New job update

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.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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24 Responses to New job update

  1. Beth Snow says:

    I read every word! And I can’t wait to hear about the mysterious project/long-term career goal that is coming to fruition! I think this calls for us getting together for a beer or two.

    Also, I feel compelled to tell you that I’m 0/5, 3/3 and 3/3 respectively. I’m a little intimidated to start any book so large as Game of Thrones (let alone an entire series of such huge books) while I’m in school. But I have been watching the TV series and since Devon has read the books, I just annoy ask him what the hell is going on and who the hell everyone is. Related: did you see that tweet (I can’t remember who tweeted it) about how the Game of Thrones is just like Twitter because there are 140 characters and terrible things are always happening? So true.

  2. Bob O'H says:

    Don’t tell Dr. Aust, but you sound enthused.

  3. Ryan says:

    If you find yourself wanting more to read from the Game of Thrones universe, I recommend the GRRM series of short stories: Tales of Dunk and Egg. They take place about 100 years before the main series.

  4. Alyssa says:

    I had to laugh when you wrote about your first day of work feeling like your first day of school with your parents! That would be tough to start a new job, then actually have to form coherent words in the evening. Kudos to you for getting through it.

    Books: 0/5, 0/3, 2.75/3 for me

    Sounds like the new job is perfect for you! Can’t wait to hear more about the new project!

  5. Frank says:

    I think we need to hear from the other side. What did your parents make of the experience of visiting you in your first weeks of a new job? I expect they saw a different person than they are used to.

  6. Beth, definitely! I’m all booked up until after this weekend, but let me know when you’re free next week and beyond, and we can continue your beer drinking education

    Yeah, don’t start Game of Thrones right now, unless you’ve decided you don’t want that MBA after all. Mr E Man and I were speculating as to how much someone who hasn’t read the books would get out of the TV show alone, so I’ll be interested to hear your take! Some characters’ story lines are quite different between the two, for starters.

    Sorry Bob, I’ll try to do better

    Ryan, I do need to feed my addiction until the next book comes out… thanks for the tip!

    Alyssa, yeah, it was hard enough to be coherent AT work by the end of the first few days!

    I’m still figuring out how much I can say about it on-blog. I’ll figure it out!

    Frank, good question! I tried to be as normal as possible when at home, and I think overall I did a pretty good job, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ll try to subtly find out 🙂

  7. chall says:

    awww…Cath is back 🙂 Sounds like you had quite the June experience there. Glad the new job is making you happy!!

    “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” <- this is one of those things I miss at my present place… being one of two "non-native" and the two of us sharing similar traditions from our countries/cultures…. ah the joy of dry humour/sarcasm ^^

    As for the clothes, I've realised sort of similar thing. Too nice might be mistaken for "admin/PR person with less science knowledge", however too informal = "young girl/summer student"…. needless to say, I only wear jeans on a Friday (if ever) and then the super short skirts the PR people use, I've never gotten the feeling that would be a great idea in my work place ^^

  8. SB says:

    I read every word too! Awesome post – so glad to hear the new job is working out well. It’s actually really useful to have a reference list of things that make a good workplace (this is giving me ideas); things you wouldn’t necessarily think of until you saw them done or heard about them, you know?

    Hope July brings you some much-needed rest!

  9. Mike says:

    There’s even a rather bizarre glass-bowl-held-by-a-Darth Vader-statue thingy

    We need some photos please. But

    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

    No we don’t. Idiot.

    Sigh, I’m all out of GoT books now. Maybe Dunk and Donut will have to fill in for a while. I suspect it might be easier for those who haven’t read the books to watch the TV series. They don’t have to keep turning round to ask Mrs F/Mr E Man/Relevant other (del as approp) “That didn’t happen in the books, did it?”

  10. Awesome. Thanks for the update and glad things are going well. 😀

  11. Chall, do you have any say in hiring decisions? Maybe you can try to get someone in who you can insult 🙂

    The fellow Brit who works in my building (there’s another in my team, but on the department’s other site a few blocks away) left yesterday to go on mat leave (we had a tea party, with cakes and blue berries and the new tea pot and hilarious stories about being attacked by crows) so things will get somewhat politer for a while!

    Thanks SB! Yeah, a few of the things I listed aren’t necessarily something I could have thought of if asked for what makes a good workplace – but when they’re all in place it really makes a difference! Especially if you’re coming from a department with hardly any of them in place… the constrast is very striking.

    Mike, you want photos too?! What the hell is this entitled attitude I’m getting from you?!

    Mr E Man and I have the same experience watching GoT. I might get the short stories book for him for his birthday, because we’re both jonesing for the next installment!

    Cheers Ricardipus!

  12. bean-mom says:

    Awesome, Cath! Glad to hear everything is going so well. I also read every word, and that dream about a grant proposal involving the reading of sci-fi/fantasy novels sounds crazy. (I would, however, love it if some federal agency indeed handed out money for us to sit back and read fantasy novels). Also, your parents sound adorable. I second Bob O’H’s proposal.

  13. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Yeah, I always have weird dreams about work when I start a new job! It’s all just part of the process.

    I think I heard or read an interview once with someone whose job it was to read books – they were employed by a movie studio and had to recommend books that would make good movie adaptations. How awesome would that job be?! (Although I bet you’d have to read a lot of terrible books and take partial responsibility for some terrible movies).

    My parents are indeed adorable – just not the most relaxing people to be around for extended periods of time 🙂

  14. Just re-read the “silly signs on lab instruments” part, which made me smile – I just did a tour of our shop and was reminded again that one of our racks of thermocyclers is named after members of the Wu-Tang Clan: U-God, Method Man, RZA, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, and so forth. They used to be Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy, Doc, etc. – not sure quite what happened there but I’m sure there’s some profound social commentary that could be derived from it.

    “Ghostface Killah”. I might start signing my emails that way. Suits me perfectly I think.

  15. You’re back!!! Yay!! You were missed. I can’t imagine ever working where no one asked how my evening/ weekend was. It would drive me batty. Glad you’re happy with how everything is working out. I too am curious about the special project.

    5/5 0/3 3/3

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Aww, thanks mate! I was too overwhelmed during the first 2-3 weeks away to really miss blogging (I lacked the spare mental capacity to even think about it), but after that I started to get serious withdrawal symptoms! I missed all my lovely commenters too!

  16. I’m glad you’re liking your new job! It is nice to have a social group. My previous postdoc was also a really small group, but were quite asocial (I barely even got a hello in the morning!). My new postdoc we have tea/hot chocolate breaks in the afternoon! We joke around! And talk!

  17. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Hi Amanda – long time no see!

    It really, really makes a difference, doesn’t it? I’m glad you have social colleagues again too!

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