This May, as new college graduates charge out into the workforce, many will hunt for jobs at startups instead of big companies. In fact, according to a 2016 survey by Accenture, only 14% of U.S. graduates want to work at a large firm; 44% want to work in a startup or other small enterprise. Going to work at a startup has perks — from an informal atmosphere to faster on-the-job learning and more autonomy — but there are downsides, too. Before you assume a startup is going to be your dream first job, make sure you know what you’re getting into.  Based on my work in the startup world and with recent graduates, there are a number challenges young workers often don’t know they’re going to face.

1. No standard salary and no benefits. The challenges start with the very first thing you have to do after getting the job offer: negotiate your compensation package. When you get hired at a typical startup, there’s typically little room to negotiate salary or benefits. If you are walking into a well-funded startup, the salary could be quite large for your position. But if you are walking into a boot-strap startup, that number could be quite small. A salary figure at a start-up is going to fluctuate a lot more than at an established corporation. It’s also going to be a lot harder to benchmark the offer they give you against salaries at other firms. And benefits? Well, a lot of startups don’t offer benefits like dental or health insurance, or a 401k plan; they’re just not in a financial place where they can offer them yet. You’ll have to look beyond things like benefits and salary to decide if you really want to work there.

2. The culture is constantly evolving. A company’s culture is created from the way the team interacts with one another, the daily practices they establish, the way they handle certain issues, and the way they work together. At a large firm, a new employee steps into an existing culture, where norms are already established. But if you’re one of the first 20 employees at a startup, you are creating the culture. That can be a disorienting feeling for anyone, but even more so if it’s your first job. And if the company has a high turnover rate — as a lot of startups do — it can be even harder to establish any sort of culture.

3. Lack of structure — or even a boss. New graduates are going from educational environments where the goals were clear and consistent, and where they were closely supervised by parents and professors, to jobs at startups where the goals are unclear, constantly changing, or both, and they have to muddle through with no supervision or feedback. This is a tough scenario to handle. Young people often crave feedback and attention and find it hard to constantly perform or get better when they have no barometer for success. And at some startups, “lack of structure” would be a polite way to put it; a more accurate description would be “total chaos.” How do you thrive as an employee in an environment that’s always changing, where priorities are always shifting, and when the goals are changing constantly based on pressure from founders or investors? You must be mentally prepared to walk into a very fluid environment.

And in some cases, you may not even have a boss. I’ve had several conversations with recent grads in their first post-college jobs. They all expected to have a boss in their first job. But today, they are starting jobs with no direct supervisor. (In some cases, they briefly had a boss, but that person left the company and wasn’t replaced.) These recent grads are left to “be the boss,” and while they appreciate the opportunity, they still want someone to mentor them, coach them, help them prioritize, offer structure, and teach them new things.

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Career Transitions