Ahhh. Joining the ranks of the working folk. One morning you wake up (really early), put on those work clothes and just jump right in, right?

Uh, no.

Whether you're hopping on board after undergrad, grad school, a few years of volunteer service or military service, the workplace is a different world.

Sure, those internships help. The building of a community in a Third World country will also probably do you a lot of good. But entering the work force, or reentering it after a stint away from the 9-to-5 world, can be a challenge.

It's important to remember that you're not expected to know it all. You're not supposed to know that you don't call the CEO by her first name. How are you going to find out that Friday casual doesn't really mean casual? You should know, though, that you need to ask questions. Put the ego away. Use your pre-work world organization's career counselors to help you prepare. Talk to those who have been through the great transition. And use what you've already learned in those internships and volunteer hours to help smooth that transition.

"We promote and encourage current students to participate in volunteer activities and internships so the shock of the real world is lessened," said Marva Gumbs, director of career services for the George Washington University career center.

Did she say shock?

The Military

There are a lot of advantages to joining the work force after a stint in military service. You may already have the leadership qualities, you know how to take orders, and unlike many of us, you iron your own shirts.

But there can be a problem, according to Peter R. McCarthy, president of McCarthy and Co., an executive and outplacement firm in Arlington.

"What I see with this group is that a lot are coming out too self-assured. They pick up on all the hype of the low unemployment rate, and they conclude that [joining the work force] is easy," he said. "This attitude makes them not plan as well as they should."

So how should you plan? Luckily for this group, career transition help is readily available. Take advantage of that, McCarthy said, well before you're about to trade one uniform for another.

Start educating yourself and planning for that new job about a year before you get out. Subscribe to the newspapers in the area where you want to work so you can read up on the culture of the companies and developments at the one that may become your employer, McCarthy suggested. "Do the research on the company. Don't wing it. Do it before you go into the company. [Find out] what their mission is, where the people who are there come from," he said.

Once you're there, try to identify potential mentors, McCarthy advised. Ask yourself, "who are the role models I could reach out to, not in a brown-nosing way, but in an `I would be grateful for this or that'" way, he said. Take note of people with military backgrounds, in particular. You have common experiences, and they would likely take you under their neatly pressed wings.

Don't Be Shy

Mentoring is the key in many situations. Grab onto someone you think would shepherd you and don't let go. Introduce yourself. Ask questions. Sounds annoying, doesn't it? Maybe it is, but it works.

"Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to people, call people, ask them what they do and if you can meet with them," advises Alyssa Farber, 28, senior consultant at KPMG Peat Marwick. "Get involved with your community. Get involved with things you like at night."

She should know. Farber is immediate past chairman of WIN -- Women's Information Network -- in the District. The network provides area women with mentors and networking events, among other things.

Membership in WIN and similar organizations helps young workers to understand what older colleagues have already experienced, and makes it easier to ask what you think is so obvious to others. With a connection in such a community group, transition into the work world can be a little smoother.

Farber suggested finding someone in your office who went to your college (or was in your branch of the service). Find that common ground. "Look for someone who will tell you those jeans are inappropriate," she said.

And use your internship and volunteering experience to bridge the two worlds, said Elissa Leopold, 25, chairman of Women Opening Doors for Women, a program run by WIN that sponsors an annual networking night, pairing older and younger workers in the area.

"There were some things I knew I was putting into practice that I knew from grad school," she said. "It's always good to have a bridge."

She advised ignoring those who tell you not to work for free. "Not only does it get you networking, it gets your name and face out there."

Third-World Experience

Steven Douglas, 30, has a big transition to make. After serving with the Peace Corps in South Africa, Douglas found that he needed to really think about his future before jumping into an office job.

"I think the pace here ... dealing with the morning traffic is much more aggressive [than in South Africa]," he said. "For the last two years, I haven't had to live and work in an aggressive environment."

In South Africa, he set up five schools in four villages -- not something most corporate headquarters require. So Douglas said he is "going to take a little bit of time to explore my options. I need to reorganize my thoughts before I go on."

Luckily for him, the Peace Corps offers the opportunity to research prospective jobs. Peace Corps Return Volunteer Services provides career reentry information. The service says it helps about 3,500 returning Peace Corps workers annually.

"One of our missions is trying to educate employers as to the value of hiring Peace Corps volunteers," said Shanta Swezy, editor and writer in Return Volunteer Services.

The Returning Peace Corps Volunteer Board advises returnees to be patient, but not to be shy about networking. If they find where their skills lie after their service abroad, they can smooth their transition into a career.

"For those who are not sure what they want to do, temping might be a good idea," said Swezy. "It lets them step back and figure out what they want to do."

If you have questions about getting ahead, you can e-mail Amy Joyce at joycea@washpost.com