As a professor, I have found that things are not always what they seem to be, especially at work. If I have learned nothing else, it’s been to explore multiple sides of a story.
Last week, my professional life changed for the better. First, colleagues and I obtained a $1.4 million National Science Foundation to explore why women in engineering, particularly women of color, persist in the academy despite the numerous barriers that they encounter. This grant was motivated by the numerous experiences that I have had as a black woman engineering faculty member. Second, I announced that I am in late-term negotiations with The Ohio State University.
Ten years after starting my job as an Assistant Professor, I can offer tips to other faculty about how to know that a work culture is a good fit for you and how to decide when it is time to depart that environment. I hope that these tips will help people who are questioning whether they are in the right environments and whether it’s time to transition to a new one.
1. You are almost always unhappy at work.
A few years ago, I recall walking up to my office after Winter break and starting to cry. These weren’t microscopic tears but big, watery crocodile tears. I had spent the holidays with my husband and our families, and when I walked back on campus, I felt as if I was being led to the electric chair. At the time, I didn’t reflect deeply about why I was so upset. Now I realize that I felt that I couldn’t be my authentic self at work. I taught students who didn’t accept my instructional style, and I didn’t know how I would progress to my next administrative level. As a result, I found myself getting sadder with each passing semester.
If no one else tells you this, trust me that you are not supposed to cry on your way to work about the work that you have to do at work. Dig deep to identify the root of your frustration and sadness. If something can be changed, change it. If nothing can be changed, consider changing your environment. Your health and future depend on it!
2. You start to question your worth.
I’m always been extremely confident and outgoing. Professionally, I had earned a Presidential Award (from President Barack Obama) and had graduated numerous doctoral students who were engaging in successful careers. Nevertheless, I noticed that my complete identity was framed within the context of being a professor. The humorous, direct Monica Cox was gone. I felt as if my value as a person was relegated to an annual double-sided sheet of paper that more often than not informed me of my inadequacies. I wasn’t publishing enough papers, I wasn’t bringing in enough grant money, and I wasn’t eradicating war in the world (just kidding, but it felt as if this was a possible expectation too!).
Now I tell young professionals that they have to know their worth before they enter the workplace. They must know what they will and will not tolerate in their lives. If you are in this situation, set boundaries and stick to them by not allowing anyone to discredit your value and your potential to do great things. I know what it’s like to worry that you will be fired or that senior faculty won’t accept or approve of you. Here’s a harsh reality. If you go crazy and have to leave your job because of health reasons, a new person will set up shop in your office before you get settled in the hospital.
3. You have to be two completely different people- one at work and one at home.
I consider myself to be the life of the party. I love my loud colors and my fashionable clothes. Over time, however, I found myself looking like a frumpy mess. My work environment stressed me out so much that I no longer made an effort to dress up or be the flashy person I always was. I found myself blending into an environment where my sassy ways were misinterpreted, my constructive criticism became offensive, and my uniqueness was perceived as my not being a team player. To advance professionally, I found myself assimilating, which didn’t reflect my true self at all.
One day when I got angry enough at the critiques, I stopping trying to be correct and safe. I stopped analyzing how my dress, words, actions, etc., would be interpreted. I realized that the people who knew and respected me knew and respected me. The ones who misinterpreted and misunderstood everything that I said had no desire to get to know me or to be inclusive to me. I’m now back to the real Monica- the person who is happier than I’ve been in many years.
4. You don’t connect with colleagues and/or your boss.
Although you don’t have to be best friends with the people in your unit, there should be some connection. For many years, the people with whom I worked were people with whom I wouldn’t even want to engage with in any setting, let alone a nonacademic work setting. Sure, there are people with whom I could connect, but the majority of time was spent engaging in what I consider to be straight up corniness. I found my conversations with others to be forced and odd, our jokes not to align, and our values to be different. It was just plain awkward and uncomfortable for me to be in social and professional situations.
I often tell people that although I don’t speak a different language, being a minority in a majority environment reminds me of being bilingual. I have to speak the dominant, majority language most of the day. I can’t slip up and mention BET and R&B culture, and I can’t use my colloquial terms too much. I have to remember to smile when I offer critiques so that my sharpness is not perceived as belligerence, and so that people do not take my words personally. I’ve come to realize that I see inequities like many people see their hands in front of their faces. I find myself getting tired of explaining why an activity isn’t inclusive and why people should care about exclusivity.
Being someone other than your authentic self is tiring and isn’t sustainable. Take a hard look at whether you are comfortable and whether you connect to other professionals who “get” you. If something isn’t quite right, trust your instincts, and identify some plans for remedying the situation.
5. You feel hopeless.
Hopelessness can be very real. Going through the issues above and feeling as if you have no professional plans for the future can make you feel empty and alone. At some point, you have to drag yourself out of a negative place and develop a plan for moving ahead in a positive manner.
I left the hopelessness behind by reflecting a lot on what I liked and what I didn’t like. I knew that I needed to work with engaging people. I needed to lead. I needed my voice to be heard. I needed to be respected. I needed to be near people who were innovative. I needed to be surrounded by people who understood diversity and inclusion.
Tap into your values, and determine what will bring you joy. Connect to that, and move into situations and collaborations that align with your happiness. You won’t be disappointed.
6. You are stressed all of the time.
Yes, stress is a part of life. No, stress should not be a part of your life all of the time. Good stress connects to an engaging vision and to positive outcomes. Bad stress leads to despair and hopelessness.
When you give your all to a job, and you feel as if you have little to show for your efforts, something is wrong. I’ve been there and done that. I was lost and didn’t know how to align my passions with the actual work that I did. As result, I felt as if I was in a downward spinal. The external success didn’t align with my inner distress and turmoil. Something had to change, and it did. I’ve also seen close friends who have been stressed out by the academy and have undergone discrimination and situations that no one should have to endure.
I believe in strategy and planning. Next year should be better than this year. Five years should be better than next year. If you can’t envision this, identify ways to clear your thinking so that you can see a vision that propels you to a new level. Relax, relate, and release!
7. Your values don’t align with the organization or with rewards within that culture.
This is the biggest issue of all for me. I am very aware of my values and how I want to operationalize these values in my life. Throughout many of my experiences, I found that people didn’t respond to issues the way that I would. For example, when someone duplicated my research efforts, people weren’t up in arms about pursuing an investigation. When I tried to convince a diversity officer that minority faculty should be a priority at my institution, I was given the run around and given numerous reasons why it shouldn’t be a priority. A student threatened me, and my e-mail filing the complaint was “lost” although I could find it in my own outbox. I was threatened by someone who still works at the institution. I was publicly humiliated by someone in authority, yet I was the person who was ridiculed and questioned for my behavior. I could go on and on, but I think that you get the picture.
At some point, you must decide when you will stop compromising your values. I did just that when I realized that I couldn’t predict what would happen in many situations at my institution. I could no longer rely on people to respond in the way that I would. In all fairness, this may relate to cultural issues. Nevertheless, authenticity is vital to me, and if I believe in something, I will fight for it until I die.
Are you still unsure about whether you should transition professionally? Life is too short for you to be unhappy. If you over analyze situations like I do, you may cause much harm to yourself before you even realize that there is a problem to address. I’ve been sad and down, and I’ve been optimistic and confident. I highly recommend that if you are in a negative space at work, start identifying what your next steps for success are today.
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