Managing transitions is an issue that you will likely face throughout your career. Many PhDs choose to leave the bench to work in an office. While some things stay the same no matter where you work, some of the cultural changes that accompany a desk job may be surprising. Here are some identified by members of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE):
Dress Code Alterations: While there’s no need to follow the lab dress code any longer (yay for sandals!), you also probably can’t dress as casually in an office. This dress code varies by each office setting, so you will want to find out as much information as possible about the workplace before interviewing, and then ask questions about the work culture and take note of how people dress when you interview. Likewise, you may want to consider wearing layers, as you will no longer have the added warmth of your lab coat or from being surrounded by running heavy equipment. For me personally, I did not realize just how many of my clothes were related to cartoons, sci-fi, or sports teams until I started working in an office. Thankfully, OITE has a more casual dress code than some places, so the transition was not as expensive as it could have been—but some of you may have to add a budget line for clothing.
Greater Interdependence: Being at the bench is often solitary work, and can allow you to have greater control over planning your day. However, in many offices (especially when you first begin), you may need help from your co-workers to find your way in the new setting. Your work might also involve more planning and execution as a team than what you currently experience, and you may discover a shift in power dynamics that differ from the lab (i.e. multiple supervisors for different projects rather than one PI). This can have some very positive aspects. According to Virginia Meyer, Director of Student Services for UGSP, “Even if you are friends with everyone in lab, there’s still a feeling of competition for resources, publications, attention, etc. Here [at her current office position], I feel like we work more collaboratively towards a goal rather than competitively on our own projects.” Therefore, it is important to have a “team” mindset, and to try to learn others’ favored method of communication so that you can all work together well. Additionally, depending on what kind of office you work in (such as anything involving the public), you may need to become accustomed to interacting with people from a variety of backgrounds all day. Many scientists mention that navigating team management and leadership is an early issue that they face in their career transition, and being able to interact well with others is an important soft skill that employers seek. In order to better prepare for these issues, you can attend some OITE workshops such as the Workplace Dynamics series and Management Bootcamp.
Changes in communication: When asking others in OITE about surprises in shifting to an office position, the sheer amount of emails that they receive came up multiple times. Keeping track of and replying to all of these messages can take up quite a lot of time, and easily derails your day. Likewise, there are additional office tools within email services such as Outlook (sharing calendars, meeting invitations, etc.) that aren’t commonly used by most scientists, but very useful in an office setting. “That first month of understanding Outlook and the volume of emails I received was overwhelming,” said Lori Conlan, Director of both the Office of Postdoctoral Services and the Career Services Center. Integrating some of these tools into your workday now could save you some time in the future. Additionally, in case you are not already using them, it is important to become accustomed to writing professional emails and the etiquette involved.
Hours Vary Less: Partially due to the increased interaction necessities mentioned above, it is important that you work within a more normal time range that is comparable to what is held by everyone else in the office. So while there are fewer odd time requirements (no need to be in lab at 7 am!), you may not have as much flexibility for maintaining the hours that you prefer. Also, there may be additional requirements or paperwork in order for you to request time off for appointments or vacations. Furthermore, while you are less likely to need to work on weekends, snow days are different because you might be able to telework. While teleworking can offer greater flexibility, it can also lead to unique challenges (technical difficulties, teleguilt, etc.). I find teleworking beneficial because I am able to gain back the time I would otherwise spend towards commuting, but I also enjoy being able to easily interact with my colleagues when I come to the office. Whenever possible, becoming used to more “normal” working hours now can help make this transition easier.
Different Physical Demands: “I think one of the things that surprised me the most was realizing how much physical activity I got when I was in the lab,” said Phil Ryan, Deputy Director of the Graduate Programs and Student Services. Thankfully, being away from the bench means fewer consecutive hours on your feet. However, the transition to spending the majority of your day sitting can be strange. Most desk work will also involve staring at a computer screen, which can take some time to get used to as well. Also, since you no longer work in a lab, keeping food and drinks at your desk is allowed and it can be easier to avoid getting dehydrated. Unfortunately, this increased availability can easily lead to snacking all day, and never taking real breaks because you can constantly continue working. This combined with a more sedentary workday can make it more difficult to stay in shape, and never taking breaks can lead to ceaseless eye strain while hunching over a keyboard. Therefore, it’s important to keep the benefits of occasional breaks in mind as you transition, and to continue (or finally implement!) self-care practices.
Lab Actually Prepared You Well: One of the best surprises that those interviewed, including Yewon Cheon, Director of the Postbac and Summer Research Program, mentioned was that “the skills that you learned in the lab are actually transferrable to an office job like this. All of the analytical skills and experience working to find a solution have been very useful.” Even if on bad days, you might feel as though you aren’t gaining any desirable skills from the lab, the truth is that you still learn a lot that is useful for other careers. If you need help identifying any of these skills, you can use this activity, and perhaps talk to a career counselor. Should you still feel that you are missing transferrable skills that would be really useful for an office position, you can try to gain them by serving as a volunteer or on a committee.
Overall, there are a variety of fantastic office careers for scientists, all with unique challenges and rewards. By learning more about potential cultural differences, as well as the environment and expectations at your new position, you can help smooth your transition when leaving the bench and entering a new workforce.
Post written by guest blogger, Courtney Kurtyka-Welsh, Education and Outreach Specialist, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) at the National Institute of Health