experienced worker.

        Also, if you bring an issue or a task to someone and they ask for more details, while it’s okay to answer “I don’t know” if you don’t know, don’t stop there. Ask “where would I look to find that out?”

        And if they ask you several questions and all your answers are “I don’t know” as them if there’s a checklist or procedure or something that outlines “here’s what’s needed to request a llama grooming kit” so that you’re not flying blind.
        On that last note, accept any documentation, process, context info people offer you, point you to, instead of simply being focused completing the immediate task in front of you. You might not need all of it to do what you need to do that day, but a lot of times they are offering it for a reason, and it will be useful to help you ramp up faster than you would have otherwise.

        For example, stuff that might seem extraneous – like *why* you have to complete a shipping request form before you can ship the widget your boss asked you to ship (because otherwise, the people who do export compliance, billing, process the shipment with UPS can’t do their jobs) – don’t glaze over when they are telling you that because all you want to do right then is get the thing shipped and why can’t they just go off the slip of paper you have. They are guiding you on how you can work more effectively within the organization.

        There will be time down the line to sort through which co-workers will talk your ear off with too much process, context detail … but early on, just be a sponge willing to absorb the stuff.

      2. Industry Behemoth*

        Agreed about not assuming your manager knows everything. Sometimes they assume that what and how they want something, is how they can get it.

        I’d also add that managers don’t always volunteer pertinent information. For instance, a boss had me set up a in-person meeting in our office, but didn’t tell me there’d be telephone participants too. We ended up being unable to include the latter, and that taught me to ask if meetings would include phone participants too.

    2. LiberryPie*

      During the time I was a manager (about 8 years) I actually found it really UNhelpful when my direct reports did what I asked without question! There were parts of their own jobs that they knew more about than I did, and I wanted them to share that information with me.

      I once had a conversation that was something like –
      me: “I noticed you haven’t been ordering from vendor X. Is there a reason for that?”
      employee: “I can start ordering from them again. I’ll do that.”

      It did help a bit when I explained to him that he was helping me by explaining what he didn’t like about that vendor, that that was information I didn’t have that I might use to make decisions.

      1. Ally McBeal*

        Yep. I worked at a college and had interns, many of whom were first-gen, and plenty of them (regardless of first-gen status) would work all the way through a project and make their own assumptions the entire time. They’d turn it in and then have to rework it entirely. After the first couple times I started emphasizing that I’d rather be bombarded with questions than the opposite, and was able to pretty quickly tell which interns would be generally successful at the job by how well they absorbed that feedback.

      2. ecnaseener*

        I wish everyone understood this. It happens all the time when I’m training people. If I ask why you did or didn’t do X, that’s not me being condescending for the hell of it, it’s me wanting to know why. If the answer is “I just missed it” that’s fine, but I can’t read your mind, you have to say it.

    3. Presea*

      Yep. I was taught growing up that when your boss says “jump” the only valid response is “how high”. In my current field, that kind of mindset is a great way to kill yourself and/or jeopardize your professional reputation by biting off more than you can chew and coming off as a ‘yes man’. Luckily I figured out for myself that the advice didn’t work in my field before anything too harmful happened, but after nearly 5 years in my field I still don’t really know what the right balance is.

      1. Anon this time*

        In some fields/positions, that mindset can literally kill people (yourself included). And it can be REALLY hard to unlearn if you had it hammered into you by previous jobs or upbringing.

        Most of the accident investigations I’ve done turn up someone who knew about the danger before the accident occurred, but didn’t say anything because they thought it wasn’t their place.

    4. former professor*

      There’s some interesting research about how first-gen students tend to see it as their job to adjust to the situation, whereas students from white color families tend to expect the situation to adjust to them. (E.g.– first gen students are more likely to try to whisper a question to a friend if they miss something in lecture, because they don’t feel it’s appropriate to raise their hand and stop an entire lecture, whereas more privileged students expect that of course it’s the teacher’s job to stop and answer their question.) So this totally makes sense as the professional version of that, and why “ask for what you need” is not obvious advice for first gen workers.

      1. Peachtree*

        Let’s make sure we’re not confusing race and class here – first gen students can be white, and non-first gen and privileged students can be from all backgrounds.

        1. CG*

          I’m pretty sure they meant “white collar” instead of “white color,” based on the rest of their comment.

      2. J*

        This was something I didn’t really start to even pick up on until my last semester at college as a first-gen student. I even got cancer in college and basically apologized to everyone for needing to take a class off for chemo even though I’d warned them I was still finishing that up at the beginning of the semester. I was convinced I was such a problem and overlooked things like how the football and swim teams were never in that Friday class anyway because it was travel day for sports. I hated even asking questions, let alone bothering a professor with something like my medical issues. I didn’t even understand fully what office hours were and how I wouldn’t be hated for using them. I had no clue that the casual test prep my professor mentioned was going to have the literal problems on the test with just different numbers. It took 4 semesters of econ to catch on and my grades shot up immensely which confused everyone how I could be pretty bad at econ for 3 semesters to jumping to an A- in the end.

      3. My Cat’s Human*

        Oh my. I’m 50+ and first gen college. Not feel entitled to ask/question was and is so much me in work and life

    5. Ellis Bell*

      Yeah, or that they are actually expecting you to raise issues and that this can be done totally without drama. I come from a pretty unionized “shop floor” family background, where a certain element of passion when making objections is the way you express that something is serious.

  12. Harried HR*

    I think a good way to frame the difference between College and Work environments is the way the money flows…

    College = Student (or Parent) is paying for an education so therefore they have a stake in the outcome and can audit classes / push back on expectations etc. and be less diplomatic about it.

    Work = The company is paying you to perform a job in a way THEY want you to, if you don’t like it you need to be selective on pushing back and the pushback needs to be more quantitive and collaborative.

    1. Elle by the sea*

      That’s what you would expect but I had a very different experience. In college/university I was paid – my parents and I didn’t have to pay anything. In return, I had to do exactly what I am being told. If you push back, you are out. (My college/masters degree is from Europe and my PhD is from one of the top universities in the US.)

      At work, however, even though I am paid to perform exactly the way they want me to perform, there is a lot more flexibility and opportunity to push back and have a say in things. There is a lot more empathy from employers when you are caring for someone or you have health issues.

  13. PayRaven*

    You should not be spending your own money on work stuff, and you can ask to be reimbursed.

    There’s a little bit of a grey area here (because you do have to buy your own work-appropriate clothes, transportation, etc), but if it’s stuff you buy on the job, to do your job, you should at LEAST be getting reimbursed. (This does not apply to teachers in the US because we are a sick country, but it should.) A lot of the culture clash is just not knowing what you can ask for–when in doubt, ask.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      YES. I worked in a law firm for years, and court filing fees and incidentals can run hundreds of dollars. We did not expect anyone to front that money and had a department credit card and other options for payment. It was in my new hire orientation that they did not have to spend their own money and how to get a hold of the department card info (and what we needed in terms of receipts/backup for billing) or request a rush check from the accounting people.

      I know there are bad employers out there that don’t handle this well, but it’s not okay to have to front large expenses (much less pay them out of pocket).

  14. Pam*

    My parents both wore uniforms for their jobs and dressed pretty casually the rest of the time. I am forever grateful to the woman who interviewed me for a graduate assistantship. I showed up wearing very casual ok to wear for attending an 8am class outfit and she made a point of not shaming me for what I was wearing, but did spell out expectations clearly for what I should wear while working in that environment. “This is a professional position that works with high levels of academic administration. We need to dress in X manner during Y types of situations, and Z manner in K situations.” It was very straightforward and she did that with every single topic I ran into while working there. What she did for me then gave me a nice “rulebook” for how to show up in professional spaces, and it was by far one of the most important things I learned in grad school.

    1. Lady Ann*

      I really could have used this type of advice, both my parents had blue collar jobs and I struggled with how to dress professionally for quite a while before I figured it out.

    2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      A “how to dress here” guide would be very useful for interns of all kinds, since no two workplaces seem to have precisely the same code.

  15. Emmie*

    I am a first-generation college graduate, and first generation lawyer. People often suggest finding a mentor. I had no idea how to find one, and network. How do you find a mentor when you know no college graduates? How do you find a mentor when you are working full-time at a service job with no upward trajectory? What do you talk to mentors about? I was so far removed from professional people that I was wildly uncomfortable, out of my league, intimidated, and felt like I did not belong. My learning curve for professional norms was steep. My parents, who were both good people, worked blue collar and service jobs. I thought professional language and adult language (swear words) were the same thing. I actually found this website helpful. It taught me about professional norms one post at a time. And I suppose sharing this with you might give you a sense of the barriers that first-gen students face. I am glad you are thinking about this, OP.

    1. Internship Admin*

      More universities now have formal mentoring programs or other ways to help students connect to informal mentorship, especially aimed at these populations too. Just having someone point that out and help with getting into it can be a huge help!

  16. MicroManagered*

    In many offices, some downtime is normal!

    If you are entering the world of office work from the kinds of jobs where you heard “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean” (like food service, retail, etc.) where constant non-stop productivity is expected, this can be a shock or even a source of anxiety.

    Likewise, if your parents worked these jobs, hearing work stories that involve this kind of downtime might activate their anxieties and they might hear perfectly normal work stories as a need to advise you not to be lazy, you’ll get fired, etc. A lot of their advice might be inaccurate or irrelevant.

    1. Lacey*

      Yes! I had a coworker who could not wrap her mind around this being ok.
      It was such a source of anxiety for her – even though she could see that everyone in the office had downtime at different points and very openly did nothing during it.

    2. CR*

      A big +1 to not listening to your parents when it comes to work norms. This goes for anyone, not just first-gen college students!

    3. HCW*

      Yes! And if you are a professional in the “time to lean, time to clean” mindset, you might step on others’ toes. In my first masters-level position in a (dysfunctional) nonprofit, I thought I was being polite and respectful and productive by making my own copies, doing my own shredding, etc. The (much older) administrative assistant discreetly pulled me aside and explained that it made them look redundant and their hours were being reduced. I was being paid to do tasks that required professional training, and they was being paid to help me focus on those tasks, and we needed to stay in our roles.

      1. Yup*

        Oh, you’ve just given me something to think about! I’m first gen, 20 years into my career but this is the first time I’ve had a role with an administrative assistant. I feel uncomfortable and oddly guilty for asking her to do things that are within her role and sometimes will just avoid that discomfort by doing whatever it is myself. I hadn’t thought about it that way.

        1. HCW*

          I also felt a lot of discomfort and a little guilt.

          I know a lot of commenters on this thread might think that this is the sort of thing any new professional might experience, but coming from a working class background and being a first generation college grad, I internalized a lot of messages about hierarchy. With teachers, bosses, etc, I was explicitly taught, “Respect the position, even if you don’t respect the person.” My and my family’s experiences had generally been on the lower end of workplace hierarchies, and stepping into a position where I was anything other than deferential, learning to delegate – it was (and still is) challenging.

          Frankly, the transition is emotionally loaded. I know a lot of people experience imposter syndrome, but for myself, I often think in terms of upward mobility survivor’s guilt.

        2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          Also please consider that if you’re too apologetic about asking her to do jobs that are in her job description you’re saying her job sucks. Which it may, who knows! But it risks sounding tactless.

    4. Charlotte Lucas*

      My dad was blue collar, & my mom was pink collar (she eventually got her degree & became blue collar). I am in my 50s, & to this day sometimes stress out when I have too much downtime. But I recognize that it’s there to balance out my busy times. (This might just be a family trait.)

      I was lucky to have a mother who worked in an office, so could help with those norms (and was moving up in her career when I was in high school, so could observe). I agree that if you have an older family member or friend who works in the white collar world, they can be a great source of advice.

      My dad was in a union. From him, I learned labor laws, work-life balance, & that you can push back (or just quit for another job if you are unhappy with your employer or treatment).

    5. Anon here*

      I was casually scrolling through the comments… and this hit home. Wow.

      But also, that you will be considered a ressource with all your knowledge and employer will not fire you just because you did not say good morning (yes, I know, some might still do this, but it is by far not the norm!)
      It took me more than 15 years to un-learn this constant fear of being only one step away from job loss.

      1. Also Anon*

        Agreed with everything you said, I’m scrolling and nodding as well. Someone upthread mentioned imposter syndrome and upward mobility survivor’s guilt and hoo-boy that resonated with me.
        It has taken an embarrassingly long time to unlearn lessons about the workplace from family and the media, all while receiving messaging that I considered myself “too good” for an honest day’s work by pursuing higher education and a white collar job. College is hard enough when you have adequate support, but when others want to tear you down while you’re trying your best to keep your head above water it can be overwhelming.

    6. Orange You Glad*

      This is a good point. Also finding activities to fill that downtime is a skill – your manager can’t always drop everything to find you more work. I always recommend reading up on system manuals/processes or that taking time for professional development.

    7. Vanilla lattes are the best*

      This hits home for me. I grew up with two blue collar, borderline workaholic parents and it was deeply ingrained in me that you must be busy every single moment of your work day, or you will be fired. I have struggled with anxiety my entire working life and I cant help but wonder if it’s partly because of hearing this growing up.

      I did end up being fired by two different organizations early on in my career (one due to poor fit/performance and the other simply because they didnt like me), but otherwise, i have always gotten exceptionally positive feedback. Even so, I know my anxiety is super high compared to a lot of people.

  17. TX_trucker*

    College always set a clear expectation of what reading, reports, projects, etc. had to be completed in order to be successful. Work isn’t always like that. If you find yourself with lots of downtime, you need to meet with your supervisor to request additional tasks, or find something on your own that adds value to the organization. If you are in an on-call type of position, it may be acceptable to do nothing while you wait. But in most positions, doing nothing most of the day will eventually reflect badly on you.

    1. TX_trucker*

      Adding “value” includes improving your own skills. For example, reading a magazine related to your industry is a great use of downtime and not an example of laziness.

    2. londonedit*

      Also, when you’re at school/uni you’re always given a clear deadline and expectation for everything. At work, especially with entry-level jobs where you might be doing some admin-type tasks, there will probably be things that need to happen on a regular basis, and people aren’t going to remind you to do them. Say there’s a report that you need to run every Monday morning and email round to a group of people – you’re going to be expected to do that every Monday on time and without your boss reminding you. In many jobs work isn’t about doing assignments from your boss, it’s about managing your own workload and getting things done without needing supervision. Of course, there may well also be things your boss asks you to do, and then you need to prioritise those. But in many cases you’ll find you have a sort of base level of work that you’re expected to get done, as well as the specific things your manager will ask for.

      More generally – don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something. One of the worst things you can do is to sit there paralysed because you’re not sure what you’re meant to be doing, or on the other hand to plough forward without making sure you’ve fully understood. And if you do make a mistake, tell your manager straight away. Preferably with a simple explanation of what happened and what you’re planning to do to stop it from happening again. Most of the time, the odd mistake doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things – but don’t sit on it, and don’t try to fix it yourself. Own up and let your boss know that you understand you’ve made a mistake, and you’re going to do X and Y in future to try to prevent it in the future.

      Finally, know that you’ve got the job because your managers think you can do the job and bring something to the team. You didn’t get the job as a favour, and even if you’re ‘just’ a lowly entry-level employee, you have a contribution to make and you deserve to be treated with respect.

  18. MegPie*

    My dad was a plumber and his advice to me was to just do exactly what my boss told me no matter what. Cool, but in a professional environment sometimes you need to ask for clarification or let your boss know that what he is asking will kick you into overtime.

    I spent my first years running myself ragged and racking up overtime to my boss’ dismay before I learned that conversations with the boss can be back and forth.

    Overall, my communication skills were terrible in many many ways. Took some embarrassing mishaps to learn those lessons.

  19. Susan Calvin*

    Concepts of respect, professional courtesy, and hierarchy – in my social circle, I’m kind of a minority as a white collar professional, and a there’s a lot of mutual side-eye! Some of my friends in the trades find it weird how comparatively casual I’ve been with (most of) my bosses, while I find it weird, and somewhat concerning, what tone they find normal among colleagues, e.g. regarding cursing, yelling, and (by my standards) inappropriate humor. If that’s the dynamics you’ve grown up hearing workplace anecdotes about, I expect it’s tricky to strike the right note in most office settings.

    1. Calico Tabby*

      I had a parent from a working-class background, who was one of the first in the family to have a professional job, and I’d second this. I’d counsel first-generation professionals to be very careful about ethnic humor and sexist humor, if they’ve been raised in settings in which those were considered acceptable. I’d also say, be careful about the ideas about professional life that you may have picked up from home or TV/ movies–that no one learns anything in a Ph.D. program except how to blather, that a woman in a position of power was probably promoted just because she’s good-looking, that administrative paperwork is unnecessary and no one cares if you do it, etc. These are stereotypes, not representations of the real working world. And finally, I’d say that in the professional world, one is really expected to make an effort to collaborate with and get along with colleagues. My father, who tended to have a simplistic, top-down model of how authority worked, did not understand this and was prone to buck when asked to work with colleagues who were younger or better-educated than he was. But in most professional settings, ability to work well with colleagues (whether or not you have much in common or are friends outside of work) really counts.

      One of the best things I did when I was new at my present job was to get in the habit of talking to and eating lunch with people who worked in other departments. This really expanded my perspective on the organization. Twenty years on, I still have work friends and regular lunch companions from other departments, and I still reap the benefits of an expanded perspective.

  20. Taylor*

    The things i remember most vividly about starting to work professionally was how simultaneously exhausting and boring it was.

    I worked plenty during college: one job I worked from 5pm – 1am 6 nights a week. I did a lot of “campus leadership”. It was a small college and frankly I wielded way too much power for a 20 year old. But I also worked all the time, so I didn’t expect working just one job, just 8 hours a day, to be so difficult.

    But something about being tethered to a desk for all the daylight hours made me so drowsy and depressed. There was also so much more oversight than I was used to; I didn’t have the authority to do anything on my own! I got so bored rarely having anything to do, and felt so belittled having my emails proofread. I felt like that first year I was broken down and built up again.

    I’m not sure how much of the above is a normal experience, but I will say that by the end of the year I was in a management role and was advising leadership on pricing strategies, so looking back the hard part really only lasted a few months, though at the time it felt like forever!

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      I had forgotten this! If you mainly had retail/food service or similar jobs in the past, the lack of movement can be jarring. And have unexpected consequences (you burn fewer calories).

      Take your breaks & use them for something active, like going for a walk, if your body isn’t used to sitting all day.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          I was an instructor for a while, then a trainer. That is it’s own weird blend of physically & mentally exhausting. But not boring.

      1. SarahKay*

        This is so true. When I first started out I was working in a restaurant and at the end of the day my feet would ache; that lasted for a couple of weeks until I got used to it.
        Then I moved to an office job; at the end of about three days my feet were the only bit of me that *didn’t* ache.
        Sitting all day, with arms resting on the chair arms, etc was a total change and really surprisingly tiring. Plus, as you say, I wasn’t burning calories the way I was used to, although that took longer to really show up as a problem.

      2. J*

        I took up running when I switched to a desk job. I was exhausted but also had so much built up energy in me. I couldn’t explain it at the time, how I’d be half asleep but insistent I needed to run (especially because I started that job in 100 degree weather and was not athletic) but my body could not handle the pain of sitting all day back then.

  21. EE*

    1. Learn how to advocate for yourself: I was clueless about negotiation and how to advocate for myself. I was worried about how it would be seen coming from me and I didn’t know how to manage that in the workplace and own my work because my parents never worked in office or knowledge worker settings, which is whole different ballgame.
    2. Don’t tell them they impostor syndrome even if you think that they do: I worked in an environment where every woman or first gen worker was told they likely had impostor syndrome. It only made things worse because it felt like a “me” problem vs. “the world” problem. This article is really good:

  22. Vique*

    I would suggest saying less and observing more – I cannot stress enough how much people new to work overshare. Some of it is nervous over sharing, other – filling the silence to try to relate to others or try to fit in right away. It never really works and it’s so difficult to get rid of the first impression if employees have shared something inappropriate in the first week of employment.

    1. ursula*

      This is really good advice. It also includes giving critical feedback on how things work at your job; there’s often a lot of context for why things are the way they are that you won’t have right away, and even if something is a problem, the people involved are probably well aware and already concerned about it, working on it, or have already tried the thing you were going to suggest. I’m not saying to never share your criticisms – there are things no one is required to tolerate or keep silent about, including discrimination, harassment, abuse, illegal or unsafe employment practices, etc. But when you’re very new, your suggestions on how to improve every little thing probably aren’t welcome.

      As a general principle: when you hold back, you can always choose to say more later. But once it’s said, it’s said. You can always loosen your behaviour up as you get to know your colleagues and the workplace norms, but it’s very hard to rein things in if you’re way too loose out the gate.

    2. Alternative Person*

      The maxim from the Second Doctor ‘Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut’* has served me well over the years when it comes to learning about how workplaces function and how people function in workplaces. It’s also allowed me to see and glean things that I might not have otherwise known. Of course, you have to talk at some point, but like you say, saying less and observing more can pay dividends in the long term.

      *Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen.

  23. argus*

    1) Professional dress. I mistakenly thought if I shopped at Banana Republic and Express I would look professional but they sell many items that are not work appropriate. I cringe thinking about how much cleavage I showed and how tight ALL of my clothes were. Like, nothing left to the imagination.

    2) Personal finance. I had no idea about 401ks or anything related to personal finance and didn’t take advantage of this until I got a thoughtful manager who sat me down and explained how it all worked and how it could benefit me.

    3) Politics matter. I came into the workforce thinking that if I performed as well as I did in school, that’s all that would matter. It came as a surprise that my professional success was partially determined by people LIKING me.

    1. Smokey skies*

      Ooo yes #3 is huge. I once told a fourth year student that once they graduated grades wouldn’t matter after they landed their first professional job, but that they better make sure that they got along with their colleagues and had a good work ethic. Skills can be developed but no one will want to help if you are awful to be around

    2. Charlotte Lucas*

      #2 is also important. Both my parents had pensions. Many places have group or individual meetings to explain benefits. Go to those meetings, take notes, & ask questions. If they offer private financial planning meetings, take advantage of that, too.

    3. But Not the Hippopotamus*

      Personal finance is a big one for lots of people. I knew nothing about insurance, Flexible Spending Accounts, 401(k)s, etc. coming from a white collar background… and Ive had fresh from school hires with similar background and similar cluelessness. Now i offer all my super junior new hires a time to pick my brain on this stuff during their onboarding (benefit selection period) because of it. I do tell them I’m not an expert, but I’ll share what I have learned.

    4. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Re #2 – a huge shoutout to our HR team when I onboarded at our current job for my whole new hire group through 401(k)s, Roths, HSAs, and a number of other financial items. Having an HR person available who’s able and willing to walk a new hire through this information, at least for hires straight out of college, is a good thing to do.

    5. Silver Robin*

      on #2: early content from The Financial Diet really helped me figure stuff out. I am first gen immigrant, but not first gen college, with parents who both worked wall street at different points in their career but they still seemed to have no clue how/when to explain the more sophisticated financial stuff to me. wild.

      anyway, learned about emergency funds, Roth IRAs vs 401ks, HSA/FSA (healthcare accounts), investing generally, insurance choices and what a freaking deductible is… hugely helpful and TFD goes over a good bit of that. HR should be able to help you too!

      1. Lexi Lynn*

        And that if the company enrolls you into the retirement plan at 3%, they are not suggesting that you only put 3% in. You should be aiming to work up to about 10%-15% to have enough saved ideally (which granted is impossible for many people).

    6. Anon here*

      So much yes to #3.
      I did not understand office politics and networking and informal decision making among smokers and all this tactical stuff. But I also had no boss to explain this to me. This was so hard!
      Also, colleagues are not work-friends. With friends you decide who you want to spend time with, in the office you better are equally pleasant with everybody. Do not overshare.

    7. Aerin*

      #2 is basically what I came here to say.

      Look into all of your employer’s benefits, because sometimes there are obscure line items that can really help you out. If that includes an EAP, look into it! And if the EAP (or direct through the company) offers sessions with a financial adviser, *FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY TAKE THOSE SESSIONS.* Even if you have to pay a small fee for it, that’s usually much less than it would cost you to get one-on-one time with an expert who’s there to answer all your questions.

    8. Alternative Person*

      I would add to 1) Consider investing in some tailored and/or branded (doesn’t have to be high end) pieces, if only for things like interviews and big/special events. It can feel ridiculous spending hundreds on a coat/bag/suit that you don’t use all that often but it can really make a difference when it comes to making an impression.

      (Outlet malls/sales are a godsend for this kind of thing)

  24. Smithy*

    I came here to talk about the value of having informal relationships with your peers at work.

    This could be called networking or might even labeled as making friends – but intention behind this advice is having people at your job who you can ask more nuanced questions about how things like asking for vacation or sick time works. Yes, there’s likely a formal system – and maybe it’s even written down in a manual – but having peers where you can gut check how best to use those formal systems is incredibly valuable. It can help with that difference between doing things by the book and in the spirit of an employer’s culture.

    Sometimes those informal relationships with peers will turn into friends, or maybe your long-term professional network, or maybe only help you onboard. While all options have value, you also don’t want to over commit or get over personal with someone too quickly when you just needed help at the copier and don’t want to see 50 cat videos a day.

    1. Smithy*

      To add to this – there’s some workplace jargon where a simple written definition will explain what it means. There are other workplace terms like networking or business casual attire, that I think are far easier to understand when you experience them over time.

      Being honest with yourself about the workplace terms that still remain unclear will help let you know that you’re still looking to learn what they mean. Because some of these I do think take a lot more time to think that they make sense.

    2. Alternative Person*

      So much this. For good and bad, bits of my workplace’s workings take place in (relatively) informal conversations both between managers and between peers. Being able to know whats coming down the pipe and sharing it with people makes a big difference.

      1. Jaunty Banana Hat I*


        Almost everything I learned about working in an office came from watching what the other people did/wore/said/etc. in the office, AND how everyone reacted to it.

        It’s also worth remembering not to take everything someone in the office tells you about the others at face value, because sometimes people don’t get along for no reason, and sometimes people don’t get along for Reasons, and the only way you have of knowing which is to form your own opinions over time. Make your own observations. Sometimes you’ll end up confirming what someone else said (oh, okay, Person A really is going to try to get you to do their work for them) but sometimes you’ll discover those two people just don’t get along (ah, so Person B always assumes the worst of A, but no one else has a problem with A).

  25. DisneyChannelThis*

    Make a tighter version of yourself to be your work persona. Don’t swear at work, don’t bring up controversial topics (religion, politics, etc). Be more bland than the real you. Don’t share all of your personal life, “how was your weekend” expects a bland polite “it was good, how was yours” not a recap like you’d give your real friends.

  26. MsMaryMary*

    I temped a lot in college (usually as a receptionist) and it was a great way to get exposure to different office environments and norms. It was lower stakes, since I was “just the temp” and everyone knew I was still in college. At the time, temping also paid better than retail and I could get work for a week or two over winter or spring break.

  27. Morgan Proctor*

    If you’re dating someone you work with, don’t make it obvious. Don’t go hang out with that person in your downtime, don’t touch each other at work, don’t talk about your relationship via work-provided avenues, like email or Slack. DON’T fight at work, for the love of god.

    Similarly, if you’re dating someone you don’t work with, don’t invite that person to come hang out with you at work, ever.

    I’m sure people here will tell you not to underdress, but don’t overdress, either. Read the room. Wear what other people are wearing. If you work in a hoodie and jeans environment you’re not going to impress anyone by wearing a suit. You’re just going to seem like a weirdo try-hard who doesn’t fit in.

    Don’t get drunk at work functions, even if everyone else is drunk.

    Don’t overshare about your personal life.

    Speak up. You might feel like an outsider, and maybe you are, but no one else knows that from the outset. You construct other people’s perceptions of you.

    Wear comfortable shoes.

    Having said that, stay in your lane. Don’t talk for the sake of talking.

    Don’t feel pressured to pay for things, like other people’s coffees or lunches.

    Ask for help if you need it, but be smart about who you ask. Find a coworker who you get along with, or who has a similar background. Don’t ask your boss’s boss.

    It’s ok not to love your job, but it’s not ok (for you and your mental health) to hate it. It’s fine to decide a certain company or industry isn’t for you, and to find a job doing something else. “Job hopping” has become the norm, with people only staying in a job for a year or two. This is the single most efficient way to increase your salary by non-trivial amounts. I know it can feel like you put in a whole lot of work and maybe money studying one thing, but LOTS of people switch careers multiple times in their lives. Find something that pays well and that you don’t dread doing.

    1. Kittycat*

      related to “Similarly, if you’re dating someone you don’t work with, don’t invite that person to come hang out with you at work, ever.” – from TV I thought it was totally normal and acceptable to have partners, friends, family members turn up at your workplace. My first office job was with in the same company as my dad – who would come and check up on me; while my mum worked in a local shop so of course we could see her during work hours.

      I have two colleagues with spouses who work in the same building as us and I have never seen them in our office. I may see them together at lunchtime in the canteen, or car park before / after work, but now I know you can’t just turn up to your friend’s professional workplace unannounced.

    2. Warrior Princess Xena*

      Re – dating people at work: in addition to everything said above, if you’re going to do it, check your employee handbook. I noticed in working in retail and food service that dating at work is much more acceptable in those positions than in many office jobs. A lot of professional roles do not allow dating/relationships within the company, or prohibit them in certain roles, or require you to inform your manager. They will usually outline these prohibitions in your code of conduct/handbook.

  28. Just Another Zebra*

    It’s ok to redo your work, or be asked to do it differently.

    In school, there’s this idea “do it right the first time, or fail”. That is just not reality in the working world. Sometimes a manager will ask for X, but then decide they want Y. It’s Ok! You didn’t fail – the parameters changed. Sometimes you thought you understood the assignment but didn’t and now need to do it over. It happens! I think shifting from the rigid pass/fail mentality is one of the hardest to overcome for students in general, let alone first gen students.

    1. EMP*

      This is such a good point. And in the work place, it’s often a good thing to check in on an assignment to confirm you’re still on the right track early on. School is testing your ability to get something done by yourself, but work is all one big group project.

    2. HA2*

      Yes! The other thing is that in school, feedback is (often) a way of judging your work, whereas at work, feedback is a way of making the work product better. In school, if you take an exam or turn in an essay and get it back covered in red ink and “this is wrong” marks, you did a bad job and you’re getting a bad mark. At work, if you do a piece of work, and then your manager (or a senior peer) reviews it and you get back marked up with edits and suggestions and red marks, that does not mean you did a bad job at all! It is entirely normal for important things to go through many drafts, and just because someone’s first attempt at a piece of work has a lot of things that need fixing doesn’t mean they did a bad job in making it that way in the first place. This is especially true for a junior employee, where “junior writes a draft, senior sends back requests for revisions, repeat several more times” may well be a totally expected workflow and wouldn’t reflect badly on the junior employee at all.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        In many fields (especially law, which is where I am) this is what training looks like – in the edit, not a classroom.

      2. Lexi Lynn*

        Its always easier to edit someone’s work than to figure out what you want up front. Don’t take offense, they really didn’t know what they wanted originally.

  29. Kwebbel*

    A few things stick out to me from my own experiences:

    1) Getting to know your colleagues as people is key – I saw my colleagues as fellow workers for my first 6 months in a corporate environment, while they were all on friendly terms with each other. I honestly didn’t realize how important it was to make small talk with them or take breaks with them. I was just so used to (a) more blue collar work where everyone stuck to their own lane and fraternizing with each other was seen as time theft, and (b) university classes of 600 where none of us really knew each other. I found out in my first review that I came off as really cold to people – and that was a big surprise because I thought I was doing the right thing by focusing on work! It was a really easy fix because I tend to be more social. And it was a relief!! (Also, I’m positive not every blue-collar job is like the ones I worked at in my late teens, but I reckon for a lot of those jobs it’s still more acceptable to be a Lone Ranger than it is in a more corporate environment)

    2) You’re not expected to be busy every second – I thought that my manager would monitor every unproductive second I spent in the office, but was surprised to find out their focus was almost 100% on output. Also a huge relief!

    3) Feedback isn’t a sign your failing – At their blue-collar jobs, my family members were used to doing the same thing, every time, getting better at it as the years went by. My corporate job has never had the same tasks 2 years in a row. Managers have always checked in on my progress on topics, and given me feedback on what I can improve, and at first I was terrified this was a sign of my incompetence. It took a good 18 months or so for me to view this as “iron sharpening iron” rather than a sign I’d never get good at anything.

    4) Unless you’re hotdesking, office chairs should never move from the desk they’re tucked under – From school chairs to foldable chairs in the gardeners’ break room, I was completely unfamiliar with the concept of chairs being ergonomically designed, fully adjustable, and sometimes specifically bought for a person who needed an accommodation. So…I got into some deep doo-doo when I thought it’d be fine to just grab a random chair for my desk because it looked like the right height. Never again!!

  30. deesse877*

    I’m a university-level educator who deals with a lot of first-gen people, but not first-gen myself. I don’t know if this is what those folks truly need the most, but the pattern I notice in mentoring conversations is this: I usually end up emphasizing the need for self- assertion and self-direction. I usually end up explaining that a boss usually wants you to work independently and demonstrate critical thinking, and advocate for your own needs.

    Here is my outsider’s analysis of why: Particularly because first-gen college students almost uniformly attended under-resourced public high schools or very small religious schools, they’re habituated to authoritarianism. They tend to assume that the boss gives directions and you follow them, the end. For some their sense of self is really bound up in rules-following. So things like “if the deadline is unreasonable you need to say so” are counter-intuitive. Sometimes these folks will even see high performers succeeding, and not understand what they’re being rewarded for: to them, inserting yourself in a conversation, proposing new ideas, etc, is being an insubordinate ass. Which sometimes it is, of course! But overall, US white-collar workplaces reward self-starters, not good soldiers.

    1. Temperance*

      This is very perceptive. I would also add that many of us experienced authoritarian parenting, where any questioning was considered “talking back” and it was drilled into us from birth that we are X and we submit to authority.

      1. Charlotte Lucas*

        Interesting! I come from a more pro-labor “speaking truth to power” kind of background. If anything, I sometimes have to squelch my tendency to be less tactful about inequities in society. (I now work somewhere that cares about these things, too!)

        My dad was a skilled craftsman in a trade that often attracts artists (his hobby is painting), so that might be part of the difference in my upbringing.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Also, my supervisor doesn’t generally give us super specific instructions because she assumes that if we run into a roadblock we’ll ask, or if we just cannot complete part of the request for Reasons, or some other thing that wasn’t anticipated in the initial assignment, we’ll say so. Of course, she’s a reasonable, approachable person so we can do that, but it’s a lot more assumed here that you’ll do that than it was at my blue-collar jobs.

    3. HA2*


      Properly interacting with authorities is an important skill which is not taught at all. The correct way to interact isn’t the authoritarian “yes sir” to everything, but nor is it “I do what I want and management requests are suggestions”.

      There’s a proper middle ground where your managers’ and senior folks’ suggestions are probably what you should do, but you should raise issues that they may need to know to properly make decisions about what to do. But I find it pretty hard to describe that middle ground! It takes experience, keeping your eyes open, and getting good management and mentorship early in someone’s career.

    4. former professor*

      I mentioned this research above, but there’s research suggesting that a lot of it is also tied to the fact that social power (the ability to influence/control outcomes for yourself and others) shapes our roles/perceptions/behavior, and if you’re in chronically low-social-power positions you learn to see the world, and how to behave in it, differently than people with more social power. If your parent is the boss, you grow up with examples of how to make decisions for others/instruct others in what to do, as well as the resources to make choices for yourself (e.g., you’ve got money to buy the clothes you like), versus if your parent is in a blue-collar role you grow up with examples of how to adapt to demands others place on you and may have more constrained choices (e.g., you may have to wear whatever hand-me-downs you’re given as a kid)

  31. old curmudgeon*

    Way back eons ago when my spouse was teaching high school in a deeply impoverished region with a sky-high illiteracy rate, the high school did something that I think might possibly be translatable to a university setting.

    Students in certain classes could get extra academic credit by coming in on one specific day each week dressed professionally. Teachers would offer wardrobe guidance (there are probably dozens if not hundreds of grown men out there today who tie their ties based on the techniques my spouse taught them), and classes would be held with office-type norms rather than a typical classroom environment. It was a collaborative effort across multiple academic disciplines, so it wasn’t focused only on typing classes or anything like that. In fact, if I recall correctly, athletes in the school were very emphatically expected to participate in this program – although knowing the school’s priorities, that may have been more due to wanting to give athletes all possible opportunities to scrounge up a bit of extra credit.

    It would take a bit of doing to implement something like that in a university setting, I realize, but offering an opportunity to do a bit of role-playing in a safe setting where a person’s livelihood isn’t on the line might be really useful in helping a first-gen college student make a successful leap to being a first-gen professional.

    1. deesse877*

      Oh, business schools in universities totally do that. I always feel bad for the kids, because they almost invariably flub the shoes–like, a decent blue two-button plus nasty old Top-Siders, or (worse because it signals brokeness more clearly) new black Keds that they hope will be mistaken for dress shoes at a distance. Or women in heels surveying vast tracts of picturesque cobblestone campus in despair.

      In short, it seems to function more like hazing than learning from my POV, but that may speak more to the culture of the business school here than to the value of the exercise.

      1. Sparkle Llama*

        My grad school program had many classes in the business school buildings so I saw many business undergrads wearing their “professional clothes” and I wholeheartedly agree they weren’t learning anything. So many women wearing skirts that were way too short with tall strappy heels even in winter in the upper Midwest. The men had it easier since it is harder to mess up a suit – although some did mangr to, but it was rare to see an undergrad woman wearing something that I would consider wearing to work. Just the lesson that shows you can’t confidently walk in are not professional shoes would have gone a long way!

    2. Temperance*

      I really like this. One of my 7th grade teachers did this for us when we went to see an actual theater production, and taught us about how dressing appropriately shows respect for the performers.

      25+ years later, I still live by that rule.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        I think this could be used gently to teach but still give basically an A for effort even if kids couldn’t afford the literal clothes. You can learn to tie a tie with something other than a tie.

      2. nope*

        My college major did this since we were entering a profession that has specific and varied dress requirements depending on setting. Just making an effort was good enough, even if we didn’t always hit the mark every day. It allowed us to buy one or two good pieces each term and slowly build the wardrobe instead of needing to drop $750 all at once as a new grad.

        One of the professors ran a clothing donation program. If you changed sizes, you could put your old professional clothing in the donation chest. Lots of more established people in our profession would also donate their lightly used clothing, so there was lots of options for sizing and style. It was super helpful.

      3. Shoes*

        Coming from deep poverty myself, let me offer, if you’re required to show up in “business attire” and don’t have any, showing up as “neat” as your circumstances allow will suffice. And if grace isn’t offered for that? Well, that’s a life lesson. Grace isn’t always offered.

      4. anomnom*

        The university I work for has a donation closet at the business school, and one at the journalism school (for on-air student newscasters). Anyone can donate to it and they do drives 1-2 times per year. It’s a great program. I believe there’s someone who teaches nuances like shining your shoes and being neatly groomed.

  32. LTR FTW*

    The top suggestion I would give as a brand new employee is to just be on time! ALWAYS! Make sure you show up at work when you are supposed to (not five minutes late). Join conference calls on the dot, not at 2 minutes past. Turn your deliverables in when they are due, always — or provide a as much advance warning as possible if you’ve run into a blocker.

    If you do this consistently, it will provide a ton of goodwill and will often make up for a lot of other shortcomings. It’s such a simple thing, but it gives such a good impression of competence and reliability. It’s hard to believe but it’s HUGE.

    Being on time and being friendly to everyone is like 90% of being successful at your first job.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      And keeping your calendar up to date! (Helps you, too!)

      Learn to use scheduling tools. That doesn’t just add goodwill. For some reason, it makes you look like a genius to some people.

  33. Hiring Mgr*

    This might be a boring answer, but as a first generation college student, I don’t think my workplace experiences were necessarily any different. Back in the day your parents could have at least semi professional jobs even if they didn’t have degree, so it wasn’t like entering a strange new world.

    1. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

      I think this is also a good point – any change of industry can change the norms.

      My parents were white collar, but both in education – my dad was a PhD college professor in liberal arts and my mom was in early education. Neither of them in anyway prepared me for what my first job in a non-academic setting would be like.

      I had no idea in my 20’s how to dress for my job as an engineer for a relatively conservative company – I fluctuated constantly between too casual and too formal at a time when the company was reluctantly changing to “business casual except with clients”. (It did not help that the engineering manager defined this as “For men this means a collared shirt and dress pants and …I don’t know what that means for you girls” – yes he said girls )

      1. Violet Fox*

        A lot of folks in academia spend their entire careers there and just haven’t had any work/office experience outside of it. As has been said on her a lot, it is a totally different world. This is also something to be careful of when getting general office/career behaviour advice from people at a university. If anyone at an academic institution speaks in absolutes about jobs outside of academia be wary, and take what they say with a grain of salt, or a whole shaker depending.

  34. ChaiTea&NaanBread*

    – Pay serious attention during your first interviews how people dress, talk, etc so that you can mirror it. (During interviews, be sure to mirror it, but one step more formal. If everyone is in jeans and polos, don’t wear a suit but do wear slacks and a polo instead.)

    – Same for your first couple of weeks. Bring your best self and then sit back and observe. What do people wear? How casual (or not) do they talk? How much and where do they socialize? And be sure you’re taking an average of the group. If a couple of people are dressing sloppy and cursing, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. This is especially true if those people are around your age because you don’t want to be lumped in with them.

    – Try and extend your relationships beyond your own department. You never know where you might want to move later on or who might be helpful. This is especially true if you get an opportunity to interact with people at higher levels in the company. Don’t be pushy in your interactions, but don’t be afraid to smile and say hello and make small talk in the elevator either.

    – Friendliness and respect are different in a professional setting. Things that you might consider disrespectful from someone in your social group are just normal at work. Also, someone who only says hello and doesn’t want to talk further might still be considered an office level of friendly. Everyone is here to do their job and be professional. Keep polite and professional as what you would hope from a colleague and then enjoy if they provide more.

    – Assume that no one is going to advocate for you. Be sure that you are humbly discussing your wins and actively seek out growth opportunities.

    – Don’t kill yourself going above and beyond if it doesn’t benefit you. Staying late and doing extra menial tasks with no recognition will not help your career. Work hard for people who notice and care. Also, try and get on high profile projects if you can.

    – Try not to take things too personally. Business decisions especially. You may not be promoted or receive a raise for plenty of reasons that have nothing to do with you as a person.

    – Most companies would fire you without remorse if they needed to. Move on to better things when it works for you. I have found that my immigrant parents feel as though I should have a loyalty to my company just because they gave me a job. Don’t allow this attitude to affect moving on to bigger and better things. If your company treats you with respect, do the same. But if they’ve shown you that you are disposable, you do not need to treat them any differently.

    – Try and have fun. This is your life and you should enjoy it as you can. You do not owe your family a high level of success, you owe yourself a high level of happiness. Success is financial security and a job you don’t hate. Don’t be afraid to do things that aren’t “impressive” if they would fulfill you.

  35. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    One of the things I am finding as a supervisor of college students in general is that there is currently a lack of basic phone, email and snail mail protocols. As an employer, be overly specific with new hires on how phones should be answered, what email signatures should contain, etc. Be clear on naming protocols in your office (First names, honorifics, etc.), dress norms etc. (I swear if I have one more job that says “business casual” without defining it….)

    As a student take the time to do some research on how to send a professional email, letter, take a phone call, etc. and ASK the workplace culture questions.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      Some places have templates & scripts for this sort of thing. Ask where to find them. Be willing to help create them if they don’t exist.

      I work in government in an area known for acronyms & jargon. If you work somewhere with a lot of unique terms & there isn’t already a shared glossary, start one. You will be a hero.

  36. Awkward in the Office*

    First gen across the board here: Eldest child, first born in the US, first to go to college and first to hit the major milestones including the office job (in HR of all things too). When you don’t have someone to ask at first, it feels a little scary. I am so happy to see this!
    -You’re going to make mistakes- Accept you made them and learn from them.
    -Don’t be afraid to ask questions about items in the office or if you’re unsure of how something was worded. (I didn’t know how the water cooler worked. That alone was an experience. lol)
    -Stop, look and listen was the best advice I ever got. Especially if you’re working with different generations. Learn the method to the madness first.

  37. K*

    My advice is that all of this is industry and workplace specific. Seek more specific advice from someone actually working in the exact kind of job you’re soon to find yourself. That will be more useful than vague advice from internet strangers working in different industries. Nothing is universal.

    1. Lexi Lynn*

      And, learn the culture of your organization. Some expect you to be on time for every meeting and others have meetings that always run over. If you are in the latter, a brief apology may be needed, but it isn’t a big deal.

      I tend to prioritize based on the attendees – if my next meeting is with members of company leadership, I’m leaving the earlier meetings, but if my current meeting is with VPs and the next is with project teams, I’m not dropping off until the VPs are done. Announcing ehen you have a “hard stop” can help, but its all culture dependent.

  38. Kan*

    In college settings, it can be helpful to talk about the “hidden curriculum” – the same is true for workplaces. There are secret rules that everyone is operating under, and people who come from parents in professional roles absorb those secret rules before entering the workforce. Those of us who didn’t have those parents do not. It is damaging to pretend this isn’t true, or that the norms are visible, easily learned, naturally-occuring for good reasons, etc. It is helpful when supervisors admit that there is a “hidden set of rules” and call it out when they see it. Here are some examples:

    When we go into this meeting with the data you prepared, if there are any questions asked, Big Boss will answer them, even though Big Boss does not understand the data as well as you do. Big Boss may get it wrong – do not correct Big Boss in front of Big Big Boss. I will clarify it later with Big Boss, and give you credit for your work with the data.

    Dept Chair will insist that there is a level playing field, and anyone who works hard will advance, but every summer, Dept Chair will find an internship for Dept Chair’s friends’ children, or, throughout the year, suddently discover the need for a Master’s level XYZ and it just so happens their friend’s child just got their Masters and will be perfect for it.

  39. HCW*

    Yes! And if you are a professional in the “time to lean, time to clean” mindset, you might step on others’ toes. In my first masters-level position in a (dysfunctional) nonprofit, I thought I was being polite and respectful and productive by making my own copies, doing my own shredding, etc. The (much older) administrative assistant discreetly pulled me aside and explained that it made them look redundant and their hours were being reduced. I was being paid to do tasks that required professional training, and they was being paid to help me focus on those tasks, and we needed to stay in our roles.

  40. Springtime*

    I’m thinking back on my own experience and trying to think of what might have been avoided by preparation, rather than just having to learn by suffering through. One thing that I think many young people, and especially those from blue-collar environments, are unprepared for is diversity in the workplace. And I don’t mean their politics, just the run-of-the-mill fact that blue-collar jobs tend to be more “typecast,” hiring from a specific population. You’re more likely to be working with people all your age, all your socioeconomic class, and possibly all your race. On the last one, race, people are more attuned to it, but I think sometimes people new to a workplace are unprepared to accept the perspectives of coworkers of different ages as though they are all equally valid. And I cringe to remember a coworker and I casually bashing on a nearby upscale town (along the lines of “who would live with all those rich people”) and having another coworker politely point out that she had lived there and liked it. Later, I’ve worked with people who were best friends with senators, etc. Which doesn’t mean that I have to like the people my coworkers do, but I’ve realized that I shouldn’t just blast my opinions, assuming everyone is just like me. Also, in a blue-collar workplace, labor and management are very “us vs. them,” and in a union workplace, that’s codified procedurally. But in the white-collar workplace, labor is seen as potential management and expected to support management. That can take some adjustment.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, my previous blue-collar jobs all hired from the same small-town pool so everyone was about the same demographic (and most of them were related either socially or literally). Current white-collar job is much, much, more diverse, although it’s based in a very large and notably diverse city so it ought to be. Current job is also very much not us-versus-them: Everyone is needed for something and you respect that.

  41. AnotherSarah*

    I have a question about this question! It seems to assume that first-gen students are also first-gen workers. About 1/3-1/2 of my students are first-gen college students, but all of them have parents who work, many in office jobs. Granted, I haven’t seen their transitions from being a student to being an employee, but I’m wondering about the assumptions behind this question. IME, many college grads are completely unprepared for office work, whether their parents went to college or not. (I think we see a lot of evidence for that here.)

    1. Morgan Proctor*

      Yeah, this assumption is weird! I am not a first-gen student or worker. Both my parents had cushy white-collar jobs. But that didn’t prepare me in the slightest for actually working in an office environment. I mean, why would it? It’s not like I went to work with them when I was a child. They didn’t come home from work, sit me down, and explain granular details of their day to me. I didn’t osmose office norms by simple proximity. This assumption feels *whispers* classist!

      1. ThirdSarah*

        There’s a lot of absorbing white collar norms that does happen when you grow up with white collar parents that you might not even realize. You are in the exact group without the experience AAM was asking for.

        1. ThirdSarah*

          (But thanks for coming in to white knight by saying it’s classist when it’s already clear that the people the post is intended to help don’t feel that way and are saying it’s a needed conversation. Sigh.)

          1. Hiring Mgr*

            It’s absolutely a good conversation, but there are some comments here that make it seem like we’ve all been working down in the mines for twenty years.

            1. deesse877*

              I think the social distance between classes varies considerably by region of the US, so that in some places there’s a lot of overlap in day-to-day life, and in others hardly any. Further, I suspect these differences do NOT always map on conventional narratives (or stereotypes) of class and regional divide, so it’s confusing. Race is not a clean proxy for class, but the most intensely segregated public schools are now in New York City, for example. So the 22-y-o who doesn’t know how to raise a critical problem isn’t necessarily the coal miners daughter anymore, and perhaps is all the more invisible for that reason.

      2. Yup*

        Yeah I’m a first generation college student so I answered, but something was tugging at me when I read this question. Maybe it’s the automatic assumption that “professional” = “office job that requires a college degree”.

        I will say though, that while you may not have learned office norms from your parents, the worlds of families where pretty much everyone goes to college are pretty different from those where nobody else in the family goes to college (like mine). I’m sure this carries over into the workplace although it may not be about knowledge of black and white norms. Whether or not your family has the money to go to college is one difference of course. But mainly the way you perceive and navigate the world is so heavily influenced by the status you (and your family) have been assigned, whether or not you realize it.

        Finding it hard to think of specific examples, it’s just a lot of little things that added up to me different and out of place when I first found myself entirely surrounded by college educated people. Like I remember the first time my someone in my husbands family (all college educated) asked where I went to school. I’ve since gathered that this is an apparently normal getting to know you question, but at the time I was totally taken aback. Nobody in my family or social circle would think to ask that question, but here it was being assumed that of course, I had gone to college.

        1. Nethwen*

          Yup’s comment resonates with me.

          In my social circle, asking where someone went to school only happens if you also are looking to go to school for a similar area of study. Maybe in religious contexts it comes up b/c people want to make conclusions about your theology without getting to know you, but otherwise, asking where someone went to school as small talk is as weird as asking them if they’ve ever floated on their back in the ocean.

          I remember a while ago on AAM, someone commented that *everyone* knows which schools have poor reputations and if you don’t, it’s *easy* find out. Well, the way I was raised, it would never have occurred to us that it was even a question to ask. A college was a college. If you don’t know that something is a concern, then people who might advise you aren’t necessarily going to bring it up. And that’s assuming you have access to people who might know and advise you. If you add in religious considerations, then what makes a school good or bad is significantly different from a professional definition.

          This “you don’t know what you don’t know” carries over to employment. My parents’ background was blue collar, then healthcare. That’s a different environment than the profession I entered. I also spent several years after college working in seasonal jobs before entering my profession.

          A lot of the things people have mentioned here were true for me. I learned professional norms through embarrassment and AAM. What would have helped me was if my first professional job gave me a sheet of paper and specifically told me things like paid vs. unpaid breaks, you don’t have to use honorifics, you can use the bathroom without telling someone, etc.

        2. Generic Name*

          Yeah, my husband is a carpenter, and his family is primarily blue collar. I’m a 3rd (plus??) generation college graduate (grandpa was an engineer). For white collar folks, asking where someone works/what their job is is also a common “getting to know you” question. Virtually none of my husband’s friends or families ask about people’s jobs. I find it refreshing to not talk about my job in my off hours. Not because I hate my job, but because it’s nice to relate to other people as people and talk about what you do when you’re not at work.

          1. Yup*

            Oh yes, I’ve noticed this as well. What do you do or where you work aren’t questions my family would ever ask upon meeting someone. In my husband’s family it’s one of the first questions (along with where did you go to school).

      3. Modesty Poncho*

        My parents were white-collar – my mom stayed home while we were young and then became a substitute teacher and part-time librarian. My dad was a lawyer. They didn’t sit me down or whatever but what I learned from watching them:

        I saw my dad come home at the same time every night, right around 5:30, in a suit. I learned to expect standard work hours and a bit about formal business dress.

        Sometimes in the summer my mom would bring us to the cafeteria at my dad’s workplace for lunch. I learned to expect a paid lunch hour as a salaried employee – this surprised the hell out of me when I started working as an hourly employee and felt cheated.

        I saw my dad sometimes come home with “homework” and put extra hours in after dinner – I learned that you can’t always leave work at work and you may need to be flexible.

        When I called my dad at work, I would often get his secretary and politely explain who I was – I learned that executives have assistants and aren’t expected to be available to answer their own phones.

        Just quick and off the cuff, but that’s how this stuff passes down.

    2. ThirdSarah*

      It’s a question from someone who was a first-gen college student who found they struggled in similar ways when they started work and it quotes a letter from someone who said the same thing about their own first-gen experience. As a first-gen myself, I relate and appreciate the post. I found my struggles were different than my peers.

    3. deesse877*

      There is no assumption that people are “first-generation workers” here because that is an absurd and irrational concept. Everyone works, in formal or informal/domestic jobs (with allowances for disability, structural unemployment, and I suppose at least some incarcerated people). Not everyone works, or has family who work, in a white-collar environment, with all the cultural and organizational norms that pertain. We are discussing the latter situation, and more specifically young people moving into the managerial world with little cultural knowledge of it.

      In fact your comment suggests that you’re unaware of the particularities of your own milieu. I recommend some reflection on that point.

      1. AnotherSarah*

        What I was saying was that many of the first-gen students I work with have, in fact, parents in white-collar jobs.

    4. Leia Oregano*

      I’m a first generation college graduate. My father was Navy for 20 year and is now civilian DOD. My mom worked a corporate secretarial job when I was a small child and odd jobs in my later childhood years. She’s been a SAHM ever since and didn’t go back to work as my sister and I grew up.

      They never talked about work at home. For most of my childhood, my father *couldn’t* talk about work at home, because he was a nuclear engineer and everything he did was protected by security clearances. My mom didn’t talk about her work except for anecdotes, and even then rarely — in one job she assembled car parts and that’s literally all I know about what she did. They never talked to me about workplace norms, how to have difficult conversations with people hierarchically above me, how to advocate for myself, or even how to dress or talk to people in a job interview. Their advice, if they’d had any, would have been totally outside the realm of what I was looking for, in the career niche I’ve dug out for myself. My father, who didn’t want me to go to college at all and will still vocally tell people that, would have just told me to drop out of school and come work with him. That was often his advice when my mom would update him as I went through school, especially any time I was struggling. I didn’t see them model effective workplace communication or talk through their work struggles, and what worked for them wouldn’t work for me — I can talk to my supervisor a lot more freely than my father could talk to his commanding officers.

      Everything I learned about work, I learned on the job, trying my damndest to absorb through observation and osmosis. I’m very grateful that I’m a naturally reserved person who likes to observe before I contribute, because that gave me the distance I needed to figure out how the heck to operate. I still made mistakes, but seeing as I work in the same office I worked in as a student and they’re the ones who wanted me to stick around after I graduated, I obviously didn’t mess up that badly. When I needed advice, my mom couldn’t offer me anything specific — her advice was the same as it had been when I was in college which was the same advice she had when I was in high school: talk it out if you can, suck it up or leave if you can’t.

      I work in higher ed now and have since I was still a college student, and I can see the differences in myself and my colleagues who have a familial college background. They’re much more fluid with their workplace lingo, they know how to find or take advantage of benefits. They don’t have hangups about leaving early for an appointment or asking for time off. They don’t second-guess themselves as much. They are more confident in their place in the office and our wider workplace. Even in the face of uncertainty in the workplace, they feel more comfortable navigating that and reaching a conclusion or finding help. Whereas I feel like I missed a few dozen memos. I have to ask my supervisor really dumb questions about how to access benefits or what certain workplace terms mean or how to communicate effectively with certain people in ways that my colleagues don’t — I’m a few years into my career and that knowledge gap is still there. The differences between someone like myself and someone from a college-educated family can be subtle but insidious, and I didn’t realize what I didn’t know and what gaps my upbringing left me with until I was staring into the maw of them.

    5. That Girl*

      On the other hand, there are many first generation to college people who come from a privileged upbringing with parents who did not go to college and whose financial success comes from doing well in a blue collar trade. I am married to one of those people and, early in our marriage, I found him to be very naive about professional norms in white collar jobs. Examples included telling a manager, apropos of nothing, that he planned to look for other jobs and applying for a high level job and telling the interviewer he was qualified because he’s very organized. It was never the obvious stuff, like being forward with co-workers or dressing badly. Just lots of weird decisions about which he should have known better.

    6. Nancy*

      Agree. I’m a first generation college grad, but both my parents had office jobs. My answer would be they need the same thing as any other new grad who has never had a full-time job before and is entering the workforce today.

      1. Nancy*

        I did think of something that I think is relevant to all: encourage them to meet with someone with experience in the specific field they are interested in, whether it’s their own advisor, another professor, someone in career services who is focused on that field, or even alumni that have agreed to be contacted by students. Help them come up with names of people to contact. My first job was in a lab, and no one in my family works in the science field. The person who helped most was my advisor, who knew how to look for jobs, what paths where available other than grad or med school, what, for example, a lab job looked like day-to-day, etc. This can be especially important for students with majors that don’t necessarily translate to a clear job path. The general info from career services at the time was mainly for corporate office work, so not always useful.

  42. Sinner*

    Things I learned the hard way in my first professional job:

    -Even if you hate your job you should be very conservative with who you tell. I thought my coworkers and I were in the same boat (maybe I was thinking it would be like class?), but boy was that incorrect! Same goes with being too honest with how much time you spend procrastinating. Until you’re very certain of your audience, better not go there.

    -Speaking of procrastination – maybe you know your ideal workflow is bursts of high energy followed by a slower more restful pace. Maybe you’ve made peace with that and decided to work with your brain and not against it and have achieved a higher productivity thanks to optimizing on this. Your manager might not see it that way and still expect you to work 8 hours uninterrupted. Until you have a solid track record to prove your method works, you’ll probably have to find a way to comply.

    -Also on that topic: I recommend assuming you’re being monitored in some kind of way until you find out for certain if you are or not. That’ll save you some grief if it turns out your supervisor was tracking everything you do.

    -It’s better to err on the side of looking too buttoned-up than realize (belatedly) that some of your outfits show more skin than what is really appropriate.

    -A follow-up to the one above: not every office environment is one where people tell you things directly. Many, many many managers do not want to have the awkward conversation and will be content to leave you to suffer the consequences of your own ignorance. This sucks but can’t really be helped. Best thing you can do is ask questions when you have doubts.

    -In a similar vein: it’s better not to take things at face value unless you know for a fact there’s no subtext or politics involved (I still struggle with that, likely because I’m also neurodivergent). For instance, if an email about an open position says everyone is encouraged to apply, that’s not necessarily true across the board. I got in what I would call “soft trouble” for trying to move laterally too soon after getting hired – I was told that the org encouraged people to find their niche within the company and I didn’t realize I was expected to demonstrate I enjoyed my current position first (I didn’t; see above!).

    -Maybe it’s a good idea to see your first position (or first few positions, even) as practice runs where you don’t intend to stay forever. I am frequently thankful that my current colleagues have no knowledge of some of my past mistakes. Also, forgive yourself. You weren’t taught this stuff, and even if you were, it’s still hard.

    1. Marianne*

      Yes your first paragraph is very important! I once worked where there was a manager who was adored by some people and feared and despised by others. Don’t say disparaging things about another worker or manager because you could say it to the wrong person. I sure put my foot in my mouth with regard to this manager.

  43. Yup*

    Hm one thing that I wish I’d known sooner is often times, you really don’t have to settle for just whatever job you’re offered. Yes, when you’re first starting out you often take what you can get as far as pay, schedules, etc. because the rent won’t wait for you to find the perfect opportunity. But be thinking about what you really want in a job and be on the look out for stepping stones to better opportunities. Better jobs are almost always out there, but you’re unlikely to find them if you don’t believe they exist. Definitely don’t stay in a dead-end job or one that offers a subpar quality of life for any longer than you have to.

    1. J*

      I think it took me until my 30s to really internalize this. My parents both had backgrounds that basically made them feel desperately lucky and grateful when they found a job they could stay at for any period of time. When I planned to leave my government job after just 2 years, they were horrified. They could not understand, even though I described scenarios that later left both my bosses in trouble with the law, why I would want to leave. I used to have that same mindset of being grateful, then it changed to “it’s okay to leave to escape a bad circumstance.” Later I learned 1) it’s okay to leave if I want and 2) it’s okay to decline an offer that is great for someone else but not right for me.

  44. amanda*

    Treat your boss and other higher-ups as respected equals…with some distance. They’re not your parent or therapist or anyone you should look for for support with personal issues. They are also not your antagonist or out to get you. They are in the same position you will be, with a little more experience and polish.

    1. Yup*

      Ooh, this is a good one. I still have to occasionally remind myself of this one 20 years into my career. When I started out I would freeze up around higher ups, they just seemed to have more authority than I could ever imagine having, which was very intimidating.

  45. DevelopmentProgramAdvoc*

    One thing I advise college students when looking for a jobs is to specifically search out corporate development programs. I know it’s not possible for everyone or every field but if you can find one they are built to introduce new grads to the workplace. I started in an engineering program with a “class” of other new professionals with explicit technical and workplace training that we could all learn together and from each other. The particular program I joined had built in mentors for the program also to help you understand the company and your navigate your career plus the “classmates” were great to ask questions about dress/IT issues/setting up benefits/dealing with managers.

  46. Snow Globe*

    I am not a first-generation college graduate, but one thing that was strange for me was when I was promoted to my first salaried, exempt job, just a couple of years out of school. I imagine that would be an even bigger shock for someone whose parents were always hourly. It took me a while to realize that it was kind of frowned upon to leave at exactly 5pm every day. Most people in that job probably worked 45-50 hours per week. I was used to being conscientious about not going over 40 hours. On the other had, it kind of blew my mind that I could leave for a medical appointment in the middle of the day and no one cared.

  47. MaxOut*

    Make sure you’re signed up for and getting all the benefits as part of the job! Someone with HR responsibilities can get you started but you may need to do some google research of 401Ks and Health Savings Accounts/insurance perks etc. I am not a first gen professional and still this was all really overwhelming. If a new hire asked me about it now, I’d be happy to make sure they are set up and getting the most that they can.

    1. Shoes*

      Learn about the benefits your job offers. If HR doesn’t have the answers, research and educate yourself. Companies will offer you benefits. They will not monitor your choices to ensure you getting the most out them for your situation (e.g. a single persons needs vs. the needs of a married older person with children).

    2. Violet Fox*

      Benefits are part of your compensation package and you should not feel bad for using them.

  48. ASGirl*

    This would have been so helpful to me 25 years ago when I started my first office job. My grandparents, uncles, Dad all worked in auto factories and my mom was stay at home or random jobs here and there. My Dad had a photograph when he got trained to be a supervisor for a little bit and had a desk, and on the wall near his desk were playboy centerfolds, this was in the early 80s. He didn’t last long in that role!

  49. Dust Bunny*

    The behaviors that got you through school might not work on the job.

    Also: For the most part, stay in your lane (there are times that you need to bend this one, yes, but if you find yourselves tempted to bend it a lot you’re either in a weird workplace or your expectations are out of line with the reality of the job/your coworkers).

    We’re coaching a younger friend right now about her habit of getting personal with coworkers she feels aren’t pulling their weight. She came from a phenomenally unsupportive family and got through school by basically being an eternal presence in her teachers’ and counselor’s lives (and not a little on being charming). But at work now she keeps complaining when about her coworkers and trying to badger work out of them. I can’t tell if they’re slackers or if they have other demands on their time and she doesn’t understand that they can’t produce what she wants on her schedule (I suspect it’s mostly the latter). I think we’ve almost convinced her that since she’s not their manager and she’s also not the only person to whose work they contribute, she can’t expect them to do everything her way and on her timeline, and tattling doesn’t work at work just like it doesn’t work when you’re kids.

    1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

      This is very important, not throwing your coworkers under the bus for you to get ahead. You will irreparably destroy that work relationship and it will come back to haunt you.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        In this instance it’s not so much to get ahead as it is to make sure her supervisor knows that Jane didn’t do her part of the group project. There’s a huge difference between saying, “I can’t finish that report because Jane is late with her part,” and “I’m almost done with that report but I need the stats from last week before I can get it to you.”

        And if it’s a chronic problem you don’t go to your supervisors and say, “Jane’s part is always late,” you say, “We keep getting hung up because the weekly stats seem to be out of sync with the timeline for finishing the reports–is there another way we can handle this?”

        Right now her impulse is to let everyone know that She Does Her Work On Time with the assumption that Everyone Else is Goofing Off, but she doesn’t actually know that (they serve a group of bosses who all have their own requests), and defaulting to it is hurting her relationships.

      2. Hiring Mgr*

        That’s true, but did your parents need to have gone to college for you to know that? Don’t get me wrong, it’s good advice, but I think it’s applicable for anyone just entering the workforce

        1. Dust Bunny*

          None of this is absolute: Your parents don’t absolutely need to have gone to college for you to know any of the stuff on this post/thread, but my personal experience has been that this tracks more with jobs that expect you to do what the boss says, no questions, than with jobs that expect you to be more autonomous, because if you don’t feel you can be autonomous you get very invested when someone doesn’t have their part of the project on your schedule.

  50. Whomst*

    I don’t know if this was just a “me being dumb” thing, but I didn’t realize the second most important part of an internship is getting the contact info of your supervisor and a coworker or two. I had two internships under my belt before I realized I needed to keep contact information for my boss from my previous workplaces, and at that point it was too late to get those first two internships. I was able to use college professors to land a real job, but it was initially difficult when then only references I had were professors and a family friend who had hired me for a summer job a few years previous. I make sure to tell all the interns and students I work with that they need to keep contact info for references, since I missed that memo.

    1. Hiring Mgr*

      Connecting on LinkedIn would be a natural for that too, so maybe that’s something else to suggest

  51. Mid-West Nice*

    Not sure if this has been covered but not all problems have one right answer. Often your boss doesn’t know what the question is that you are trying to answer.
    Something else is your boss doesn’t know all the details of your everyday work usually. They have a general idea but be prepared to provide a brief summary of what you are dealing with when asked. Be prepared to come to your boss with a problem but also a list of potential solutions.
    Be accepting that you will have to deal with many different people from different walks of life and different cultures and nationalities.
    The language you use in an office is different than what you would use on a shop floor. Swearing is not nearly as common as TV shows seem to demonstrate.
    Be ready to learn new terms and acronyms at each job. Each place has a different name for the same thing.
    I think the biggest thing for starting a professional role is that the expectation that you are responsible for figuring out what needs to get done for your job. Often your boss won’t give you a step by step list of what you need to do. They will say just figure it out. Don’t be afraid to ask experienced coworkers for help. Usually there is at least one person who wants to help the new people out.

  52. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

    Thinking of some of my “cringe” moments and watching some of my fresh out of college workers “cringe” moments recently makes me give this advice:
    1. Be aware that there is a lot you don’t know. You’re not an expert yet so watch your more seasoned co-workers to see how to handle things.
    2. Don’t alienate your coworkers with your attitude (see #1), and definitely don’t throw them under the bus to try to get ahead. They will remember this and it will come back to bite you.
    3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
    4. Offer solutions, new ideas can only strengthen a place.
    5. If you have to predicate a statement with “I hope this doesn’t offend you” then you probably shouldn’t say it in a professional environment where the stakes are higher than in your personal life.
    6. It takes a while to learn to do the job well, that being said having poor time management skills does not mean that you get overtime (if everyone else can complete the task within the time allotted in the work day).
    7. It’s important to read the workplace culture. If your behavior is way outside the norms of your peers then it will cause problems with day to day functions at work.

  53. Turingtested*

    If your boss asks you to do something, no matter how mildly phrased, do it. If your boss gives you feedback, no matter how gentle, follow it.

    I was used to jobs with lots of yelling and barking of orders and it took me a bit to realize that all requests need to be followed even if the tone might make it seem optional.

    And this is pretty culturally specific, but I’m from a poor white US background and we call people and things bitch without thinking much of it. Many people find this offensive do not do it.

    1. deesse877*

      I think that one is generational as well as regional! For me, growing up, “b!tch” always meant “you lack human worth and I am ok with never ever having a positive relationship with you again.” Today it seems to have a really, really wide range of meanings, some of which can only be parsed if you have an insider’s grasp of the speaker’s gender presentation and sexuality. Fascinating! but probably too complex for use with Mandy in the upstairs office.

  54. It's Marie - Not Maria*

    First Generation College Student here. The biggest thing is for everyone to understand that College isn’t for everyone! Some people are much more successful in skilled trades, or the military, or a profession which doesn’t require a College Degree. we’ve had it crammed into our heads for the past 40+ years that a college degree is the ticket to the easy life – and it’s not. If I have one piece of advise for first generation college students, it is make sure what you want to do really requires a college degree. It’s a lot of time, effort and money to go to college, and Student Loans are for (almost) forever. If your chosen career does require a College Degree, by all means go for it! But it may not, so evaluate this before you put in a lot of time, money and effort.

    1. lil falafel wrap*

      I agree with this in general and also, no one ever says this to white upper middle class kids! Growing up in a working class family, I was well aware that there were other options than college but I wanted to go to college. I think we should be cognizant of who we’re encouraging/discouraging.

  55. Throwaway Account*

    I’m so sorry to jump in when I’m not a 1st gen student but:

    1. What is a work co-op, I thought it was a co-owned work space? But it sounds like it means internship? I googled it, and a co-op is different from an internship so I’m confused. Are there meaningful distinctions?

    2. I am teaching an “intro to being a college student course” and they asked me for advice in finding an internship (our careers office covers this but for all the AAM reasons I don’t entirely trust them). I was going to ask this in the open thread and probably still will, but any advice for getting started finding an internship?

    1. Anastasia Beaverhousen*

      To find an internship schools typically have companies they regularly partner with but this is also going to vary by field. I.e. engineering is going to be different than human services. It is up to the student to interview with a company for an internship, get accepted and connect the school with that organization.

    2. deesse877*

      Internships and access to internship opportunities are oft major-specific, so your students may be asking too early in their college career. Depending on the structure of your institution, you could redirect them by asking them to research offerings in their major (my dept at a large school gives credit for internship and has paid staff to administer and facilitate, and I understand that to be the norm here), or you could get a general list from career services, and ask students to break down the list by what fits their majors and minors.

    3. doreen*

      “Co-op” in education is short for cooperative education and in my experience refers to a program where students alternate academic study and full time work in their field. It’s different from an internship in a few ways – Co-op placements are usually full-time and paid, while internships are normally part-time and aren’t always paid. Students don’t ordinarily take any other classes during the co-op period. But I think the biggest difference is that co-op is usually a degree requirement and internships usually aren’t.

      1. Orange You Glad*

        Yes, this explains the co-op program I participate in. The co-op student is essentially a full-time entry-level employee for an extended period of time (for us 6 months).

    4. Magpie*

      At least at my university, a work co-op is a paid working opportunity that you do during a semester (or part of a semester), which counts for credit towards your degree. So it’s similar to an internship, except that you are generally working for an organization that has an ongoing relationship with your degree program specifically, and it’s more explicitly didactic than an internship – you are there as a Student, not an Intern.

  56. Sharon*

    For me, the hardest part was understanding flexibility – can you adjust your hours, can you decline meetings, can you ask for extensions on deadlines, how to do ask other people to help you. 30 years ago, a supervisor suggested I could work from home or do a compressed schedule which blew my mind because I grew up in a blue collar family where you showed up at your start time and did exactly what your boss told you to do every day unless you were dead.

    Also initiative! Many first gen office workers come from work backgrounds where toeing the line is expected and initiative may even be punished. The idea that you just figure out what needs to be done and collaborate with others without waiting to be told is something I see a lot of people struggle with.

    A final item is that you need to be able to provide background in a succinct way. Approaching a senior leader with “This is the XYZ contract. Manager X said it’s been reviewed by Legal and is ready to sign” is likely to go over much better than “Here, sign this.”

    Managers can help by stepping in early and providing expectations, especially if they notice issues, rather than just hoping a new employee will figure it out.

  57. Angie S.*

    I’m technically not a first-generation in my family to attend university. My mom didn’t go but my dad and my uncle did (Being Chinese and the family favoured boys for higher education in the old days). I agree with everyone that not everyone at work will be your friend. I feel that once or twice in my career I was hired not only because of my skillset, but because I am a woman and a minority. You need to figure out quick who really appreciate you because you are smart and are willing to do the best that you can.

  58. Irish Teacher*

    As a teacher, one thing I have noticed is that people from blue collar/working class backgrounds are more likely to see rules/norms as written in stone, for example they are more likely to assume that wages are set by some executive in head office and that all llama groomers across all branches are paid x amount and far less likely to consider that anybody in contact with an entry level employee would have any power to change that. Just using that as an example; I think wage norms might be different in the US than here, so it may or may not be a good example, but in general, I feel that kids from middle class/white collar/wealthier backgrounds (and yes, I know these are three different groups) are more likely to believe they can negotiate (and sometimes to overestimate the degree to which they can negotiate) whereas those from blue collar/working class/less privileged backgrounds are more likely to assume the norms are set and they just have to accept them.

    That said, I think we also need to be careful of categorising people too much. While things may be more common in one group than another, I am sure there are plenty of people who grew up with blue collar parents who are very familiar with workplace negotiation and people with well-to-do parents who have no idea how to go about it.

    And of course, being a first generation college student does not mean you grew up poor or that your parents didn’t work in offices and even if they didn’t, that doesn’t mean you didn’t have uncles or aunts or cousins or neighbours or friends’ parents who did.

    I was a first generation college student and don’t really think I had any more difficulty adjusting to college than those of my classmates with professional parents.

    And of course, having parents who are familiar with professional norms doesn’t necessarily mean they are familiar with the norms of the profession the kid is entering (and that’s assuming the kid is close to his or her parents and that they can get advice from them). As a teacher, I would probably be no more familiar with some office norms than somebody who is not from a professional background would be. For example, I would have had no idea about yearly evaluations, as in my profession, in Ireland, the only people who can evaluate my work are the inspectors and so far, I have never had an inspection; they are things that happen maybe a couple of times in one’s career and even then, the advice is very general and I don’t think it is given by individual, more “we visited four classes and found teaching in this school to be very good but feel technology could be used more often” sort of thing.

    So I guess what I am saying is that a lot of the advice you get here may apply to more students than you would imagine.

    1. Throwaway Account*

      You make a good point Irish Teacher!

      I grew up with white-collar parents (dad had a bachelor’s, mom a CC degree, both had office jobs). But Dad was probably on the spectrum and struggled with work relationships and behavior (I now see how many things he got wrong!). And mom came from “genteel poverty” that did not serve her well.

      I was really lost in college and in finding a job. And though I’m close to retirement age, I’m still learning things that I’m out of sync with from AAM.

  59. lost academic*

    I’ll preface this with saying I didn’t actually understand I was a first generation college student until decades later and … I think it hurt me. I grew up in a college town with a mother who hadn’t gone to college and a father who wasn’t in the picture (had his own first family, long story) but he was a doctor. And I knew my extended family were all college graduates and postgraduates but they weren’t a part of my life. So in some ways there was a lot I knew and thought I knew but so much I didn’t realize I didn’t know, and much of that was the soft vs hard skill side. I had a LOT of the things that allowed me to get into the elite colleges (which given that we had negative money, literally, were the only places available because it was full ride in grant or nothing) – so we worked from the age of 5 t o ensure we (2 other sibs) got there.

    People definitely expected, given where I was from, what I was doing, that I just knew more then I did. I didn’t know how to dress. I didn’t know how to figure out how to dress and as a woman it was even more daunting because there’s no business/business casual ‘uniform’. I didn’t know anything about makeup or curating a professional appearance. I didn’t really understand from any firsthand observation what a professional office type job looked like and I knew I didn’t understand so I unconsciously avoided looking for jobs like that and focused on what felt familiar – things like research and nonprofits. And there’s nothing wrong with it, but I got into environmental consulting and had to learn fast because that is a fast paced, technical AND client facing job where you are in the deep end from day 1.

    College helped a LOT and people these days have a lot of Feelings about the value of a college education and particular one at an elite school but it made a HUGE impact on my ability to choose and change directions with confidence and support. Once I was in they were going to make me a success and I got my first consulting job in large part based on my college, and I know it because the president of the firm said it.

    It also helped to make the connections in my life with people that had unquestionable faith that I would of course be successful at what I chose to do. That’s a confidence that you get from people who’ve made it and know they can make it again and they come from families and environments where while it might not be a given, it still has a pretty good road map. I didn’t have to go home and feel like an impostor or deal with antagonism or skepticism or put downs about choosing a path that wasn’t blue collar. No one acted like I was going to college for an MRS degree either. Building my network in college really helped even if it wasn’t intentional from the start.

    In some ways what helped, in summary, was a lot of little things and a TON of luck and systemic, institutional college support. I’m successful because of everyone and everything in my life and that is true for every person out there, whether they realize it or not – but once you realize that no matter where you’re coming from that it is and HAS to be true, you can start to understand how to use it to get where you want to go, even if sometimes it’s just the next small step in front of you.

    1. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

      I have had a different experience in lots of ways but your point about not realising you were first-gen until much later and that *in itself* hurting you is exactly my life! My parents were so invested in presenting as successful middle-class culturally sophisticated people that I didn’t realise until I was in my forties that actually I was the child of an immigrant and a hugely insecure first-generation professional and that I was wildly out of sync with the assumptions and norms of people around me, and had been for decades, WITHOUT REALISING IT. It’s weird.

  60. Jigglypuff*

    Find someone who can help you to check your tone in emails. I was told off frequently in my first several jobs for not using enough softening language in emails, particularly when they were to my superiors. It’s not a bad thing to be abrupt, but you need a lot of social clout to do that, and when you’re a new graduate, you don’t have that clout yet.

    What helped me most was to sit back and observe. I listened to the way others addressed people in conversations and the way their emails were worded. I watched the way other people interacted in the office, how much they revealed about their personal lives, etc. etc. and tried to mimic that to best fit in with the office environment. Think of it almost like visiting a foreign country – you need to learn the customs for that area, and the best way to do it is by watching people who have already lived there a while.

  61. First gen immigrant grad*

    I’m a first gen college grad with parents who owned their own business, so even when they started making more money, there wasn’t any support I could get from them in a more “normal” business environment. One of my parents is an immigrant, and I spent most of my childhood in the country my parent immigrated from, so there were a lot of cultural things I had to learn too once I got to college in the US. Here are a few things I’ve learned/ mentored other first gen college grads on. There is a mix of advice for both current students and recent grads:
    1) Getting your first professional job is really, really hard, and a big part of it is even knowing what sorts of jobs exist out there. (There’s this idea my parents had that if you had a college degree, jobs are just handed to you, and it’s super frustrating to hear when you’re struggling to find a job). I remember listening to an interview once where an investment banker was asked how they got into that career. This person answered: “same as everyone else. I knew I wanted to do this in middle/ high school, so I just made sure to get really good at math, etc.” My brain was like: this is the difference!! You knew what investment banking was in middle school!! For me, I got into my career by having lots and lots of networking conversations.
    2) Start having “networking” conversations ASAP. You’re going to have some conversations that go nowhere and some that are super beneficial. You’re going to waste some people’s time, and you’re also going to embarrass yourself. But, it’s ok because you have to learn how to have these conversations in some way. I had a senior at my undergrad mention to me as a freshman that lots of people are happy to talk to college students about their jobs and careers, you just need to ask. This was super true! This extends to being a new grad as well. Mention in an email you’re interested in that career and ask for time.
    3) Be careful what you choose to major in. This kinda goes to my first point of how hard it is to get a job as it is easier for some majors than other majors. If you’re on the fence between majors (and even if you’re not), look at career outcomes for people from your undergrad with that major and focus less on which one you like more. You can get into almost any job from any major, but it’s easier for some majors to enter into some careers vs. other majors. Your “passion” doesn’t have to be your major. If you love art, you can still do that as a hobby or donate art later in life while you pursue a different career that probably helps pay the bills better.
    4) Don’t get a masters (or PhD) unless you can justify the cost. There are many low paying careers where getting a masters feels like almost a requirement. However, you end up being stuck in even more debt and have trouble paying off that debt while working in a low paying career. There’s lots to discuss about why some jobs don’t get a living wage, but until that’s changed, go into those jobs with your eyes wide open.

    1. deesse877*

      “Knowing what investment banking is in middle school” is such a crystal-clear example of unconscious class/white-collar privilege. Thanks!

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        This to me is such a huge example of unconscious bias that’s keeping people out of a lot of jobs. For example: a family member of mine works in an unusual but not really niche field (actuarial science). All through my life whenever I told someone he was an actuary the inevitable next question was “what’s that?”. It never got mentioned in any “here’s what jobs you could have” lists or high school courses, and barely any colleges even have official majors for it. You have to take applied math. To the surprise of absolutely no-one the field is now struggling to introduce any form of diversity beyond people from upper-middle class families. I’m positive that there’s dozens if not hundreds of other high-paying jobs out there that have the same problem of “I don’t even know you exist unless it’s by word of mouth”.

    2. Springtime*

      Excellent point about not knowing what kinds of jobs are out there! And how to match my experience thus far (working hard to get good grades plus a smattering of food service) to ANY kind of job ad I could find was a complete mystery. In my case, it did take being enrolled in a master’s program to be able to get my first office job. And I was almost 30 before I had my first permanent full-time job.

    3. Sharon*

      Yes to #1! I had no idea what kind of jobs were out there or how to get them, or how to find learning experiences while I was in college other than going to class, so I worked at Pizza Hut for a year after graduating from college. Only bumbled into my current field by working at a temp agency. By contrast, my friend had all done all kinds of internships and programs before she even graduated.

    4. J*

      I was just talking to a friend about how all the back-to-school boards for kids first day pictures have so many different jobs on them. When I went to school, I started my first day knowing maybe 5 career paths. The number did not increase significantly during school. In college it was a big shock to hear friends describe their planned careers. I pretty much met my teacher on Day 1 of kindergarten, liked the idea of being a teacher more than what my parents did and that became my dream job every day. Until Day 2 of college where I asked the question “if I don’t want to be a teacher one day, what else can I use this degree for?” and basically got laughed out of the room.

      I didn’t have parents who were white collar, the didn’t have white collar friends, and my aunts and uncles all had warehouse supervisor jobs as the fancy jobs as the family, usually it was much more likely to be the warehouse worker doing physical labor. I’m only another generation removed from the farmers of my family. I sometimes am stunned that even just me being the first kid to go to college meant my youngest sibling knew more jobs and could get into investment banking, something I figured out that existed when it basically crushed the economy I was graduating into. My world used to be so small and even just leaving my hometown and small rural college town opened my eyes so much.

    5. Coverage Associate*

      My family has a term “kindergarten jobs” meaning jobs that kindergarteners say they want to be when they grow up, like “firefighter” or “teacher.” Some are white collar, and kids know about them because they meet those professionals, like “doctor.” Some might be on television. But they’re all only one word and, yes, leave out a lot of professional jobs. We came up with the term because I was dating a “third party marketer,” which is totally not something a kindergartner would talk about.

      I’m in the States, but I love the Guy Fox “how the world really works” series from Britain. It starts with kids going on field trips to professional workplaces (courthouses, insurance exchanges, investment banks). The kids make the illustrations, but the text is by professionals. I can say that for insurance, it’s 100% accurate and not dumbed down. Highly recommended for anyone in a position to recommend books to children reading English!

  62. A Teacher*

    Not every job has the same protections as a union job.

    Worked in the corporate sector right out of graduate school in my field of study. My dad had been a union steward, as had two of my grandparents. I knew all about Weingarten rights with the union and as a teacher I now belong to the AFT local but that was a hard pill my first few years working.

  63. HipSaluki*

    You cannot “stay out of” office politics. That’s just not how it works, as all office politics means is the social culture and hierarchy around you. You ARE part of office politics whether you actively manage that part of your professional life or not.

    I always heard “stay out of it” growing up, and when I’d ask advice from my blue-collar family, they always said the same thing. As a result, I thought politics meant the leadership structure/people in charge and just avoided interactions. That wasn’t helpful at all! Now, 15 years into my career, I realize that what people from my small town meant was to stay out of toxic drama, and that is great advice. But office politics are a natural part of humans working together, and it doesn’t have to be a big scary or even negative thing. It just is.

    Also, this question is genius, and it is so cathartic to see others mention thing they’ve struggled with that I thought were just “me” problems. Well done, OP.

  64. Fine with WFH*

    I’m a first gen in the legal field and honestly, the best resource my college professor gave was the opportunity for my college class to visit and tour various law firms (especially before our interviews started). Yes they did the whole how to write a resume/cover letter and dress for interview ordeal in our program but getting to visit these various firms definitely made me feel more confident and prepared on my first day. I got to see how legal professionals and assistants interacted, hear from HR what their views/expectations were, get an idea of their work culture and see how everyone dresses. All I can say is it’s nothing like the show SUITS lol.

    I just wish there were more opportunities for kids/teens/college kids to get exposure before they graduate and are thrown out on their own.

    1. Coverage Associate*

      I come from a very white collar background, but with very few lawyers. Those couple afternoons I spent in law firms before law school were so precious in preparing me for law school summers and first lawyer jobs. And 14 years out of law school, I send those people who paved my way referrals!

  65. Carla Benson*

    I really wish people who weren’t first gen wouldn’t comment. I’m first gen and you just don’t get it.

    This presumption is what made me as a first gen NOT want to ask questions. Just back that truck up, please.

    1. Busy Middle Manager*

      I’m actually surprised there are any! I feel like if you were GenX and your parents were silent/early boomers, there was a high chance your parents did not go to college but still had careers. This thread is making me wonder about who all of these people were that were filling colleges before the 80s!

    2. Kotow*

      I have to say, I agree–especially when it comes to the “behave/dress appropriately” advice. Obviously a lot of actual first-gens are commenting that they genuinely had no idea how to navigate that so it’s not that it isn’t a real issue. But that’s not limited to first generation students/employees. A lot of new employees don’t know how to behave; we don’t know whether the Pillow Fort employee in a post from last year was first generation but I can tell you I never would have thought that was okay. Even in law school, the students who brought in personal space heaters and blankets to class all had attorneys for parents and it was just funny to see them do that. But if a first-gen did the same thing it would be “they’re only doing that because they don’t know any better.” I just genuinely don’t see it that way; new employees across the board don’t know how to behave in a professional environment.

      1. Shoes*

        As a first generation person, the focus on conforming so you don’t look like an outsider…I just don’t see a first generation person creating a fort in their office unless the rest of the office was doing it.

  66. Macaroni Penguin*

    What I Wish I Knew
    1) Do not answer interview questions with total honesty. (Q:Why do you want to work here? A: Because I need the money.) D’oh!
    2) The Job that you have may be completely unrelated to what you studied in school.
    3) Graduating from university does not actually guarantee a job or better wages.
    4) At work, adults may shake hands.

  67. Chocoglow*

    I and probably six of my cousins are all first Gen college, with graduations between 2004 – 2010, and from my perspective, it was a bad time for both college and workforce introductions. But then, we had little to no prep, our parents had no info, and all of us were solidly lower/middle class.

    From talking to them over the years; our biggest takeaway was this; don’t be afraid to ask for help from your advisors/professors. They are paid to help you, it’s their job to teach you. And if they won’t, talk to administration. It’s tricky and scary, but don’t make our mistakes. only one of us is working in our actual field of study; everyone else is either gov or retail.

  68. Mouse*

    I’m a first gen college student and now getting an MBA at a top business school, where I sometimes feel very alone in terms of my background. There are SO MANY THINGS I would have done differently if I’d known better, but ultimately I’m glad that I’ve had to figure it out; I think it gives me a unique perspective on a lot of norms that my classmates take for granted.

    General advice: become an excellent observer. Watch what other people do, choose people you admire, and emulate them where you can. That Sales VP who takes a moment to think carefully before she speaks, the CFO who always keeps things friendly but professional, take those traits and try to build yourself a professional persona that feels right to you. There isn’t one single way to be professional, and a lot of how I carry myself is made up of pieces that I’ve modeled after people I respect.

    Specific advice: don’t overshare. I’m from a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else, and if your family misses church for a week, someone’s going to ask about what you were doing that weekend and it can be easier to get in front of the questions. In a big city corporate job, when someone asks about your weekend, they don’t actually need to know that Aunt Sue was in town, and her new baby has colic, and the whole family didn’t get more than 2 hours of sleep in a row all weekend. “It was lovely! I had some family in from out of town” is plenty, and “Great! How was yours?” is perfectly acceptable, where in my hometown, that would give the impression of purposefully hiding something.

  69. Yep*

    I am not a first gen college student, but I have been the manager of first gens. What I noticed was that I needed to be a lot more explicit about how my expectations related to their pay. In particular, I’m thinking of an employee who had never held a salaried position before. Her job was a regular non-exempt job, but when I mentioned in a staff meeting that we would reduce our hours over the holiday break (higher ed), I could see that she immediately tensed up. Eventually, she asked how this would affect her hours, and I realized I needed to explain that her hours were not directly affected by our open-to-the-public hours. Her salary would be her salary no matter what. She could do work without also being at the front desk (as is always the case for us). I would not reduce her hours or pay simply because I was trying to set ourselves up to allow for more people to take PTO and have flexibility in our staffing during holiday times. I’m not sure she ever fully wrapped her head around the difference between salaried and hourly positions, but she made some progress. Part of it was just helping her be less worried about little workplace changes that could affect her ability to pay bills; this position gave stability she’d never had in the workplace before.

    I’ll say there were also some miscommunications between us when she asked for things like leaving early. I would expect a professional to say “We’re really understaffed today and I think we should close early. Would that be okay?” Instead of “Hey, can I leave early? I want to get on the road.” It was only when I addressed that with her that she expressed what her actual thinking was. Part of it was just lack of polish and experience, but I think it also comes from not having this type of conversation modeled and talked about at the dinner table. I learned so much about working life from my parents’ anecdotes and stories. This particular example might not be something I could anticipate and cover with every hire, but it did help me know where I needed to provide more direction.

  70. Immortal for a limited time*

    In the late 1940s (post-WWII) both of my parents dropped out of high school to enter the workforce, which was pretty common then. Two of my three older siblings started taking college classes but ended up getting married (this was the 1970s). I was younger and graduated high school in the early 80s, and was the first to graduate from college. My dad was a skilled tradesman and small business owner, and a Navy veteran. He was also very active in local government and service organizations in our small town, so all of his knowledge of professionalism was home-grown and earned through hard work, not from academia, but I seemed to be the most academically inclined of his kids, so he only allowed me to work during the summers so I could focus on grades during the school year. But he had no idea how to help me prepare for college, such as making sure I took the right set of prerequisites. That was not part of his life experience. Plus, I was only interested in liberal arts studies, and my actual degree program was considered unusual, but shortly before graduating I landed an entry-level job at the daily newspaper in my college city and the only thing I knew, thanks to my dad, was to have a good work ethic and be honest. The newspaper was part of a national news organization with papers and stations across the country, so we had corporate expectations and resources, all of which was new to me. I still recall important lessons I learned from a mandatory customer service course we all attended. In those days, and in our organization, things were a little loose and partying with your boss was just a fun thing we did after a hard day’s work. I didn’t learn some lessons until much later, such as why managers shouldn’t, for example, take their young female employees out drinking on their birthday on a work night and then give them a pass when the employee can’t make it into work the next day. Oy vey… I was very naive! I only made that mistake once, and it was a good lesson in personal embarassment. But seriously, my advice would be to observe, observe, observe, and keep your mouth shut most of the time. Many things are better left unsaid or kept to your friends and your personal life. Don’t let customers hear you complain about your job (boy, I hate it when front-line employees do that in a retail setting). Remember that rules exist for a reason. Be a “low-maintenance employee” who becomes reliable and indispensable. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be a complainer, either.

    1. Immortal for a limited time*

      (…and in the birthday drinking story, I was the young female and our boss was male. Thankfully, he was a good person and didn’t do anything creepy, aside from the amount of socializing he liked to do outside of work with all of us, male and female.)

  71. kt*

    This is all from my own experience and because of that there is conflation of different kinds of first-gen here (wrt immigration, college, and types of professional job)

    * Personal finance: talk with someone to figure out tax withholding and make sure you’re taking advantage of your health and retirement benefits. Some of the changes to tax withholding can leave you stuck with a big tax bill if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing and you’ve just changed income brackets.

    * They’re paying you for your mind/potential/degree/accomplishments. You belong there and you need to learn new habits of mind to help you step into your new role. “What got you here won’t get you there” and that is ok and expected.

    * Cultivate a respectful and two-way relationship with boss, taking control of your work and advancement. So many commenters have expressed this so well. The work is a negotiation and a collaboration; you are not taking orders. It’s also the case in many professional jobs that requests from the boss are softer. They seem like suggestions. One of the things I had to calibrate was that 1) they’re not suggestions, I shouldn’t think it thru in my head and then think to myself “no that’s a bad idea so I won’t do that” and move on without communicating. Then I look unresponsive or uncooperative (but wait boss, you didn’t ask me to do it! you suggested I consider it! I did! — nope, I was doing it wrong). At the same time, 2) they’re not orders. So this process of taking boss’s suggestion, figuring out why they’re suggesting it, and then figuring out how I could address the root issue, running that plan of action by boss, and accepting feedback — not like a waitress taking orders and not like the owner of a small biz who can do whatever the f&*! she wants. It took work, you’ll make mistakes on your way to finding your style.

    * Don’t over apologize

    * Get perspective on your place in the company as fast as you can. In a blue-collar job you often know exactly what you’re supposed to produce: you’re there to plant the trees for the landscaper, deliver the food without spilling and with small talk, etc. Your output may be less tangible in a professional job and if you think it’s all about the spreadsheet you may be wrong.

    * Kwebbel is right about small talk (above)

    * Your work doesn’t speak for itself

    * Lean on scripts for phone and email — work with your boss if you like. Getting tone right is different at every workplace.

    * Recognize what is aggression/a threat, since it’ll often come with a smile and/or corporate-speak. The earnings call I listened to that was all about “streamlining capital expenditures” — other folks thought “well, I’m working on making our stuff more efficient!” and I thought “ok start sprucing the resume”. Yep, the capital expenditures were *us*.

    If you’re new to tech, understand your leverage and listen to The Tech Money Podcast, Negotiate your Career Growth by Jamie Lee. More generally, First Gen Journey by Dr. Elisa Hernandez (no longer updated but valuable content from a few years ago). While not directly about the first-gen journey, The Memo by Minda Harts, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage by Laura Huang, and Seen Heard & Paid by Alan Henry are all relevant.

    * Get dental care asap if you haven’t had that earlier in life. It’s a real class tell in the US. I did braces as an adult professional when I could afford it, and it was a pain but worth it!

    * I got a bag too!

  72. Dan*

    One thing I’m seeing is that some managers make assumptions that a college-added student/recent grad already understands the unwritten rules of the workplace.

    Between the pandemic and all the transformations of the modern workplace (office/remote, email/Slack, meetings/Zoom), I’m not sure that managers can make those assumptions anymore. It may have to fall to the new employee to ask clarifying questions about expectations around those unwritten rules of workplace behavior (communication, meeting attendance, dress, and the like).

  73. mockingbird2081*

    A couple of things I can think of:
    Make a hard a fast rule, do not hang out with people personally outside of work that can fire you…or that you can fire.
    I triple support what others have said, be friendly with your co-workers, not friends, don’t over share.
    It is okay to talk to your manager if you are given a project you are not sure you can fit into your current work load. don’t be a ‘yes’ person to the determent of your already assigned projects.
    Really take the time to understand not just your 401k but your health insurance options. When looking at health insurance imagine worse case scenario where you max out your out of pocket, deductible and the cost of the monthly premium, that will help you determine which plan offered by your company is cheaper.
    Most people above you are just normal people and they don’t want you to be afraid to talk to them. be respectful and don’t involve them in things that they don’t need to know about, but don’t be afraid of them (there are some that are terrible…play this case by case).
    Learn how to write a clear and concise email. Emails that are too long winded most likely will not be read fully.
    Always negotiate your salary…it truly never hurts to ask. There are times when the manager is offering you a good wage but they still have some wiggle room in the final offer.
    There is power you gain if you do say yes or volunteer for projects (that you feel you have time for) that help take the load of your supervisor or co-worker.

    1. Aerin*

      Big echo on the point about clear and concise emails. People are going to skim your emails, so make them skimmable! My org tends to use little tags in the subject line between brackets, so like (question) or (action required). If there’s a deadline, putting it in the subject line is also helpful.

      Aside from that, bullet points, judicious use of bold, and having a brief summary up top with the full explanation down below are all good tools to keep in mind.

  74. mockingbird2081*

    Always assume good intent from your co-workers and manager. Truly seek to understand before you jump to conclusions. I wish I had really known that at the beginning.

  75. Anon here*

    For me, it was also the understanding how much the subject of studies, PhD/no PhD, the size of company, field of industry and others would actually influence my income. I just knew that college would help to get a better job.
    I made more than my parents made and they were always so proud of the things I could afford! But in hindsight I undestand how much more tactical decision-making some of my friends from college applied and how different their lifestyle developed.

  76. mockingbird2081*

    Something I am still learning and striving to do is there is great strength in being the person that doesn’t speak badly of others at work

  77. Springtime*

    Something else I remember being completely clueless about: the hierarchy clues in corporate job titles. Obviously, this varies widely among workplaces. But I remember being completely confused that a Specialist could be lower than a Coordinator. How could someone who SPECIALIZED not be near the top? How could a Senior anything be only 26? And I know there’s been at least one letter here from someone who confused an Executive Assistant with something more like an Office Assistant. That’s one I avoided, but really only through luck, not knowledge.

  78. librarianmom*

    Setting the bar too high is a problem for first gens. Realize you are human, imperfect, and lack a robust knowledge base. Learn that generally it’s not the mistake that will sink you, it’s not acknowledging it and learning from it that will.

  79. Lily Potter*

    Something that I’ve always thought colleges should cover in their “Adulting 101” class (wouldn’t it have been great to have that?) is the difference between exempt and non-exempt positions. When you come from a world where punching a clock is the norm, it can be a rude awakening to find that you have to stay at the office until the work is done – not until it’s 5:00 – and that you don’t get paid extra for staying an extra 15 minutes to help out a co-worker.

    Along those same lines is a discussion that what matters is output, not effort. Getting an A for effort isn’t a professional norm; you aren’t going to get a trophy just for showing up.

    1. Capybara Manager*


      And another thing I found when I managed younger employees whose parents / family caregivers had worked union jobs: the person with seniority isn’t always going to get the promotion, because it’s not about seniority, it’s about other stuff.

  80. Kotow*

    First-generation college and law school. The biggest ones for me are:

    1. It’s okay to ask for what you want. It’s not being entitled to ask for an internship or ask an attorney to meet with you. Sometimes the answer will be “no,” but that’s because of the field itself rather than anything personal. Career Services does not actually tell you how to ask and you need to directly seek out help if you’re unsure.

    2. You can push back on your employer. If your workload is too high because you’re covering for someone who’s out, it’s okay to say you can’t do it.

    3. You will make mistakes, but this isn’t pass/fail. Legal malpractice is genuinely difficult to prove and your supervising attorney should be involved enough that it doesn’t happen. And if she isn’t, then you self-assert and ask for more support. Again, it’s not being entitled or an imposition (and if it is an imposition, that’s not on you).

    For those working with first-generation students, I would focus more on these three than on the behavior/dress. At least in my field, even new attorneys with generations of family members in the legal field could use a lot of lessons on how to behave appropriate. It’s far from limited to 1st generation students. And really, I dressed so much better as a new lawyer than I do now! Now my lengthy question to myself is “do I **really** have to wear a blazer with its outfit.” But that may be legal-field specific because we get the wardrobe talk drilled into us before our mock oral arguments as a 1L!

  81. Aerin*

    A couple of things I haven’t seen mentioned:

    1) In a well-run workplace, your boss calling you into their office to talk doesn’t automatically mean you’re in trouble. Indeed, most honest mistakes made in the course of doing your job will not get you “in trouble,” especially if you make an effort to learn from your mistake. That said…
    2) Many workplaces are not well-run. A good manager will not make you feel like a terrible person. If you feel like there’s something off about a situation, trust your gut and start compartmentalizing accordingly. (Insults are not truth and are not about you, don’t invest emotionally, reaffirm to yourself what you’re doing well, document EVERYTHING, keep an eye on your exit strategy, etc.)
    3) Sometimes there can be multiple ways to do a job, and just because you’re approaching it differently than another person doesn’t necessarily mean that either of you is wrong. Figure out which things are absolutes and which things are open to interpretation or preference.

  82. Lareesa*

    It took me far too long to not be ashamed of my blue collar background. It can be an asset – you have a perspective & experience that a lot of your coworkers probably don’t have.

    Oh, and treat everyone you work with as if they might be on a hiring committee for a job you want one day! I think that’s good advice for everyone but in the service industry or truck driving industry your relationships didn’t matter all that much. Now, in a professional environment, it took me awhile to understand how small the world can be and that every interaction matters :)

    1. First Gen College Graduate*

      +1 regarding your comment about being from a blue collar background. I have found that I am able to relate to many different types of people better than some of my counterparts who came from white collar families. It’s not something but ashamed of, but embraced!

  83. First Gen College Graduate*

    This is a topic very near and dear to my heart, as I am a first gen college graduate, and boy – was it rough transition for me.

    I’m dating myself here, but I graduated in the mid-2000s with a fairly useless degree and in a field that paid on the lower end. I wish I had someone (a mentor or academic advisor perhaps) that could have guided me into a more lucrative/stable field early on in my college years. Luckily, I was able to shift during my senior year and reroute my career path into a better paid field.

    I also wish I had someone to show me how to write an effective resume and cover letter, as well as how to interview for a professional job. My parents were blue collar and had worked at the same companies their entire working lives, so they never had to interview or put together a resume. I went to the library and read a lot of books on how to write a resume, how to interview, etc. That really helped me a lot, but again – it would have been great to have someone who could have guided me. This also would have been a great course to have for upperclassmen. Sadly, my large, state university offered no such thing

    (Side note: In my first professional job, I managed our internship program and noticed these were skills they were missing as well. I ended up creating an intern “crash course” that taught these skills and it was very well-received. It’s my small way of paying it forward.)

    I think it would be great to have a mentoring program as well (if it’s not already offered at your university). Partnering students with mentors currently working the field would be really helpful.

  84. Nethwen*

    One thing I wished I had known was how to find references. As in, what words do you say to the person to ask them to be your reference? Do you ask them every time you apply for a job? At what point does their agreement expire and you have to tell them that you’re still job hunting? Do you have to tell them when you got a job?

  85. Usually Lurking*

    Ones that I recently gave my cousin (first gen just about to start college) as a 25-year older first gen: relationships matter a lot more than you think. If you don’t like someone, you still have to work effectively together and you want to cultivate relationships that may help you down the road. There’s no shame in asking for help. Talk to people who are doing things you’re interested in to understand it better- don’t bug them, but many people are willing to talk to you and they don’t consider it an imposition. Also talk to people about the stuff you need to know and have NO interest in- like taxes, retirement planning, etc. None of the advice our blue-collar family members are giving you is likely to help if you do something very different than them, nor is the stuff you are hearing from the people who learned it in the 60s relevant. Thank them and learn what YOU need for where YOU are.

  86. DannyG*

    Grandparents immigrated to US around 1900. No English. Parent’s’ generation blue collar/enlisted military/small business. Our generation is the first to college/professional. For my older brother and I our fraternity was the biggest help learning professional norms: monthly house meetings were formal with coat& tie & proper pants & polished shoes, officers wore suits. Older brothers showed how to tie ties, which thrift stores had a decent selection of dress clothes cheap. Alumni conducted interview practice with seniors. Grad school & residency programs had one or more “Dress for Success” sessions. Likewise resume/CV writing was covered here, too. Took a while to get used to the culture at my first hospital (lots of gallows humor), but that was mostly observing and keeping quiet for a while .

  87. Just another content creator*

    My first-gen post-college self was a major try-hard in my first job. Looking back, it probably irritated my coworkers when I was always first to volunteer or contribute to brainstorming sessions, sharing tips about what worked well for me (when they had much more experience), or creating elaborate data-entry spreadsheets no one asked for. Eventually I learned to read the room, listen more than I spoke, and focus on learning rather than proving myself.

    As others mentioned, coworkers aren’t friends or built-in mentors. I overshared waaayyyy too much about work struggles and stresses, my personal life, etc. only to be thrown under the bus by the coworker I trusted most.

    I also had to learn to protect my personal time – just because the veterans give up breaks/lunch/evenings/weekend hours doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do the same. If you’re salaried and working over 40 hours, you’re essentially voluntarily working more for less.

    Don’t be afraid to fail – take more chances to grow and learn while you’re young and have the safety net of senior colleagues to support you and share what they know. If you make a mistake, don’t try to hide it – show accountability and learn from it.

    Set up your paychecks to automatically put 10% in savings – if you never see the money in your checking account, you won’t miss it.

    As much as their intentions are good, don’t trust your parents’ work advice as gospel. If you’re unsure how to handle a work situation, AAM is the best resource!

  88. Capybara Manager*

    I was a first-generation office worker in a slightly weird way: my father was a first-generation university graduate who went straight into academia (so, he’d had manual labour jobs in the late 1940s, then more education, then tenure-track and tenured academic jobs after that, but never a 9-5 office job of any kind) while my mom has worked her entire life doing sessional university and Cont Ed teaching and a variety of freelance work, but again, never a “standard” 9-5 office job.

    So the things that really took me aback about office work early in my career included:
    * Yes, you definitely do have to be there all day, every day, at the same time every day
    * Your coworkers are not your friends, although you can and should be friendly
    * If you work in a cube farm, you must learn the code: you’re not invited into any conversation unless you’re invited into it. When you overhear someone’s phone conversation, no you didn’t
    * Fewer people in non-academic office environments are up for deep philosophical conversations. Don’t enjoy “small talk”? Learn to do it anyway, it’s an important form of social glue, and trust me, you’ll learn stuff
    * Nobody cares where you got your degree, and they don’t care that you graduated summa cum laude. Depending on what kind of work you do, they might care what your degree is in
    * Office jobs are significantly less baby- and child-friendly than academic jobs
    * Reorganizations are pretty normal; don’t freak out

  89. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    I was the 1st person in my family to go to university (mid-1970s):

    My 4 GPs were born 1870s-1890s, when education was not available for ordinary people after about age 12. My parents were born just after WW One ended; my dad left school on his 14th birthday to help support his family; my mum and extended family got only a bit more formal education.
    So, no advice from family even about which grammar school courses to take. I made some poor decisions then out of ignorance.

    An early problem at my 1st job (engineering R&D) after uni was that I laughingly described to coworkers a couple of minor mistakes I had corrected early. My then manager told me to never do that again because one coworker kept repeating my comments and it was damaging my reputation, despite my work being of a high standard.

    The reason I was doing this: some family members – aunts, uncles, cousins – had originally tried to put me off going to uni and going into a professional field, calling it “getting ideas above my station”. I’d got into the habit at family gatherings to list my mistakes so noone would think me snooty.

    My early work Lessons Learned:
    1) Don’t put yourself down, even jokingly.
    2) Don’t confide anything to coworkers that would damage you if repeated.
    3) Don’t bring into work your hangups from family or personal life

    1. Sleve*

      I fell into a trap very similar to this one. My family laugh and joke together about our mistakes and mishaps as a sort of bonding thing. It’s a great success to be able to tell a story well enough to provoke my mother into tears of laughter, and any specific embarrassment stings far less when your story is just another one in the pile. I was utterly bewildered at work to discover that other people will judge you when you share tales of the silly things that we all do on occasion. It’s not true in all workplaces, but sadly it’s definitely safest to start with the assumption that people are laughing at you not with you.

  90. Gigglewater*

    Asking for mentorship support from someone who’s 1 or 2 levels above you. Be open that part of what you’re looking for is support on work norms for this company’s culture. I have happily done this for other first gen people in my workplace and when I got my first mentor where I was open about this need it changed how I approached work in a great way. I wish I had done it earlier.

  91. I'm Just Here For The Cats!!*

    I think what helped me as a first gen is that I was required for my internship grant to also attend campus events on career development. One of them was mock interviews and we spoke with a few different folx from the community and got feedback, not only on our resume but also just how to present ourselves and how to dress for an internship.

    If you can find folx from your community who want to mentor students that might be a great idea. Even if its just one afternoon or a few meetings. Especially if you can connect them with people in the fields they are going into, since norms can be different.

    I think another thing that would have been helpful is how to handle conflict with a coworker. Like, HR is not always going to be the 1st thing to do, but you also need to know when you do need to go to HR (like for sexual harassment).

    Also, tell them to set up their voicemail!!! I work at a university and the amount of times students don’t have voicemail (or its full) is crazy. And it also needs to be professional, not this joky stuff like pretending to answer.

  92. ABQ Today*

    I haven’t read all the comments yet, so some of these may be repeats.

    Disclaimer – my father was a college grad, but I didn’t grow up with him (I didn’t see him from the time I was about 10 until he came to my college graduation, so he didn’t have a ton of influence on my expectations). Additionally, I graduated from grad school and started working full-time in 2001, so some of the resources that are more widely available now via the internet were clearly not in existence when I first started working in professional settings.

    1 – School and academia rewards knowing the answer and sharing it (via papers or via classroom participation). In contrast, one of my biggest challenges was gaining the ability to read the room and understand my specific role/scope instead of answering just because I knew it (yes, think Hermione Granger). I will be forever grateful to my first full-time/professional boss who pulled me aside and said, essentially, “just because you know something doesn’t mean you need to be the person to say it in a meeting.” I was supposed to be support for her and other coworkers/stakeholders, I was not responsible for leading the meeting/talking first/answering questions for other teams.

    As my career has progressed, and I am now the person leading the meeting and making suggestions, I still think back to her guidance on roles and responsibilities, and try to make that explicit in all the projects I lead. I’ve gotten good feedback from stakeholders over the years, and I attribute it to that boss’ early guidance.

    2 – It took me 10+ years to learn about what I preferred in terms of office/business casual and clothing options/appropriateness. My summer temp job between freshman and sophomore years of college (working in an office for a trucking company), where most people wore jeans, I wore color-coordinated dresses and shoes (think the Barbie movie level of coordination). This probably would have been ok if it was genuinely my style, but frankly that’s what my mother bought me as what she wanted to wear in the office. I didn’t have a lot of money at the ripe old age of 18, but I definitely could have done better at matching my personal preferences to the thrift store offerings instead of letting my mother’s style fantasies from TV be the deciding factor (she was a home health aide with a uniform). It was YEARS before I consciously re-evaluated my work clothes and got rid of the stuff that was odd/out of sync with office norms where I actually was.

    3 – Speaking of temp jobs, although my first full-time job had some challenges, I think I got through the initial culture shock(s) of office work via temp jobs. I distinctly recall the first time I had to fill 8 hours at a desk as a receptionist (I practiced typing….for hours….). I would have loved to have known about ideas for filling time while waiting for something to be given to me at that job. By the time I was working at that trucking company, I had figured out ‘ask for more to do to avoid boredom/running out of hours’. I fixed their entire paper filing system over the course of that summer (wearing the color coordinated dresses and heels, by the way) because I asked for more hours/tasks. I tell all the kids of my friends to pursue temp office work – they know enough to type, answer emails, answer phones, and things like that, and in a temp job you have low risk of shooting yourself in the foot permanently by screwing something up.

    Summary – I didn’t have a lot of explicit guidance until I was in my late 20’s/done with school, and a lot of what I did get wasn’t good guidance. I’m extremely happy that I have continued to learn, and I’m extremely grateful for everything that Alison does on this site to support education, encouragement, and “I’m not alone”.

  93. Ms. Carter*

    Maybe this one is niche to my own personal flaws, but here’s one to think about: learn how to manage your feelings about coworkers who grew up with much more privilege than you.

    I’ve found I tend to have pretty strong envious (“why couldn’t I have had those advantages”) or dismissive (“you’re so soft, you don’t know anything about struggle”) reactions when my coworkers say something that identifies them as having come from money or other privilege.

    I’ve really have to work on my own compassion and emotional regulation to avoid taking out my own sense of inadequacy or past unmet needs out on the people I work with.

    1. J*

      Oh that’s a good one. Especially as I was first gen working as a paralegal to a bunch of privileged background lawyers. I had resentment, I had the urge to compete with them (shopping, personal grooming, all an expense that was not afforded by my income), I at times almost let myself confuse friendliness with friendship because we were so close in age and they’d ask me for advice on all sorts of things, working with partners to registering a car. There were just a lot of competing emotions and I got so caught up in feeling them instead of just minding my business at times. They’d often say “Why aren’t you a lawyer, you’re so smart” and it would not have been my place to point out the lack of generational wealth and education in my background, so usually I’d be like “so I can clock out at 5 while you keep working” with a wink because it was easier and more playful. It always just made me so angry though, because they misunderstood that being smart wasn’t enough in this world because they never had to wonder how they’d pay a bill let alone a law school bill.

      1. the cat's pajamas*

        Yes, also, give yourself a break occasionally. I once worked at a place that had a higher than average number of people from privileged backgrounds. I would occasionally get what I called “privilege fatigue,” where it just gets exhausting to hear someone complain about not being able to afford a second house or whatever. That is the time to step out and go for a walk to get a cheap treat you pretend you don’t like at work or take a mental health day.

        Also, yes, it’s ok to step out and take a short walk around the block or your office park when you’re stressed or stuck on a work task or take a mental health day!!

        1. Billy Preston*

          These are such good points! I felt this a lot in different environments where people assumed I came from the same middle class background. Sometimes you just need to get out of there, take some space, and remind yourself of who you are and that there are other people in the world like you.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        I’m not first-generation, but I just wanted to say that law firms are a special circle of hell for those who are not upper-middle class or wealthy, unless you have the world’s thickest skin. I came from a blue collar family and went to a public university, and the level of elitism, classism, and academic snobbery that I dealt with (on top of being a “non-attorney”, which is the lower caste in firm hierarchy) was wild. I treated it like an anthropological observation.

        I lost count of the surprised, “wow, you’re actually smart, why aren’t you a lawyer?” comments. They literally cannot comprehend how anyone would be content not being a lawyer, and the jerkier ones see it as being unambitious or even lazy. I learned very quickly that the people who went to Ivy League schools weren’t necessarily smarter than me, they just had the privileges, connections, and knowledge of how to leverage the system better than I did.

    2. Anon here*

      This is an important one. Thank you for mentioning this!

      I know this is ted a lot to class, but it its so relevant, even more in an office setting when small talk revolves even more around travel, housing or hobbies.
      I was envious of people who were able to afford things, but I was also a lot more self-conscious of the circumstances I grew up under. I remember one condescending comment of my boss in particular about the “obvious” cheap look of clothes of a certain store. I did get a lot of clothes there and it was all I knew.
      I really had to take a step back to remind myself that I DID choose flattering colours and cuts, that the price tag was not the only indicator of quality and that this was some classist talking point to make himself fell better.

  94. J*

    I didn’t know I could leave my desk without hurrying back. I had a boss who would just call and want to purge her thoughts via phone so I felt like I always had to be there so she’d know I was working hard. I’d come from retail, where basically you can’t go to the bathroom unless it’s a timed break (and ended up with a class action settlement about breaks in the end), and then government that was public-facing so I couldn’t pee unless someone was there to cover me. In high school they told us we wouldn’t be able to get out of class and pee so we couldn’t do that there, in college I just assumed that was true and never went. My first white collar job had me getting kidney stones and becoming dehydrated because I didn’t even get up from my desk enough to refill my water. I spent a lot of time away from my desk getting that resolved. I’m not the only one in my first-gen friends group this has happened to (especially given how many of us graduated into an economy that put many of them in call centers post-college).

    Things I wish someone had told me: Being clear about breaks, covering breaks, this isn’t retail, this isn’t the military, we can pee and get water on a reasonable schedule. The world won’t end if your boss calls and you are in the bathroom, you can just call her back. Everything in my head was so black & white, probably because it was that way for my parents (dad was military for a time, then a warehouse) and I didn’t know “man this desk” allowed for exceptions to pee.

    I have had to really unlearn black & white thinking every day. I lived my whole life where everyone told me what to do and now I tell myself what to do and am empowered to do so. Sometimes I even tell others what they should do and decide if it’s worth a battle if they don’t. Old me would have yelled and gone on some power trip if someone broke the rules (did I mention I’m an oldest daughter too?) and thankfully a personal mentor who picked me out of a crowd helped me unlearn that before I could damage my professional reputation.

    1. Furret*

      My sympathies re breaks and attendance and punctuality (I have retail background as well as first gen). I’m in my first job with no coverage criteria AND IT IS GREAT!

      This is also my third office job (I have a lot of inertia). My current boss kindly explained I didn’t need to let him know when I was less than 30mins late and no meetings were affected. I appreciate how he reset my norms.

  95. e-non*

    First gen for college (and then law school) – Neither of my parents ever worked in an office, but we are close and they are very supportive of me and always wanted to help. So when I would talk to them about the non-confidential parts of my job, they would (and honestly still do) offer me advice. And it has uniformly been bad advice. They are trying to me helpful and they think that something like how to get along with your coworkers or how to ask your manager for something is the same or at least not hugely different in my job versus theirs, but it is. They don’t get that in a white collar job, I am supposed to have a more collaborative relationship with my manager, but that as an exempt worker, I am also just going to be expected to work extra hours sometimes and no, I don’t get paid overtime and no, there is no option to turn it down.

    So, that’s my advice: don’t listen to your parents. Even if it’s something that it seems like there should be cross over between white collar and blue collar worlds, when you come from a blue collar background and you are just starting in a white collar job, it is impossible for you to tell. I have been in my job for a decade, and there are still things that sometimes come up where I feel the cultural disconnect.

  96. pinkyandthebrain(not the brain)*

    My partner is not only first generation college /white collar worker but it’s also incredibly rare to have someone of their ethnicity in their chosen industry so they are repeatedly told “oh wow you’re a [alpaca]! I’ve never met one of you before!” They say:
    What don’t you need to learn? What do you wear? Where do you actually buy the fancy office clothes? Am I supposed to change my shoes? Office people look at me strangely when I walk in wearing workboots. Why do “professional” people need more than one pair of shoes? If there is a coffee machine, how much coffee can I drink? Some people stand around talking, how do I know how much talking is too much talking? Do I bring pens from home? Am I supposed to carry around a notebook? Also you can’t swear at work and I don’t even think about what I say. (Facts. This is definitely edited to remove certain words) There’s a whole “professional manners” thing too, people look at me weird when I talk without thinking and I still don’t know if I’m writing emails the proper professional way.
    I could go on but honest what would have helped the most is just having someone recognize I had no clue of what office manners are and be a mentor who isn’t judging so not your boss who I could go to with questions and not feel shameful for it.

  97. LL*

    I was a first-generation college student/professional, and my boss had to tell me that the workday wasn’t literal with the timing. That was shocking and a little embarrassing for me. I was coming back from lunch at 59 minutes and leaving the office at 5:00 sharp. (I had worked so many factory jobs in college that I was used to following the whistle blow to tell me what to do and when). I also wish I knew the importance of having lunch or happy hours when asked, as to build relationships that not only would help me enjoy the workplace and feel connected on the team, but also might help me expand my skills or make advancement easier.

  98. lil falafel wrap*

    I did AmeriCorps for a few years after graduating, and I think it really helped me build my professional workplace skills. Not to say everyone should do AmeriCorps (the money notoriously is awful) but some of the things I found beneficial in the program were mentorship, networking opportunities and connections that exist past the time I held that job. So I recommend any first gen professionals try to find spaces for that in their early careers. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and attend career and networking events.

  99. RS*

    First Gen college grad who also went to an inexpensive commuter school–I was not at all prepared for how weird it would be listening to my coworkers talk about their debt-free college, their childhood vacations to Europe, their horses, etc. Throughout high school and college, I mostly interacted with people with similar working class backgrounds and it can be a little…shocking. It often made me feel really out of place, and I think it adds a new layer to the impostor syndrome that a lot of early career people already feel. I guess the advice is largely just…be prepared for that? And maintain friendships with people you relate to well, especially if you anticipate that that’s going to be uncomfortable for you

  100. Moodbling*

    I was a first gen college student, and taxes and deductions throw a lot of us for a loop. If you budget thinking your $20/hr full time job will send you home with $800… things will be bad.

  101. Sleve*

    I came into the professional workplace understanding from tv and movies that ‘Professional Dress’ is a style, in the same way that fancy dress or formal wear is. So I knew enough to be able to look up examples of office clothes online and mimic them (although I won’t deny a few faux pas along the way). But something really I struggled with was how to dress professionally for different seasons. Our (lack of) local building standards mean that buildings are poorly insulated, hot in summer and cold in winter. A well fitting light coloured shirt and neutral pants served me well in spring and fall, but I struggled with how to look professional when the temperature in the office was 60 degrees. I think many first generation professionals would really appreciate advice on how to adapt the generic office professional uniform for the local climate, because that’s something that I assume families would pass on that Gen1 miss out on. On a related note, (if it’s relevant to your local weather), I’ve learned that windproof/no flip umbrellas are an investment that’s worth every cent (if/when one can afford it).

  102. Saber McSaberton*

    I wished I had known not to take people at face value, and not to put others’ happiness with their work above my own. If I had learned to put myself and my career goals first, and not to be so trusting, my first years in being a professional might not have been as painful. I would have learned to read people and set boundaries far, far sooner.

  103. the cat's pajamas*

    Oh, and people will totally judge what you bring for lunch/if you don’t buy lunch depending on where you work. I try to make it less obvious when I’m bringing in “struggle” meals like mac and cheese, bring it in an opaque container, etc. Try not to bring your lunch in a plastic grocery bag, you don’t need a super fancy lunchbag, but you can fake a bit of class with a slightly fancier one and a couple of nicer looking containers.

    You may get pressured to go out for lunch every day at pricey places you’d never go to. Try not to gawk at the menu prices/choices if you go or for when the boss takes you to lunch. It took me a while to understand what upscale food items were like quinoa or whatever. If I go out for fast food I will go to lunch by myself and pretend I went somewhere fancier, etc.

  104. JC*

    Not first gen but have a lot of friends who are, and my parents became college application central and then job advice central for friends at each stage, which is just to say lean on your friends and their families! People love to help out and make connections and give advice. My dads a retired attorney and he is thrilled when kids he saw grow up want to run a work scenario, job offer, layoff package etc by him for advice

  105. Open Window*

    I was also first generation college student, and one thing I remember entering the working world was having the expectation that someone would notice my hard work and give me a raise/promotion without me having to say/do anything else.

    I also remember thinking that if someone directly above me in the hierarchy vacated their position, I would automatically move up, and the company would hire someone new at entry level, thinking that’s how people advance. I even changed my email signature to the senior title.

  106. Teacher's kid*

    Not a first gen but my Dad is. He worked his way up into the state education department where one of his jobs was to set up students to go on to further education. One of the things he often commented on was how disparaging some people he worked with were towards first gen (or soon to be first gen). He was involved in a number of initiatives where the people running them assumed that if someone’s parents weren’t university graduates they would have no professional understandings. Dad’s background perfectly set him up for university- neither of his parents were “educated” but they both had high-powered “professional” jobs (Bank and merchant navy). Education and work ethic were important to them so they sent him to one of the snobbiest Private Schools in the state. Yes it is useful to spell out expectations and make things clear- but that is useful for everyone! Good advice for everyone is to approach people with respect!

  107. Sue*

    I was a first generation college student, and an older one at that, having worked service and blue collar jobs, and then serving for six years in the Navy. The one thing I wish I had done in my first professional job was to take advantage of the mentorship program, but I thought that I was supposed to be able to figure everything out on my own. For dinner reason, I didn’t recognize that the very existence of a mentorship program meant that I wasn’t *expected* to figure it all out on my own.

  108. Battery Staple*

    My parents both went to college, but for mental health and neurodiversity reasons, neither of them worked during my lifetime, and as a child I didn’t know anyone with a white collar job besides teachers.

    I wish someone taught the basics, not just of “office appropriate clothing”, but of office appropriate clothing while poor, or when the weather is scorching, or when you cycled to work because your clunker car broke down. I wish someone told me that bodies are all different shapes, and that it’s legitimately really hard for most people to find appropriate stuff that suits a specific body shape on a small budget, but it’s a learnable skill.

    Another thing that nobody told me is how to have an actual career. I had some idea from reading about management that part of a manager’s job was to look after the job progression of their reports – 20 years later I have had many bosses and exactly zero of them have given even a passing thought to my progression or career. It took me way too long to figure out that doing this was my job, and even longer than that to learn how to do it.

    In particular, I wish I had thought to deliberately job hop earlier in my career to get a sense of how different workspaces were (different industries, big company versus startup, etc). If you don’t know better, it’s so easy to assume “ok workplaces are like THIS and THAT” from your exactly one random example where you happened to get a job. I’d have done so much better with a broader knowledge base that other people get from growing up around white collar workers.

    I also wish someone told me that in most places your line manager may also be an under trained, under appreciated peon, who has no idea what’s going on and no control over it. They’re not necessarily a fount of wisdom. They may not be acting in your interest at all, either because they’re prioritizing the business over you, or because they just don’t care or don’t like you. They may decide you’re bad at something and then just assign all that work to somebody else instead of mentioning it to you or helping you learn. So – you need other work role models in your life besides your manager!

  109. Juuuu*

    There are two thing that I as a first-gen college graduate I would have loved to know beforehand: 1. the humor might be verrrry different to what you are used to (which I had to learn the hard way with a joke that didn’t land; still makes me cringe when I think about it). 2. As the German proverb goes „Alle kochen nur mit Wasser.“ (Everyone only cooks with water), meaning most things can be learned, everybody had to start somewhere and everybody is just human. I was so scared at the beginning until I figured out everybody is just trying their best too (they might just have more experience with it).

  110. Serious Pillowfight*

    I was first in my family to attend college. My mother wanted to attend college but her family couldn’t afford it, whereas my father had no illusions about his academic ability and was happy to be a blue-collar worker.

    Somehow my mother, who worked office jobs at a bank, a construction company, and a real estate company, seemed to instinctively know white-collar professional norms from what I could tell. I learned how to dress and act and speak (or not act and speak) to bosses and coworkers and clients from her. She has always been a proper and polished person, though. I think she learned it from her mother, who also never attended college but worked office jobs. And HER mother, my great-grandmother, was an immigrant from Canada who was a proper, polished woman in general. My mom still talks about how her grandmother taught her how to do “hospital corners” when making the bed. One thing I remember my mom doing when I was being a bratty kid is telling me things like, “Someday you’ll have a boss and you won’t be able to argue with them about doing what you’re told.”

    My father, on the other hand, had to tell me that I can’t just do whatever I want as far as openly complaining about work or being defiant in meetings like he could do in his union trade job. He also reminded me he’d been at his job for decades so had the capital to do some of what he was doing. He also told me to be grateful to have a climate-controlled job in an office and flexible time rules. He often referred to being nickel-and-dimed about time off when my brother was born and he asked his boss for a couple days to be with the family and help my mom. Sometimes, though, when I say I left work early or went in late, he’ll get nervous and tell me I need to “make them need [me].”

    I don’t know if my comment is particularly helpful, but this post has made me reflect on a lot of my family history and how it all comes together.

  111. FoggyNelson*

    1st gen college student- graduated law school almost 20 years ago- my mom worked in secretarial jobs and my dad removed animals from buildings. Best thing my first law firm boss ever said to me (he had a similar background) “When people meet you they will judge you by appearances even if they know your work is great. Yes it’s B.S., but its the game you are playing now.” Gave me tips about shopping for professional clothes on a budget and the little details of looking put together that I never would have mastered on my own- because the first Partner he worked for did the same to him. I WFH most of the time now and when I tell people what I do they are generally in disbelief, but catch me on a day when I am at court and it is different story.

  112. fine tipped pen aficionado*

    There are so many things I wish I had known and that I’m still trying to unlearn. I think the most important lesson I wish I had gotten was that everything my rural, blue collar family thought about work ethic and authority did not apply to the white collar workforce. (Probably shouldn’t apply to any worker, but I’m trying to stay on topic.)

    I was taught that obedience was the greatest virtue an employee could have. If you say jump, I say how high. And while that will keep you employed, it will also keep you employed at the same level forever. If you want to advance in your career, you have to have your own ideas and opinions and sometimes push back on things. There is a goldilocks zone here of finding the right time and the right boss and the right situation to do these things, but another important lesson I wish I’d been taught is that it’s okay to get it wrong. It’s not an indictment of your character to not be a good fit for a job. It’s okay to mess up; both people and organizations learn more from failure than from success.

    I was also taught that suffering for your job was a virtue and hard work is rewarded. This is not true. You are never too young or too junior to set boundaries, and in healthy workplaces your ability to do so will be more respected and rewarded than letting yourself get run into the ground. Grounded, reasonable adults prefer to work with and spend time with people who understand themselves and don’t need others to protect their time and well-being. It’s exhausting to work with people who don’t know how to say no or take pride in how miserable they are. You won’t impress people with your work ethic; you’ll just encourage them to either avoid you or exploit you.

    The last bit of advice I would give is to make connections. It doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be like how networking events are portrayed in media. It doesn’t have to be grasping, soulless ambition. Volunteer for projects and be active in your professional organization. Go to the occasional event without grumbling and give earnest compliments to people you work with. Tell them about the impact their work has on you. Don’t fish around for this kind of stuff, just be earnest when it comes up. When you read an internal guide that’s really helpful, send a compliment to the team responsible for it. Things like that are real, cost you very little, and help foster genuine connections with others that are still centered on work. As others have pointed out, connecting with people through your professional persona rather than your personal one is important.

    I won’t make this any longer, but I hope LW is able to get some really valuable info and pass it on to other folks!

  113. NotHannah*

    Although my dad was an English teacher, I lost him when I was 8 and grew up on public assistance, free lunch tickets, Medicaid, etc. I was bold and smart and got into a not ivy league but private university whose reputation has grown. Other than my dad, the rest of my large extended family was super blue-collar – waitressing and factory work, with farming a few generations back.
    Looking back, I’m not sure it would have helped if anyone had told me these things – they seem like things I really had to learn on my own, however painfully. But it would have been helpful to know:
    1. Most first-gens work way harder than people from more privileged backgrounds. This can work for you, and against you.
    2. Doing the “dirty work” can be a good way to get ahead. I got to be a production manager at my school paper because other kids’ parents wouldn’t let them drive the van around at night. I got to be a director because I wasn’t afraid of firing people. I got to break stories as a journalist because I would take the beats nobody wanted. Every time I did stuff nobody else wanted to do, it paid off eventually.
    3. On the other hand, you can really burn yourself out by outworking everyone in your midst. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
    4. If anyone at work asks your opinion of a leader, manager, etc. only say something nice, even, or especially, if it’s a lie.
    5. Sometimes your blue-collar background is a benefit. I kept mine as hidden as possible until the issue was raised in a job interview for a nonprofit that served low-income clients. Having lived experience that was similar to theirs helped me get the job, even though it was not a client-facing one. As I got older and more confident and more established, I am far more comfortable sharing my “humble” beginnings.
    6. Get all the dental work done that you can afford.
    7. SO much wardrobe advice in this thread. Don’t ever think it doesn’t matter. Take it from someone who was sent home to change from her second professional job.
    8. Try not to resent others’ privilege. I once had a manager who could not do her job. She would frequently “work” from her “cottage.” Meanwhile, I and the rest of the team were putting in long hours. I let my resentment build to a toxic level that boiled over into me telling her she was a terrible manager. Now, when I encounter similar entitlement and incompetence, I practice patience and wait for things to work themselves out while protecting my own area of influence.
    9. Understand that you are probably the minority. At one job I had, one of the admins did a big presentation on how some people only eat on $7 per day and would we all want to try that to see how it feels? I looked around the table and realized I was the only one who had known food insecurity. The same thing happened at another job during an exercise for the local leadership group, in which executives spent a day pretending they had to navigate public assistance, etc. I guess I had never thought about how few people in my white-collar world grew up with as limited means as I, and it kind of shocked me.
    I could keep going, but I won’t. Thanks to everyone who has posted great advice and to AAM for posing this important question.

  114. Furret*

    Not sure if this is covered.

    Be proud of your background and achievements. Be brave enough to ask questions and check your understanding of the situation.

    I hid my background and tried to be “normal”. This meant I held myself back and accidentally took myself out of consideration from the promotion track. Still trying to recover after twenty years.

  115. First gen*

    I had never considered this to be a factor! I just assumed that every professional starts out completely clueless and figured out mysterious office norms as they go. This explains so much!

Comments are closed.