Improving Health Through Medical Physics

AAPM Newsletter — Volume 42 No.5 — September|October 2017


Picture of Alexander Scott
Reflections on Being New

It's hard to remember what it's like to be new. You've been doing this job for five years, or ten years, or twenty years (dare I say, forty years!). You have your degree, your certification, years of experience; you have built up seniority, professional relationships, and hopefully a decent salary. Even if management doesn't follow your recommendations (but we don't have the budget for that! Maybe next year…), they know your opinions carry weight and are backed up by the community.

It's hard to remember what it's like to be new, although some of us are finding out what it's like to be new for the first time: as a junior physicist, or resident, or finishing a graduate degree. Some of us are finding out what it's like to be new, for the second or even third time, maybe because of a job change, or learning a new part of the field. It's not just hard to remember what it's like to be new, it's hard just being new; it's exciting but a little scary (well, maybe…) and there is a lot of pressure. You have to build trust and relationships; there's more to learn about everything you thought you understood, while jumping through all those regulatory hoops and studying for certification exams and eating nothing but ramen because apartments in your new city are crazy expensive.

For those who find it hard to remember how to be new, we can take a trip down memory lane, if not for ourselves, then for our colleagues. Young professionals of today will be the old (did I say "old?" I meant "senior") professionals of the future; our colleagues, mentors, and research partners. We have a stake in making that transition from new to "senior" be a smooth one. In case it's hard for you to remember being new, here's some advice from the New Professionals Subcommittee (or just ask a new professional yourself!).

When you're new, you know a lot, but that knowledge may not be in context. Maybe you are an expert on one piece of equipment, but you didn't realize that another vendor has a completely different interface. You can calculate a patient dose with great accuracy, but there's an estimation method that's good enough in the clinic and will cut out two hours of work. If you're new, don't lose confidence in your training, but realize you will have to adapt to your current work environment and their expectations.

When you're new, you have to build trust of others regarding your professional capabilities. You may be seen as an outsider, a wet-behind-the-ears kid, or a rookie cop on the beat. Sometimes you have to stand up for doing the right thing, and sometimes you have to accept that management will do things their way. Don't get bullied into doing something unethical, but you do need to learn your limitations. When you're new, you might be waiting for permission to make a change, and you might want a senior colleague to tell you it's okay to move forward with change, in partnership with those involved. Learn your role in the group and see how people's personalities affect your interactions with them. Finding a mentor will really help in balancing these relationships, and making time for face-to-face interactions within your healthcare team allows you to be seen as a capable and trustworthy team member.

When you're new, there's a lot of pressure to perform. The ability to do everything all at once is why you were hired of course! You don't want to let anyone down, so you may take on more projects than you can complete – not a good idea. Be honest with your boss about your capabilities and what you can get done. Realistically, you will be stretched out of your comfort zone, but getting overloaded to the point of collapse won't benefit anybody. Develop a good workflow and set priorities, then communicate those to your group so that everyone is on the same page. Find out who owns different processes and who can help with some of your tasks – when you're new, knowing the right person to go to can save a project.

When you're new, you have lots of ideas about new ways of doing things. You're not yet burdened by all the failures that have come beforehand, and you have not adopted all the workarounds that enable inefficiencies to thrive. Senior colleagues have gotten used to those workarounds and may not understand someone shaking the boat, or maybe they want you to fix a problem that they haven't had time to figure out in ten years (see the above issues on "trust" and "pressure"). Either way, tackling a problem from a new perspective is a great way to grow professionally and opens doors to an expert level of understanding. You may need to make contacts in both industry and academia to solve your issue. Your department may never agree to implement your solutions, but maybe someone else in your peer network will, and the community will be better for it.

It's hard to remember what it's like to be new, but mentally putting yourself back into that frame of mind will better help you understand your new professional colleagues. Mentoring a new professional is a two-way street of benefits: you share your experience and bag of tricks, and you get to employ some of their youthful energy and ambition (some of us may be young at heart but still old in the knees). Being new again can revitalize that spark you felt the first time you started a research program, or attended a national meeting, or explored a revolutionary equipment design. But if you want an expert in being new, look around for a new professional; it will be an enriching relationship for all involved.

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