Navigating Culture Shock in Career Transitions

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.

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