What Graduate School Failed To Teach Me About The Workplace

grad school taught meGraduate school did not give me all the necessary tools needed to excel in the workplace.  Sure, it taught me theory and concepts, but the workplace is a jungle: it requires more than just knowledge and skills.

Five years of work experience has taught me that communication, confidence, and skills trumps knowledge in any position. A degree of emotional intelligence is crucial too. Here are my lessons learned from working in my industry.

Master the art of reading between the lines.

In school, feedback was constant. Write a paper and earn a grade. Take a quiz; learn what to study for the exam. Present the wrong answer to a question in class; get corrected for your mistake. Everything was straightforward.

The workplace, however, is maze of subtleness. Nothing is clean-cut. One is constantly having to read people’s facial expressions and body language to interpret what her words really mean. For instance, my office has an open floor layout, facilitating open dialogue and the exchange of ideas. But when a co-worker needs to take a phone call, she will politely excuse herself and step out of the office . When I initially started working at the company, I did not understand this unspoken rule. I would quietly answer the phone at my desk, but my actions would always be greeted with the side-eye from my peers. No one ever told me to leave the building, but after a couple of weeks, I caught on. Now, when my phone vibrates during work hours, I politely excuse myself and follow the unspoken rule of receiving calls inside the office.

Master your skills and abilities.

You are blessed if you can honestly say that you have never been bored with your job. In fact, if that is you, then CONGRATULATIONS. You are one in a million. However, if you are like the rest of us, then you know that some work assignments can be a real sleeper.

What I’ve learned is that not every assignment is going to be sexy. Not every assignment is going to be exciting and fun, but if you are strategic, you can use each assignment to improve your skills and competency. Continual progress, learning, and acquiring new skills should be your goal. Always aim to learn something new. Be the best at what you do. Be the go-to person in your office. Doing so will not only increase your chance at job security, but it will also make you more marketable for future positions.

Start from the bottom.

My favorite supervisors are the ones who have done my job before. They not only understand my job in theory, but they know the nuances of my role so they can give advice and set realistic deadlines. I once had the experience of having a supervisor who knew very little about my role as a data analyst. For that reason, she would set deadlines that were nearly impossible for me to meet and she would often ask for data that were not readily available.  Unfortunately, her background was in criminology, so she had little exposure to statistics. Having to explain my side to her was difficult and oftentimes unproductive.

On the other hand, in another position, I worked under an experienced research scientist and he was fantastic. He not only set realistic deadlines, but he also helped me find the best method to analyzing datasets. His data were easy to read and organized. During a casual conversation one day, he informed me that he worked as a data analyst for many years. He struggled with it. But those years of struggle helped him hone his skills and eventually he was promoted to his current position as a research scientist. There is value in starting from the bottom in the hierarchy of an organization. At the bottom you learn the things that will help you succeed in higher positions.

Humility is key.

Graduate school gives students a degree of confidence that is necessary to advance one’s career, but education can also inflate one’s ego a bit too. As a former supervisor said to me once, “You can just see them [new graduates] coming in, chest poked out, smarter than their boss. Their parents told them they were amazing. Their professors gave them good grades. And now, because they John Shmoe with some letters behind their names, they feel entitled to special treatment. Ask them to make copies and they look at you as if such tasks are beneath them. I can spot them from a mile away.”

The truth is that experience trumps degrees every time. Even though my knowledge of public health concepts and theories are a bit rusty now, my experience in the field is invaluable. New graduates are not better because they have earned some letters behind their name, they are only prepared to learn more and tackle the challenges that lie before them in the workplace. . Learn from everyone in the workplace – from the receptionist to the CEO – for, everyone has experience that you can benefit from.

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