Personal Statements: Your Portrait in 5,000 Characters or Less

October 20, 2014

Have you ever taken to the task of trying to put on paper what is special, unique, distinctive and impressive about you and your life story? Well, if you are applying to graduate and/or medical school, you soon will in the form of a personal statement.

Personal statements are a standard part of the application and they give you the chance to sell yourself to the admissions committee. Often times, you are given a somewhat general and vague prompt to tell the committee about yourself and how their program fits into your longer term career goals. This type of prompt gives you much more flexibility. Other applications, however, might ask you to answer a specific question, or they may even require that you answer three to four different types of questions in shorter essay forms. Here are some things to keep in mind as you draft any personal statement:

FOLLOW DIRECTIONS
If you are unclear about length requirements, then double check! Brevity is often preferred so make sure each line is clear and concise. Each school/program is a little bit different and it behooves you to make sure you are following the directions and answering the prompts perfectly for that specific program. This means tailoring each essay/answer for every school you are applying to!

CREATE YOUR NARRATIVE
How did you become interested in this field? What have you done to confirm this decision as your next step? Have you overcome any challenges or obstacles during this process? What skills/personal characteristics have been highlighted through your experiences?

Most people prefer to be told information through a story rather than reading a rote list of qualifications, so be sure to demonstrate your skills through concrete experiences in the form of anecdotes.

DON’T BE TOO PERSONAL
Sure, you are writing a personal statement but it shouldn’t be too personal, especially if you write about a topic that would make you uncomfortable to talk about in person. Writing about a topic alone at your laptop can be very different than speaking about that same topic in a room full of strangers (i.e., the admissions committee interview). Many times we see applicants who are shocked to be asked about something they wrote about in their personal statement. If you write about it, then be prepared to be asked follow up questions. Therefore, use your best judgment about your own comfort level, but remember to be judicious in what you share.

FIND YOUR ANGLE
First impressions exist on paper too! Your first paragraph is often the most important – you will either pull the reader in or bore them. Concentrate on making your first paragraph as strong as it can be. If a theme emerges that you can sustain throughout each paragraph, then great; however, don’t feel beholden to this either.

REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE
The person reading your document has most likely read hundreds of applications before yours. Applicants forget that faculty read these and are looking more for professionalism than cute stories. Try your best to avoid clichés that will make your personal statement blur together with the stack of other applicants. Clichéd statements such as, “I want to go to medical school because I like science and helping people,” are much too vague. Be as specific as you can – your reason for pursuing graduate/medical school should emerge as the logical conclusion from your detailed experiences.

GOOD GRAMMAR IS KEY
Remember basic writing tenets like using strong, active verbs and avoiding run-on sentences. It can be helpful to use spell check and to read aloud for errors like noun/verb agreement. Try to also avoid using colloquial language like “cool” too much. You want your personality to come out, but you also want to present the most polished, professional version of yourself that you can.

There isn’t one correct way to write a personal statement, especially since it should be representative of your personality, intellect and cumulative experience. For graduate school, you focus on a concise description of your past research experiences followed by a specific linking of how that relates to your interest in that specific program. The same is true for medical school, but you are highlighting a combination of both your research and clinical experiences. Take some time to be introspective during the drafting process, but be sure to seek advice and input from family, friends, colleagues, mentors and the OITE.

***
Some helpful videos to check out:

What Admissions Directors Think About Getting Into Graduate School:

Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=9685&bhcp=1

Writing Personal Statements for Professional School:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=11108&bhcp=1

Graduate School Overview:
http://videocast.nih.gov/summary.asp?Live=12745&bhcp=1


How to Talk to Your Mentor about a Career Change

October 13, 2014

Employment statistics today tell us that, though many of you start out your doctoral studies and postdoctoral training to pursue a career in academic research, the majority (the latest figure is about 70%) wind up in careers outside of academia. This change in focus may occur gradually over time or may be precipitated by a specific event and happen much more rapidly. This changing employment demographic means that a great number of you will need to sit down with your PIs or mentors to inform them of your new career path.

The prospect of this discussion can strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest trainees. As we discussed in last week’s post “Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development” this anxiety is often understandable. You need to tell someone who has built a successful career in academic research that you want to do something else, a path they didn’t choose. It is not uncommon that trainees view it as a failure; many feel that they are letting their mentor down. Trainees also worry that disclosing an alternate career path from academia will change the level of support they’ll receive from their mentor.

Often times, this is not the case and having an honest discussion about your career curiosities can actually enrich and help encourage a more meaningful discussion. Below are some suggestions that can facilitate the discussion and lead to a positive outcome.

Provide plenty of lead time

  • Plan to conduct the discussion when you begin the job search or at least while you are in the search process. You may be surprised; your mentor may have a contact or be able to help you in other ways.
  • Remember, most graduating PhD’s begin their search for a post-doc about a year before graduating. This time will help your PI find your replacement in the lab.

Develop a strategy

  • Your strategy should include your overall career objectives. This part of the plan will provide the rationale as to why this switch makes sense for you.
  • It should also include a transition plan detailing how your work can be transferred to others to keep things progressing in the lab.

Present your move as a positive

  • You have thought this through and think it is the best course of action for you. Take ownership of your decision – it represents an exciting career opportunity. It is not a Plan B or a failure.
  • The meeting is to ask for your mentor’s support of your decision, not his or her permission.

Reiterate the value you have received in this training

  • Explain how your association with this lab and this PI has enhanced your knowledge and experience. The skills and abilities you will need to draw on in your new career were developed during your time here.

“Success” is no longer defined as only “success in academia.” There is a big world out there with opportunities in any number of areas. When you find the opportunity for which you are best suited, you must pursue it even if that opportunity happens to be outside of academic research.


Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development?

October 6, 2014

The answer to this question in most instances is no; however this may seem to be the case if you are relying too heavily on your PI for this function. You must always remember, the person most responsible for your career development is the person who benefits most from it – you! Many trainees feel that their mentors are too busy and/or too important to “bother” them with their questions or thoughts. That shouldn’t be the case – they are there to help you learn and pass along their scientific knowledge to a new generation. While it can be difficult to approach your mentor to discuss career progression – and even harder to judge when this discussion is appropriate – this dialogue can be extremely helpful.

Your mentor likely has a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be very helpful as you prepare for your career. But, the rigors of the day-to-day functioning of the lab can sometimes delay or prevent career development discussions from occurring. In this case, it is certainly acceptable for you to request a meeting for this purpose. Below are some suggestions that may help as you think about this conversation:

Prepare thoroughly

  • Be able to articulate your strengths and weaknesses, short-term work goals and longer term career objectives.
  • Honestly assess your contribution to the lab. An accurate evaluation of your performance can build trust with your PI, and also allow you to point out contributions that you are making of which he or she may be unaware.

Identify areas in which your mentor can help you achieve your goals

  • This can also help facilitate the discussion by allowing your mentor to react to and comment on your assessments, and can avoid putting him or her on the spot.
  • Healthy discussion on this topic may identify additional areas of which you had not previously been aware.

Take care in scheduling the meeting

  • Remember, your mentor’s chief responsibility is for the success of the lab. Avoid scheduling around busy times and critical deadlines.
  • Potentially set it for non-working hours.

Be willing to engage in additional learning and development opportunities

  • This can be for the purpose of enhancing performance in your current position, preparing you for your career goals, or even both.

Even with preparation, making the initial request for the meeting can be daunting. A statement like (or an email), “I’d like to discuss my performance with you and get your input on my longer-term plans” can be effective. By approaching it in this manner, you are communicating to your mentor that you have thought about your career development and will not be relying solely on him/her on the topic.

This may sound like an intimidating challenge and you may be nervous for the first meeting. You will find that by using this approach, future meetings will become easier and more productive as you are able to build on past discussions. Next week, we will discuss in-depth how you can talk to your mentor about your career development, even if that means a career change.


Improving Your Writing Skills

September 29, 2014

Picture of a stick figure holding a big pen. Image courtesy of Microsoft Images.Employers almost always seek candidates with strong communication skills. In a world where much of our interactions are digital, written communication skills take precedence. Maybe you have always struggled with writing, or maybe you have to write in a language that is not your native tongue. Whatever the case may be, writing can be difficult for many. However, as it is a critical skill, it is important that you keep working to improve.

How can you improve your writing skills?

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice.

    The first answer is simple in theory, but not in practice. Writing is a skill. Like most other skills, it is perfected through committed practice. Most writing workshops and articles agree: write often. Additionally, it is important to measure your progress – word by word, sentence by sentence, and page by page. Set a manageable and measurable goal; for example, “I will write three pages of my dissertation each day.” 

    Perhaps you are no longer a student or writing is not a major task in your job description. Maybe you don’t feel like your daily responsibilities allow you to further hone your writing skills. If this is the case, it will be even more important for you to seek opportunities to do so. Volunteer to write articles for your institution’s newsletter or periodicals. Enroll in classes or workshops that will provide you with a structured time and place to work on your writing. The Writer’s Center is a local organization which focuses on in-person writing workshops in Bethesda. There are also many online writing workshops such as Gotham Writers, and don’t forget to take advantage of the educational world’s newest initiative – MOOCs. Many schools and programs offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) on a variety of topics. You can view the full schedule at: https://www.edx.org/ . UC Berkeley has a class in progress now which might be of particular interest: Principles of Written English, Part 1.

  1. The second answer is by asking for feedback/help.

    Some people struggle with sharing their writing with others, but remember that being able to receive constructive criticism is an important part of strengthening your writing skills. Most universities have school writing centers with trained tutors to help you out. At the NIH, you should check with your specific institute to see if they offer trainees scientific document-editing services. Also, career counselors at the OITE are available to help provide input on written documents like your cover letters or personal statements.

  2. Offer up your editing help.

    Editing other people’s work can help you do a better job of critiquing and improving your own work. It gives you insight into common mistakes, which you might be making yourself, and it helps to expand your vocabulary and your knowledge of different writing styles.

You never know when you might be called upon to write a grant application, a report, part of a press release, or even a perfectly crafted cover letter for a job application. Whatever the situation, strengthening your writing skills now will enable you to communicate with clarity and ease to a wide variety of future audiences.


Gender Bias in Letters of Recommendation

September 22, 2014

The time has arrived – you are in search of a new position! Besides getting your CV/resume in shape, working on those cover letters, and looking at position postings, you are also sending out requests for letters of recommendation. Hold that thought though – especially if you are a woman!

Research has uncovered “unintended gender bias in letters of recommendation.” A study by Trix and Psenka (2003) examined 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty positions and determined that recommenders unconsciously described candidates in stereotypically gendered ways:

  • Men were described as “successful” and “accomplished” and letters for male applicants contained more repetitions of superlatives such as “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
  • Women were described as “nurturing” and “compassionate” and letters for female applicants often include doubt raisers, statements like: “It appears that her health and personal life are stable.”

Letters for female applicants were shorter and lacked basic features like a description of the writer’s relationship with the applicant, comments on the applicant’s academic traits and achievements, and/or evaluative comments. Letters for males were more aligned with critical job requirements and used stronger language like “excellent research record” and “ability”. The language used was full of nuanced and hidden biases resulting in diminished support for female applicants. Even the descriptions of positive qualities portrayed men in their role as researchers and professionals, while women were portrayed as teachers. Adjectives used in female letters as a constructive description (e.g. ‘hardworking’, ‘conscientious’, ‘dependable’, ‘meticulous’, ‘thorough’, ‘diligent’, ‘dedicated’, and ‘careful’) often ended up having the reverse effect. In many ways it denoted a sentiment that she is hardworking because she has to compensate for lack of ability.

Letters of recommendation are critical to your career advancement. So, based on this report, it might not be a bad idea to give your advisor or mentor an overview of this research and follow up with a proposed checklist of your own. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  1. Use titles and surnames for both women and men.
  2. Discuss applicants only in terms of the job requirements (provide a detailed list to your advisor in advance).
  3. Limit discussions of personality and interpersonal skills to avoid hidden gender bias!
  4. Avoid mentioning stereotypically female traits or professions if they are not relevant to the job.

Generally, advisors aren’t intentionally biased when writing letters and you can’t fully control what is written; what you can control is how well you prepare your letter writer. Provide your advisor with a list of the job requirements and a list of the skills and achievements you want him/her to include in the letter. Alternatively, talk to your advisor about these possible pitfalls in letters of recommendation (show them the data!) and prime him/her to be more conscientious while writing yours!


Want to get ahead? Remember where you came from!

September 15, 2014

“Good luck and be sure to keep in touch!” This is a phrase we have all said and heard. How many of us actually take the time to do it? After all, we are busy and have things to do. However, failing to maintain your relationships with your current or past university professors and program administrators can limit your career growth. Whether you are a postbac, a graduate student or a postdoc, maintaining a network with your alma mater is essential for many reasons.

  • Letters of Recommendation – You will, at some point, need letters of recommendation. Whether for graduate or professional school applications or a job (yes, postdocs are real jobs), someone is going to need to write something about you that will make someone else want to hire/accept you. A good, strong letter takes time and effort for the reference to write. While you may have been the best undergraduate or graduate researcher they have ever had in their lab, if you haven’t kept up with them for over a year, their emotional investment in you has greatly diminished. They simply may no longer possess the necessary activation energy to invest in writing that great letter. Sending an email with an update on yourself and asking for an update on their research two to four times a year will do wonders to keep them invested in you and your future.
  • Mentors matter – The value of good mentors is unquestionable in a successful and satisfying career. It is important to have career mentors outside of your current work environment. A past research mentor can easily transition to a career mentor when you move on to your next professional experience. The relationship will certainly be different, but most likely in a good way.  Supervisors and professors from your universities are an invaluable resource. They have networks of peers and past trainees. They have wisdom from years in the field. They also have a vested interest in your success. However, the longer you go without contacting them, the lower their investment.
  • They know what you don’t know – This is especially true if you are a current graduate student doing your research at an institution that is not your home university. Many programs have very specific criteria and requirements for your qualifying exam, committees, dissertation format and defense. Your research mentor may not know these finer details if they are not directly connected to the school. Having a relationship with professors and administrators at your university will help you to get the information to fulfill the requirements to do what you are here to do – graduate.
  • Favoritism – Ok, so maybe “promotion” and “exposure” would be better word choices. The point remains that those trainees who keep in touch with their programs, professors and administrators are the ones who get invited back to speak at symposia or sit on discussion panels. They are the alumni that current students get referred to about careers and the ones who get highlighted on the alumni spotlight pages on the program web sites. Every time you get invited to speak or sit on a panel, it adds to your CV or resume. Every time you speak with a current student, your reputation as a mentor grows. Every web page you are spotlighted on is one more opportunity for that perfect job to find you, especially if you link to it from your LinkedIn profile.

So much of networking is not about meeting new people. It is about making sure that the people you already know have up to date information on you. For even more information on establishing and maintaining your network, visit the OITE YouTube channel.


International Opportunities in Science

September 8, 2014

An image of a globe with arrows shooting across connecting different people.Science seems to be one of the more international professions. Most research groups are made up of individuals from many countries. In the US, 60% of the postdoc population is foreign. An increasing number of US PhDs are also doing research abroad. How does this influence us as scientists and what are some pros and cons about a research career that incorporates international elements?

Pros:

  1. Research group members from other countries give all of us exposure to the world. It is a terrific way to begin understanding different traditions, cultures (and even food).
  2. Each of us brings a different perspective of how science is done and taught, giving the whole community a more diverse perspective and understanding.
  3. By dispersing scientists around the globe, scientific knowledge is also spread.

Cons:

  1. Having so many people with different ways of dealing with issues can lead to conflict. Being prepared will help you understand and communicate better; look at some cultural comparisons from Hofstede: http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html
  2. The biggest challenge can come from determining whether an international opportunity is the best next career step.

    Here are some questions that you will likely ask yourself:

    1. Should/could you stay in your current country, go to another country, or go to your country of origin?
    2. What career opportunities exist and what does it take to apply to those?
    3. How does this decision influence my long-term scientific career?
    4. How much funding is available for science in particular countries?
    5. Will immigration policies influence your decision?
    6. What would be best for your family?
    7. How do you continue to network to get information and opportunities?

Gathering much of the data to answer these questions can be done on the web. But sometimes you want to talk to someone. You can connect with the scientific attache for various embassies. Or you could come to the NIH International Expo on September 9th which the OITE and the NIH Visiting Fellows Committee is hosting. Meet country representatives, funding organizations, and others interested in promoting science across the globe. Come and join us!


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