I’m new

Photo by Aftab Uzzaman | http://www.flickr.com/photos/aftab

I’ve recently started at a new university. This is a good thing. It was time that I moved on, and I’m going to learn a huge amount in my new role. My new manager is amazing, and the team are excellent.

However, it is also a little bit odd. I’ve gone from being the person who knows everything to the person who knows nothing. Literally, nothing. Someone had to show me how to book a room. I don’t know how the systems work. I don’t know how finance works. I don’t know how HR works. I didn’t even know how the microwave worked (sorted this one out by myself, thankfully).

Some of these (photocopier, microwave) are mundane things, to be expected with a new environment. Some are a result of moving organisations – each university has its own way of doing things. In my old role, if I didn’t know how something worked, at least I knew who to ask. In my new role, I know almost no one. In one stroke, I’ve left behind a network that I’d built up over years. I have to build a whole new network (and I’m pretty terrible at the ‘names and faces’ thing).

Because of this, I’m keen to impress. There is so much that I don’t know, I’m trying extra hard when I do know something. I’m that kid in the class with their hand in the air, “Pick me, pick me!”. So keen to impress. So desperately keen. So desperate.

That means that I’m pouring myself into some tasks boots and all, and scrabbling to get other things done. I know that I should just be doing all the work that needs to be done, and absorbing new knowledge as I go. I should be easing into the role. But that is hard.

Along side the not knowing and the keenness is the fear. While my role is very similar to my old one, there are also some aspects that are new. I’m doing post-award work that I haven’t done before. I’m working on bids that are worth a lot more than I am used to. This makes me afraid – the discomforting fear of uncertainty, and the paralyzing fear of making a mistake. With each scary new task, I need to pull up my boots and get stuck in, pushing back against the fear. That means that I’m using a lot more energy than in my old job. In my old job, I could coast.

I also have a nagging fear that I’ll be found out, and that people will discover that I don’t really know everything. It doesn’t matter that I was chosen for my skills and experience. It doesn’t matter that they are happy to help me get up to speed. The impostor syndrome is strong in this one.

Intellectually, I understand that this is just what happens with a new job. There is inevitably a period of adjustment. [Full disclosure – as I write this, I’ve been in my new role exactly nine working days.] I understand that this will settle down but, right now, it is weird. I’m not used to being inside my head so much.

Don’t get me wrong – my new employer has been marvelous. There is a clear process for setting up new employees, and the team are all too ready to help. I’m just not used to needing to be helped.

Literally everyone that I’ve spoken to has sought to reassure me. They can see that my concerns are unfounded. I can see that too, at an intellectual level, but in my gut (where it counts), it’s still weird.

So, my heart goes out to those people who experience this feeling on a regular basis. If you are paid by the hour or working on short term contracts, this is how you feel on a regular basis, moving from job to job, from university to university. This is your life. Kudos to you when you have to deal with a whole new system every semester, every year, as you move to a new role in a new organisation.

It doesn’t matter if you love your work. It doesn’t matter if the work is fascinating or the students are inspirational. There is still a strong sense of dislocation that comes with having to navigate a new pay system, reporting system, or library system. Even when people are really nice, there is an initial sense of isolation, as well as the slow process of building a working network.

At least all the systems that I’m working with are the same. If you are working across institutions, there are two new systems to learn, for everything. Each of them maddeningly similar, each of them frustratingly different.

My partner works on multiple projects at once. By definition, this means that she is part time on all of them. However, her employing institutions assume that the majority of employees are full time. At least, that is their assumption when it comes to mandatory training and induction. Why do people need to do mandatory training modules every time they start a new contract, even though it may be less than 12 months since their last contract? Why do they need to attend a full day induction when they are working two days a week for a six-month project? Why not build systems for part-time temporary employees? Why not give more people full time jobs?

So, if you are part time, sessional, casual, short term, adjunct or otherwise changing jobs on a regular basis, you have my respect. The overhead involved in changing jobs is considerable. It isn’t easy, and it is a significant load on top of the work that you are ostensibly paid to do. I understand that, and I hope that this helps the people around you understand it, too.

About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne in Australia. All opinions are his own. He has been doing that, on and off, since the 1990's (with varying degrees of success). He loves his job. He loves it so much that he has enrolled in a PhD to look at crowdfunding for research. With Tseen Khoo, he runs the Research Whisperer blog and @ResearchWhisper Twitter stream, about doing research in academia. His ORCID is 0000-0001-5435-235X. The views expressed here are his personal views and are not the views of the University of Melbourne.

26 Responses to I’m new

  1. Jonathan, yes a new workplace can take time to get used to. But rather than write 1,000 words about it, perhaps you should get on with it? You are not the first person to start a new job.

    I am part time/casual/short term/adjunct, but this is not such a wrench, as I am really working for myself, whichever organization(s) I am working for at the time. The details of how organizations work differ, but overall they are much the same, and the people are very much the same. As a contractor, I bring my own organization with me: company, worker’s compensation, indemnity insurance, and IT systems. Also I have continuity through my professional and industry organization memberships.

    If you want to change the “system”, then propose what you would like, and set about making the changes. You might be able to do that in an organization. But I find it easier to do between organizations. As an example, I think Australia’s international education business model is breaking, so am discussing what can replace it. This is not something I could propose within a university, so I am doing it publicly, at an industry conference. https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2019/05/mobile-learning-with-micro-credentials.html

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Tom.

      I have also worked for myself, and I agree that the feeling is very different. Working for myself I got to set my own pay rate, set my own hours and choose what projects I worked on. I needed to keep up a flow of work, and some projects were more interesting (or lucrative) than others.

      I also agree that it is generally easier to work outside organisations, either to change things or to get things done, most of the time. The Research Whisperer, for example, provides a platform for discussions that people often don’t get to talk about within their universities.

      When I write for Research Whisperer, I’m generally working through something that is foremost in my mind. If I write a post about building better budgets, it is because I’ve just read a bunch of poorly constructed budgets. This is useful for others, but it is also useful for me. I use it as a way to straighten out my thoughts on the matter. It is self-reflection and (for me) staff development. Generally, these posts are also handy for other people. I’m sorry that this wasn’t the case for you this time.

      While I understand the value of people taking charge of their own destiny, and how they view that destiny, I don’t know that it is useful for all casual staff to see themselves as self-employed. Most casualised staff don’t get to set their own rates of pay, or control their own work. They have the ability to withdraw their work, but that isn’t a very useful or viable option for many casuals. I understand that it works for you, I’m just also aware that it doesn’t work for everybody.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Jonathan, there are very few secure, well paying, long term jobs in academia. Instead it is mostly casual work, low pay, and short contracts. So I suggest to survive in this environment, academics need to take charge of their own career.

        Liked by 1 person

      • If you are part time, sessional, casual, short term, or adjunct, I suggest you should NOT think of this as a career. You should instead treat this as a short term role, before you get a real job outside academia, or as as supplementary to your real job outside academia. Also to reduce frustrations with the university experience you should get training in teaching, and administration.

        Like

  2. kylieball3 says:

    Jonathan thanks for this honest post which will resonate with many researchers. I have seen the difficulties you describe (or fear of them!) keep people in positions long past the point at which they might otherwise have moved on to new, and often better suited, roles and challenges. It is reassuring to hear that even seasoned researchers and research managers deal with these kinds of doubts and with imposter syndrome, particularly in new environments without the comfort of a familiar network. So thank you for sharing, and best of luck continuing to settle in.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Kylie. I think that it was well and truly time for me to move on. However, it is hard to overcome the inertia that comes from being comfortable. It takes a lot to get me to move once I’m comfy. 🙂

      Like

  3. Emma Blackburn says:

    Thank you Jonathan for this honest post which will not only resonate with researchers but also with mature teaching staff who are moving into different areas of work and study. There’s not enough written about the transition and fear that many contract and sessional staff go through when changing jobs, taking on new responsibilities or moving from teaching to research. It’s incredibly reassuring to know that most go through imposter syndrome, regardless of experience and intellect. I’ve been a lecturer for over twenty years and am starting a Ph.D in my fifties. I recognise many of these emotions and the need to be the best student my supervisor has ever seen. So thank you and keep up the honest posts!
    Emma

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Emma. I agree that we need to talk more about, and understand more about, the emotions related to changing jobs, and to being split between jobs. It isn’t just the fear of starting something new (although that is significant). It is the frustration with moving between systems that you cannot control, and the exhaustion that comes from constantly learning new things. All the new things.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Annette Gough says:

    Sorry to hear that you have moved on Jonathan and best wishes for your new endeavours. I am sure the imposter syndrome feelings will fade quickly.

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Annette. I trust that it will – just interesting to examine it in this new context. I still have retained one project at RMIT – I’m working with Rose Lang at CAST to build a central pool of resources for Art practitioners who are applying to the ARC. We are running a series of workshops, as well as trying to build a shared library of successful ARC applications by practicing artists.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sarah says:

    Yes it is scary at first but it gets easier day by day. We are VERY happy that you have joined our Organisation 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Loretta Piccenna says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I couldn’t help resonate with all you have described above in your article as I was here too in my current position last year in January.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and honesty, wish I had done something similar at the time as I drowned in the stress and disheartment of not knowing if I’d get through it.

    Kind regards,

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Daniel Morse says:

    Hi Jonathan!
    I am soon to be moving to a new university, within a different area of the same field of research. I don’t know how to do what I will be expected to do. I don’t know how to use their systems. I don’t know who anyone is, where anything is, how to approach different things. I will be going through the very same range of emotions!
    Honestly, I am terrified. Excited, but very nervous. The imposter syndrome is ever present and I know it will be fine in the longer term, but the immediate change is a scary prospect. I hope they are understanding that I don’t know how to do things and give me time to learn and make mistakes, but being given that opportunity, I also don’t want to seem incompetent or lacking knowledge, which makes it even more difficult.
    It will be fine, I’m sure. But it is also reassuring to see others feel the same way – not just me! Thanks for posting this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Raney Simmon says:

    While I can’t relate to this with regards to switching jobs in the academic field, the place I currently work at right now I’ve been at since October and it’s a completely different job than I’m used to. It’s not a permanent position either, though my bosses have helped me get a job somewhere else here that I’ll be starting within the next few weeks. All of the responsibilities I have here are things I knew nothing about prior to October and whenever I start my new job, while some of it is similar work, it’s not all the same either. So I can relate to this even though I don’t work in academics.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Raney. The change is unsettling, wherever you are. It all works out, but it is strangely uncomfortable, all the same.

      Like

      • Raney Simmon says:

        Well, I work on a construction site, and I’ve already completed college with an English degree. So this is a completely different field than what I studied for in school, but it’s currently turning into opportunities for me right now which I wasn’t expecting.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. bronwyneager says:

    Can very much relate. After rattling around my previous institution for nearly two decades the shift to new microwaves and photocopies was challenging (but fantastic as well) 🙂 Congrats on the new role!

    Like

  10. Aisha Abdul-Kareem says:

    Dear all I am in need of assistance with my academic pursuits. I started my PhD in ergonomics (accessibility of public buildings to wheelchair users) but was recommended to stop because my supervisors thought I was not good enough. I went into depression for about 8 months during and after I quite the study. But I want to do it. I feel it is calling! You see, I live in Nigeria where there exists very little inclusive environment for people living with disabilities-and I really want to create awareness. The only easy way for me is to do it academically. My main challenges: Research Methodology How to calculate the appropriate number for participants. I would be grateful for assistance from researchers here. Thank you in advance for your assistance. I K Abdul-Kareem (Physiotherapist)

    Sent from my iPhone UN

    >

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    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hello Abdul-Kareem

      I’m afraid that we cannot provide that level of advice. You will need to find someone within your university who can help with that, or seek out relevant methodology texts in the university library.

      Jonathan

      Like

  11. Carlo Ierna says:

    Great post and great points! The rhetorical questions at the end can nearly all be answered with: it isn’t just the system that is new to you, you are new to the system as well. The bureaucracy doesn’t know you, even if you’ve worked at the exact same place previously. I’ve been on multiple successive contracts at the same institution (VU Amsterdam) and each time I had to submit the same data, re-register my access card with security, get new logins/accounts/printing privileges, etc. and got invitations to intro and orientation meetings as if I’d never been there before. The other factor (trivially) is money. Next year I’m teaching Modern Philosophy for the fourth consecutive year, on my fourth consecutive contract. Permanent positions are expensive, re-hiring (and superfluously re-training) people (while treating them as new) is apparently cheaper. I’ve posted some problems and suggestions of my own on my blog as well: https://blog.ierna.name/2019/01/31/the-evils-of-temporary-teaching-gigs/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Carlo. The lack of bureaucratic memory is staggering, really. There are so many, many reasons to keep track of people who have worked at a university before. Thanks for your blog post. I really thought it was sensible.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. waynelschan says:

    I can 120% relate myself to your feelings. I went back to the university I used to teach as a research position.Although the people, office, canteens and library are almost the same, I still feel uncomfortable with the new role. Maybe there is imposter syndrome, but to certain extent I feel like I don’t know anything about teaching and research. It’s going to take me huge amount of time to feel secure in my current position.

    Not to mention the fear suddenly increased sharply after receiving feedback from your peers saying that my research proposal will not get funded in any way. While I’m not new to research and I know what the funding bodies are looking for, I started to doubt myself.

    Like

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