Career News, Updates & Insights

Out of the classroom and into the office: Adjusting to life at CRA

by Scott Sampson

Midterms, weekly assignments, group projects, and final exam season. I know the routine well. And after all those years, it surprisingly became a comfortable one. I started my journey at CRA over four months ago in the Washington, DC office. For someone who had only known university life, I didn’t have a clear idea of what the “real world” would bring – and how I would inevitability adjust. I had just graduated from Queen’s University in Canada and I was ready for the next step in my career. So, I naturally signed the offer letter, packed my bags, and fled the country to begin my adventure with CRA.

Fast forward a few months, and there I was taking the Metro for the first time, on the first day of my new job. I arrived early, over-dressed and ready to apply my knowledge to the world. What I soon came to realize, however, is there was no syllabus on the first day outlining how I would be graded. There were no assignments and exams where my lowest grade would be dropped. There were people from all walks of life around me. It was different, new and, well, a little uncomfortable. However, don’t be alarmed if your situation seems parallel to mine. You will quickly realize the value in this slight discomfort, and by considering these tips below you will ensure a smooth transition as you learn to navigate the waters at CRA:

1. Always Keep the Big Picture in Mind

In university, it becomes easy to be hyper-focused on your work. A simple letter grade seems to become the sole purpose of your existence. When completing university course work, there is often a clear and direct solution to problems, which creates a sense of comfort. What you will come to realize during your first few months at CRA is that solutions to problems are not as trivial as what you might expect in the classroom. There may be many avenues to the correct answer which has the tendency to push you outside your comfort zone. As a result, it becomes critical to always keep the client’s needs in mind and not get “lost in the weeds.” There is a subtle skill in completing project tasks with the optimal amount of efficiency. You will learn this from others, both at the junior and senior-staff level, and you will get there – just give it time.

2. The Art of Email Writing

Ah, email. Whether you’re a new Analyst or a Vice President at CRA, email writing is a vital aspect of business communication. This skill is something that may need to be fine-tuned coming straight out of university. But, as with all things at CRA, you will learn, and quickly. I recommend following the trend of seasoned Analysts/Associates when just getting started and how they address emails from project managers. They are clear, to the point and walk the line of being not too casual (or formal) depending on the circumstances. One of the best pieces of advice I received during my first few weeks at CRA was to keep email easy on the eyes. It can’t be cluttered with points but must be fluid and concise. There are lots of factors to keep in mind when composing an email. But, remember it is not about perfection. Rather, effective communication.

3. Keep the Desire to Learn

Just because you’ve finished university and you’re not chasing straight A’s doesn’t mean the drive and excitement for learning should end. When family and friends ask me to describe a typical day at CRA I often have a difficult time, as no day is the same. While this may seem scary at first, you will realize that this is the bread and butter of the CRA experience. Whether it’s a Vice President taking time out of his/her day to describe a complex damage analysis to you, or a fellow junior staff member teaching you a life-saving trick in Stata/Excel, the learning never ends once you leave the classroom. So, soak it all in, and never hesitate to ask questions.
I hope you find these tips helpful as you begin your transition from the classroom to the office!