Research has shown that everyone goes through a process of socialization when entering a new professional environment, and this process consists of four stages: anticipation, confusion, adaptation, and acceptance. These stages are consistent regardless of age, experience, or profession, but as you go through them with each new job—or if you change from one job to something very similar—the initial stages may get shorter. In your first encounter with this process, the stages can last a long time, but knowing what to expect within each stage can help you get through it.
The first stage begins during the application process, when you start thinking about what your first—or next—job will be like. You imagine what type of assignments you will be given, what your co-workers and supervisor will be like, and whether you will enjoy working in a particular environment. Your ideas will be informed by the research about the organization that you do before you apply for the job, the process of applying for the position, and especially by your job interview(s). This is just one of the reasons why it’s really important for you to go to a job interview with questions—you want to learn as much as possible about the position and the organization before you start working so that the next stage will be easier.
Despite all your efforts, your first few days/weeks/months at a new job are likely to be a bit confusing. One researcher calls this a period of surprise and sense-making: You see and hear things that surprise you, and if you’re going to succeed, you need to make sense of those surprises. Some surprises are related to people—they may be more or less friendly, helpful, cooperative, or sociable than you had anticipated. Some of the surprises will have to do with processes. For example, you may not have realized that engineers have to do so much writing or that your supervisor would be checking on you so frequently or correcting you publicly. In addition to learning about the people and processes, you’re learning about the organizational culture: what the organization values, who to ask when you have questions, how strictly held the deadlines are, what to wear at work, and so forth. Especially during this stage, don’t hesitate to ask questions. No one assumes that newcomers will know everything necessary to do the job, so this is your opportunity to make sure you understand what is expected of you.
The third stage is where you start to feel comfortable. You have made sense of the “surprises,” know how to do many of your assignments without asking additional questions or seeking assistance, and can anticipate how others will work with you. You are likely to have learned some new skills and adapted some of your old skills to meet the needs of your new situation. This is also the stage where you decide if you want to stay in this job! It’s possible that the organization is not a good fit for you, and that you’ll want to start looking for other positions. This will happen when you cannot make sense of those surprises—the values, behaviors, or assignments are either unacceptable to you or outside your comfort zone. Ideally, the research you did in the anticipation stage will prevent this from happening, but you can’t really know what an organization is like until you have worked there for a while.
When I say “acceptance,” I mean it in two ways. The first way is that you have accepted that the values, behaviors, and assignments mesh with your own ideas of what you want from your work life and that you recognize this as an “acceptable” place for you at this stage of your career. The other meaning is that the people who work with you (and/or who you work for or supervise) have accepted you as a legitimate, valuable contributor to the work of the organization.
These brief explanations should give you some assurance that will keep you from being overly anxious in the early days of your new job, especially during the confusion stage. If you stay alert, behave professionally, and ask appropriate questions, you will be well on the road to moving through the socialization process with a minimum of difficulty.