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Vicki Bogan offers tips on mentorship, networking, professional attire—and why you shouldn’t stress out too much

By Beth Saulnier

Having your first job out of school is exhilarating, rewarding—and maybe a little intimidating. So Cornellians tapped Vicki Bogan for some advice for early career professionals (roughly defined as those between college graduation and their late 20s).

A professor in the Dyson School, Bogan is the founder and director of the Institute for Behavioral and Household Finance in the SC Johnson College of Business. She has shared her economic expertise in such major media as NPR, Bloomberg, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal.

What’s a common mistake that people make early in their career?

Thinking that this is their only shot. So often, for their first job in particular, people put so much pressure on themselves; they think this is the only chance they have to be successful. But your career is a long game; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

A portrait of Prof. Vicki Bogan

You might have a long-term goal, but you can take a circuitous path to get there—and that’s okay. I have an MBA, and there was so much pressure to get the “perfect” job out of business school—but five years after graduation, most of my friends were no longer in that same job.

How important is mentorship?

It’s absolutely critical. You need a group of mentors that have different skills, paths, and perspectives; you have to determine what your goals are for the relationship, and you can glean different types of information from each person. Mentors can be important sources of guidance—for example, to understand the politics and dynamics of a particular firm.

If you’re thinking of switching careers, they can help you understand the landscape of an industry or field: should you go back and get a degree? What types of credentials do you need? And depending on the relationship, they can be a sounding board for developing your career plan, offering personal advice.

Your career is a long game; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

How does one go about finding a mentor?

Some firms or universities will assign a formal mentor, and there are programs within professional associations or other groups that provide mentors. But equally important mentoring relationships are informal—ones that grow organically. You have interactions with someone in your workplace, strike up a conversation, and develop a relationship.

And you don’t need each mentor to be the perfect match. You’re not trying to find a spouse, you’re trying to find somebody willing to offer guidance, advice, and the benefit of their perspective.

Are there ways that early career folks can help each other?

Yes. I found my networks of friends invaluable in helping me navigate my career and what I wanted to do at each step. It’s very helpful to have experienced mentors, but also to have peer mentors who are going through the same thing—people whom you can bounce things off of and who understand exactly what position you’re in.

Let’s talk about networking. How do you go about it? And what does it even mean these days?

I think we’re in a transition. The landscape is changing in this post-pandemic era, where people are increasingly working from home. People now use social media more to network, and there are different platforms that enable you to connect and engage.

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Why is it important to network?

Business is all about relationships, and it’s the way you form new ties. You might be networking for an immediate goal, like, “I need a job, so I’m going to this professional mixer.” But you also can network more strategically for long-term goals—expanding your group of professional contacts, so in the future there might be mutually beneficial opportunities.

How vital is it to “dress for success” or otherwise have a professional presence in the workplace?

This question really hits home for me. When I was young, I looked younger than I actually was. I distinctly recall, when I was a strategy consultant, showing up on the job and the clients thinking I was in high school. So I was very keen on dressing professionally at all times—and I do think people responded to me differently.

Dress guidelines do differ by industry. In tech culture, I think you can wear a T-shirt and sneakers, and it’s acceptable. But there are still a lot of places in business where how you dress is important. You may not have to wear a suit, but presenting yourself in a serious manner will get you taken more seriously.

You may not have to wear a suit, but presenting yourself in a serious manner will get you taken more seriously.

How might that translate to remote work?

It’s still important, even on Zoom. I am very sympathetic, as a working mom, to when children come into the room when you’re on a meeting; I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about things you can control—like your screen background, how you’re dressed.

And I want to be clear: there’s a lot of room for people to express their differences and reflect the diversity of their experiences. That’s all good. But you probably won’t be doing yourself any favors if you show up to an interview in a T-shirt, with maybe something inappropriate written on it. In the business world, you’re always being evaluated—and people are making mental notes.

Do you have advice for how to manage your Internet presence?

Make sure you always stay professional—and understand that your digital footprint is an open book, and it’s forever. Be very careful about what kinds of things you post and how they could reflect on your potential business reputation.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t show who you are as a person; your differences and diversity can be assets to a lot of firms. But students have posted things on Facebook, about collegiate social life or parties, that they wouldn’t want a future employer to see—but now employers often look at social media during standard background checks.

Lastly, what are some things that workers who are mid- or late-career might wish they’d known when they were starting out?

There are so many, and a lot of them are workplace specific. But when I think about my own career, I wish I’d known that it was all going to work out. At each stage, I was very stressed to make it to the next level. When you’re younger, you don’t have the perspective to know that this one job isn’t going to make or break your life; this one assignment isn’t going to make or break your career.

That being said, I do think that—in your first job in particular—you should work as hard as you can. Because the “halo effect” is real. If you get the reputation for being a rising star, it takes a lot for that to go away. And correspondingly, if you get the reputation for being not so great, it takes a lot to turn that around. So you need to hit the ground running. 

Illustration by Cornell University; photo by Jesse Winter.

Published March 9, 2023

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