Going from professional to MBA student can knock even the most adept cultural chameleon off his or her balance for a while. Every program has it’s own norms and culture, and all of them are different than your previous job. It’s no secret that unfamiliar cultures are profoundly disorienting. Even when you are exactly where you want to be.
I know. This year I landed my dream job: MBA lecturer. Having counseled hundreds students considering school or switching careers, I have new sympathy for the emotional roller coaster that follows the momentary triumph of getting the acceptance letter or job offer.
I went from CEO of a small start-up with a young, inexperienced team to the most junior of junior faculty at the largest organization I have ever worked for, MIT Sloan. Many of my colleagues have been at their jobs for multiple decades, honing their teaching and research skills and gaining a fluency in something that sounds suspiciously like English, but is actually the nearly foreign language of academia.
As I find my way in this new life of the mind, I’ve pulled together a few of my mistakes to help future students and career changers remember some key tips for navigating the culture shock of a new school or new career after school.
WHAT DID YOU JUST CALL ME?
One of the gifts of attending or teaching at a top MBA program is that you access the world’s foremost thinkers on important business and social problems. Should you get introduced to one of the most brilliant minds on the planet, perhaps one recognized with a Nobel prize, do not follow my lead and greet him with a jaunty “Hi Bob.” To be clear, I’m sure plenty of Nobel Laureates expect to be called by their first name, but don’t make it your default.
In my weak defense, I come from a start-up culture where informality reigns. Under pressure, my sales training kicks in, and I try to establish a peer relationship with everyone by using their first name. This is a habit that serves you well selling to American business executives. It’s not one that endears you to senior, tenured faculty
Every culture, be it a company, a club, or a country has it’s own language. During those first few weeks in your new career, pay extra attention to the words people use. Language is one of the ways we establish norms. When figuring your way around, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be afraid to make assumptions.
IT’S ONLY A MATTER OF TIME
Pro tip: Just stop talking if you are ever tempted to respond to anyone with the rhetorical question “What do you mean SOON?”
Certainly never tack on the phrase “It’s already been a week!”
If you should ever find yourself saying those words, be ready to apologize.
If it’s really bad, you may need to apologize to multiple people.
To HT, NH, SJ & MJ: I’m really sorry. That was totally out of line.
One of the less obvious hallmarks of any culture is its attitude toward time. Fast and slow, soon and later all have different meanings in different places. The very nature of how time progresses can be different from culture to culture. In my experience software development teams often have a progressive view of time. Each cycle or sprint builds on the previous one, developing new features and advancing the product. Sales teams tend toward a more cyclical view of time. Every month or year has a rhythm and the beginning of each cycle represents a starting over back where you were last cycle.
In the academic world, time is long and highly cyclical. Sure each year builds on the last and new theories advance knowledge, but every semester is also a restart. The students change more quickly than the material being taught. We just don’t invent accounting that fast, and the time frames are long. Professors don’t rip up syllabi midway though the semester nor do they change up research projects that may take months or years very often.
The timeframes of the academy make sense in the context of its business. Don’t make my mistake of assuming that your new culture would be better served by your old definition of normal.
DON’T HOLD ON TO WHAT YOU GOT
My office at MIT has 50 feet worth of bookshelves and two books. Like many modern professionals, I’ve never had an office with a door in my entire career.
Every visitor comments on my barren shelves. For the first few months, I’d respond with a derisive comment about how my office was an inappropriate amount of space. I’d tell them that my prior company fit 10 people in the same space. What I didn’t tell them was that the luxury and privacy make me just a little happier every morning.
I was going to be the faculty member who made my own copies, compiled those 48 different assignments from students by hand, and monkeyed with Powerpoint for hours on end. Just because I had an assistant for the first time in my career didn’t mean I was going to stop being the lean start-up founder I still thought of myself as.
That lasted three weeks. Now, I delight in the support my admin provides. I focus on teaching and grading, not on paperwork.
I was a sanctimonious jerk about the whole thing because I brought the cultural values of my old career with me to the new one. It’s not that those values were bad, but they blinded me to the benefits of my new culture. One way cultures define themselves is by shunning selected values from other cultures. For too long, my ideas of what I should value entrapped me. I missed out on the chance to celebrate all the benefits and rewards of a new culture just because they were different.
Had I not opened myself up to reveling in some benefits I had previously dismissed, I fear I’d be further down that oh-so-common path to academic bitterness. At worst, focusing on the difference in culture threatened to swallow up what i love about the job: the students, the teaching, the chance to help others accelerate their career.
Now I just need to accept one last cultural norm. I still can’t stand wearing a tie.
Miro Kazakoff is a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is co-founder of the Test Preparation company, Testive, and frequently teaches and mentors at The Startup Institute.
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