THE BLOG
11/24/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Is it Better to Start at the Bottom or Hold Out for a More Rewarding Job?

Emily, a bright English lit major who recently graduated from an Ivy League school, has her heart set on writing for a small online magazine where hipsters get their news. She interned at CNN, but doesn't want to apply there because she would have to start at the bottom. She asked me:

What's the best strategy--starting at a low-level job in a big organization or trying to hold out for a more rewarding job at a smaller and/or less established firm?

Here's what I told Emily:

Connect with someone who has your dream job.
Pick three writers at that magazine you want to work and find out how they got there. Start with online research, but don't be afraid to reach out to a writer you admire. Even busy people appreciate fans and might agree to answers some questions via email or even a phone call. If you find none of them started at your dream job right after graduation, then it's probably going to be pretty hard for you to do the same.

Another strategy is to tap into your school's alumni network. I have found most people make the time to help people who graduated from their university, especially if they went to the same department. And it's easy to track them down. For example, the University of Missouri's Journalism school has a Profiles in Success section that recent grads can browse to connect with alumni.

Don't underestimate the power of a big organization's brand.
No matter what your field, if your first job is at a big, respected organization, the power of that brand can help you throughout your career. An eye-tracking study by The Ladders found recruiters spent an average of just six seconds reviewing a resume. Most of that time was spent looking at employer names, job titles, and start and end dates. Well-established brands enhance your personal brand. They provide a shortcut for recruiters and hiring managers--they immediately know what it means to be an accountant at Deloitte, rather than at a small local firm.

A big company can provide a shortcut to the big time.
The conventional wisdom for journalists is to start small, make mistakes, and work your way up. That's what I did in my first job at a television station in Zanesville, Ohio, where the pay was so low most of the anchors were on federal housing subsidies. After three years of being on the air in a small market, I went to produce at CNN, where many colleagues were on their first jobs out of college. One of my writers was desperate to become a reporter, but everyone told her she had to go to a local station first. Christiane Amanpour ignored them and things worked out pretty well for her.

Andy Cohen's first job was as a CBS News clerk. He dreamed of being on air, but as he describes in his biography, Most Talkative, he was told he had a "wandering eye." After ten years of working his way up the producing ranks, Cohen left CBS News to become a cable TV executive. It wasn't until he was Bravo's programming chief that Cohen finally got his shot in front of the camera, moonlighting as a talk show host.

Use a process for making your decision.

I told Emily to immediately read the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. They describe the WRAP process you can use for any decision:
• Widen your assumptions (maybe the choice isn't writing at a hot magazine or being an assistant at a network, but something completely different)
• Reality-test your assumptions (do as many internships as you can, job shadow, interview people who have jobs you would like)
• Attain distance before deciding (how do you think this decision will affect where you are in ten years?)
• Prepare to be wrong (what's the worst case scenario for taking a job and is there anything you can do as insurance?)

Working is always better than not working.
If you're lucky enough to get any kind of offer from a big company, take the job, and work your butt off. Wait at least a year to decide whether the position can grow into what you want. You need to give the company a fair shot, and you don't want your next potential employer to worry that you're going to bail in a few months.
Contract work is another alternative. It's a great way to get a feel for an organization without making a long-term commitment. (A lot of technology companies like Cisco make extensive use of contractors.) Remember, it's always easier to find a job when you have a job. Most recruiters won't even consider you unless you are currently working.

And remember, your first job isn't the rest of your life!
Because many college graduates spent a big chunk of their lives trying to get into the "right" school, they now they feel like they have to get the "right" first job. Big and small organizations both have their strengths. There really is no wrong decision for Emily, as long the job allows her to shine.