As the year winds down, it is only natural to look back at the past twelve months to celebrate the highlights and reflect upon our accomplishments. For me, 2017 will go down in history as The Year I Nailed a Non-Academic Job.
Only seven months ago, I left the comfort of the lab – the one and only working environment I had known until then – to become a communications officer. From one day to the next, I shed the scientist’s lab coat and slipped into the office attire of a magazine editor-social media manager. I waved goodbye to my pipette set and the stacks of cell culture plates, and greeted my new working companions – a MacBook Air, Word and the Hootsuite social media scheduling platform (yes, there is such a thing!) – with plenty of enthusiasm and a touch of trepidation.
The learning curve has been steep but enlightening, and so before we wave goodbye to 2017, let me share with you a few amusing things I learned along the way.
1. Every profession has its jargon.
How many times have you been told, as a scientist, that your language is way too complicated, and that no one will ever understand you if all that comes out of your mouth is ‘antisense transcription’ and ‘single nucleotide polymorphism’ and ‘multistep pipette’? Well, I’ve got big news for you – every profession, it turns out, has its jargon. My communications colleagues speak of ‘B-roll’ and ‘blurbs’ and ‘lede’ as if they were discussing what they had for breakfast. They can list social media parameters in their sleep, while I had to spend an embarrassing amount of time researching the difference between Facebook ‘impressions’, ‘views’ and ‘engagements’. Although we all speak the same language, it’s not always easy for me to understand what my colleagues are talking about, and I realised pretty quickly that if I wanted to fit in, the first thing I needed to do was take a crash-course in communications dialect.
2. Teamwork is rewarding.
Too often, academic scientists end up working in silos. I have my project, you have yours and we carry on, on parallel tracks, with little or no overlap and exchange. In my new workplace, it’s all about teamwork. We start our week with a morning meeting to catch up on each other’s progress, plan for the week ahead and solve any issues we’ve run into. We use a work chat to communicate throughout the day, especially if one of us is working remotely; it’s a place to brainstorm ideas, get feedback and exchange material for inspiration. We each have our own responsibilities and projects, but we support each other along the way and exchange expertise as we go along. Rather than waiting till the very end to check for mistakes, we fine-tune as we progress and that makes the process more efficient and – I dare say – incredibly more enjoyable.
3. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable.
My new colleagues are journalists, graphic designers, professional communicators. To say that I felt out of place on my first day would be a massive understatement. All my working life, I had been surrounded by nothing but scientists – people with my same education, my same passion and my same limits – and as frustrating as it could feel at times, it felt comfortable too. I knew all the routines and the inside jokes, and the lab had become my natural habitat. My first few weeks as communications officer were the toughest challenge I’d had in years, and as I struggled to get to grips with my new tasks, I couldn’t help but wonder… had I made a mistake? Was I really suited for the role? I had no formal education in communications, what made me think I could just learn it along the way?
Fast forward seven months, and I no longer have those doubts. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone put my skills to the test and did wonders for my self-confidence. And those differences with my colleagues? I don’t fear them anymore, I cherish them. Our different perspective means I learn something every day and observing them – the ‘communicator species’ in action – has become one of the most enriching aspects of my job.
“Pushing myself out of my comfort zone put my skills to the test and did wonders for my self-confidence.
So here it is, my year of challenging change. And as I get ready to wrap it up and move on to the fresh one ahead, I hope you’ll join me in a toast – to uncomfortable and daring decisions, often the necessary prelude to enriching and fulfilling experiences. May you have a successful 2018, full of wonderful career surprises!