Martin Gee for TIME
By Caroline Duda
August 30, 2016

You’ve done it—you’ve been offered your first job! Whether it’s the position of your dreams, or in a field entirely unrelated to the one you envisioned working in, your first weeks and months in the workforce are both critical and overwhelming.

You will be given a number of documents, you’ll meet a lot of new people and you will sit in on a number of meetings—but not everything you learn will be about policy and procedure. Here are three of the most important lessons you’ll learn in your first job:

1. Your job description is only a guideline
Job descriptions are a staple in the hiring process—we search for an ideal position based on these descriptions, and when we identify a promising role, we tailor our cover letter and resume to reflect this explanation of duties and responsibilities. Certain companies may even structure your annual review around the specific language that this document contains.

As someone new to the workforce, you might believe that the description you read before an interview is the full scope of your role. The reality is somewhat more complex.

Take my first job—as the coordinator of an after-school program, I understood that I would be responsible for providing age-appropriate programming and ensuring the safety of participants and staff, because these duties were listed on my job description. What I didn’t anticipate was that as a member of the school community, it was expected that I would support the school’s own goals and lend my time and expertise to achieving them. For instance, as a liberal arts and language-focused institution, the school administration encouraged me to offer after-school classes focusing in these areas. The courses I led, like drumming and introductory Spanish, proved enormously popular with parents and students.

This unspoken duty was far from oppressive or unwelcome. If I had rigidly stuck with my job description, I would have missed out on an extra opportunity to interact with students. By staying open to new opportunities, I was able to have a more fulfilling work experience.

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2. You may learn the most—and receive the most help—from unexpected sources
You likely expect to learn a great deal from your supervisor, and, perhaps, from your supervisor’s supervisor. You may also expect to receive the most support from these individuals. In the vast majority of cases, the managerial staff at your company is a wonderful tool, but focusing only on these people can be a tremendous oversight.

As a new employee, your fellow co-workers—especially those who once held the position that you do now—can help you identify the best ways to complete your duties. Even if a person is from an entirely different department, don’t automatically discount him or her from being relevant to your experience. My first job involved a significant amount of classroom management, which wasn’t always easy. It was entirely by chance that I saw the school security guard speaking with an after-school student who often challenged my authority. It was obvious that the student respected and listened to him. I never would have learned how to handle this student best if I hadn’t observed and later spoken to that security guard.

From that single conversation, I realized that I needed to shift my tone from one of stern authority to something more conversational. Our issues didn’t instantly disappear, but this student and I were better able to understand one another. I also gained a future ally in the security guard. Everyone has something to teach you—you just have to keep your eyes open for those opportunities.

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3. You are your strongest advocate
In high school and college, you may have had an advisor, parent, teacher, or other mentor who advocated on your behalf. Perhaps your college professor recommended you for a coveted internship or a research position at your school. But in the work world, whether it’s asking for a promotion or more resources to finish a project, the responsibility is on you to speak up for yourself.

I had never completed a budget prior to my first job. I was suddenly responsible for estimating and managing staff, supply, and transportation costs, as well as setting prices for after-school activities. My overworked supervisor had no idea how familiar I was with budgets, and she simply could not devote hours to outlining the entire budget with me. What she could do, however, was provide me with an annotated sample. I simply needed to speak up first.

It’s not that the employer didn’t care that I was in over my head

Speaking up, especially in your first job, can be easier said than done. If you’re nervous about approaching your supervisor, try this trick—the moment you realize that you need assistance, email him or her and request a time to speak in confidence. You can determine exactly what you’ll say later, but half the battle is overcoming your initial fear of asking for help. In time, your misgivings will fade.

Caroline Duda is the Senior Marketing Coordinator for Varsity Tutors. She earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her Bachelor’s degree from Saint Lawrence University.

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