Navigating Culture Shock in Career Transitions
Sometimes even seemingly minor professional moves can leave you feeling as if you’ve teleported to a foreign land... five strategies to help you cope.
Some new beginnings are so promising, it feels like you’ve somehow landed yourself in a real-life fairy tale. When I moved to France for my first job after earning my bachelor’s degree, I felt that way, and for good reason -- my newly adopted hometown, Versailles, was once inhabited by actual royalty. For a girl who’d grown up on a steady diet of princess movies, living within walking distance of a world-famous palace was nothing short of a dream come true.
Before long, though, a string of real-world hassles and minor humiliations -- from scrambling to acquire basic necessities for my unfurnished apartment to enduring the embarrassment of having my French grammar corrected by a 5-year-old -- brought me back to reality. Suddenly, life in Versailles was no fairy tale. One night, after a particularly challenging encounter with the French bureaucracy, I broke down in tears while on the phone with my parents, questioning whether my decision to move to France had been a terrible mistake.
Spoiler alert: I hadn’t made a mistake. I was going through the early stages of culture shock. And in time, I came to understand my feelings of infatuation with the local environment/culture, followed by waves of angst, uncertainty and frustration, were completely normal way posts on the path to adapting to life in a new country. By the time I returned to the United States at the end of my one-year contract, some of my most exasperating early experiences in France had become some of my best stories.
We can expect to encounter culture shock when tackling major life changes, like moving abroad. But culture shock can also sneak up on us when we don’t anticipate it -- as in times of career transition. Sometimes even seemingly minor professional moves can leave us feeling as if we’ve teleported to a foreign land. I learned this lesson the hard way years later, when I took on a new role at the same university where I had been working for nearly 10 years. Adjusting to the implicit attitudes, assumptions, expectations and rhythms of my new department was every bit as challenging, if not more so, as learning how to navigate the expectations of the job itself.
For graduate students, potential culture shock-inducing career transitions are as varied as they are numerous. They can be either academic (switching advisers, shifting focus within your area of research, transitioning from coursework to thesis/dissertation writing) or professional (transitioning from a part-time graduate teaching assistant position to a full-time faculty role, moving from academe to industry, or vice versa) in nature. In recent weeks, many graduate students have taken on the unexpected challenge of migrating from on-campus to online learning and work environments in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever type of career transition you find yourself facing -- expected or unexpected, academic or professional, big or small -- here are five strategies to help you navigate any feelings of culture shock you may encounter along the way.
No. 1: Recognize and understand the stages of culture shock. Culture shock doesn’t always look like we think it will -- especially in the beginning. If you walk away from your first day at a new job raving about how perfect everything is (the people are so friendly, the cafeteria food is so delicious, your supervisor is so supportive!), chances are you may be experiencing the first stage of culture shock: the honeymoon stage.
Alas, honeymoons are temporary, and soon you may begin to notice attitudes and behaviors in your new professional environment that confuse or even irk you. (Why does everyone always seem to be working through lunch? And why are meetings called to resolve issues that could be handled by email?) Welcome to the frustration stage.
In most cases, frustration fades over time as you adapt to and eventually come to accept the culture of your new academic/professional environment. In the meantime, simply recognizing and understanding the stages of culture shock can be of great value as you work to navigate through your new reality.
No. 2: Build relationships in your new environment and ask questions. While there’s no magic fast-forward button you can hit to skip over culture shock’s more challenging moments, making connections and building relationships with your new colleagues are great ways to help accelerate the process. After all, who better to help you navigate the implicit attitudes, values and beliefs of your new professional environment than a local guide (or two or three?) If you’re part of a team, start by getting to know the people you’ll be working with closely. Both long-term veterans of the team and those who have recently transitioned into their role can offer valuable insights into spoken and unspoken organizational/team expectations. To broaden your professional network, consider asking your supervisor who they think you should meet outside of your immediate team, or inquire into potential opportunities for mentorship. (Get more strategies for building relationships and networking with co-workers here.)
Having colleagues whom you feel comfortable reaching out to can be especially helpful when the frustration stage strikes. Particularly in collaborative/team environments, those you work with will often have an incentive to help you succeed, as well. If you’re struggling to make sense of your new academic/professional culture, don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially in the early days of a new position. As a graduate student, you’ve been trained to be an expert in your field of study, but no one is expected to have mastered every detail of their new role during their first days on the job. Posing questions born of genuine, judgment-free curiosity and an open mind can not only help you decode your new workplace culture (and your role within it), it can also inspire conversations and connections that can help form the foundation for long-term professional relationships that will enhance your network for years to come.
No. 3: Prioritize your well-being and actively engage in self-care. Academic and professional transitions can be mentally and physically draining, especially if you’re struggling to adjust to a new workplace culture. For this reason, it’s important to focus on nurturing yourself as well as your career during this time of adjustment. Make it a priority to actively engage in self-care strategies that work for you. Don’t neglect the basics -- sleep, diet, exercise, social interactions (in person or online) and time alone to recharge are all vital. Taking steps early on to prioritize your own well-being, even as you seek to acclimate yourself to the rhythms and expectations of your new professional environment, is essential to establishing a healthy work-life balance. After all, surviving workplace culture shock is no great achievement if it comes at the expense of your physical or mental health.
No. 4: Establish realistic expectations. Speaking of your mental health, periods of change can be especially emotionally taxing if, like many graduate students, you struggle with perfectionism or feel compelled to “do it all.” To lessen the mental load, remember that this is a time of transition, and don’t demand perfection of yourself. Trust that your best is good enough and that you will continue to learn and grow in your new role/environment over time. Easier said than done, I know, but the value of giving yourself permission to do less during challenging career transitions cannot be overstated.
No. 5: Remember you have options. While it takes time to work through the phases of culture shock, and I certainly would not recommend running for the door the first time frustration strikes, you may ultimately find yourself in a situation that isn’t healthy or simply isn’t the right fit for you. In a worst-case scenario, remember that a job choice is not permanent. If your work environment is toxic and/or your position doesn’t mesh with your core values, you can and should make a new plan.
Even if your new environment is healthy over all and aligns well with your values and goals, keeping your mind open to alternatives can still be helpful during those inevitable times when the going gets tough. During my most challenging moments in France, I told myself that I could always break my temporary employment contract and go home early if I wanted -- only to realize that’s not what I wanted at all. Sometimes, simply reminding yourself that you have other options is all that’s needed to reaffirm you’re exactly where you need to be.
Above all, be patient with yourself and just keep swimming. Periods of transition are, by nature, temporary. Eventually, you will adjust to the cultural waters of your new academic/professional environment -- and with any luck, you may find that you are a stronger swimmer on the other side.
Leah Collum is assistant director in the Office of Graduate Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.