Why do it.

You know why you work. You work because you have to. Because you want a pocket of the world to call your own. Animals have nests and dens, but you want 2000 square feet and a porch swing. You want hot showers, fresh food and fast Internet, and none of that is free. You have to work for it.

You have to get out there and do something for forty years of your life that, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us probably wouldn’t still be doing if we won the lottery. If we’re lucky, we land a solid job with decent pay and people we like. We pay off our student loans and go on trips and buy houses. We get checkups and fix our teeth and stay home when we’re sick. And one day we can even afford to stop working.

If you plan well, you may have the opportunity to do something you love. Maybe not right away, of course, but down the line. You can start your own business and work for yourself. Or you can help shape the company or your position into your dream job. Enjoying the work you do is immensely rewarding, partly because we spend so much of our lives working. Knowing that you do good work that has a positive impact with people you like is almost priceless, and it’s definitely a work goal to strive for.

What’s worth your while.

The time you spend working is time you aren’t spending doing whatever you’d want to be doing if money was no object. It’s a tradeoff. Some of your time for the ability to get something you need. Food, shelter, security. Personal time, quiet, a beach view. Things you need to get by and things you need to be happy. You just have to figure out whether the tradeoff is worth it—whether your job makes you happy enough.

Of course, that’s what we’re all after, right? Happiness. Satisfaction. Joy. We don’t all need the exact same things to reach this “happy enough” state of being, though. We’re all snowflakes. Take the time to imagine your life in five or ten or forty years. What kind of life do you see yourself living during those different stages of your life?

Understand that the income you earn will directly impact the life you lead. The choices you make while you’re young can be a huge part of how free you are to fund your adult life.

One strong indicator of earnings potential is the level of education you achieve. Reaching higher levels of education translates into higher pay and lower unemployment rates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports for 2015 that the median weekly earnings for all workers is $860, and it’s not until you earn a Bachelor’s degree or above that the median earnings are above that $860 a week. Those with Professional or Doctoral degrees are more likely to earn double that. Associate’s degrees, incomplete college degrees, high school diplomas and incomplete high school education all earn on average less than the $860 a week. Those who fail to earn a high school diploma typically earn less than $500 each week.

Conversely, unemployment rates follow the trend of rising the less education you complete. The BLS report averages the unemployment rate in 2015 for all workers in the U.S. at 4.3%. Those with an Associate’s degree, Bachelor’s degree or above have a lower unemployment rate while those with no degree are more likely to be unemployed. Failing to complete a college degree puts you in the 5% unemployment rate category. Failing to complete a high school education bumps you to an 8% unemployment rate!

However, salaries and unemployment rates also vary greatly depending on your choice of major and how well suited your abilities are to that major. If math is far from your strong suit, barely completing a degree in statistics without achieving a proficiency in the subject is unlikely to translate into the average salary for that major. Remember, the average salary isn’t a given. It’s just an average. Some people will earn much more than that and vice versa.

Likewise your choice of schools can play a part in all of this. Be curious about potential careers and the work they entail. Put in the effort before you decide on a major and a school. You may learn during your time in college or through an internship that although you can do a job, you would much rather make a change and pursue a different career goal. The earlier you find this out the better. So do the legwork. Look at the latest studies comparing earnings by degrees and schools. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce produces a number of reports to help you plan for your future.

So, again, ask yourself what kind of life you want to lead. Then, do your research and figure out a plan to get there.

What to look for.


You’re definitely going to want to get paid for the work you do. I think we’d be hard pressed to find many people with a cap on how much they’d be willing to accept for their efforts, but most of us probably have an idea of how much we need to earn to cover our expenses. However, after that we differ. A lucrative career with high earnings potential may be the dream for one person while work that contributes to the community through a nonprofit may be the goal for another. The type of work you do and the sector you do that work in will determine what type of pay you should expect. Working for a nonprofit often does not offer the same earnings as corporate work.

Expect your salary to vary based on your geographic location. Compare salaries for your industry and position in various regions. This will let you know whether you’re being offered a fair salary and to negotiate a better deal for yourself.

And if you’re looking for your first job out of college, lower your expectations. That median earnings by major report you researched may show that the average salary for someone with your degree is $60,000, but be mindful of whether this data pertains to starting salaries or earnings over the course of the career. If you just graduated, you’re most likely an entry level employee, and you will need to prove your competency and usefulness. Expect to earn significantly less in an entry level position than you will after fifteen years of accomplishments.

Raises & Promotions

If you’re working for a large company or the government, raises may be fairly strict and follow a set time schedule. Often raises and promotions can be expedited the higher your level of education. A Master’s degree, for instance, may equal an additional year of experience, and a Doctoral may equal more. Smaller or faster growth companies may offer raises and promotions depending upon individual performance and contribution. If you’re in sales, you may earn a base salary and the rest of your earnings come from commissions.


Your time is valuable, to both you and to your employer. Therefore, it’s a good idea to know how much of it your career will likely demand of you. Some fields of work simply require a certain understood time commitment. Tax accountants know January to April is a far cry from a forty hour work week. Teachers know that all of the work isn’t done in the classroom—some of it gets taken home in the form of lesson planning, grading homework and responding to concerned parents. Production jobs require weekend shifts if the company falls behind. Retail is busy on the holidays when other jobs are off.

Take the time to imagine what your ideal work schedule would look like, and remember to consider how much vacation time you’d like available. You’re unlikely to get your dream schedule right away, but it’s something to work towards. Know going into your line of work whether the job will be a good fit for you and how you’d like to spend your time. After all, each of us has a limited amount of it. Go back and look at what’s most important to you, and use your values to help you decide on the type of work to pursue.

Health Insurance

You need it. (And it's the law.) The whole point of insurance is to manage risk, and your health is a big risk. It’s also an expensive risk. Having an employer who covers the cost of your health insurance is similar to earning a higher salary. For instance, I work at a small company and am fortunate to have my health insurance covered. In the three years since I’ve worked here, I’ve seen my premiums increase each year.

At 28: $273.20 a month = $3,278.40 a year

At 29: $322.66 a month = $3,871.92 a year

At 30: $386.05 a month = $4,632.60 a year

That’d be a pretty hefty chunk of change that I’d have to turn over to Blue Cross each year if I had to cover the expense myself. Since I don’t age in reverse, I can expect to see my premiums continue to rise because older age comes with higher overall healthcare expenses. As work continues to cover my premiums, though, I can think of the continued coverage over the years as an annual raise.

If your employer covers your health insurance for you, visit the government exchange and get an idea of what you would otherwise be paying if the company didn’t cover you. Now add that monthly amount onto your salary. You’re making that, too.

Retirement Savings

Another extra earnings consideration is retirement savings. Not all jobs offer retirement plans. This is another benefit some companies provide to their employees. Retirement plans come in all shapes and sizes. Some companies offer a match, meaning if you contribute a certain percentage, they’ll match your contribution up to a point. Sometimes the match is time-based. After you work there a year, they’ll match 1%, two years, 2%, three years, 3%...up to whatever that company’s cap may be. That’s extra money you’re earning! Preparing for retirement is vital and almost entirely on your shoulders, not the company’s. So take the time to educate yourself on the topic. And take advantage of whatever help your company may offer, because you’re likely going to need it.

Professional Growth Opportunities

One perk some companies offer is professional development. You may have some or all of graduate coursework covered. You may be encouraged to work towards one or more professional certifications that will set you apart in your industry. You may be sent to conferences to learn the latest trends and technologies. If your position at the company supports any or all of these opportunities, it’s a sign that the company is willing to invest in its workers’ careers. You become a more highly skilled employee with a higher earning potential. Even if your time at the company comes to an end at some point (hopefully amicably) your Master’s or certification or proficiency at new technology goes with you and makes you more valuable (and more likely to get hired) at your next job.

Companies may add an additional area of professional development: networking. Though it’s unlikely that your boss will cover every club you want to be a part of, you may find that you work for a company that promotes networking and will cover fees and membership dues. At no cost to you, then, you’re able to expand your professional network, which could end up landing you your next client, reference, or even your next job.


For most of us, life throws us a few curveballs, and our day-to-day gets hectic for a while. We get sick. Sometimes we get really sick. We start families. Our families get sick, and we have to take care of them. We have car trouble. Our pets get hurt. We get divorced. And sometimes we realize we just need some time away for our sanity.


Whatever hiccups come along to throw you off your daily routine, it definitely makes dealing with them easier if you have a job that offers you the flexibility in your work schedule to properly handle them. Not all jobs can be as flexible, of course, but it is a feature of potential jobs to consider. Having that extra room in your schedule if you need it is a huge benefit.

Company Culture

Do you like the people you work with? Many people consider this to be one of the most important aspects of a job. We spend a lot of time at work which means we spend a lot of time with our coworkers. While you probably shouldn’t expect to like everyone, you definitely don’t want to be miserable at the office. Consider how much privacy the job offers you in your day-to-day routine and whether that’s enough for you.

Along those same lines, you'll want to keep in mind what's expected of you as far as production goes. In some positions, going the extra mile may be expected and rewarded. You may do well if you're competitive and ambitious. However, other positions focus more on teamwork and the delegation of duties. Trying to do more than you're expected may end up with little payoff and a lot of stress. You don't want to exhaust yourself with efforts that will only lead to burnout. You're just one person after all. Do your job, and do it well, but don't put it on yourself to do everyone else's job. This isn't to say you won't be asked to do more from time to time. We all are. A company that recognizes and rewards productivity and creativity is a company you want to work for.

Miscellaneous Perks

Some jobs come with other perks that save you a monthly bill. Paying your monthly phone bill or covering a gym membership translates into hundreds you’re getting to pocket each month. Companies may also stock the kitchen at the office, or your boss may treat you to lunch. These miscellaneous benefits are great, but probably aren’t going to be what makes you choose one offer over another. However, they do help to make you feel valued in your position. And not to be too cliché, but when your work is valued, well, you value your work.

When to start looking.

It’s really never too early to start looking at companies you might want to work for or open positions you’re interested in. You may not have any idea of what type of work you’d like to do. If you’re in that boat, go online and look at open positions around the country. The job description will give you an idea of that job’s responsibilities and the qualifications necessary to be considered. If you’re early in your college career, this can be a useful way you decide on your major.

If you know the industry you’d like to work in, learn about some of the companies in it and apply for internships (if you’re still in college – generally this is a requirement for internships). Familiarity with an industry and the companies it’s made up of—particularly the company you want to work for – is pretty much expected if you want to land the job.

Much of the time, we can also expect to move to accept a position. This might just be a couple of hours away, or the move may take us to the opposite coast. Distance aside, when you’re looking at potential jobs or trying to decide what direction to pursue in your career, it’d be a bit negligent not to consider location in your job search.

Some people are really against moving. Sure, their ancestors uprooted and crossed an ocean and traversed the country, but by golly this is their town and they’re sticking around. I get it. I’ve tried leaving the South, but I kept coming back until it stuck. I like the sound of cicadas in the summer and April rains. I like being near my parents. I like calling Planet Fitness the Old Kroger and watching the same local anchors on television for the nightly news. If you want to stay a local, though, it behooves you to be curious about your potential job opportunities. Get to know your professors. Make local connections. Network. Make an impression (a good one). You want people to keep you in mind if they hear about a job opening. There’s not a whole lot better of an endorsement than having someone say, “I know the perfect person for that job. You should call so-and-so.”

Of course, not everyone wants to stick around their hometown. If you have a specific location in mind, find out who’s hiring there and which companies are located there. Apply for a summer internship in the area.

If you’ve already taken a position, and you have the feeling it’s not a company you see yourself working for over the long haul, keep tabs on open positions elsewhere. You may not see a job you want to try for at first, but if you keep open positions on your radar, you won’t miss an opportunity that presents itself. Remember, though, not to job surf while you’re actually at work. Your employer can check your internet history, and it really doesn’t bode well for you if your boss finds out you’ve been sending out your resume while you’re on the clock.

When to reassess.

Many companies offer periodic employee reviews. It’s a good practice to prepare for yours beforehand. Keep a running list throughout the year of contributions you’ve made or suggestions you have for the company and your position. Most of us would be hard-pressed to come up with a comprehensive list of a year’s worth of achievements off the top of our heads. An email draft or a note on your phone helps you keep track. Maybe it’s a big client you brought in or a project you’ve helped move along. Write it down and bring it up in your review. This will help you negotiate for more. Whether you want a bonus, a raise, a promotion, or more time off, you’ll probably be more likely to get it if you come prepared and can back up your requests.

Keep your goals in mind when you're negotiating for more. Sure, you're asking for more for yourself and your needs, but you're also asking for more for the people who depend on you: your spouse, your kids, etc. And your pets bring you a lot of joy, but they also come with their fair share of expenses. If you're looking to add a kitten to your life, add some padding to your budget. He's going to need more trips to the vet than you think.

Most of the time we don’t start out with our dream job. We work a number of jobs and learn what we like doing and what we definitely don’t like doing. Your first job likely won’t be your last, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it and build yourself professionally while you’re there. And a lot of jobs still come from networking. It’s who you know not what you know, right? And though some of us are lucky enough to stumble upon a great job, most of the time good jobs don’t find you, you find them. So keep your eyes open.


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