Feeling 3ft high all of a sudden?

October 7, 2005

Starting a new job can feel like your first day at school. If bewilderment and anxiety overwhelm you, don't despair, get to know colleagues and ask all the questions you like (even the stupid ones), says Harriet Swain

New job? Settling in OK? Worked out where the toilets are yet? Worked out where your room is yet? Worked out where your students are yet?

Thought you were looking lost. You should have done more preparation. Janet Metcalfe, director of the UK Grad Programme, a partnership of organisations supporting postgraduates' personal development, says it is always useful to ask in advance what will happen on your first day or during your first week and what will be expected of you.

Helen Scott, executive officer for the Universities Personnel Association, recommends asking for a written job description or a very clear oral outline of what you are supposed to do.

Metcalfe suggests visiting the institution beforehand so that you can find out how long it takes to travel there and can arrive relaxed. This can also be the time to identify where everything is. If you know the institution already, "don't take too much for granted", Metcalfe warns. "It can be very different on the other side of the fence."

Debbie Smith, a PhD student lecturer in psychology at Kingston University, says that she was taken around by her head of department and introduced to people before she started. This meant that she was able to talk to future colleagues about how the institution worked as well as checking out the room she would use for her first big lecture.

John Arnold, professor of organisational behaviour at Loughborough University, advises making your new work space as much to your liking as you can in terms of layout, decorations, furniture and equipment.

He adds that you must also take the time to familiarise yourself with all key sources of information - paper, electronic or human - to understand "the way things work around here". He suggests trying to identify someone who has been around for a while who is well integrated but not in a position of power so that you can draw on their experience in your early weeks.

Metcalfe suggests getting to know the departmental or faculty administrator because they are usually well informed about how things work in the department.

Other people in the department who have started recently will also be an invaluable source of information. "They might be able to advise you on what they found useful or wished they had known when they started," Metcalfe says.

She believes newcomers should introduce themselves to everyone as soon as possible since not everyone will know who they are. She adds that you must not be afraid of asking questions: "You won't be expected to know everything."

Smith says students can often be a good source of information. When she started working at Kingston, Smith did not have an office in the psychology department. To improve her odds of bumping into people and creating a network, she would make sure she visited the department before she lectured.

"The more people know you, the easier it is to ask them things and to get on with them," she says.

Natasha Coppins, her colleague, who started at the same time, says she found that getting together with other new staff was invaluable. But she also wishes she had been quicker to accept invitations from more established staff to go for drinks, or join them for lunch in the canteen.

"We were a bit standoffish at first but we should have gone because seeing them socially made them much more approachable," she says.

If you are still worried about asking stupid questions, work out carefully beforehand what you want to ask and write down the answer so that you don't have to ask again, she advises.

Jan Smith, lecturer at the Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement at Strathclyde University, says induction courses can be especially useful for learning how the university is run and structured.

For new lecturers, it is also a good idea to take up any opportunities for training in skills such as lecturing to large classes or assessment. But she says that every department is different and it is especially important to learn about the culture in your own department, as well as talking to people from other departments to find out how things are done there.

"It doesn't matter how much you know about your subject, just wandering in and talking about it doesn't help you settle in much," she says. "It always helps to go for a coffee break. They can tell you so much about a place."

Scott says you should become acquainted with the people in the know because they will give you the gossip and tip you off about opportunities.

"Make yourself available," she advises. "If you want to make friends with people and be supportive, they will get you involved." You need to come across as a "can-do" sort of person early on. "That's the way you get experience. If you find out later you have been dumped on, you will probably have enough confidence to go to someone and say, 'I don't think that's a very good idea'."

But Arnold says you should be wary of saying yes to unexpected requests for your time without consulting a trusted colleague first. And you should not put up with unreasonable behaviour from others just because you are new.

On the other hand, don't assume that the way you are used to doing things is better than the way things are done in your new workplace, he warns.

And bear in mind that it will get easier. "Don't assume it has been a disaster and resign if the first day goes badly," Scott says.

By the way, the toilets are over there.

Further Information www.grad.ac.uk , UK Grad Programme


Visit the institution before your first day

Talk to people

Socialise with your colleagues

Take training opportunities

Be enthusiastic

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