4 mistakes college grads make at their first job

The Wall Street Journal recently noted that 1.8 million college graduates have found work since January 2010, while 128,000 high school dropouts simultaneously lost their respective jobs. It appears a college degree is more valuable today than ever.

But while a diploma may get you in the door, it won't ensure you stay employed or get promoted. I asked four career experts to identify the single most damaging mistake they see recent grads make in their first job out of college. Here are some common mistakes to avoid as you embark on your career (if you're not a recent grad, feel free to forward):

Waiting for direction. In college, you might get instructions on exactly what you need to do to ace a class, from how a professor wants a paper prepared to what material to focus on for a final exam. On the job, you may get some initial guidance, but after a while you'll be expected to self-motivate, and if you get stuck, ask appropriate problem-solving questions.

"If you sit around waiting for a supervisor to direct your every move, you'll not likely establish yourself as a dynamic, confident professional. And that can pigeonhole you near the bottom rung for a long time," says Jenny Foss, career adviser and founder of JobJenny.com. Be proactive, give input -- in other words, contribute. But if you're confused, ask for clarification. The worst question -- especially early on -- is the one you don't ask.

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Acting like you've paid your dues. A sense of entitlement will quickly alienate you from your co-workers and boss. Even if you have multiple internships and a top-notch degree, being at the bottom of the totem pole will require some patience. "Recent grads need to respect their supervisors and avoid making any demands, like lengthy time off and a pay raise, early on," says Anthony Morrison, vice president of Cachinko, a professional social-networking and job-search community.

Succeed at this level and you'll get the green light to move up to the next one, where you'll have more interesting challenges and better pay. In time, if you're not advancing beyond "entry-level" status despite your star credentials and strong performance, you can use your new skills to search for a better opportunity.

Not being a team player. In college, you're competing solo for a good grade, and your efforts (and successes) are your own. But in the workplace, your loyalty also should extend to your team. "New grads need to adapt and conform to the company culture into which they have landed," says executive career coach Meg Montford. "Colleges encourage independent thinking to help youth grow and mature. But at work, one's contributions are evaluated in the light of the majority and best interests of the company." 

Thinking this job is your only option. Whether you're about to be caught in a round of layoffs, can't stand your job, or are still looking for one, don't be afraid to think outside the box. One of the advantages of being young may be having less responsibility and more opportunity to take some risks.

"Startups are now a norm, not a renegade's choice, and they enable twenty-somethings to validate and utilize their degrees in a whole new way," says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council. He encourages "wannabe" entrepreneurs to explore programs like Start Up America, which can provide guidance and funding, and the Student Start Up Plan, which provides student loan financing.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user KitAy via Wikimedia Commons

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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