Find your pack: The importance of a support network and positive work environment.

 In careers, for grad students, for postdocs, mentorship, PhD/Postdoc Blog

North Carolina State University’s athletic teams have a wolf pack as a mascot. “Wolfpack” is obviously not a singular character (which makes creating a mascot tricky but I digress…) but a group of wolves who live and hunt together. All over campus you see the quote from Rudyard Kipling:

“The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

Reflecting on the past few months that included a career search and starting this new position as Postdoc Program Manager at NC State, I am ever more appreciative of the supportive group of friends and colleagues I have at Vanderbilt and NC State.

Establishing Personal Advocates & Advisors for Your Career Search (Deep Networking)

When I got my first job offer, I turned to colleagues in the BRET Office of Career Development (especially Ashley Brady) and Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA, Irene McKirgan) at Vanderbilt University. They encouraged me to negotiate for a more competitive salary (which you can read more about here). They were also instrumental in serving as references for me as I applied for this Postdoc Program Manager position. It was important to have advocates for me who knew more intimately about the work I did with the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association (VPA) and the National Postdoctoral Association. Ashley and Irene saw me assist in a variety of career development and other programming offered at Vanderbilt through BRET, OPA, and the VPA. They could convey to the hiring manager my passion and commitment to postdoc support and career development. I had established relationships with the two of them over a 2-3 year period before they ultimately served as references. So, I believe their recommendations were genuine and from a place of truly knowing me and seeing what I could contribute in the postdoc development area.

The key point here is you should establish relationships with individuals outside your main research advisor, especially if those individuals are in areas you might be interested in pursuing as a career. But, regardless of whether you go in a particular career direction, just get involved with organizations on your campus, in your community, and/or nationally. You will need broad advocates for you who can speak to your commitment, teamwork, organization, and ability to get things done and those you work with in these non-work/lab capacities will be able to do that. They may also be able to emphasize the soft skills of people management better than your research advisor can because they see you function in a different capacity. As always, you should be cultivating these relationships before you need them.

Most Research Advisors Will Support You in Whatever Career Path You Choose

Hopefully, the lab you are training in as a graduate student or postdoc is also supportive of you and your career, even if it is not an academic one. I was initially hesitant to discuss my interest in a non-faculty career with my postdoc advisor, David Zald. When I did bring up the subject to him, though, he was very supportive. I think most Principal Investigators (PIs) understand the competitiveness of the academic job market necessitates the need for their trainees to explore non-academic careers. Most, I think, want to see their trainees succeed in whatever endeavor they undertake after their time in the lab. That being said, many PIs have limited knowledge of how to best position oneself for a career in industry, the government, etc.,  but that doesn’t mean they can’t connect you to people in their network that may be able to help or allow you time to take part in activities that will assist you in learning more about your career options. My postdoc advisor was supportive of me taking part in professional development activities while at Vanderbilt as well as participating in VPA, which, as mentioned above, was critical in leading me to my current career.


The Importance of a Positive and Supportive Work Environment

Transitioning to a new work environment is always a challenge, especially if it is in an area that is outside your previous one. In the past couple of weeks, I have gone from a research-focused position as a postdoc to an administrative position as a program manager. My new role requires interacting with a variety of individuals at NC State: postdocs, faculty, department administrators, college/university administrators (in HR, international services, conflict resolution), colleagues in the Graduate School, potential outside speakers, etc… Communication and building relationships is key in this new role. Thankfully, my colleagues in the Graduate School have worked to introduce me to key individuals at the University. I have also been proactive in establishing these relationships: emailing individuals suggested by my colleagues to meet up for coffee, lunch, etc… Establishing personal relationships with individuals whom you work with is critical to building trust and respect, which will be vital when complex or difficult situations inevitably arise. You don’t want your first ask to be coming from someone that the person has never met and/or heard from previously. People are more likely to help you if they know you.

Another key component of a happy work environment is a boss that gives you autonomy as well as support. Laura Demarse, Assistant Dean for Professional Development & External Relations in the Graduate School, fills this role perfectly for me. She is happy to provide feedback on questions I have as well as introduce me to key people at NC State, but she isn’t telling me how to run the Postdoc Program here. She wants me to bring my own ideas to the position, try new things, and expand the program’s offerings. Good leaders allow the people that report to them the ability to be creative and autonomous.

A positive work environment is also critical to one’s job satisfaction. It is hard to imagine how one can feel fulfilled and happy in a job if surrounded by colleagues who are constantly negative, competitive, and/or unmotivated. What I have witnessed from my colleagues at the Graduate School is that this is a group of hardworking individuals, willing to help each other out, and united by a mission of enhancing the training of Ph.D. students and postdocs. In my first week, I have had colleagues volunteer to help me score travel award applications, work to show me the intricacies of the human resource system on campus, and share with me resources they utilize in the office. A special shout out has to go to the Graduate assistant I inherited in the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA), Bailey Craddock. She has been instrumental in helping me get up to speed on OPA policies and procedures at NC State. Though she works with us part-time, she is a critical part of the team—ensuring communication flows between OPA and NC State postdocs, even when the office was between Program Managers.

Show Gratitude, Say Thanks, Be Supportive

It is also nice to hear you are doing a good job and that people think you will be a good fit in a new role. Laura and the rest of the team repeatedly mention to me how excited they are to have me at NC State and how they think I am going to do an awesome job in the role. Mike Walker, Assistant Dean for Finance and Operations, has added the nicest comments of gratitude and encouragement to me in some of our email exchanges. It means a lot to hear “You are doing great!”, “I am confident you are going to be successful in this role.”, etc… This is needed early on when one is just trying to absorb information and not necessarily “accomplishing” much. Your work colleagues realize it takes time to adjust but it is important for a new hire to have the attitude that they are committed to learning what they need and willing to ask for help and advice along the way. There is no shame in admitting you need help, want a second opinion, or would like someone to review your work.

The overall goal of this post is for me to display gratitude to the individuals who have supported and continue to support me in my career. No one can succeed alone. Too often those in leadership positions forget to mention the various individuals that helped them either get to where they are or help them look good in their current role. Furthermore, relying on others doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human (for a brief but fascinating aside, see work showing young children are intrinsically motivated to see others being helped and are prosocial at an age too early to be influenced by societal norms). We are hardwired to be collaborative creatures. So, as one advances in a career, try to “pay it forward” by showing gratitude and appreciation to those you will eventually supervise. We have all been the “new person” and it is important to not forget how that feels and how a little kindness and support goes a long way.

Next Up…

In my next post, I will talk about some of the key aspects of work we find fulfilling. According to the book Drive by Daniel Pink, and based on research by Edward Deci in the 1970s, we perform best when we are intrinsically motivated. And there are three key factors that determine intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I mentioned earlier in this post that I have a lot of autonomy in my new role. It is a really empowering (and also a bit unsettling) thing to have. We’ll tackle this and the other concepts in detail next time. I will frame autonomy, mastery, and purpose in the context of my new job so you can see some examples of how I view these concepts in terms of my work and the fulfillment it brings me. Until next time, stay intrinsically motivated in all that you do!

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