The biggest fear when taking an entry level job is whether you’ll end up doing meaningful work. I still remember fretting that I’d spend the summer of my first “real” internship in the U.S. Senate fetching coffee and making copies (I didn’t end up fetching coffee…the copies, yeah, there was some of that).
It can seem like the way to protect against this is to ask lots of very specific questions about the role: what exactly will my responsibilities be? What will a typical day look like? This can help you a bit, but it can also backfire, because the best places for you might be the ones where these questions don’t get the clearest answers (also, it’s tricky to ask these sorts of questions and still communicate that you understand that your job is going to be to make those around you more successful, and that you’re willing to take a “whatever it takes” attitude.)
Better, I’ve found, to focus on two things.
First, when talking to your potential supervisor, figure out if she seems genuinely to care about the people around her, and that she will devote mindshare and energy to investing in you. For example, you could ask a question like, “can you describe someone who has worked for you who has gone on to do great things?” and then focus as much on the energy she has in answering the question as on the content of what she says.
Second, and probably most helpful: try to work in a place that is dynamic and growing. If a place is dynamic and growing, that means that new and unexpected (but cool and exciting) things are going to come down the pike. And if the place is dynamic and growing, that also means that it’s probably not fully resourced to attack that next great opportunity – that’s where you’re going to come in.
In these sorts of places, you’ll hear lots of answers about the general arc of growth and the future, but you won’t hear exactly the specific thing you’ll get to work on…because people don’t know, yet.
For a fun example, check on this great rap by the Ladies of Hamilton, with the lead part (of Alexander Hamilton) played by Morgan Marcell. Morgan is new to Broadway and she’s part of the Hamilton ensemble. There’s no conversation she could have had with the show’s producers or directors that could have predicted that the Hamilton cast would put out YouTube videos that would be seen more than 300,000 times. But she joined something she believed in, she put in the work, she did enough that her peers recognized her talents, and she worked with people who were proud to shine a spotlight on her when the opportunity arose.
And when it did, she was ready to step up.
(Oh, and @Lin_Manuel, yes, I do enter the lottery every day….)