You’ve been offered a role at a research centre – congrats! Now what? Joining a research centre, or the world of work in general, can be an intimidating experience; I’m now over halfway through my placement year with UCL’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education, and so feel I’m well-placed to offer some tips on settling in and adapting to the new role. I still have a lot to learn myself, but hopefully these tips will help you have a smooth start to your placement.
Before you even start, it’s important that you identify your strengths AND weaknesses – this can be general things, such as communication, teamwork, or time management, as well as more course/placement specific things, like academic writing or stats knowledge. If you’ve been offered the job, it’s obvious that you have valuable strengths to offer in the role – remember that. Whilst it doesn’t really matter what your specific weaknesses are, it’s crucial that you understand them, and can identify where you could improve. When you first get to know your supervisor and the rest of your team, discuss what you think you are good at, and what skills you’d like to develop. This takes some bravery but can be extremely rewarding – showing an understanding of your own competencies looks good to employers, and with a chat about what your goals are, your supervisor can hopefully use these strengths and weaknesses to guide your progress.
For me personally, I knew anything mathematical or stats-based would terrify me – I told my supervisor about this weakness, and she carefully selected tasks, roles and eventually full projects that would slowly push me out of my comfort zone in order to develop this self-identified weakness. You will probably find that the things you were worried about won’t nearly be as bad as you expected. Despite this, I think it’s good to get in front of weaknesses and face them head on with supervision, rather than waiting for them to sneak up on you.
The next piece of advice (I probably followed this rule slightly too religiously to begin with) is to say yes as much as possible. This will help to further push you out of your comfort zone but will also demonstrate enthusiasm – if you show that you are eager to learn and get stuck in, you might be offered the opportunity to take on even more exciting projects further down the line. Early in my placement, I agreed to take part in some training for how to use EEG machines; several months later when UCL’s Provost, the head of the uni, was touring our facilities, I agreed to be involved in an EEG demonstration and so now feature in a video (only for a few seconds) celebrating a major anniversary and rebrand of our department. Agreeing to take part in things slightly outside of your comfort zone, or that initially seem too difficult, can lead to exciting opportunities that you otherwise might have missed.
Know your limits
Next, my advice would be to learn when to say no. I know this contradicts my previous advice, but it’s about finding a balance. Making sure you get stuck in to loads of different projects and opportunities is great, but you need to be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. If you’re not careful about how much you take on, you may end up being pulled in too many directions at once. Whilst you should be eager to say yes to things early on, take some time to work out how much time you might need to commit to each opportunity and work out if it’s sensible to say yes. I only say this because I was keen to take on every available opportunity during my first few months, and so probably spread myself a little thin between projects to begin with – it’s worth being careful about what you decide to commit your time to.
Whilst a research role will have many similarities to the uni work that you’re familiar with, it is still a unique challenge, and so will probably require a different approach. Many of the skills you’ve learnt so far on your course will be valuable on placement, but one skill I now realise I hadn’t developed in my first 2 years of uni is proper time management. When you think you know how long something will take, double it, or even triple it – it’s also important to schedule and plan when you’re going to get things done, but don’t be too rigid. Many tasks will be more complicated than you think and some you will want to revisit once you’ve worked out a more efficient approach. Schedule in time that allows you to be flexible, and don’t work from deadline to deadline like you might have done at uni – it just won’t work, so get stuff done before its due.
Overall, being on placement is about striking a balance. Come out of your comfort zone gradually, say yes to new experiences, say no when you need to say no, and be flexible in your expectations of yourself.