how long should it take a new hire to get up to speed?

This post was originally published on July 13, 2010.

A reader writes:

I’m a former academic mathematician who left academia, because…well…suffice it to say that I didn’t go to college for nine years to become a glorified babysitter. After a job offer from a Very Large Government Agency fell through, I found myself severely underemployed. While slowly crawling out of the deep, dark depression in which I found myself, I started slowly picking up some extra skills so that I could start a new career (and no, I found myself unable to go back to academia, as the thought of entering the classroom again literally sent me into panic attacks). That all of this happened was bad enough; that all of this happened as the economy started circling the bowl made things even worse.

Finally, after two years, I have a job as a Data Analyst for an advertising company, with slightly over two weeks from the recruiter saying “Hi, I passed your resume to the hiring manager, and he’d like to talk to you…” to the job offer, with two phone interviews, an online programming exam, a personality profile, and a problem that the hiring manager gave me to see how I thought on my feet in between (there might have been a partridge in a pear tree in there somewhere, too :P ). The interview advice on your blog was invaluable, especially for the phone interviews. I think I impressed the hiring manager with my questions, especially “What differentiates a good employee in this position from a great employee?”

The work environment is great, and the people are awesome–not to mention the pay and benefits! However, I find myself in a completely new industry doing work I’ve never done before, and despite the fact that I’ve only been here less than two weeks, I’m taking longer in getting up to speed than I would like. I recognize that I’m putting a significant amount of this pressure on myself–as the old saying goes, I am my own harshest critic. I have received many assurances from my manager that he’s confident in my ability to catch up, and he proactively suggested weekly meetings to keep track of my progress. However, I want to make certain that I stay on task and don’t fall behind, especially as this is a contract to hire position.

So, my question is this: What, generally speaking, is a reasonable amount of time for a new hire that is talented but inexperienced to get up to speed?

I think this varies widely from job to job, and also depends on factors like how well the company trains you, exposes you to resources, etc.  However, based just on watching people over the years, I’d say that there’s often a moment of clarity that occurs about four to eight weeks in — when suddenly all the pieces start to fit together in a way that makes more intuitive sense, and all of a sudden you don’t feel quite as much like you’re treading water. I’m not talking about mastering the job — that takes way longer. I’m talking just about getting that sense that you’re no longer in a foreign and mysterious land.

Again, this really varies depending on the job. But you’ve only been there two weeks? There’s a good chance that you’re putting unrealistic pressure on yourself, as you seem to recognize.

Now, another good question is whether there are things you can do to help yourself acclimate faster.  To answer that, I’d want to know whether there are specific things that you know you’re struggling to learn, or is it more a general feeling of being overwhelmed?  If there are specific things, can you ask a colleague to walk you through them again? It’s very, very hard to retain all the information that’s thrown at you in your first few days on a job — so if most of your training happened early on, you might find that you can retain it better now. Also, if possible to do diplomatically, you might even seek someone different than whoever taught you the first time; different people teach things in different ways, and you might get someone who presents it in a way that resonates more for you.

If it’s more a general feeling of being overwhelmed, the weekly meetings with your manager are going to help. Make sure you prepare for these ahead of time so you’re getting as much as possible out of them. For the next few weeks, it might be useful to send him a list ahead of the meeting — here’s what I accomplished this week, here’s what I’m planning to do next week, here’s what I have on my longer-term to-do list — to ensure it lines up with his thinking and to catch any areas where you’re out of alignment.

Also, ask your manager what he’d like you to have achieved by the end of your second month and by the end of your first six months. If you have a very concrete sense of where you need to be headed, it’s easier to figure out what you need to do to get there.

While we’re on the subject of getting new hires acclimated, one thing that I like to do is to give each new hire an outline of all the things they’ll need to learn about to really know the job. This includes everything from the basics of how to do the job, to who key internal and external figures are, to what they do and don’t have authority for, and on and on. To be clear, this is just an outline of topics, not fully fleshed out information on each (they’ll get that in face-to-face conversations with the various people participating in their training). I’ve found it can be really helpful for them to have a written list like that to consult a couple of weeks in — because it can make you think, “Oh, I vaguely remember a mention of Topic X on my second day, when it made no sense to me and I didn’t retain it. So let me seek out information on it again now, when it’ll make more sense.” Or you might realize that no one talked to you about Topic X at all, and then you can proactively ask your boss about it.  It can also just help to get your arms around the breadth of the job if you see each aspect outlined like that.

You may not have that exactly, but do you have any other written materials you can review — department manuals, etc.? I’ve found people often don’t take advantage of those things after the initial read, even though reading them again a few weeks into the job can be a lot more useful than the first read was.

I suspect you’re going to do just fine. You sound like you’re having normal first-few-weeks-on-the-job jitters. You also sound like you’ve landed in a really great situation. So congratulations, and good luck!

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Brooks

    Seconded what Ask A Manager said — I particularly agree that two months and six months are good milestones to use. And about this feeling normal!

    As a datapoint, I currently work for a large Silicon Valley company with a lot of internal programming infrastructure. We figure it takes about six months for most people to properly get up to speed to the point where they’re producing useful work independently.

    As another datapoint, at a different company (probably closer to your situation) we had a new hire directly out of academia — a really sharp guy who picked things up quickly. My recollection is that it was sometime the second month when he was getting far enough up the steep part of the learning curve to be usefully productive — and that we were really impressed by how well he was doing.

    1. Bea W

      In my field, depending on the complexity and length of the project, 6 months is reasonable, and there is a steep learning curve. It’s a bit easier if you come in on project start-up, because that eliminates having to also catch up on learning the ins and outs of a specific project that has already been established on top of just all the general stuff – procedures, lingo and terminology, software, adjusting to your workplace culture, etc.

      If you are new to working in a particular role or field the learning curve is even steeper. 2 weeks is nothing even for someone coming in who is experienced and picks things up quickly.

  2. Nikki J.

    Did I miss a post or something about this new format? All I’ve seen is updates for the last week or so.

    1. WFBP

      Yes, AAM is away on her honeymoon and has set things to run automatically, focusing on updates and old posts until she gets back. I love these updates!

  3. Lanya

    In my industry, one year is considered normal to get up to speed. They told me this when I started, and I didn’t believe them – but it turned out to be true. I was “comfortable” at 6 months but didn’t feel 100% until I reached the one year mark.

    1. Anonicorn

      Same with mine. ~ One year is normal for my workplace, and we tell people that upfront. You can still be productive, “comfortable,” and good at the job after 3-6 months, but that deeper understanding where things become more intuitive doesn’t usually start forming until about a year or more.

    2. Jennifer

      Annoyingly, everyone at my current job says it takes YEARS (probably at least 3) to have enough knowledge in order to be able to deal with almost everything. But around the later end of year one, I was told that I wasn’t allowed “newbie” status any more and I should know it all by now. Sigh.

      I should probably also mention that I STILL haven’t been trained in some things.

      1. Shelly

        I have started a new job and I have about sixty hours in and they think I should know everything!! Not sure wether to move on or stick it out! They are worried about the Christmas rush! Why train at this time of year then is my question! I don’t think I know any job that can be learnt in sixty hours!!

    3. Bea W

      My first job, on my particular project, at some point we started reassuring noobs that it taking a year to really get it was normal, and the first 3-6 months the learning curve was really steep. It was frustrating for people who didn’t know to expect this and thought they were just not getting it. Most projects in my field are not very long and as complex as that one was.

      I’m at the 2 year mark on a highly complex and large project in the middle of a very long transition between 2 systems, neither of which I had used before. I jumped right in and started doing my thing the best I knew how, and my supervisor and co-workers were impressed, but I am still learning. I spent my first 2 years in a build/start-up/transition phase, and so now I have another steep curve coming into the maintenance phase. I love it though. It means I don’t get bored. :)

  4. Anonymous

    This includes everything from the basics of how to do the job, to who key internal and external figures are

    My advice for this is if you’re in the same office, walk the new hire to the person’s desk, don’t just introduce them in a meeting. The large organisations I’ve worked for have been rabbit warrens of buildings so being told to go and talk to Jane, even if you know what she looks like, can be a challenge if you have to find her.

  5. OP

    It seems like forever ago since I started that job!

    In short, things worked out fine. The job had an initial 90 day contract-to-hire period, but I was converted out of it in just under two months. Throughout the next two years, I got two promotions. Sadly, I was laid off from that company just over 11 months ago (along with my boss’s boss and a project manager).

    Since then, I did a contracting stint and am now at a company that’s just about to fold (long story short, our only client has lost the vast majority of its revenue streams). I have several bobbers in the job market, at least one of which will likely turn into an offer soon.

  6. A teacher

    Agreed it takes up to a year in many industries.

    With that said, teachers aren’t glorified babysitters which means this OP probably couldn’t hack it in a classroom. It takes more than a year to get up to speed and then new mandates come out so you start over in some ways: common core standards are the newest trend along with common assessment, danielsen model, and 5 other things.

    1. OP

      Looking back, I shouldn’t have phrased the first sentence of my question quite how I did. I’ve had many successful students, and was lauded for my approachability and eagerness to help students.

      That said, I was one of a small handful of faculty at my (now former) institution that believed that rigor and academic standards were more important than student retention. Hence the “glorified babysitter” remark. Was I bitter? Most certainly.

      1. Lillie Lane

        I get your annoyance, OP. When I was a TA, I was horrified at the lack of basic skills most students had. Honestly, I didn’t know how they were admitted to the university. (Don’t get me wrong, there were some excellent and dedicated students.). But when you have to lecture some of them again and again about not bringing food into the auditorium, like large plates of nachos, it can seem like babysitting!

    2. Kit M.

      I don’t read it as meaning that OP meant teachers in general are glorified babysitters. It’s tough for teachers in universities who think they’ll be allowed to treat their 18 year-old+ students as adults, only to find that they are constantly frustrated in their attempts to do so by the administration, other faculty, and parents.

      1. Elizabeth West

        That’s kind of how I read it too. And seriously, I dropped out of grad school because after seeing what it’s REALLY like, and hearing my elementary/secondary school teacher classmates’ constant complaining, I decided I would rather muck out hog pens all day than manage a classroom.

        I learned a lot of stuff that could be useful, however. If I should ever become a famous, best-selling author ( ha ha ha ha ha yeah right) and my alma mater wants me to to do any writing seminars or lessons, I know how to set them up. ;) Plus, we did enough presentations that I’m not scared to do them at work.

    3. Sydney

      Professors may not only be glorified babysitters, but that is certainly in the job description at most places. Yes, you’re teaching grown adults things they will [usually] need in the workforce, but you’re also telling them:

      – No, you can’t talk on your cellphone during class
      – No, you can’t bring a whole plate of nachos to eat in class (love that one, Lillie Lane!)
      – No, you can’t use your book on the test
      – Stop talking while I’m talking
      – Stop playing on Facebook while I’m talking to you
      – No, you can’t cheat on your exam
      – No, you can’t write your essay in neon green ink
      – They’re/Their/there are different words
      – So are your/you’re

      I can’t believe some of my fellow students were even accepted into college the way they behave.

      1. Bea W

        I went to a community college, and many of the teachers were adjunct faculty who were professors at 4-year universities. Some remarked on what a refreshing difference it was to come teach those classes, which were mostly working adults who had made a very deliberate decision to go back to school and had no interest in wasting their time goofing off in class.

        1. Rana

          Yes. My husband currently works in the local community college system, and he loves his students. They have a lot of problems in terms of experience and skills, but make up for it by being really engaged and hardworking.

          Personally, I found the most frustrating students to teach to be those who were at the big state institutions, because you had the worst of both worlds. You had the immaturity of the general 18-year-old college student combined with a serious lack of skills. (In the private colleges, at least the immature students are usually capable of doing the work, even if they don’t always want to.) I often had the feeling that I was bailing the ocean with a teaspoon, because these students needed far more help than any one class could give them, and were incapable/unwilling of seeking it out on their own.

      2. Anonymous

        The problem is that when teachers and professors are thrown into the ring as “glorified babysitters” that is the treatment that we get from members of the general public. Yes, students are frustrating and challenging. Part of my job as a high school teacher and working as an adjunct at a community college is learning to deal with those challenges. I don’t think of myself in that light even if that is “in the job description.”

      3. Anonymous

        My husband is a skilled-trades instructor at our community college (after 30 years in the auto industry) and he is constantly complaining about students doing the things you listed. Especially 1, 3, 4, and 6.

        Not to mention the ones who come in hung-over or have a grandmother die every week!!

        These are adult men (some in their 30’s and 40’s!!) You would think they would be ready to make the most of the opportunity to learn a trade and make a good career for themselves, but not always.

  7. Ruffingit

    A new employee outline? YES PLEASE! That is an awesome idea and I wish more places did that. It would be incredibly helpful and really assist in the training process. Such a great idea.

  8. Treece

    I started a new job 1 month ago. My new boss has talked to me twice now because I am not up to speed and doing the job he thinks I should be doing. I am flabergasted. I’ve never started a job and received zero training and then been in trouble for not producing. If I was a high ranking employee like a VP then that would make sense. There was almost zero onboarding. I have not been introduced to very many people so I don’t know who to ask for help. I’ve talked to a few people who told me that they don’t understand it either. But they will not help me unless my boss tells them to help me because they are scared of him. I feel I’m literally being set up to fail. I talked to my boss today and told him I feel overwhelmed trying to learn the terminology and the systems and that I did not have the resources to complete the task. He did not thInk that was a good reason for my “failure”. So he gave me more to do and no resources except to read the project files. The only thing I can imagine is that he did not want to hire me but was told he had to. Otherwise why would he hang me out to dry? I’ve got friends helping me get my resume out to other companies. I don’t know what else to do.

    1. Ruffingit

      I have seen this same scenario play out at a company I worked for. Definitely get your resume out there ASAP. The company I worked for would do this frequently – hire people, give them no training, would not tell them who to ask for help and if they did end up asking someone to help, both that person and the helper would sometimes get in trouble for unauthorized use of time of the helper. Seriously. It was ridiculous. If a company is already on your case after a month and they’ve given you no training, that’s a sign. Heed it. Get out.

  9. Mena

    If this is your first and only job outside of Academia, I’d factor in a bit more time for cultural integration. The business world is quite different and I wouldn’t want you to underestimate the time you’ll need to become aclimated.

  10. Cath@VWXYNot?

    At my current job, the team has put together a New Hire Guide that outlines who everyone is and how to do some of the more common tasks. Even though I came in from a similar job, there are enough differences that the Guide has been enormously helpful to me, and even more so to people coming in from different backgrounds.

    The whole team updates and adds to the guide as we go (e.g. the last person to join the team starting writing down all the acronyms that people throw around at meetings, to look up later, and the spreadsheet she made for herself is now in the Guide). Over the last few months we’ve also been actively adding formal process flow charts, process documents, and RACI (who’s Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) analyses of all our major processes. The next new hires are going to benefit enormously from this resource, and even people who’ve been here for years are referring to the documents.

  11. Secretary

    I’m on week 6 at my new job. I went from full-time to part-time, large company to much smaller. This is my fifth job of the same sort of work and I’ve never felt like a bigger, more useless moron. The person “training me” loses her thought constantly stopping in the middle of the process, switching me another task, then later asks if why I’m not done with the first one (that we never finished walking through). It’s amazing. I’ve done more difficult/demanding work than this, but I feel stupider and less valued than ever. It’s not like me; I’m SO unhappy. Her boss (MY BOSS) is spineless and has not touched base with me at all during this six weeks regarding how I was doing. I came in with the attitude of an excellent worker, and felt I could be an asset to this company. As much as I really want to settle in here, there’s no way I can see staying for a length of time without going insane.

    1. Jennifer

      Was looking thru these comments because I am in a job I don’t like for the first time in my life. It’s not horrible, I have a good boss and co-worker but the material is soooo dry and I have zero connection or caring about what I am doing really. It just zaps my energy and I just cannot muster up any excitement about it. Seems like my boss lives and breathes this stuff (how, I have no idea) I have always been a person who loves what they are doing and I am not going to do a bad job at this, but for Pete’s sake. lolol. (it’s turned out to be a mostly “numbers” job and I am a people person). It’s at a University so there are better jobs and opportunities if I just put in some time at this starter job. Just needed to vent a little! How ‘s your job going now?

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