In this blog post, 2016/17 MSc Organisational and Social Psychology graduate Vandita Dhariyal discusses her fascinating dissertation research on the expectations and then real-life experiences of graduates in their first year of employment. This research shows that the transition from student to employee can be a stressful and confusing one, and that both individuals and employers need to provide support and training to help retain talented newcomers to the job market.
Transitioning from being a student to an earning member of society is one of the biggest changes that an individual experiences in the first quarter of their lives (Louis, 1986). As a student graduating from a premier institute (like LSE), entering the workplace had certain expectations in the form of psychological contracts (the beliefs or expectation that an employee has with the organisation and the employer and vice versa). Using the ‘psychological contracts’ as the core concept, I explored how the new graduates developed their expectations and how these influenced their experiences as a graduate newcomer. This exploratory research can help all graduate newcomers navigate and ‘make-sense’ of their experiences as a newly employed individual.
Meaningful work: Expectations vs Reality
Entering employment right after their degree, the newcomers expected that they would be given work that is meaningful, and relevant to what they studied at University, while finding the time to participate in extra-curricular activities. When these expectations were unfulfilled, graduates felt a sense shock and an ‘interruption’ in their experiences. These ‘interruptions’ were understood as the violation of their psychological contracts and were made sense of using the sense-making process. Below, I am sharing the key feelings that dominated the graduate newcomers and what sense they made of it in order to accept their new reality.
Being in their first jobs, the graduates experienced differences in their expectations and reality. The workplace demanded long and strenuous hours. This inflexibility drained them of energy leaving them incapable of juggling extra-curricular and wider learning along with work.
Developing realistic beliefs, ideas and expectations: pressure and ‘building your way up’
Often, starting a new job is also confusing and worrying, mostly because it’s not exactly what the newcomers wanted or expected to be doing and it isn’t anything that they have ever done before. And thus, the new graduates expressed feeling lost in their first jobs. Often the organisational culture and pressure led to sadness and the feeling that their ‘soul was dead’.
They also experienced more pressure in terms of responsibility and accountability – as more people were relying on them to do a good job. For instance, as students, they could miss lectures but in work they could not miss a client meeting.
This culture also depicted a hierarchy where the newcomers were at the bottom and had to build their way up. It often translated into being given ‘chunky’ work rather than something interesting. This made them feel less empowered than they felt as a student where they used to hold positions of responsibility. However, they understood that between a manager of 20 something years of experience and a new hire, the manager can’t be expected to print papers. Learning how to act like a junior – not leaving work even when your task is done, and taking orders from above was one of the most difficult things to adapt to. The workplace hierarchy also takes away the autonomy that the newcomers had as students. They felt as if they weren’t in full control as they were ‘given’ work and they couldn’t really say no. It was a very different kind of feeling – having to report to a manager. However, being paid, often, took away the brunt of having to do something they didn’t expect.
Not doing what they wanted/expected to do, or not being in the roles that they expected to be in, often made it difficult to adjust to being an employee. However, the willingness to accept it and shifting their expectations often made the transition from a student to an employee easier. It is important to see university and workplace as different institutions and having different structures. This understanding required a shift in mind-set – from being able to pick and choose everything to not being able to complain. The newcomers who were unable to shit their mind-set were still in shock, and the organisation was unable to retain them.
The newcomers revealed that the more exposure they had by speaking to people who worked in the industry or doing more research about the workplace, developed more realistic ideas, beliefs and expectations of what the workplace will be like. Having internships also helps one avoid surprises of what workplaces are like. Furthermore, having university education where you aren’t spoon fed and are ‘forced’/ allowed to practice independence also helped the graduates be organised and work under pressure.
Redefining what it means to start ‘work’
In an attempt to adjust, the newcomers often felt the need to re-define their role and see this transition as a learning process rather than achieving their career goals straightaway. This redefinition was enhanced by recognising the expectations of the organisation and how one fits into the business pyramid. The high stress environment and inflexibility of work distorted their work-life balance, and maintaining ‘outside’ interests and creativity felt like a constant battle. However, to activate the sense of what they were before – to constantly seek out other experiences and redefine their role, extra-curricular activities played a very important role. Recognising this, the newcomers made a conscious effort to refill their spirit, and used tactics to motivate themselves at the end of a stressful day. For instance, finding the time to exercise, eating a healthy diet, learning something new like cooking, public speaking or drawing. These activities energised and motivated them. However, monitoring the balance is an individual responsibility and choice, because if more time is invested at work, there will be lesser time to do other things in life. ‘Is the trade–off worth in the long term?’ They weighed their disappointment against what they will gain elsewhere? Realizing this, slowly and steadily, the newcomers learned more skills. Finally, it does get better as one is trusted with more responsibilities and becomes more qualified.
In order to make sense of this trade-off, the newcomers distinguished ‘work’ from ‘life’ quite extensively – considering work as work. For instance, as long as they were paid, they were willing to work. Their job was an extension to themselves, but not their identity. This was primarily because the newcomers recognised that anyone could do what they were doing or the lack of specialty/expertise in their role, made them consider work as responsibility rather than their identity.
Having a person-organisation fit and a person-job fit also helped in adjusting and adapting at work. The newcomers recognized that skills can be taught, because if there is willingness to work, everything can be taught at some level.
Developing skills vs staying in one role
The graduates also recognised the dearth in employment and therefore emphasized on seizing the opportunity rather than letting it go because it is not as expected. Many of them emphasized ‘job-hopping’, sharing that “where they are now, doesn’t say much about where they will be in 20 years”. And thus, they emphasized learning as much as they can – because all of it is a skill, and getting experience is more important than being picky as a newcomer. The graduates who were satisfied with their first jobs, highlighted that it was only their first job – emphasizing that they intended to leave their organisation at some point. Many of them reasoned that they’d like to do much more intellectual work, as a valid reason to hop their job.
Support from an organisation, whether through skill development opportunities (training) or appreciation helped newcomers to feel accepted into work culture, including socialising outside of work. However, while some organisations understand and don’t expect the new graduate to be right 24/7, others put a lot of pressure onto them. The pressure makes it difficult for them to keep themselves composed and ‘head straight’. Recognising this, some organisations gave a 3-month training before starting the new role, while others put the new graduates straight to work. The no-training period often came as a shock as the graduates didn’t expect to be dealing with real-problems from day one and felt inadequate. However, more and more firms are recognising that they spend a lot of time in recruiting and training, and if the newcomer just leaves, they have to start from the scratch. Not wanting that to happen, the organisation as taking proactive steps to retain talent. Though changes are evident, there is only so much a corporate can change. Because its end goal is to make money. Hence, support from an organisation proved to be imperative in training and the newcomers’ ability to seize opportunities at workplace and chart a progressive career chart.
The newcomers recognised that the most important quality is to be a team player. As one will always be working in or within a team. For different skills and different departments are required for one job. And thus, the need to be a people person. People also play a very important role at workplace, because the idea of work remains the same. It was more like the people that changed more. Furthermore, having a community or a group of people who are in the same phase of life, gives comfort for one feels that he/she is not alone in their ‘horrible’ experiences. And it is in this phase that the value of friends with valuable advice increases.
Soon, the current workplace will be dominated with millennials who enter a workplace that encourages disruptive innovations. In an unstable environment such as this, having the ability to adjust and adapt, and possessing the willingness to shift their mind-set is imperative. Keeping their motivations up, and psychological contract intact is the responsibility of the individual and the organisation. The latter by not making promises that can be broken easily and giving an as real picture as possible, and the former by engaging in conscious introspective evaluation of experiences and sense-making. This research included people in their first year of employment -a stage that all of us have been in, are in, or will be in.
About the author
My name is Vandita Dhariyal, and I hail from India. I am passionate about making the workplace experiences for employees worth their time, memorable, enjoyable and meaningful. With a deep interest in workplace psychology and dynamics, I attained BA (H) Degree from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi, India, and MSc from London School of Economics at Political Science (LSE). At LSE, I was a student of the Psychological and Behavioral Science, and gained my MSc in Organisational and Social Psychology. I specialized in Organisational Development and Issues in Organisational Life.