Soft Skills = Today’s Critical Competencies

August 20, 2014

Image of a person surrounded by eight different bubbles. Each bubble represents a different soft skill, such as "presenting" or "being on time."Traditionally, soft skills were viewed as a secondary bonus to an applicant’s technical skill set; however, in today’s extremely competitive job market, employers are looking for proof of a mix of both hard and soft skills. In fact, recruiters will view a lack of demonstrated leadership or extracurricular activities on your resume as a potential red flag. Illuminating this fact is a study which shows that 60% of managers agreed that soft skills are the most important factor when evaluating an employee’s performance.

Recognizing the extreme importance of soft skills, The Department of Labor (DOL) developed an entire curriculum on the subject entitled, “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” Targeted toward teens and young adults, this program was created as an introduction to workplace interpersonal and professional skills.

The DOL’s list of key soft skills is very similar to OITE’s core competencies; it includes:

  1. Communication
    Permeating almost every aspect of a job, this skill is often ranked first among employers. It includes your ability to speak, write and present.
  2. Enthusiasm & Attitude
    Employers get frustrated with employees who are resistant to change or unable to adapt to new directions. Having an open and upbeat attitude will help your group generate good energy and move forward on projects.
  3. Teamwork
    There will be aspects of teamwork within every job. Leaders and project managers often lament that most of their jobs are spent trying to get colleagues to work effectively together. Therefore, it is essential to your career to work cooperatively and be able to participate in group decision-making.
  4. Networking
    Like teamwork, networking is about building relationships. It also involves critical elements of communication and the ability to represent yourself effectively to others.
  5. Problem Solving & Critical Thinking
    There is no shortage of challenges and issues that can arise on the job. Employers want employees who will be able to face these problems critically and creatively by gathering enough information in order to develop a solution.
  6. Professionalism
    No matter the job or the industry, professionalism is a critical key to your success. Professionalism isn’t one trait – it is a combination of characteristics. It often means conducting yourself with a high level of responsibility, integrity and accountability. Part of professionalism is having a strong work ethic and being willing to go that extra mile. Another integral component is being dependable, trustworthy, and always following through on your projects.

Soft skills are no longer undervalued by employers. Make sure you are practicing these skills in your current position and/or seeking out opportunities to develop these skill sets. You will not only be helping your professional development, but you will be especially thankful the next time you are in an interview and they ask you a common behavioral question like “Tell me about a time when you had to utilize effective communication skills within a group setting,” and you have a stellar anecdote to share.


Medical School Interviews

August 6, 2014

The season for medical school interviews is quickly approaching. If you have completed your secondary medical school application and been offered an interview, then congratulations! Schools don’t typically bring you in for an interview unless they are strongly considering your candidacy.

Bearing this in mind, many times the interview is more about your fit with the program rather than your scores and credentials. Schools use an interview to evaluate your professionalism, maturity, and personality. They want to hear in your words – spoken not written – what your motivation is in pursuing medicine.

Effective preparation is critical to the success of your interview.
Here are some things you should know before going to each interview:

  • What type of interviewing format does the school use?
    Schools may do traditional, in-person, one-on-one interviews; Skype interviews; group interviews; or even a mix of them all. Find out more about your school’s format by looking at their Web site and/or asking the admissions coordinator. You can also find information about the interview style and format for each school on The Student Doctor Network.
  • Will it be an open file or closed file interview?
    In an open file interview, the interviewer may have read your whole application or just parts of it. The interviewer could also be reading your file for the first time during the interview. In a closed file interview, your interviewer has not seen any part of your application.
  • Do they do Multiple Mini Interviews (MMI)?
    In an MMI, there are generally six to ten stations. You go around and have about two minutes to read a scenario based question. These tend to focus on situational and/or ethical dilemmas. You are then given six to eight minutes to answer in a way that demonstrates your logic and creative problem solving skills.

Once you understand the format for the interview, you anticipate (or plan!) how you will respond to potential interview questions.
Here are a few groups of sample questions to think about:

Basic
* What experiences have most motivated you to pursue medicine?
* What concerns you about medical school and a residency program?
* How have you tested your commitment to pursue medicine?

Behavioral
* Tell me about a time when you demonstrated leadership.
*What was the most stressful situation you have faced to date; how did you handle it?
*Walk me through an experience where you made a mistake. How did you fix it?

Traditional
*Tell me about yourself.
* Why did you choose this school?
*What are your three strongest qualities?
*What is the most important thing you would want to convey to the admission committee?

There are many, many more possible interview questions you could be asked! While you will never be able to fully anticipate each question, it can be helpful to review lists of interview questions and begin thinking about how you would frame your answers. To prepare for behavioral questions, you might reflect on personal interactions/situations in your past, considering how you might frame them as stories and what personal characteristics they demonstrate.

Starting on August 18th, the OITE is offering group medical school mock interview sessions to help you prepare. A total of seventeen sessions has been scheduled over the subsequent three weeks. If you are part of the intramural program, you can attend ONE session in order to practice your responses and learn from not only your peers but a facilitator as well.


Enhancing Optimism and Resilience in Your Job Search & Beyond

July 29, 2014

Picture of a group of blue sad faces with a yellow happy face in the middleAs we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, it can be really difficult to stay positive during a job search. However, positivity is often a key characteristic of the most productive job searchers and luckily, there are things you can do to help enhance your own optimism.

In the Job Search Resiliency video (part of the new OITE YouTube Channel) you will find helpful tips and strategies for finding ways to stay positive and optimistic if/when your job search doesn’t go as planned.

One takeaway (of many) from the video is to engage in positive psychology exercises.  Some of these exercises include:

  1. Gratitude Visit and Letter
    Close your eyes for a moment and think about a person who helped you out in the past. Perhaps someone you never properly thanked? This is a great activity to help you feel more positive because when you feel grateful, you conjure up a pleasant memory or association. Then, expressing that gratitude can help strengthen your relationship and can create more positive connections.   So, give that person a call, write them an e-mail or even drop by their office or home to say thank you!
  1. Three Good Things in Life
    Oftentimes, it is easy to identify all the things that went wrong in a day, or even all the challenges you are facing within your job search. Take a moment each day to balance out that perspective. Pause and reflect on all the things (big and small) that went well. Then choose three of these good things and write them down. We invite you to take it a step further and provide an explanation (why it was good and/or how it came about) for each good thing. You may find that you are the cause of many of these positive events.
  1. Identifying Signature Strengths
    Martin Seligman (Founder of Positive Psychology) and his research group have a website: authentichappiness.org.  This site includes information on learning and applying the principles of positive psychology to any domain, such as a job search. They also have a whole range of different surveys that you can take. We suggest taking the Signature Strengths Survey and noting your top five strengths.

    You can help combat negativity when you focus on not only identifying your strengths but also finding new ways to begin using those strengths more intentionally throughout your week. A logistical note about taking this survey: it is quite long as it has 240 questions and you can’t save it and come back to it, so be sure to take it when you have sufficient time. You do have to create a log in to access the surveys, but by participating you are actually paying it forward in a way by helping with their positive psychology research.

One final recommended exercise is to watch the full Job Search Resiliency video on YouTube. It’s a quick way to get even more information, including some key follow up resources.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Scientific Program Analyst

July 21, 2014

Name: Lillian Kuo, PhD

Job Title & Company: Scientific Program Analyst, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS)

Location: Bethesda, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: A little over a year.

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Eric O. Freed, NCI

What do you do as a Scientific Program Analyst?
A Program Analyst means a lot of different things across NIH. For my position, I work on the Program side of extramural research where I work under a couple of Program Directors. I perform a lot of different tasks like program administration, talking to grantees, and organizing conferences. The programs we work on are cooperative agreements, which are not the traditional R01 type grants. This means that there is substantial programmatic involvement above and beyond the normal stewardship role in awards.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?

Being flexible and being able to learn things really fast because science is always changing. Science is incredibly dynamic, so I have had to learn and adapt quickly.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I work with a lot of people – people who do very different things. Even though I am at NCATS, I work with the Common Fund which is part of NIH OD. I work with Program Directors from about a dozen different ICs. Every IC does something different so it is really interesting to me to learn about these differences. Common Fund programs are trans-NIH initiatives, so I’m really fortunate to be able to work with such a diverse group of people. People approach problems so differently based on the scientific need. Science is so dynamic and it is always changing so it is important to tailor the programs accordingly.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
I had to learn a lot of stuff really fast, and that is part of being a PhD. You are trained to learn things quickly. For example, I had to give myself a crash course in bioinformatics. In retrospect, a lot of it was not too bad like learning different kinds of software programs.

What was your job search like?
I was contacted by a recruiter, which surprised me at first. I had previously applied for another Kelly Scientific position, so I was in their database. I thought the position she described was quite interesting. She thought I would be a good fit, and she was right.

Any last bits of advice?
Informational interviews are immensely helpful. OITE has a lot of really great resources to help you with that. Informational interviews are so important though because the information that you learn talking to people first-hand is invaluable. During information interviews, I have found people are really thoughtful and they will give you good information and advice which ultimately will help steer you where you need to go. I can’t tell someone what they would like, so everyone has to determine that on their own.


Postdoc FAQs

July 14, 2014

If you are thinking about applying for a postdoc, there are quite a few points to consider before starting your search. Previous blog posts have focused on assessing whether a postdoc makes sense for your long-term career goals and on how you can find the perfect postdoc for you.

Here are some more frequently asked questions (FAQs) to bear in mind as you undertake your postdoc search:

Can I stay in the same lab, or the same institution? It is common that your first postdoc would be a short stint in the same lab as you finish up any remaining projects. Normally this does not last more than one year (and typically much less). After that you will want to diversify your experiences by finding a new lab. Staying at the same institution is a bit different. Finding a new institution gives you the ability to experience science in a new setting. But sometimes you may need to stay (family, financial, or you just really like it). In this case, it is recommended to at least find a new lab, perhaps even in a new department so you gain the independence that a postdoc needs.

Do I really need a postdoc? This depends on your chosen career path. If you want to be an academic faculty member, you will almost certainly need a postdoc. If you would like to go to industry R&D, a short postdoc might be necessary to be competitive with other applicants. If you would like a non-research position, a postdoc may be unnecessary—but—you would have needed to start preparing for this career path as a graduate student so you have the credentials to make this career switch.

If I start a postdoc and hate it, do I have to stay? This is one of the best things about being a postdoc, if you hate it you have more flexibility to move on than you did as a grad student. Since there are no degree requirements, you have the freedom to choose your own path. If you are in a postdoc you do not like seek the advice of your other mentors and the postdoc office to navigate switching research groups.

Can I get teaching experience as a postdoc? Maybe. This is something you and your advisor should discuss. Teaching experience will also be your responsibility to find opportunities by connecting with colleges and universities that will help you gain these experiences. (unless you are doing an IRACDA postdoc: http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Training/CareerDev/pages/PartInstIRACDA.aspx)

Does the institution/research group I go to make a difference? Maybe. This question really is asking: will the pedigree of my advisor make me more attractive for a future job? This depends on what you want to do next, but it could be a factor in your decision. Even if you use pedigree as one of your decision factors, we also strongly recommend that you consider the mentoring style of the advisor and how their mentoring will fit into your long-term career goals. Pedigree means nothing if it means you are going to have a miserable experience.


The Introverted Job Seeker

July 9, 2014

Do you have to be dragged to a networking event or cocktail party? When you do go to an event, do you have to spend the rest of the day recuperating? Do you need plenty of alone time during the day? If you answered yes to these questions, you might be an introvert. The level and intensity of introversion varies from person to person, so even if you haven’t taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), you probably have a general sense regarding your own preference toward extraversion or introversion. For the purpose of this post, we are going to focus on the quieter half of the population – the introverts.

In Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” she argues that U.S. work culture is often biased against introverts; their quiet, reflective and serious demeanors are often trumped by extraverted traits such as being outgoing, assertive and verbose. Now, depending on your work environment, your boss’ style, and the culture of your team, it is arguable whether extraversion or introversion could be viewed more positively.

However, there is one area which is seemingly stacked in favor of the extraverted and that is the job search. Two major aspects of a job search which are especially energy draining to introverts are networking and interviewing.

Networking

How might being introverted hold you back in terms of networking? Well, it could if it means that you find yourself avoiding social situations with possible introductions to new contacts or if you find you never quite muster the energy to take that phone call or set up that informational interview.

Introverts are often excellent networkers though because they tend to observe and analyze people and situations well. Also, introverts tend to prefer listening – a great characteristic for effective networking and an excellent means for gathering new information and new contacts. Whereas an extravert might approach networking with a hard-sell mentality, an introvert tends to go in with more of a soft-sell approach, which is often a preferable way to begin building a rapport (and a larger network of professional contacts).

Just remember to care for your introverted self throughout this process. When you have to utilize your less-preferred extravert skills, you will begin to feel your energy drain. Be sure to build in time to recharge throughout your job search timeline.

Interviewing

One particularly valuable job search trait of extraverts is that they tend to think out loud. This is especially important during an interview. Interviews by design often favor an extravert’s ease in making introductions and connections.

Interview questions, especially behavioral-based interview questions, are asked so that the employer can get a feel for your thought process and how you would approach different situations. Thinking out loud – even if it isn’t stated perfectly – helps you convey information to the employer. Reticence to disclose information, shortly phrased answers, and long silences will likely hurt your chances. Introverts often assume people can read how they are thinking or feeling. Or, if in an interview, they will assume the employer knows they are excited about the position because they are there. On the contrary, employers bring you into an interview in order to see and hear your enthusiasm. Expressing this fully can be a challenge for many introverts.

The good news is that many of these skills can be practiced. You can learn better responses to interview questions, you can role play networking successfully and you can “try on” the façade of an extraverted job-seeker. This doesn’t mean you have to go out there and be something completely different and inauthentic to you; rather, challenge yourself to do things that might not feel completely comfortable to you as an introvert. Hopefully this serves as a reminder to check in with yourself about your true preferences and make sure you are taking care of yourself throughout the job search process.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Health Science Analyst

July 1, 2014

Name: Danielle Daee

Job Title & Organization: Health Science Analyst, Office of Science Planning and Assessment, NCI

Location: Bethesda, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: Since August 2012, so not quite two years.

Postdoc Advisor, IC (when at NIH): Kyungjae Myung, NHGRI

What do you do as a Health Science Analyst?
In our office, we do a lot of portfolio analysis, evaluation, program coordination and strategic planning. I largely focus on program coordination, portfolio analyses, and program evaluations.

Our office responds to requests for information about the NCI portfolio, which come from various interested parties like NCI senior leadership, NIH, and Congress. For example, how much are we spending on gastric cancer? What kinds of investments do we have in that field? Often, these requests require us to contact individual programs in NCI to coordinate and consolidate a response from across the Institute. I also coordinate the annual update of the Cancer Snapshots (http://www.cancer.gov/researchandfunding/snapshots), which requires coordination across the Institute and taps into my scientific expertise and writing skills.

In addition to smaller requests, we are often asked to create more comprehensive analyses of the NCI portfolio and to evaluate aspects of NCI’s return on its investment. These efforts involve a variety of analyses of grant data, clinical trials data, and bibliometric data. Our office also consults with individual programs to help them assess and/or evaluate their own portfolios.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?

Organizational skills are extremely important because there are a lot of meetings (so many!) and you have to juggle multiple projects that progress in parallel. On top of that, I do many activities that require scientific expertise and data analysis expertise using Excel.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I get to touch a lot of different types of activities. I do a lot of portfolio analysis and I also do quite a bit of science writing. Our office is within the Office of the Director, so we get a broad view of what NCI is doing and I appreciate that big picture perspective.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career? What are some of the challenges you face?
I would say that the hardest part was finding the best way to organize myself and stay organized. It took me a while to get there. Also, there’s a lot of institutional knowledge that you need in order to perform well in this position. It’s something that you develop over time, but coming out of the lab it was frustrating that I couldn’t just read bunch of papers to get up to date on this field. NCI is a huge Institute and I needed to be involved in multiple projects, go to a lot of different events, and listen to a lot of folks to get a feel for what is happening across the Institute. I’m nearly two years in and I’m still learning new information every day.

How did you come to choose this as your next step?
I did a detail in the NIH Office of Extramural Research. At the time, I was just interested in getting any experience outside of the lab. In my detail, I got a taste of how things function outside the lab (meetings, meetings, meetings!) and became familiar with the systems that are used to analyze and track applications and applicants. When I saw this posting on USAJobs, I recognized a lot of the things that they were asking for, so it seemed like an obvious fit.

What was your job search like?
I set up some canned searches on USAJobs, Idealist, and Science Jobs. Each day I would get an email with a list of jobs that had opened up. I also periodically checked contractor sites like Kelly Services or other companies that I thought would be a good fit (like HHMI). I searched for maybe a year before I found something. I applied to anything of interest. In all, I applied to 21 federal jobs and several non-federal jobs before I got a job. Although I got a few non-federal interviews, this position is the only federal position for which I was interviewed. I think I suffered from not having a well-structured federal resume—developing one is an art!

Did you change your resume for each job?
I tweaked my resume to fit the jobs that I applied for. I would say that by the time I got to the negotiation phase for the job I ended up getting, my resume was not written in a way that allowed me to get everything that I could have potentially gotten. That was one lesson learned from the process. I wish I would have seen this videocast (http://videocast.nih.gov/Summary.asp?File=18452&bhcp=1) a few years ago when I was applying.

Once you made it through the first rounds, what was your interview like?
I had two panel interviews. My first interview was the senior staff of my particular branch and then the second was the senior staff across the office. The interviews were really good. I honestly think that once you get past the USAJob and HR-process, the interview isn’t that hard. The hardest parts are getting referred and getting an interview. Getting referred is very, very hard, but having a good federal resume helps.

Did you utilize your network in this job search?
I didn’t know anyone in the office directly. Contacts made through my detail helped because my current supervisor actually knows the person that I did my detail with and was familiar with her office’s work. He realized that the work in his office would be very similar and I think that was a key factor for getting an interview. That would have been post referral though, so I don’t know how I got referred.

What are the most important soft skills needed for your position?
There is a fair deal of networking and interpersonal skills necessary to be really successful. The type of work we do requires a lot of coordination so you have to nurture a lot of good will with the people you are reaching out to for information.

If you had to do your search differently, would you change anything?
Yes, I think I went into this entire process a little too naïve. I am still naïve about a lot of the different types of positions that are available at the NIH and I think I should have done much more of a thorough informational interview process to see what is out there.

I went to job fairs and events from OITE, but I never had a really good handle on what these job descriptions meant, especially when looking at USAJobs. Right now, I am in a great position because I get to interact with so many people, so I can have a better sense of what is out there. Honestly I don’t know how I could accomplish that as a postdoc. The only way I think I could have gotten this information would be through informational interviews with a bunch of people not knowing whether I would be interested in what they did or not.

There are a lot of different titles on USAJobs — Program Analyst, Health Science Analyst, Health Program Analyst, Health Program Administrator, etc. I spent a lot of time worrying about what each title meant and who would be a good fit for that position. I don’t know if there is a formula at the HR level that says how these roles are differentiated; my sense is that there is. If we had more information about that, it might empower postdocs to go out there and seek out people who are in the roles that they are most interested in.

Any last bits of advice?
NCI and NIH and all of the other Institutes are filled with former postdocs that somehow got out of the lab and they are so willing to help out other postdocs who are trying to do the same. So, by reaching out for informational interviews, you will find that there are many more receptive people than you might expect.  Also, end every informational interview with one question—“who else would you recommend I talk to?”—and keep the process moving.


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