1660238331618 Rhinehart

How to cross over from process control student to practitioner

Aug. 23, 2021
Understand the gap to help accelerate the transition

If you're a recent graduate or are supervising one, I hope you find this discussion about the academe-practice gap useful. The gap refers to all the things that a new employee needs to understand and be able to do. Most can't be taught in school. The doing environment of professional practice is much different from the learning environment of school. New hires have been programmed for 12 to 18 years in their student roles, and it normally takes about two years of changing perspectives for a new employee to be able to cross the gap. Understanding the diverse reasons for the gap can accelerate crossing over.

Students have been indoctrinated with school-days values, which include “learning for learning’s sake,” “science/math perfection,” “thirst for knowledge” and similar adages to keep them on task. And the ones best able to demonstrate that they memorized the prescribed knowledge are the ones that make the highest grades, and who enjoy the affirmation and awards for their intellectual prowess. But the make-it-come-to-fruition values of professional practice aren't related to showing off how much you've learned. If you find yourself eager to reveal your intellectual ability to get the emotional high you liked for being smart, you're probably still in your school-daze.

You need to continue to learn. I think that about 95% of what I learned in school was useful, but school only accounted for about 5% of what I needed to know to be a professional and an adult partner. There's not enough time in school to prepare everyone for their own 40-year career and their 65-year adult life. Focus on training to generate ability, not on the intellectually appealing, school-daze fundamentals of math and science. Balance perfection with sufficiency.

Students are unencumbered, free, independent individuals. They have peer-oriented values and associated behaviors with dress, appearance, interpersonal transactions, punctuality, attraction, politics, etc. They behave in a way that generates approval by a youth-oriented culture. There's no need for them to temper disruptive viewpoints, statements and behaviors. They can snub or disparage others, who are lower in the social pecking order, and thereby enhance their stature in the “A” group.

By contrast, new employees are now within a company comprised of much older managers (perhaps representing their parents’ and grandparents’ values), who determine the employees’ future (affirmation, acceptance, salary and promotion). Peers do not elevate you. Also, the new employee is now encumbered to make the workplace and teamwork effective. Appearance, opinions and statements can't be disruptive or distracting. They're now constrained for corporate success, and for acceptance by those who represent management. For 12-18 school years, the student developed a persona that led to social success among students. A substantial change must happen. If you find yourself wanting to be true to your persona, consider that it was youth-developed. Consider that in high school, you did not behave like you did in kindergarten. As a professional partner, you can't hold on to the privilege and entitlement that suited an unencumbered student.

There are no consequences to others if a student gets a wrong answer on a test or doesn't turn in an assignment. As an employee, however, a wrong answer can have significant safety impact on the others in the company. And missing a due date can have substantial financial impact. The new employee must also cross this transition from being unencumbered to accepting a grave responsibility for their actions.

In contrast with academic learning, context is of paramount importance in a professional setting, and new employees need to understand how to work amid all the confounding complexity of reality. In school, students follow the teacher. But a life-long learner must decide what is needed to learn, and how to self-assess sufficiency of learning. Context and self-guided learning are across the gap.

Develop your potential. Pay attention to your habits as clues to which side of the gap you are on, and find your way to cross it. Recognize when others have not crossed, and help them on their way.

About the author: R. Russell Rhinehart
About the Author

R. Russell Rhinehart | Columnist

Russ Rhinehart started his career in the process industry. After 13 years and rising to engineering supervision, he transitioned to a 31-year academic career. Now “retired," he returns to coaching professionals through books, articles, short courses, and postings to his website at www.r3eda.com.

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