Wednesday, August 03, 2011

mentoring and small talk

One of the major things I talked about during my mentoring session at The Big Conference (TBC) where they had asked me to participate in their mentoring program as a mentor* turned out to be small talk. What I mean with that? It started out as simple (ehh) questions like "how did you get your job in industry?" but more often than not "what's the biggest difference from being/working as a post doc?". Most of these types of questions for me would mean that I end up with "small talk" or "it's not what you do, but how you report/tell/talk to others about it and interact with your co-workers". With that I tried to point out that my post doc was fairly lonesome, as in - I had my own project and could plan it the way I wanted to do it since most of it was up to me (as a type A control freak that worked out really well). I didn't collaborate that much, and I didn't have a tech running my stuff but rather that I did the hands-on work as well as planning it. That meant I could work late nights to get the results if I wanted to, or when the machine was available...

Furthermore, most times it was not the chatterbox in lab in the morning so when I came in and started to set up my stuff at the lab bench most people would not talk too much to me but rather see it as (at least that is how I see it) as "oh, she's setting up her stuff and is busy, better wait for a bit to chat". In my "new" job, that isn't the thing really since we have cube land and more (as I would think it is for most people) "chatty". Why I keep bringing it up? Because I might seem like an extrovert at parties and such, but in lab and when I'm working I tend to be focused, thinking and planning; not as easily moving from "work mode" to "chatty mode". It's one of my "less great areas" I guess? Or one where adapting to the work culture is more an issue.

It's been one of the biggest adjustments for me, to leave my train of thoughts and answering questions about all and everything (sometimes work related, sometimes more interpersonal chatty things) without sounding short and getting people offended (it's many people who takes this as a snub off and that's not a good thing, of course).

Nothing big for some I'm sure - I was merely answering these questions from my personal view, which I think was the main reason for being a mentor... but still, it showed me that I at least know my weak spots. Which brings me to the crux of the matter. Many of the graduate students, and undergraduates and post docs, were fairly keen on telling me "that they didn't have that problem". In fact, many of them stated they didn't have any problem whatsoever.... You know, in the terms of telling me that in fact they didn't think they'd have a problem getting a job after uni at all....

And some of them might not, they were a diverse group after all. And some of them, I'm sure, with a stellar publication record and perfect skills etc. Nevertheless, I started to wonder somewhere in the middle of the session how to explain (or express might be a better wording) that their attitude imho was one thing that wasn't going to make it. Just because you are good (or great) at what you do, doesn't mean that you will get what you want in the end. Sorry, but that would be my experience... It's like that old saying about fair - life isn't fair... even if I'd love it to be, but it's not.

It's more about how to play the game and have the small talk and other "trivial" things in line to get things rolling your way.

The same thing happened when many of them asked me "is it too early to start looking for a job since I'm not graduating until January next year?" (this was late spring/early summer). My response was, and is now, that it is never too early to cultivate your contacts. I know, it sounds so trite and cliche but really - I think that in today's world it's not about "looking for a job right now" as much as having people you know who can keep an eye out when it comes down to it and then approach you with "we're looking for someone who can fill this position".

I guess what I was and am trying to say is that half of the time my friends and myself have been looking for jobs, it's been extremely helpful (and pivotal) to have that head start of being in "some one's mind" when they start looking for someone to fill the position. It's also one of those things that I am trying to remind myself of, that the "dream position" might not be there for you right now but in awhile... and then you'd want to be in on the action once it opens up.

I'm not saying this only because I've "heard" it, but since that was the way I got my present job. I had looked into the place I'm currently working, met with some of the Big people there and talked about "what did you do to get your position and what would you recommend me to do in order to move into industry". This was way before I actually applied or anything, just doing the dreaded cold call and coffee chat without any asking for work things. Just talking and having a "mentoring" like kind of conversation - since most people like getting the opportunity to talk about themselves and how they got to where they are now. And it's helpful to know what they did in order to get there, if nothing else - you get to practice that small talk and net working (all big words, and BS warning, I know).

*As a side note, when I got the first email request about mentoring I thought they wanted to know if I was interested in being mentored. As it turned out, they wanted me to mentor... goes to show where I am in my "head" about being asked things from professors and professionals... well, I'm learning that ego boosts are good to take in and process. And also, maybe more important for me as a professional, that I am viewed to have some experience and good advice. Not that I didn't think so (in my great moments) but it's still a little uncommon to get requests. Then again, the more I looked through my emails I realised that I have actually been contacted by quite a few with questions and advice... I guess I never really understood that post-docs that I had worked with asking me things would fall into a slight mentoring category?


Cath@VWXYNot? said...

"It's been one of the biggest adjustments for me, to leave my train of thoughts and answering questions about all and everything (sometimes work related, sometimes more interpersonal chatty things) without sounding short and getting people offended (it's many people who takes this as a snub off and that's not a good thing, of course)."

I know exactly what you mean - as nice as it would be to have a lovely chat with everyone who comes by my desk, sometimes I just want to keep my head down, minimise the distractions, and concentrate on what I'm doing. But because I work in a rather asocial department, I simultaneously crave a bit more social contact... it's all very confusing!

The people you talk about with the attitude that being good is good enough will find out pretty soon that the reality of the job market is a little different... at least they'll now be a little more prepared, thanks to you! Yay Chall!

chall said...

:) Thanks Cath! It did feel very good to be able to pass on some advice. And wheather or not they cared about it, well - that's up to them, right?