Grad School Apps – Five Kisses of Death

November 12, 2014

If you are a prospective PhD student, you will probably be spending these next couple of weeks putting the finishing touches on your graduate school applications. With looming deadlines for fall admission, the majority of applications will be due in December or January.

Now might be a good time to read a research article from Teaching of Psychology (Appleby & Appleby, 2006). In this qualitative study, chairs of admissions committees were asked to provide detailed examples of “kisses of death” they had encountered when reviewing a candidate’s application materials. In this study, “kisses of death” were defined as “aberrant types of information that cause graduate admissions committees to reject otherwise strong applicants.” From these responses, Appleby and Appleby categorized their findings into five broad themes.

While this study specifically focused on psychology graduate programs, the results can be applicable to all types of graduate programs. The findings were interesting and can be important reminders for all applicants.

The five kisses of death in the graduate school application process are:

  1. Inappropriate Personal Statements
    Many falsely interpret a personal statement at face value and view this document as an opportunity to share personal and private information instead of addressing research interests and their perceived fit with the program. Rather than focusing on your personal characteristics and motives, the authors of study suggest focusing on your qualifications for graduate study and the professional activities and experiences that have prepared you for this next step.
  2. Damaging Letters of Recommendation
    First and foremost, make sure that your letter writer is an appropriate reference. If you seek recommendation letters from a family friend, minister, or other personal contact, this could potentially raise a red flag with the admissions committee. Make sure you choose professors and research mentors who not only know you very well, but also who you are sure will write positively about your qualifications. Don’t be shy about explicitly asking if the letter will be strong.
  3. Lack of Information About the Program
    The importance of researching the focus of each program cannot be overemphasized. Studying key research interests of current faculty is also crucial. Your application will not be successful if you use generic statements for each different school/program.
  4. Poor Writing Skills
    Sure, writing skills can be improved over time and with practice. However, if you are applying to graduate school, admissions committees expect your writing to be of a certain caliber already. Also, any type of spelling or grammatical error in your application is completely unacceptable. Proofread and ask others to read through your materials as well.
  1. Misfired Attempts to Impress
    Attempts to impress the admissions committee often go awry when they are seen as insincere (such as, complimenting the program in an excessive way); inappropriate (blaming others such as your undergraduate institution for your poor academic performance); and arrogant (touting family connections by name dropping).

Even intelligent, qualified and motivated applicants can make simple mistakes in their application. So, try your best to avoid these five pitfalls! If you want to read full article, it can be found here: Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 19-24.

Guide to Résumés and Curricula Vitae

November 7, 2014

Image of text on the Guide to Resumes and Curricula VitaeThere is often confusion about the differences between a résumé and a CV and when it is best to use each document. This confusion is often compounded by the fact that there is not a standard resume or CV template – your documents will (and should) look different than your lab mates.  While there aren’t formal rules to follow, there are certain expectations for each document.

Résumés and CVs continue to be extremely important documents for job seekers.

OITE has created a newly updated Guide to Résumés and Curricula Vitae

This guide is chock full of:

  • Recommendations and tips
  • Do’s and Don’ts
  • Accomplishment Memory Jogger Questions
  • Lists of transferable action verbs
  • Samples geared toward postbacs, graduate student and postdocs
  • Ideas on how you can create and/or update your own documents


For even more help, mark November 19th on your calendars!

Nov 19, 2014 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm

This workshop will highlight the critical elements and structure of scientific resumes. This important job document serves as the foundation for all job searches. We will discuss how to create a resume based on the employment sector and published position description.

Additional résumé and CV guidance can be found by making an appointment to discuss your documents with an OITE career counselor.

NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Scientific Program Manager

October 27, 2014

Name: Kristin Fabre

Job Title & Organization: Scientific Program Manager, NCATS

Location: NIH – Bethesda, Maryland

How long you’ve been in your current job: Two years

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Jim Mitchell; Radiation Biology Branch, NCI

What do you do as a Scientific Program Manager?
There are many different job descriptions for what program analysts or managers do, but my primary focus is managing the Tissue Chip for Drug Screening Program. This program aims to develop 3-D human tissue chips that accurately model the structure and function of human organs, such as the lung, liver and heart. This program, which is consortium-based, allows me to work together with about twenty different investigators along with several interagency government officials. So, we work with a lot of different members, including: other NIH Institutes and Centers, the FDA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The idea is to make sure that all of the scientific and administrative milestones are being met. We work to identify any resources needed to meet those milestones or hurdles to overcome. We disseminate information to the public about what this program does and talk to the investigators on a regular basis about the science. We provide feedback as to how the projects can be improved and how we can highlight their successes.

Can you tell me more about this program?
The Tissue Chip Program is a five year program which is using bioengineering to make these devices that essentially mimic the human environment. So, what you can do is put human cells into this scaffold and it will trick the cells into thinking they are actually in the human body. They start to behave and function as if they are in the human body. What we are hoping for and what this technology promises is that it would be a superior method to getting responses to drug toxicity and efficacy using these model systems rather than animals or your standard in vitro systems.

How do you communicate these findings to the public?
There are different ways – obviously giving presentations and sometimes we get an occasional media request. One common request is giving regular updates to NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins or Dr. Chris Austin, the Director of NCATS. We want to keep them updated on the progress so that they can highlight it to Congress and other NIH constituents, as well as the scientific community. We also work on updating websites, are currently making a Tissue Chip video and engaging with social media.

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

There are a few skills that are important. First is having a strong scientific background because even though I am not at the bench doing research, I am still talking and thinking about science and thinking about future programs and how we can further build on this technology and help our investigators. This scientific background knowledge is very important. Second would be to the ability to step out of your comfort zone and look at how you can improve the program and implementing changes by collaborating with the investigators and other government agencies. Strong communication skills are vital in this regard. Another skill that is really important is the ability to step away from very specific tasks or questions such as “What does this protein do?” or “What is this pathway?” and look at the 30,000 foot view. You want to be able to look at the general program as a whole and how you’d want to move it forward.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I really enjoy working directly with investigators and talking about the science. It is really exciting when we have a really big challenge and we do it as a consortium, which is really hard to do. We have about 200+ people in the consortium, so getting all of these project teams to be on the same page can be a daunting task, but when it really comes together, it is very rewarding.

Another one of my other favorite things is talking about the program. I love going places and talking about what this program does and what it means and what opportunities we might have for collaboration.

What has been the hardest challenge about transitioning into this career?
The biggest challenge would be learning the ropes of how extramural works. There have been a lot of things which I had to learn on the fly. My background was radiation biology and with this program, you really have to be a jack of all trades. You need to know a little bit about physiology, all ten major organ systems, bioengineering, stem cell technology, and induced pluripotent stem cell technology. I do have a working team. I have forty people across the NIH that are on my project team and can provide me with that expertise. Even so, it still is a lot of learning different concepts and different research fields beyond my expertise in radiation biology.

Additionally, understanding how extramural processes work has been a challenge because as a postdoc, I was just so used to being at the bench and working on my experiments. Coming out of that environment and learning how the whole grant process works and how we work with grants management and scientific review can be challenging, but these are all things you have to catch up on fairly rapidly once you get into managing a program.

What was your job search like?
It can be really difficult if you are interested in moving into program or science review work or any kind of extramural activity, especially when all you’ve known is bench and intramural work. Therefore, it is really important to develop skills outside of the lab which OITE was really helpful with as was the NCI FYI Steering Committee. It was important to get those skill sets through different activities. I spent a lot of time when I was job searching looking at jobs that I might be qualified for; however, how I actually got this job was through a contact I made when I chaired a committee. I was a chair for designing and developing career fairs and annual colloquiums but also for the steering committee. From that experience, I knew a couple of recruiters from contracting companies, such as Kelly and SAIC. When I started heavily looking for jobs, I would go to but I would also talk to people I had worked with. Through my work on the steering committee and organizing the career fair, I worked with a Kelly recruiter who actually got to see me in action and ultimately that is how I got this position, in addition to my experience!

How did you come to choose this as your next step?
It was a lot of soul searching, but ultimately what it boiled down to was asking myself, “What am I really good at?” and “What am I happy doing?”

When I was a graduate student or even a postdoc at the bench, I tried to think of the things that I was most excited about. One would be presenting and talking about science and big ideas while working with people. I realized I actually didn’t like doing the experiments but I wanted to look at the data and see what that meant and how we could move forward. I liked interacting, making connections, troubleshooting and building stronger programs. So, once I realized what I enjoyed and where I excelled, I then started looking for careers which incorporated those skills as a major component to them. I looked at science policy and global health, but ultimately program work really encompassed everything that I felt passionate about.

Any last bits of advice? If a trainee is reading this and is hoping to follow a similar path, what would you recommend?
I would recommend that they do some soul searching to figure out what they are happiest doing and what their strong or weak skills are and find a job that fits around that. Take some time to develop those skills even further outside of the lab so that you can put that on your resume and reach out and network.

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:

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

Writing Personal Statements for Professional School:

Graduate School Overview:

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: . 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.


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