From Ivy League to dead-end job

After three months working for a big company, a new grad is being given only the most routine assignments. Is it time to quit? Fortune's Anne Fisher explains.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I never expected to find myself asking you for advice, but I'm really stuck. I was an 'A' student in college and always found ways to stand out from the crowd (captain of the lacrosse team, etc.) at the Ivy League school I attended.

But now, after three months in my first "real" job at a Fortune 500 company, I already feel I've hit a dead end, just doing routine work. It's so different from what I expected that I'm considering looking elsewhere, but will this mark me as a job-hopper? Any suggestions on how to get more challenging assignments where I am now? - Disillusioned

unemployment_jobemployee.03.jpg
Quiz
Succeed in your new job?
Whether you're changing positions mid-career or starting your first real job out of college, new hires face common pitfalls. Do you know how to avoid them?
1. Five minutes from now, you will step on to an elevator whose only other passenger is your company's CEO, whom you haven't met before. You are most likely to:
Be completely tongue-tied and say nothing.
Introduce yourself and give a 30-second summary of the work you're doing and why you're excited about it.
Chat about the weather.

Dear Disillusioned: Oh, dear. Yes, quitting your first job after only three months will certainly mark you as a job hopper, and with good reason. Three months is barely enough time to glean even the haziest idea of how things work at your company and what it takes to succeed there.

If your employer isn't spelling it out for you, you're not alone. "Big companies used to offer formal management training programs and, while some still do, there are fewer of those now," says Nicholas Aretakis. "Instead an employer is more likely to give you mundane tasks, and you have to figure out on your own how to move up."

Aretakis's new book might help. Called No More Ramen: The 20-Something's Real World Survival Guide (Next Stage Press, $14.95, or see NoMoreRamenOnline.com), it's a shrewd, down-to-earth guide to getting your career off to a strong start. Aretakis, a former senior executive at a couple of successful dot-coms he helped take public, is now a career coach for new grads, and his book is based on both his own long corporate experience and over 200 interviews with twentysomethings.

First, Aretakis suggests, be honest with yourself, or ask your boss for frank feedback: You may have been an A student in college, but are you sure you're doing A-quality work now?

"In the workplace, 'A' work is about more than getting things done on time with no major misspellings," says Aretakis. "It's about bringing inspiration and excellence to your work." Admittedly, that's not easy when the tasks you're assigned bore you half to death, but keep trying.

Attitude counts. "Enthusiasm is infectious," Aretakis notes. You may have to fake it at first, but make an effort to project optimism and a belief that what you're doing matters: "By contributing a good attitude, there's a better chance that you'll motivate others to think positively too. People will enjoy working with you and invite you to collaborate on other projects. You'll emerge as a leader - and leaders get promoted."

Another way to stand out: Jump in. "That means being the one who is always asking, 'What else can I do?' " says Aretakis. "If your boss is bogged down on a project, offer to help. If you complete an assignment ahead of time, don't just surf your favorite blogs until your boss gives you something else to do. Instead, ask for more work. That alone will set you apart."

He adds: "No one I know has ever lost a job because they asked for more to do. But they have been promoted."

An inside job

Let's say you've tried all this - really tried, and for longer than three months - and you're still getting nowhere. It could be that your current job actually is the dead-end you think it is, but before you start job-hunting outside your company, look for bigger opportunities in-house.

One young man Aretakis coached had gone to work for his uncle's startup right out of college and, when the startup failed a year later, took a job as an entry-level data-processing person at J.P. Morgan. "After a year there, he was very bored and unhappy, and he was about to start looking again," Aretakis recalls. "But I pointed out to him that he was already at a great company, and it would be smart to stick it out for three or four years. Two jobs in two years is not what you want on your resume." (Needless to say, three months in your first job isn't, either.)

Instead, Aretakis encouraged this client - who had decided he was interested in marketing - to meet managers outside his own department and let them know that he wanted to be considered if any jobs opened up. He must have made a good impression: Aretakis says that within two weeks, he was tapped for a junior-level marketing spot that came with a 17% pay raise.

"Now he's having a blast, and he's on the path he wants to be on," says Aretakis. "The job he has now, with that 'brand-name' company, is solid preparation for any marketing job he'll want later."

Odds are that your Fortune 500 employer is a "brand name," too. So why not try looking into what other opportunities may be available? That way, even if you do end up deciding to quit a year or two from now, at least you'll be in a position to (truthfully) tell future job interviewers that you gave it your best shot.

Is it best to stick it out in a dull job? Are new grads too quick to quit? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog.  Top of page

Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.
Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.