I’m almost 2 years out of college and now have gone back to school to pursue my Ph.D. My program consists of taking classes, doing research (running a lab, managing students, carrying out projects), and teaching. The thing is, my career didn’t start when I graduated college, it probably started the first day I set foot on campus. There’s things I wish I did better and things I wish I didn’t do at all. Here’s a list of what I wish I knew when I started my career.
People are not opportunities. I was pre-med when I started college. You know the type, overly-excited, has too much on their plate so they end up half-assing everything but it looks good on paper so who cares, highly stressed out, only volunteer for the hours but are really self-serving. One thing I regret doing was not being more open to people who seemingly had nothing to give me in terms of advancement towards the coveted medical school acceptance. And I get it, time is valuable and we don’t want to waste it on frivolous interactions, but I literally did not make any friends the first 2 years of college. I had friends I met at orientation and that was it. I was too busy checking boxes on my pre-med list to even grab a coffee with someone. I had a very selfish outlook where I saw people as opportunities instead of people. Think about this: if you see people this way, and if everyone saw each other this way, then who would help people like you who are not “there” yet?
Burn bridges wisely. When you’re just starting out, you’re at the bottom of the food chain. There’s a big chance that an emotionally abusive dynamic may evolve between you and a superior or a peer. Or you simply may not vibe with a certain someone. Don’t be afraid to burn that bridge, but you better be sure you’ll never need to cross it again.
Know your place. When I was a wee little undergrad, I was very timid and was deathly afraid of emailing professors directly. I would proofread my emails over and over again. First, check for spelling and grammar. Second, check for tone. Do I sound too aggressive? accusatory? Will they fail me after reading this? It also doesn’t help that I grew up in a culture that glorified fear of elders. Now that I’m no longer an undergrad, my emails are shorter, less effusive, and a lot more sassy. I think somewhere in between timid and sassy is a good place to be when you’re just starting out. Know that you’re in your position because of your skills and you don’t need to kiss ass so hard to stay there, but also know that you are not the boss and sometimes you do have to kiss ass. It’s just how it is. No matter how much you dislike your boss’s managing style or how annoying the new rules are, complaining is never a good thing to do. Suck it up, but when you get to a power of position, implement the changes you wanted to see when you were in that position (This doesn’t apply to anything remotely illegal/unsafe). When you’re just a newbie and you start complaining about the system or the people implementing the system, no one thinks of you as a revolutionary mover and shaker. You’ll just be perceived as a pain in the ass.
Don’t talk shit. While I try not to be dishonest when asked about the performance or personality of my peers or superiors, I try very hard not to talk shit about them at work. There are ways to constructively communicate someone’s negative attributes without being disparaging. It doesn’t reflect well on you if you constantly rag on someone, and chances are, not everyone likes you either. I remember this one time, a friend of one of my students was talking shit about me TO MY FACE because he didn’t know I was that person. This guy literally told me that everyone hated me, I was “unfair and lazy” and “only in it for the money” (Yeah, all $400 a month of it (I couldn’t even pay rent with that salary)). I mean I kept up the act that I didn’t know who he was talking about, but it was a good laugh when he left. Don’t be that guy because one day, you’ll get caught and it won’t end well.
Leave your emotions at home. Humans are very emotional, but it doesn’t look good if you’re the resident emotional person. If someone is pissing you off, whether that someone be a peer or a superior (especially a superior), you need to learn how to shut your face. Like literally shut it. Don’t even show them you’re mad and definitely don’t talk to them in a mean way. I can’t count the times as a lab manager or graduate student that my students have lashed out at me whether that be slamming cabinet doors, cussing me out, or even telling me not to work on a certain bench, being passive aggressive, sending nasty defiant emails, being combative in lab meetings, or just being plain rude. I have lost respect for all these people and certainly diminishes any desire I have to help them. You can bet I don’t write raving reviews about their ability to work with others.
Keep your distance. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to keep a safe distance from work-related people. When a work friendship ends, it’s extra difficult because you still have to see them at work. They may use any knowledge about your personal life against you if/when it turns sour. It may also cloud your judgment and prevent you from doing your job properly if you like/dislike someone too much. It is important to have good rapport with your work friends, but for the most part, keep them at work.
Own your work + don’t “help.” One of the biggest observations I’ve made is that young women just don’t speak up. They allow others (men) to take credit for their work or minimize their contribution. They doubt themselves when splitting up the contributions post the matter. When someone takes credit for your work, speak up and say that you did the work, not them. When someone says you “helped,” correct them and say you “performed.” Women don’t help perform experiments or help execute a project, we simply do.
Give thanks. It’s a good habit to always carry a couple thank you cards in your bag. Handwritten thank you notes go a long way in expressing your gratitude to people who go out of their way to help you. It leaves a lasting impression and helps strengthen any bonds you form in the early stages of your career.
Learn how to say no. I was a chronic yes-woman. I took on every project suggested to me at the expense of my time, sanity, and quality of my other more important work. Now, I choose carefully what I say yes to. A great reply to such requests would be that you are not comfortable agreeing to such a proposition because you have other matters to attend to and it would be unfair to the project if you don’t give it your 100%.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. After about 3 years of intense schoolwork and pre-med shenanigans, I crashed. It took a 72 hour-time out for me to realize what I was doing was unsustainable. I simply could not do everything. Don’t slack off. Do your best, but not at the expense of your well-being. A certain amount of stress can be good for productivity, but there comes a certain point where the motivation driving you to succeed can also be the one driving you to fail.