Well, that was a crazy few weeks! If anyone out there is thinking of starting a new job while their parents are visiting them, my primary advice would be DON’T DO IT. They will treat your first day at work like your first day at school – I half expected them to hand me a matching Snoopy thermos and packed lunch box and take my photo on the doorstep - and every day for your first few weeks you will come home with your poor tired brain full of new information and then have to try and explain how next-generation sequencing works over dinner, and describe exactly what you did all day and who all your colleagues are. It’s all very sweet and touching, but honestly quite exhausting – it was lovely to be able to come home tonight and just eat dinner and watch TV and generally just not be “on” all night.
On a related note, I’d like to nominate Mr E Man for personal chef / chauffeur / tour guide / husband of the year.
Luckily, the job itself is awesome. I’m five weeks in now and feeling much less like a n00b, although I still need help completing some even quite basic tasks; quite the change from being the resident expert and go-to person in my last job! But I’m at least figuring out who to ask, which is a great start. I’m also just getting over the dreaming-about-work phase I always have during the first few weeks of a new job (in the most memorable example, after my first full week, I dreamt that I was submitting a progress report that included the achieved versus target books I’d read of the Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials, and Hunger Games series (5/5, 1/3 and 2/3 respectively, at the time – now at 5/5, 2.5/3 and 3/3), and was thinking that I’d done enough to satisfy one of the funding agencies for my main project, but probably not the other).
The main project I’m managing is just ramping up: we had the internal launch meeting a couple of weeks after I started, then the external launch meeting with the funding agencies and other members of the consortium in Montreal last week. I feel like I was able to make tangible contributions to the project even during my first full week, and I’m getting into some really interesting areas such as researching the literature and organising meetings on the ethical / consent form issues related to the project. Again, though, the transition from working at peak efficiency in my last job to having to figure everything out from scratch is sometimes a wee bit hard, although when I’ve mentioned to other members of the team that I feel like I’m being very reactive and am looking forward to managing the project more proactively, they’ve had to remind me that I’ve only been there a few weeks!
My main project won’t take up 100% of my time, though, and I got some very exciting news on my first day about one of my other responsibilities. This is something I always listed as a future career interest on my annual evaluation forms in my last job, but given that covering all grant submissions and other activities for a whole department didn’t leave me any room to specialise, it never actually happened in any kind of organised way beyond people suddenly needing help with it RIGHT NOW BECAUSE THERE’S A DEADLINE. I mentioned the same long-term career goal (as my answer to the “where do you see yourself in five years” question) at the interview for my new job; it turns out to be something the team has been interested in developing for a while, but no-one else has shown enough of a special interest in it to get it off the ground. So when I said that “Having a large team makes it possible to specialise or otherwise evolve the role”, I was more right (or at least right within a shorter time frame) than I knew! The initiative in question hasn’t taken off yet, because they want to finalise some changes to a related process first, but I’m looking forward to it immensely!
As I also predicted, the thing that makes my new job truly awesome is being part of a team again. I knew I felt somewhat isolated in my last job, but honestly hadn’t realised how bad it was and how much it was affecting me until I found myself around social people again. The people in my old department are perfectly pleasant, and in no way anti-social – but, with a few notable exceptions, they’re more asocial than any other colleagues I’ve ever had. There’s no culture of going out for after-work drinks, or even for an impromptu lunch or coffee – I tried to instigate this kind of thing a few times, and succeeded maybe five times in as many years. People will go out for a big lunch on special occasions, e.g. when someone’s leaving, but a grand total of three people came out with me for the informal after-work drinks on my last Friday to which I’d invited the whole department (with a couple of weeks’ notice, I should add), and one of the three was Mr E Man. (To be fair, two of the three most social people in the department had already been laid off and the next two most social people were away at a conference). Work days themselves were also asocial – there were many days when I literally did not speak to a single colleague all day beyond a quick “hello” first thing in the morning. Even birthdays were ignored. The department produces some absolutely incredible research, so hey, maybe they’re onto something in terms of workplace efficiency… but it doesn’t make for the most appealing work environment, at least not for me.
In contrast, my new department (which also produces incredible research, including collaborations with my old department) offers the following attractions:
- people ask you how your evening / weekend was. Other chats – often highly entertaining – break out multiple times a day. Some people are still getting used to the way in which us Brits speak to each other, in particular the use of insults to show affection, but they’ll learn;
- a lively group consisting of people from lots of different departments gathers in the lunch room most days to eat and talk. Major topics of conversation so far: what everyone’s eating for lunch that day, Euro 2012, Game of Thrones, recipes, movies, the Tour de France, the Hunger Games, the Olympics, the history of the British Empire, and – for some reason – yoghurt;
- I’ve been out for lunch on three out of five Fridays, and turned down a fourth invitation due to a meeting (I came home after the first such outing and exclaimed to Mr E Man “I went for lunch today! With people!”);
- A big group, including the team leader, goes for beers at 5 pm on the first Friday of every month, with smaller impromptu gatherings some other weeks;
- There’s a communal tea and milk fund (I paid the obligatory $10 cash and also contributed in-kind, i.e. the huge box of Tetleys I’d brought with me and – as of today – a tea pot for sharing tea with colleagues), and people often bring in fruit, cookies or chips to share with everyone. There’s even a rather bizarre glass-bowl-held-by-a-Darth Vader-statue thingy designated for such offerings;
- people are always lending each other books (I think pretty much everyone in my team is either reading / has just finished reading / is waiting for their turn to start reading the Hunger Games, of which more in a future book review post);
- I entered (but did not win) a Euro 2012 pool, and am currently in (but not winning) a Tour de France pool;
- So far I’ve met one fellow Toon fan and one suspected fan of a local rival;
- The team leader has a kettle and big jars of nuts and other snacks in her office, to encourage people to come in and say hi in an informal setting;
- New people get welcomed by name in the monthly department e-newsletter (which also includes a list of that month’s birthdays, marriages, graduations and births), and also get their name read out and have to stand up and wave (to a round of applause) at their first quarterly all-staff meeting;
- There’s just an overall sense of camaraderie, e.g. through the use of whiteboards in lab areas inviting people to write their favourite song / movie / genome, cork boards where people have put up photos of all team members’ pets, chess boards set up on a vacant lab bench, silly signs on lab instruments etc.
It’s awesome. I love it. The days fly by.
I’m also feeling somewhat like Goldilocks, in that the structure of the organisation offers a very nice compromise between the micro-managed, everything-by-the-book atmosphere of my 2005-2007 industry job and the cat-herding academic chaos of the last one. For example, the PIs and other key staff are used to being project managed and are very well organised, but are still academics at heart, motivated by the science; in industry, people were very organised (and social!), but most were motivated primarily by profit rather than by science, whereas in my last job people were really into the science but my attempts to impose meetings, progress tracking spreadsheets and other organisational techniques were met with considerable resistance. There are also more frivolous examples, such as what people wear: in industry jeans were 100% verboten in my department (I once spilled my lunch on my nice trousers, changed into the clean jeans I’d brought with me for an after-work social, and got told off for it. You’d also get told off for showing up at 9:01 am – thankfully, my new job runs flexible academic work hours); in my last job I took to wearing jeans most days because if I dressed up nicely people treated me like a secretary. In my current job some people dress smartly most of the time while others wear jeans most of the time, but everyone has a choice and everyone mixes and matches to some extent.
Well, I think you’ve probably all got bored and stopped reading by now, despite your withdrawal symptoms from those terrible long Cath-less weeks (it must have been awful for you). I have ideas for various new posts of varying length and silliness, and am looking forward to being back in the blogging saddle again! Bragging Rights Central will also resume this week, now that I can update it over breakfast without having someone reading over my shoulder and asking what I’m doing / who everyone is.
Normality (mostly) restored.