Overcoming New-Job Anxiety

Diane A. Safer provides specific recommendations for both a career counselor guiding Ph.D. grads and postdocs before they start new positions as well as those trainees once they’re on the job.

October 25, 2021
 
 
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I spend a lot of time coaching the Ph.D. students and postdocs with whom I work on effective ways to conduct a job search. From the résumé/CV to the cover letter to the interview itself, I instill the importance of making a good impression. However, as a graduate career professional, I am not done once the job search is over. I am also there to offer suggestions to graduating Ph.D.s and postdocs moving on to new positions about overcoming the nervousness of starting something new and to coach them on the skills they need to get off to a great start at a new job.

  • “I’m going to mess this up.”
  • “They are going to realize I have no idea what I’m doing and decide they hired the wrong person.”
  • “Soon they will know I’m not prepared to do this job.”

These statements come from intelligent, successful scientists who have worked hard to effectively secure a job but are now experiencing new-job anxiety. When my students and postdocs share these concerns with me, I try to help them understand that any type of change can elicit feelings of unease. Such feelings of insecurity are normal and common; however, they may evoke impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome involves thoughts that occur when someone feels that their success was due to luck, that they do not belong or that they will soon be uncovered as a fraud.

That is why it is important for me to help trainees recognize that this is a cognitive distortion that the facts don’t support. In reality, they are skilled, qualified and have everything they need to succeed; they just have to remember that starting any new endeavor requires time and effort before feeling confident. In the following paragraphs, I will provide some specific advice for both career counselors in guiding trainees before they start their new positions as well as Ph.D. graduates and postdocs once they are on the job.

Advice for Graduate Career Professionals

For those of you who counsel graduate students and postdocs, it can help for you to remind them about how they felt when they first started graduate school or began their new postdoctoral position. After the initial thrill and excitement of being accepted to the program or lab, they may have become aware of how little they actually knew. Ken Blanchard, in Self-Leadership and the One-Minute Manager, describes that as going from an enthusiastic beginner with high confidence to a disillusioned learner with waning self-confidence who realizes they have so much to learn. In a new position, new hires are back to being a “disillusioned learner” after years as the expert on their research projects. Blanchard recommends coaching, described as a “combination of direction mixed in with a lot of support,” to help them get through this challenging transition.

You can coach your students and postdocs a few ways to overcome this change anxiety. First, acknowledge their feelings of insecurity and let them know that these feelings are normal and common. Explain that research shows they have the power to control their response to this stress by changing their interpretation of their anxiety. As graduate career professionals, we can help students and postdocs alter their mind-sets by encouraging them to think about this new job as an opportunity to learn and grow, instead of focusing on what they don’t know.

Second, remind them about why they were hired. Prompt them to recall their greatest skills and strengths, and have them share their biggest accomplishments to reinforce to them what they bring to the table. Stress that the employer needs these skills and strengths and that they have what it takes to be successful. In addition, employers are skilled and careful at vetting candidates, and they invest a great deal of time in the process (hence those extensive, all-day interviews they went through to get the job). Tell them to trust that their employer knew what they were doing when they chose them.

Third, point out that they will not be new forever. Tell them their feelings of apprehension will pass, and, in the meantime, work with them to help them find ways to deal with the stress at the present moment. Offer suggestions of effective stress-management strategies and have them reflect on their support system so they are aware of whom they can turn to when needed. As most institutions of higher learning stop access to mental health services at graduation or when postdoctoral employment has ended, you can direct them to online tools, such as Find a Therapist from Psychology Today or Mental Health America’s Affiliate Resource Center, to search for local mental health professionals and programs. Inform them that when they begin working, they are likely to have access to a confidential Employee Assistance Program with a coordinator who can connect them with relevant free or low-cost resources.

As graduate careers professionals, we can proactively help these individuals get off to a strong start in their new occupations. Trainees starting a new position can understandably be concerned about how they will be regarded. Psychology studies have shown that people form opinions quickly. From a person’s trustworthiness and likability to their leadership abilities, first impressions are made faster than you can imagine. In addition, research has also shown that first impressions are quite pervasive and self-perpetuating -- so the start of a new job is a critical time for them to impress their boss, colleagues and new company.

Coach them to consider the first 90 days of their job as a “working interview.” Just as they needed to impress quickly in their job interview, they must also have to make a positive impression in this new position. The first 90 days, a quarter of a business’s fiscal year, are a critical time, as a new hire’s brand and reputation will initially be built during this time frame.

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Advice for Ph.D. Graduates and Postdocs

For Ph.D. graduates and postdocs embarking on new jobs, here are 10 things that I tell them they can do during those first 90 days in the position to solidify a positive first impression and gain respect from new colleagues and bosses.

  1. Spend most of the time listening. As a new hire, you should spend most your time listening in order to learn the culture of the company and any subculture of your particular department or team. Keep personal opinions to yourself for now -- even if you have great ideas or suggestions about how to improve things. You can contribute more later after you are able to showcase your skills and capabilities.
  2. Ask questions. Politely ask about anything you do not understand. Colleagues and bosses appreciate being asked questions (and there is no such thing as a “dumb question”) rather than watching new hires waste time trying to reinvent the wheel. Try to learn everything from preferred communication styles to expectations for the first 90 days. Without having goals or understanding what success at your new organization looks like, you won’t know how to succeed.
  3. Have initiative. Don’t wait for something to happen. Determine how you can help before you are asked and be willing to jump right in.
  4. Don’t assume perfect work-life balance in the first 90 days. Plan to show what you are capable of and express your eagerness to contribute to the success of your employer. Arrive early, and don’t be the first one to leave.
  5. Build trust. Make sure to deliver on every commitment you make and to do it enthusiastically.
  6. Don’t underestimate the power of networking. Begin building key relationships with the people with whom you’ll work closely. Don’t skip lunches, after-work get-togethers or company social events. Relationship building happens in the quiet time before a meeting begins or those chance encounters on the elevator.
  7. But at the same time, keep personal and professional lives separate. Refrain from immediately connecting with anyone in your new company on social media. Consider connecting first on professional sites such as LinkedIn or ResearchGate.
  8. Be adaptable and flexible. Be prepared to do things differently than how you did them before. New places bring new rules and expectations. Say yes to new opportunities or experiences, and never feel as if you’re above any task.
  9. Communicate well. Keep your manager updated to confirm you are on the right track. Be transparent about your whereabouts and plans until you have a better understanding of what is expected.
  10. Be professional at all times. Don’t denigrate your previous situation, supervisor or colleagues. Be professional in all your communications and interactions by considering tone, timing, body language, word choice and grammar.

As graduate career professionals, we have a lot to offer beyond the job search. We can be there to support our students and postdocs through the anxiety and stress of change. We can advise and guide them to succeed in their new surroundings and any other situation that they will find themselves in in the future. We can do that by helping them develop the skills to manage their anxiety and to navigate the workplace successfully in their first 90 days on the job.

For those Ph.D. graduates and postdocs embarking on new adventures, believe in yourself and your abilities. If you begin to feel anxious about the change, concentrate on adjusting your mind-set. Start focusing on the exciting new opportunities for learning and growth that await you on your career journey. And when you get there, practice patience. Your skills are valuable and you will make an impact, but first you must listen, learn and demonstrate your strengths in those first 90 days of your new job.

Bio

Diane A. Safer is director of career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, N.Y., and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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