By Dr. Allessandria Polizzi
When I was pregnant with my first child, I bought this book with a very worried looking woman in a horrible maternity outfit called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” They have since updated it with a spunky looking pregnant lady, no longer in a rocking chair, but the gist is the same. We all worry and have lot of questions when facing something new for the first time, especially something daunting and life changing like childbirth.
The same might be said of career change.
Like having a child, your sleep patterns will probably change (I say this from experience having previously enjoyed a midday nap to get me through some late night writing or grading or reading in prep for class). You will probably lose friends because you no longer have as much in common with them, wanting to talk about your new life as much as they want to talk about your old one. There may even come a surreal and existential moment when your look at the change you have made and question yourself, longingly thinking about your former life when you had more control over your schedule and it didn’t take you so long to leave the house.
I say these things not to scare you, but to try and set expectations if you choose to switch from academia to a corporate career. So with that, I would like to share some of my observations about what to expect in a corporate career. I am pulling these from two places: 1) my own transition and 2) having had a few former academics work for me in the past. I am sure this won’t cover everything, which is why I am open to questions. But until then, here are the top 3 things to expect.
1. You will no longer own your time completely: When I was in academia, I was very driven to publish and present in service to beefing up my CV with an eye on a tenure-track position. These deadlines and goals were self driven. I owned my syllabus. I told students when things were due and when I would have them graded. I set my own office hours, and if I had a yoga class at 10, did not have office hours at that time. As mentioned before, if I got tired at 3 (which I still do over a decade later), I could take a nap.
I am sure you can imagine that, some silicon valley start ups aside, napping in the office is, as a general rule, frowned upon (I say “general rule” because I once worked with a guy who would literally pull out a pillow and nap every once and a while. He was a contractor; he didn’t last long). In a corporate position, there are deadlines set by external forces. You are expected to be in the office during normal work hours (and even if they say they have flexibility, I would strongly recommend you be in the office when your boss is in the office… It causes fewer questions. Side note: this was why I enjoyed working for a CA based company. When my boss came in early, it was still 2 hours later for me in Texas, so I could sleep in). While people will say they don’t care abut how you get things accomplished as long as you get the outcome (or they should say this), they only kind of mean it. They really want to know that you are working hard, so being present and visible, available when they have a question is hugely important. They aren’t just paying for your production; they are paying for your time.
2. Politics is nothing compared to stakeholder management: People talk a lot about politics in the work environment. After having worked in both, here is what I have to say about that: the world is full of people and people make decisions, some of which impact you. It’s how you navigate within this that makes a difference. Managing your manager, be it the head of your department or the person who writes you annual review at ABC Widgets Inc, is something we all have to do if we are going to have someone else worry about the details of where the money comes to pay us or give us benefits. You could say being an independent contractor or entrepreneur would make this less of an issue, but I will let the experts in this space speak to that.
What I can say, however, is that there is another layer in the corporate space that I did not expect. These are called stakeholders. Stakeholders are the folks who believe, either correctly or incorrectly, that they have a “stake” in whatever it is you are doing. Sometimes, it will be obvious who these folks are; other times, you will be shocked to find out that someone unrelated to the project felt left out (& did not support your decision).
Personally, I still struggle with this because there are a lot of inefficiencies, and the more political the culture, the more you will have to deal with it. One thing that has never failed me was advice I had early on in my change management career: identify the opinion leaders you are working with and bring them in the kitchen. Over-communicating to people who, when asked, say that they absolutely agree with the direction you are taking is invaluable, so getting them involved early is extremely helpful.
This seems important to mention to you because it is very different from the academic life (or at least the student one). I found this out when I had my first intern (& have seen it in myself, as well as others). As a student, you are used to being given an assignment, going off by yourself and completing it and then handing it in for a grade. In talking to someone about taking on an intern, she said this was a big issue she had seen with them, as they would take the project assignment, create what they thought was wanted, and then be devastated when there were changes needed (or worse, they got it wrong). This is true of myself and many others I have seen from academia. They don’t realize there is a process called stakeholder management, which has many steps between assignment and completion. There is alignment on outcomes, agreement in goals, draft/initial proposal reviews, and meetings before meetings.
And feedback is not a grade; it’s an opinion. It’s an opportunity for you to get better and improve the outcome. It’s needed, for both yourself and the person giving it. That’s right… The feedback you will receive will be as much about the person giving it feeling important and involved as it is about you and your project. I wish I would have known this when I first started; it would have prevented a lot of heartache.
3. You will get to / have to work with people: People, people everywhere, and rarely a place to think. Between cubicles, and meetings, and group emails, and team off sites, and mid year reviews and annual reviews, you are going to have a lot of people to contend with. When I was teaching, I had three groups of people around me: students (who I saw only a few hours a week), friends/family (who I also saw a few hours a week), & strangers (at the library, the grocery store, etc). I spent a lot of time by myself reading, writing, and grading. The papers I wrote, for the most part, were written from the comfort of my home, with only the company of a snoring pug and a warm cup of coffee.
In a corporate environment, you will be evaluated on your “how” as well as your “what.” Depending on the company you work for, your “how” (or the way you work with others) can be measured as much if not more than the things you accomplish. Some people would say this is politics, but I see it very differently. It is about how you work with others to accomplish your task, which in many cases will be a team effort and not an independent one. If you hurt someone’s feelings because you said something out of turn (or in my case, too bluntly), you may find yourself attending a training on interpersonal interactions.
Once you get the hang of it, though, it can be a lot of fun. You get to know people in new ways. You also learn a lot about yourself: what you like, what you don’t, what’s energizing, who you can be in a variety of situations. Which is why it is a lot like parenting. You never realize until a few years in that, despite the terrifying experiences of having no idea what you are doing, you are finally able to make it. You will know what you are doing. You will feel confident and capable.
And then you’ll get promoted…
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