Starting a new job is exciting, daunting, stressful, and fulfilling. It’s a time of change and conflicting emotions, to say the least. Like preparing for a field expedition, knowing what you are getting into and having a plan to prosper can reduce your stress and enhance your probability for success.
During the first few months—and perhaps up to a year—of employment, you will be on probation, meaning that your new supervisor and colleagues also will be looking to see if you fit into their organizational culture. They’re scrutinizing your performance to weigh, for example, whether they want you to be with them for extended periods of time on field assignments or whether they can depend on you to produce your part of the research needed to complete an important report on time.
Thus, regardless of whether you’re venturing into a new position in academia, industry, a nonprofit, or elsewhere, it will be important for you to show your ability to contribute to the objectives of your employer. Here are 10 steps you can take to get off on the right foot.
1. Get Interpersonal
Your technical skills are likely the reason that you were hired for the job, but it is equally likely that strong interpersonal skills will be what keeps you there. The most important skills are communications, teamwork, and accountability.
You will need to share your progress on projects with your colleagues, your boss, and others who depend on your results to do their jobs. Your written and oral communications should be concise, thorough, and timely. Although you don’t want to brag, it doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do if no one knows. In addition, regular communication is the lubricant of teamwork. Without communication about your results, work on the project will slow or stop because people downstream are dependent on the information you provide.
Think about a geological study that requires rappelling off the side of a mountain to access samples. Everyone on the team must be in sync. You need to have the right equipment on site, clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and a plan for descent. It also helps to have a common understanding of terms and concepts because if you cause a debris slide, people underneath you need to know “heads up” really means to tuck into the cliff face for safety.
Most organizations rely on the work of teams composed of experts in different disciplines who can collectively address and solve problems in a collaborative manner. It is rare for someone to work alone. You will need to understand how and when to share your expertise and service to better the outcomes of the team and the organization. You also will need to understand when to step back so that someone more qualified or able can lead, even if your instinct is to maintain control of a project.
When you are hired by an organization, they expect that you will be dependable and can produce results on time. Being accountable for your responsibilities is critical to being a professional.
2. Get to Know the People and Their Culture
You need to become part of the team. Learn the names of everyone with whom you work as well as something personal (but not too personal) about them. Build relationships with everyone, not just people you think will be able to help you. Get to know others in the industry and build a network of people inside and outside of the organization. Say yes to lunch invitations whenever possible. Be friendly without getting into office gossip. You want to be a reliable colleague but not a personal confidant. Look for opportunities to assist your coworkers without sacrificing your own responsibilities. Build your reputation as someone who can be counted on.
Listen as much as possible—especially before you start trying to change established practices. As you get to know more people at the organization and more about how the organization itself works, you will be learning the culture of the organization. Culture is the collection of enduring values, shared assumptions, and group norms that drive the company. Culture endures over time, and those who fit in stay and advance; those who don’t often leave.
3. Find a Local Guide
Entering an unfamiliar space filled with strange people is always easier when you are accompanied by someone who knows local practices and customs. Reach out to your new colleagues and find a friendly face, someone who knows the organization and its culture. That person will know where the extra copy paper is, with whom you need to speak to book time on an instrument, or which form needs to be completed to process a petty cash reimbursement.
Develop deeper relationships with a small number of people who can serve as local guides by participating in a mentoring program. They will provide objective advice and point out unwritten rules and potential pitfalls. They know things and know how to get things done.
Finding a mentor is a great idea. A mentor can be a chief scientist or a colleague who has worked for the organization longer than you. Depending on the help or information that you need, a peer mentor can be just as effective as a senior mentor. That said, senior mentors are better positioned to act as a sponsor for you when promotional decisions are being made. A true sponsor will be willing to vouch for your work ethic or your experience in important situations. If you are fortunate enough to find a sponsor, cherish him or her, because sponsors are rare.
Within your industry or discipline, participate in conferences and social events to compare experiences and to learn what life is like in other organizations. You can talk with people outside of your organization in ways that you cannot with your immediate colleagues. You can also share best practices and learn new things that you can apply at your job. As others get to know you, they are likely to keep you apprised of other opportunities. Whether you choose to move on or not, knowing what is happening in other organizations can help you to better position yourself for success.
4. Get to Know Your Boss
One of the most important things you can do is to make sure you understand exactly what your supervisor expects. You can work as hard as you want, but if you’re working hard on the wrong things, you are most likely wasting your time. Get clear direction on scope, parameters, resources, and deadlines. Let your new boss know that you understand what he or she wants and that you understand the importance of what he or she is asking you to do. Deliver just a little bit more—and just a little bit earlier—than you promised.
As part of your continuing conversations, learn your boss’s preferred interaction style. Provide updates by his or her preferred method (email, phone, in person) and on his or her preferred schedule (daily, weekly, or only when there’s a problem). Keep in mind that what your boss says he or she wants may not be what he or she actually meant. When you go to your supervisor with a problem, take several possible solutions and be prepared to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each.
5. Show Your Worth
To be successful at your new job, you will need to consider how you can support the organization. Think about professional talents that distinguish you from the rest of the team. The organization made a huge effort to find you because they had very specific needs. It is likely that the position that you now fill has been vacant for a while and others in the organization have been covering by taking on added work, so they will be eager for you to fill the void.
Your new coworkers will also want you to be successful. The better you are at your job, the easier it will be for them to do theirs. When they give you feedback, assume positive intent. They are more likely to help rather than hinder you. It is in their best interest.
You will need some time to become oriented in your new environment, but everyone will be looking for you to step into your new role as soon as you are able. Once you are in, you should also look for ways that you can uniquely contribute beyond your job description.
6. Make Room for Yourself
It may sound contrary to the step above, but you should know that it takes time to settle in and learn the ropes. Your employer is not expecting you to perform at the same level or in the same way as someone who has been at the organization for 20 years. They are asking for you to look at projects and challenges with new eyes and to offer new insights for innovation. Give yourself time to grow and learn.
Be strategic with your time inside and out of the office. In the beginning, you may need to dedicate some of your time outside of the workplace to reading up on new areas of research, standard operating procedures, or other information that can help you perform better at work. But you should also reserve time for yourself to process, relax, and think about something different. You will be healthier and more creative if you are rested and receiving input from other sources like books, movies, or friends.
There is no such thing as a “forever job” in today’s economy, so don’t think that this job has to be a perfect match. You are on a journey to learn and discover your potential. As you grow, you may find that you want to do new things and that you want your role to change within the organization. You may also find over time that your values no longer fit with those of your current employer. If that happens, you will know that it is time to move on.
7. Make Note of Your Contributions
Keep your own record of accomplishments (a brag book) so you’ll remember them when your annual review comes around. Making notes in your calendar of your meetings and deadlines can be a great help when you are trying to reconstruct what you have done and how you spent your time.
Consider writing a summary of your week each Friday, so that you have a running record. You will likely have a 90-day review and another one at the end of your first year to gauge your accomplishments. In most organizations, the review process starts with a self-assessment where you write an account of your major accomplishments and map your contributions against your goals for that performance period. You will be in a better position to write your report if you already have a log of your activities.
Keeping a field log or lab book can also fill this bill. It is a standard practice for experimental work. You might as well apply the techniques you know to your professional life.
8. Be Vocal in Meetings
Speaking up in meetings is important if you are to be incorporated into the team. Although you may not feel that your opinion matters to a room of senior scientists, you should find a way to participate in the conversation. You were brought into the organization because you have specific expertise that they need to access. If you don’t speak up, their investment in you is wasted because they are not benefiting from your knowledge and experience.
On the other hand, don’t be overbearing or disruptive. Your objective should be to add to the collective knowledge of the group and to aid in the solution of the problem being discussed.
Participating in a meeting can also include agreeing to a point made by a colleague. You don’t always have to counter their opinions.
9. Listen and Be Open to Feedback
Don’t wait until your 90-day review to ask for feedback. Take every opportunity to discuss your work performance and the quality of the work that you produce with your supervisor and teammates. If there is a problem, you want to correct it early. Most people, including your supervisor, will size you up quickly, and it is to your advantage for them to see you as proactive, competent, and contributing to the success of the organization.
10. Prepare for Your Next Opportunity
Knowing your colleagues and exceeding your supervisor’s expectations are crucial, but creating and fulfilling your own careers goals are also essential. You should always have an idea of where you want to go next and be doing the things you need to get you there. Look for projects and responsibilities that will allow you to learn what you need to know and prepare you for the next position on your professional path.
Know that a new job in your professional life will also change your personal life. If you are in a relationship you may need to renegotiate expectations and duties with your partner or try out new patterns before unsustainable habits get established. Be aware of how the changes in your situation affect your partner and be willing to accommodate his or her needs and wants.
Create an individual development plan and update it on a regular basis. Over time, you will gain knowledge and perspective. Your values may also shift as your life evolves. Changes in your personal life will likely change your professional goals and require updates to your plan.
In the end, the first year on a new job is a time of great excitement and lots of possibilities. If you start off on the right foot, at your first annual performance review you can look back on a significant list of accomplishments and look ahead to a bright future.
—Makeda Waterman, Freelance Writer; Lisa Balbes (@balbes), Balbes Consultants, St. Louis, Mo.; and David Harwell (email: [email protected]; @deharwell), Director, Talent Pool, Affiliation, Engagement & Membership, AGU