Lessons learned: Be honest with yourself

 In career exploration, for grad students, PhD/Postdoc Blog

It’s recruitment season again for graduate programs around the country, and this is my last post. So, to tie everything up in a nice, tidy bow, I wanted to review some of the lessons I’ve learned from applying to and accepting job offers, as well as nearly completing my Ph.D. program! I also want this to be a reminder to myself about how to build on my successes so far in my job search and find a job that is the best personal fit for me.

Have you ever heard that voice in the back of your mind that says, “hmm, that was weird,” or “that made me feel uncomfortable,” or “I really shut down there”?  Or maybe it said, “I felt like they really listened to me,” or “that was great advice,” or “it was easy to ask those questions!” These are the kind of thoughts I’ve dismissed more often than not in the excitement of searching for and landing previous positions, including my graduate program. Thankfully, on the whole, I feel like my department does a pretty good job of constantly finding ways to make its graduate students feel safe, valued, and supported. The lists below are gleaned from my past experiences, good and bad. They are by no means exhaustive; they’re simply intended to help give the general idea of what I want to pay attention to as I weigh up my prospective employment options.

Signs I’m heading in the right direction

  • I feel comfortable asking for help and sharing gaps in my knowledge of areas that I am trying to improve.
  • I feel like my contributions are valued and I’m given positive feedback when I do a great job on something. I also receive constructive feedback when I could have done better.
  • My time and life are acknowledged, accepted, and valued – we all need to sleep, and eat and exercises sometimes!
  • I am given the opportunity to offer constructive feedback to peers and superiors, and I feel safe doing so. For example, there should be mechanisms to report sensitive issues anonymously, and when that feedback is offered, it should be acted upon in a responsive, timely fashion.

Signs I might be headed in the wrong direction

  • I don’t feel able to ask questions because gaps in knowledge or skills are condescended, mocked, or otherwise put down, especially if I’m not really given the opportunity or support to fill those gaps.
  • I’m expected to monitor my email, texts, or other communication channels 24/7 and reply immediately. I’m expected to complete tasks within unreasonably short timelines, or I’m regularly asked to give up my evenings or weekends, especially at short notice, despite making these boundaries clear and widely known to my colleagues.
  • I don’t feel comfortable discussing aspects of my personal identity like hobbies, interests, past experiences, or values.
  • I feel like I don’t have a voice in the work you do, the environment I do it in, and the way I am being trained, and treated generally.

The tricky part is that the people who oversee the work environment you’re entering into (managers, PIs, supervisors) might think they do have policies and practices that create the kind of environment described in the first list above – but maybe they don’t, or maybe the way they do those things doesn’t quite work for you. For example, if the only form for feedback to the employer are one-on-one meetings and large group meetings, people who are either uncomfortable directly addressing the person responsible for their employment status with complaints about their working conditions, or people who are uncomfortable speaking about these issues in front of other people, may not speak up.  Sometimes the people in charge of administering those policies or practices don’t have the outside perspective to see how they are failing to meet some peoples’ needs. For academia, this is why external reviews are so important, and why data like average time to degree, job placements, etc. should be available to the public – just like this Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century report recommends.

I think one of the easiest ways to find out what the environment is like at a potential job is to talk to the current employees (or students). First, get to know them. Try and get a feel for what they are like as people and assess how similar their reactions are to yours with respect to issues that matter to you (e.g., work-life balance, continuing education, opportunities for growth, quality mentoring, etc.). Then ask them whether they feel the workplace meets their personal needs in those areas. For example, if they feel comfortable raising issues, asking questions, and feel valued and respected. Be sure to ask a range of people, because everyone is different.

When you’re deciding, you need to find a work environment in which you can thrive – maybe you need close social supports, or perhaps you succeed with a more hands-off style that allows you to forge your own path. The most important part is to be honest with yourself and be sure you’re making choices that really fit your needs and working style.

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