Objective This study set out to establish why some new doctors view their training as a valuable period in their professional development, whereas others see it as a year to be endured and survived. Methods This multi-method case study focused on the interaction of key participants within 1 deanery, sampling the 237 pre-registration house officers (PRHOs) and 166 educational supervisors populating the associated 12 National Health Service trusts at the time (2001). The design of the case study was predicated on gathering the views of both teachers and learners in a way that allowed each stage of the data collection process to inform and influence the next phase. Results Lack of formal guidance and support were common characteristics associated with the first few days in post. The first day in post as a doctor is, for most, an experience that is hard to prepare for, even after a useful induction period. Those PRHOs who felt they were not guided or advised on how to undertake their new professional responsibilities tended to feel undervalued and under-recognised as individuals. Conclusions Without the support of senior colleagues who can help the new doctor reflect on quite difficult and uncertain situations, new doctors will almost certainly perceive the first year of the new Foundation Programme as a survival exercise. If new doctors are working in an environment where their learning is properly facilitated, they are more likely to recognise their progress in their professional development and be more proactive in addressing concerns about professional expectations.