Successfully Navigating in a New Career

By Kyle Kramer
Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. 

Congratulations to those of you who are graduating this month! This is a monumental time in your life. If you already have a job lined up, you are ready to walk across the graduation stage and into your future career. However, being the new person at work can be quite daunting. Achieving success in your new job may require some skills that you did not learn in college. I would like to share some advice based on my experiences over the past two years from when I was the new guy at my workplace. The four key areas I would advise new hires to focus on are: first impressions, soft skills, company culture, and positive change.

Make a good first impression

To quote Euripides, a Greek dramatist, “A bad beginning makes a bad ending.” It is important to focus on doing the right things, asking the right questions, and making the right connections when you are new on the job. In spite of the old saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the truth is that some employers and managers do this on a regular basis.

Hone your soft skills

Being the newbie in the workplace may make you realize that college did not prepare you for the social and adaptive challenges you face in your new job. This makes soft skills vital when you are settling into your new career. I cannot emphasize enough the need for good communication skills. It’s not enough to be competent in your field of study — you must be able to express yourself with finesse in both writing and day-to-day communication with others.

In your first few weeks, you will be introduced to a plethora of coworkers, and you may find the social norms quite different than what you were used to in school. You may be reminded what the term fair-weather friend means in your first few months on the job. There will be times when it could be tempting to collude with others to look better in the eyes of top management. I like to describe the social structure at many work places as puppies in a box, where the puppies are jumping on one another to poke their heads outside of the box. Do not fall victim to this type of distraction. In my experience, it is best to be humble — try the “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach if need be.

Adapt to fit the workplace culture

Another key area I advise you to focus on is learning your company’s culture. What are the key drivers of your company’s success? What are the social practices and values of the workplace? These are some of the questions you must answer when navigating as a new employee.

For example, at my first job in the pharmaceutical sector, it was customary to be late to meetings. At first, I was extremely offended by this practice, because I thought it was disrespectful. Over time, however, I found that it was just the way things were done where I worked.

Company culture is often described as an iceberg — there are many values and taken-for-granted assumptions hidden below the water line. This makes it important in your daily conversations with fellow employees to listen to the song beneath the words.

Incite positive change

The last area I advise you to focus on is you. Put emphasis on improving your leadership skills. You may not have much leadership experience in industry, but I challenge you to become a mover and shaker. For example, your first week on the job may include the task of reading (hundreds of) standard operating procedures. Find the gaps and inefficiencies in your company’s procedures, and make a note to your future-self to incite change.

As an engineer, you will probably be overwhelmed with a multitude of projects. Time management and stress management are important skills to practice from the start. Figure out what projects are critical and what will have the greatest positive impact with the least amount of effort.

When I ask people how they feel in their first few weeks on the job, many respond that they are lacking direction. I challenge you to pave your own path in your new career — there are hundreds of projects just waiting for you to take on. Having the reputation for hard work early on will show others that you are more than just an assignment-taker.

I do, however, say all of this with one stipulation. In the words of Harvard leadership expert Ron Heifetz, “Exceeding your authority is not, in and of itself, leadership.” It is not appropriate to go over your coworkers’ heads — even if you are the most technically adept person in the room.

With all this said, good luck in your new job. Develop and practice some of the skills mentioned here, and continuously seek improvement in your everyday activities. Keep a personal journal and decision log during your first few years. This makes it easy to narrow down how you react to social stresses and different challenges. It surprised me how little I knew about my work habits coming out of college — your work habits may surprise you, too. By relentlessly seeking to improve how you react to obstacles, you will be able to use setbacks as opportunities to learn rather than view them as disasters. This, and constantly being inquisitive, will ultimately help you find your bearings in your new career.

Kyle Kramer is a project engineer at Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc., located in Erwin, TN. He graduated from Tennessee Tech Univ. in 2013.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of CEP magazine.