One of the best things about EVE is that there are no levels and no "soulbound" items of any variety. There are only two real metrics (other than self-set goals) for character progression: Isk and Skillpoints.
Isk is the basic currency of New Eden. All Isk in the game is created equal and everything that can be had can be bought. You can sit in a rookie ship, mining Veldspar in the tutorial system for years on end and never firing a shot, until you have made enough Isk to buy the baddest, rarest, ships and guns in the game.
Or you can fly around market hubs trying to scam people by promising rare items in trade dialogs and slyly substituting common items instead (this, incidentally has been approved by the GMs as a valid playstyle) until you have enough money to buy a unique ship that was only given out once four years ago to the winner of a galaxy wide PVP tournament. Then, when you go to buy that ship, you can scam the person who won it all those years ago by creating a contract that they think says you will give them 100 billion Isk for the ship, when the fine print actually reads that they will have to give you 100 billion Isk to take the ship (also legit gameplay).
Then, when you undock it, you can get promptly blown up by a suicide bomber gunning for a high prestige kill. And now that ship is gone forever from the game, never to be seen by you or anyone again (multiple unique and rare ships and items have already gone extinct this way).
Or you can take the more common path: killing NPC pirates for bounties, running NPC missions for mission rewards, running combat complexes for loot to use or sell and occassionally blowing up a PC hauler to pirate his cargo (or, more profitably, threatening to blow that hauler up unless you receive a huge ransom).
So there are a lot of different ways to earn Isk.
There is however only one way to earn skillpoints: set a skill to train in your queue and wait. It doesn't matter if you actually play the game or not. In a very progress-quest like way, your character will keep getting better. This does mean that older characters have an advantage that younger characters can never overcome. But the flipside of this is that someone who plays for eight hours a day doesn't have nearly as much of an advantage over someone who plays a few hours a week as they would in other MMOs.
Fortunately, player tactical skill makes a much larger difference in most situations than skillpoints or Isk do, so it's not as dire for new players as it might sound. Here's a video of an skilled player going out PVPing using a new character, hot off the presses:
And it is very much not the case that bigger equals better in EVE. It is possible for a new player to nearly max out their skills for flying a given race's combat frigates in a month or two and, in quite a few tactical situations, a frigate is still the best ship going.
What all this does mean though is that if you ever let your skill queue empty and thus spend time without a skill training, it's just lost time and your character will be a little worse than they could have been. Fortunately, the skill queue allows you to specify up to 24 hours worth of skills to be trained.
Now sometimes you don't want to log in every day to babysit your skills, but there's a convenient trick. Say you have 23 hours and 59 minutes worth of skills loaded into your queue. You can add one more skill, regardless of how long it's going to take to complete. So, if you add a skill that will take two days to complete, then you essentially have a 3 day skill queue.
When you're new this can be tough being as all of your skills complete relatively fast (because you don't have high levels in them yet, but also because new accounts get a 100% training time bonus for their first 1.8 million skill points). If you've got a new character and want to take a day or two off, the best thing to do is add the same skill to the queue more than once. Since each progressive level of a skill takes exponentially more time to learn, you can get an early taste of the joy of long training times.
If you're going this route, it's good to have a short list of skills that are always beneficial to train to a higher level. There are many many skills out there, and you will never have time to max out all of them. Which skill to train next will be one of the most significant decisions that you make time and again throughout your EVE career. There's a good chance that you will never need "Kernite Processing," for example, or that if you spend your first week training skills in the Leadership skilltree, you'll later wish you had the time back when you find that solo piracy is your thing. These following skills however are guaranteed to never be a waste of time, no matter what level you are training them to:
- Energy Systems Operation
- Learning (more on this in a later post)
- Evasive Maneuvering
- Spaceship Command
There are many skills that you should almost certainly train in your early days that aren't on this list: Gunnery, Drones and [Racial] Frigate are particularly important. But any time you aren't sure what to train next, whether it's your first or thousandth day in space, so long as any of the skills on the above list are not maxed out, you have something to put in the queue.