MCAT Meltdown – Dealing with Test Anxiety

April 1, 2015

Image of a boy with sitting at a desk with a test in front of him. He has his hand clasped to his face and a furrowed brow.Testing for the new MCAT begins this month, on April 17th to be exact. Testing will go through September. You can see the full 2015 testing calendar here.

If you are a registered test taker, you have undoubtedly been spending a good portion of your time studying and preparing. For many test takers, the hours spent not studying are consumed by another activity – worry.

Many people experience nervousness in preparation for an exam and especially on test day. Surprisingly, moderate levels of stress can actually be helpful. In preparation for the exam, it can help motivate you to study. On test day, you can get a boost of adrenaline which can actually help you feel more mentally alert and can help you perform better.

Problems arise though when this fear becomes excessive and debilitating. Like more general forms of anxiety, test anxiety is categorized as a psychological condition. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test anxiety can cause emotional symptoms (fear & anger) as well as physical symptoms like nausea, headache, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and a shortness of breath. These physical symptoms can trigger a panic attack. The behavioral/cognitive symptoms that arise from test anxiety often include negative thoughts and a difficulty concentrating.

If you know you are prone to anxiety, especially test anxiety, then you will need to adopt coping mechanisms to help you throughout your MCAT experience. Use your own tried and true methods, while keeping these tips in mind.

Managing anxiety DURING TEST PREPARATION:

  • Maintain a balanced schedule – Study and prepare but don’t spend all of your time focusing on the MCAT as it will only serve to stress you out even more.
  • Keep healthy – Eat right, exercise and get plenty of sleep. It will be more difficult to combat stress and anxiety if you are overtired and sick.
  • Look at the big picture – Your entire self-worth is not dependent on this one exam and if it doesn’t go well, you will have other chances. Putting undue pressure on the situation will only create more stress.
  • It matters what you tell yourself – Instead of saying “I’m nervous,” say “I’m excited.” This can help transform some of the anxiety and in reality, you are excited because taking this test is moving you forward to where you want to go.
  • Practice relaxation techniques – Dr. Andrew Weil swears by a breathing technique which has been described as a natural tranquilizer. Try 4-7-8. Breathe in for four counts, hold for seven counts and the release the breath with your mouth open and hold the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth for eight counts. Repeat this three times.

Managing anxiety ON TEST DAY:

  • Utilize relaxation techniques – It’s time to use the techniques you practiced! Take calming deep breaths and say to yourself “All shall be well. All matters of things shall be well.” Research on meditation has shown that the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain in charge of abstract thinking and critical analysis, responds to positive slogans, exercise and mindfulness.
  • Take a pause – If you begin to panic on test day, then allow yourself a quick break and to breathe and regroup.
  • Focus on you – Test anxiety often comes from dysfunctional cognitive-behavioral patterns, like comparing yourself to others. Do your best to concentrate on YOU!

If you have strategies for managing test anxiety, please comment below!


What Are My Transferable Skills?

March 23, 2015

Image of a stick figure with a question mark over head with different colored arrows pointing in different directions.Whether you are seeking a career in academia, industry, government or the non-profit sector, it is important to communicate your skills to employers. There are skills that almost every employer seeks no matter the sector. These often include: analytical, writing, leadership, communication and problem solving skills. Your work as a trainee has given you many opportunities to develop these skills. As emphasized in a Science Careers article, “The Transferable Postdoc,” don’t underestimate these abilities.

You can identify skills that you have already developed which will transfer to your next professional position. If you think about examples that show when you used these skills, you will be more confident about presenting these skills to potential employers.

In a training position, you may have strengthened your skills in a variety of ways. A postdoc experience is deconstructed as an example in the chart below:

Transferable Skill
Application of Skill
Analytical and
Problem-Solving Skills
Designing, planning and trouble-shooting projects
 Writing Skills Writing memos, reports and
papers for publication
 Public Speaking   Skills  Presenting your work in a lab
meeting or at a professional conference
 Communication Skills  Negotiating how to carry out projects/experiments with your
PI and/or colleagues
 Leadership Skills  Mentoring postbacs, graduate
students and other lab technicians

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has determined six core competencies and they even created a self-assessment checklist to help you rate your current level. This can help you identify any gaps in your skills set. If you haven’t yet taken time to focus on some of these skill areas, particularly the communication and leadership skills, you can find opportunities now to get involved. Organizations like Felcom, your professional associations and NIH Institutes or Centers can provide good opportunities to develop skills.

• Volunteer to work on a committee or group to plan an event or program.
• Volunteer to mentor postbacs or summer students.
• (Professional Development) workshops and events also provide ways to strengthen skills or learn new ones. At the NIH, the OITE offers workshop on topics that include: teaching science, leadership, how to deal with conflict and many others. Check with your institutions to see what services they provide.

There are many other resources available to help you identify your strengths and skills. Start with myIDP*, http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/. This assessment tool will get you started thinking about skills interests and values, and can help you start planning your next career step with more confidence.

As a follow up, then meet with a career counselor, who can help you with goal setting and career planning as well. If you are an intramural trainee, you can make a free individual appointment with a career counselor by going to: https://www.training.nih.gov/career_services.

 

*Noting this resource does not constitute an endorsement by NIH OITE


You Didn’t Get Into Medical School – Now What?

March 15, 2015

Image of four circles in a square. The top two have a green check and green X mark. The bottom two have a red check and red X mark.First, take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone. According to the AAMC, there were over 48,000 medical school applicants in 2013. From that pool of applicants, less than half of them (20,055) matriculated into their first year of medical school.

Secondly, be heartened by recent reports like the one just released in March 2015, “The Complexities of Physician Supply and Demand: Projections from 2013 to 2025.” The conclusion of this study suggests “that demand for physician services is growing faster than physician supply and that by 2025 demand will exceed supply by 46,100 to 90,400 physicians.” Presumably, this also means that medical schools will continue to add spots in their programs to help meet the demand for future physicians. Not only will the demand for physicians grow, but so too will the demand for other health-care related positions like nurses or physician assistants.

If you are really interested in helping people in a medical setting, then there are lots of career possibilities. Don’t let one rejection get you down for too long; however, it is likely that you are asking yourself what you should do now. Should you apply again? If you are willing to tackle the application time and cost yet again, then here are a few other things to consider:

  • What were the true deficits in your application? Can these be remedied by the next deadline?
    The other applicants aren’t going to be less competitive next year, so you must take ownership of this process in order to improve your application. That means that there must be a marked improvement in: MCAT score, clinical hours, new publications or awards, or an increase in your science GPA. These can be difficult areas to quickly improve in a year’s time, even though it can be done with dedication and focus.  However, if some of your mistakes included applying late in the cycle, having a poor personal statement, or bombing an interview, then you can take steps to help overcome these challenges more quickly and easily.

  • Did you overlook schools/programs that could be a good fit?
    Make sure you have a realistic understanding of your credentials versus the admissions requirements at various medical schools. Sure, it would be wonderful to be admitted to you first choice school, but it is important to honestly assess these chances. Perhaps during the first round of applications, you ignored osteopathic schools or you didn’t even consider other medical routes like becoming a nurse, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. Take some time to reflect on all of your options and open up your mind to the possibilities.

Whether you need help handling the stress and anxiety of this process, talking through your options, or better understanding the medical school application process, then come into the OITE*. Here, you can meet with wellness counselors, career counselors or medical school advisors to help you during your next step planning.

 

* OITE services are only available to NIH intramural trainees. If you are at a university, check with your school for the resources they offer.


Yawnfest: Don’t Be a Boring Interviewee

March 11, 2015

Post written by Amanda Dumsch, Career Counselor at OITE.An image of a big yellow smiley face yawning.

After graduate school, I applied for a job I really wanted. In preparation, I did everything I was supposed to – I extensively researched the department and I practiced interview questions at length. On the day of the interview, I was nervous; however, by the end of the day, I was relieved I hadn’t been asked any unexpected questions. A week later, I got a call that I hadn’t gotten the job. I was very disappointed, but again, I did what I supposed to and I asked for feedback.

Here is the feedback I received: “You came across as professionally competent, but at the end of the day, none of us got a sense for your personality and what you would be like to work with day in and day out.” While hard to hear, I realized this was true. I had become so worried about answering all of the questions perfectly, that I forgot to smile, relax, and connect with the interviewers.  I share this story because it is a good reminder. When you get called in for an interview, they already think you are professionally qualified. Much of the time, the interview is to test your personal fit with the team; it is also a chance for you to demonstrate your enthusiasm for the position.

Interviews are anxiety provoking though. As it happened to me, your nerves can get the best of you making you come across as serious and somewhat robotic. So, how can you be memorable during your interview and not bore your interviewers to tears?

Don’t be afraid to show your personality

In an interview, the easiest way to accomplish this is by answering questions with anecdotes. People don’t tend to remember facts and figures, they remember stories. Create your personal narrative for them by walking them through your past experiences, especially your accomplishments.

Demonstrate enthusiasm
Positive energy is infectious, but don’t go overboard. Simply remembering to smile and explicitly state your excitement about this opportunity can go a long way. Employers will be excited about individuals who genuinely seem passionate about their organization and motivated by their work.

Stand out for the right reasons
Interviewers will positively remember candidates who came across as professional, pleasant and prepared. Sometimes the best way to stand out is not only by answering the interview questions in stride but by asking them great questions as well. It is important to remember that you are interviewing them as well. Some good questions to ask include: How would you describe the work environment and company culture? Generally, how is performance measured? How did you choose to work at this organization? In your opinion, what are some of the strengths and challenges in your work? What types of opportunities, for career advancement or professional development, might open up?

Nobody expects you to be perfect in your interview, so take a deep breath, do some power poses, and most importantly be yourself!


Culture Shock – Adjusting to a New Culture, a New City, a New Lab

March 6, 2015

Image of a globe with flags of different countries around it.In 2013, international fellows came to the NIH from 93 countries; if you just relocated to the NIH from abroad, it can be a challenge to adjust to a new culture, new city, and a new lab.

Many international fellows can experience culture shock, but each person will respond to a new culture differently. Every new trainee at the NIH will experience a transition period to their new environment and some may find they adjust easily; however, others struggle to acclimate. Once the initial luster of being in a new place wears off, individuals can find themselves feeling increasingly irritated by their new setting. Many also report feeling very isolated.

At times, individuals can feel lost or not sure about what to do in various situations. In an article in Science Careers entitled “International Scholars: Suffering in Silence,” one postdoc noted that adjusting to the new cultural norms was the hardest part. For example, it took a year before she felt comfortable calling her PI by her first name; this lack of formality wasn’t commonplace in her home country.

Many trainees, no matter where they are from, hesitate to ask for help adjusting to a new setting. They often feel responsible for figuring things out on their own. If they run into a roadblock, they don’t naturally think of finding a resource which only increases their isolation. Maybe your graduate school did not have many resources to help with career or interpersonal concerns. Fortunately, the NIH has many services to help you:

The NIH Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE)

  • Look for Upcoming Events
    Orientation, Career and Professional Development Workshops and English/Cultural resources are regularly offered. Become active on campus in order to help you not only meet more people but also to become acclimated to the NIH campus culture. https://www.training.nih.gov/events/upcoming
  • Join an OITE Listserv
    Joining and regularly reading these email will make sure you get up-to-date information about training events and career development activities that are taking place. https://www.training.nih.gov/listservs

The Division of International Services

  • The Division of International Services provides immigration-related services to theNational Institutes of Health for visiting foreign scientists and the NIH research community. http://dis.ors.od.nih.gov/index.html

The NIH boasts a very diverse work environment, so remember that you are not alone. Give yourself time to adjust to your new place. In dealing with culture shock, it is important to remember to keep an open mind and try to maintain a positive attitude. Adapting to cultural differences does take time, so be patient during this adjustment; however, it is extremely important to take ownership of this time. It will help immensely if you make an effort to get involved and connect with your new community around you.

International Fellows – What helped you adjust to life in a new place? What resources did you take advantage of to help learn English? Let us know by commenting below!


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Program Specialist

February 23, 2015

Name: Becky Roof, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Program Specialist, NINDS

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. David Sibley, NINDS (from 2008-2012)

How long you’ve been in your current job: I’ve been in my current position a little over two years; however, I also spent six months here on a detail. I was in the same office but working for a different program.

How did you find this detail?
I did a google search for offices that were doing cool things and I contacted people. A lot of people ignored me but one person responded and then I interviewed for a detail. I had been frustrated at the time because I had been trying to get a job through USAJobs and I felt like I had useful transferable skills but I couldn’t say that I had actually done the stuff that I wanted to do.

How did your detail turn into a full-time/permanent position?
I ended up doing a full-time detail in the office for six months and then when a position opened up in the office, I was able to say that I had done that work, so I was able to get through the USAJobs process when I applied.

What do you do as a Program Specialist?
I work in the Office of Translational Research in NINDS. I work in two programs that give grants to researchers looking to translate their basic science findings into something that will benefit patients with neurological disorders. One program that I work with is called IGNITE, which is very new. It stands for Innovative Grants to Nurture Initial Translational Efforts. It is an early stage program to help people get ready for later-stage translational programs which we already have up and running in our office. And the second program is the Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR program. This is a congressionally mandated program that spans eleven federal agencies.

The role of program in this is writing the funding opportunities, advising the applicants, and making funding recommendations to council based primarily on review comments. I help with moving grants through that process. I also help with things like workshops, websites, twitter, managing the budget, and doing analyses.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
I’m going to break this up into two different categories because I remember being a postdoc and trying to think about what skills I had that were transferable and what skills I needed to develop.

One thing I do a lot of which I didn’t do much of in the lab is working as a team. Everything I do is very dependent on other people and they depend on me a lot more than when I was in the lab. Everything is done as a committee and everything is decided as a group. There are a lot of interpersonal skills and teamwork that I do now that I didn’t do much of in the lab.

Another thing that I do a lot of now, which I didn’t do much of before is juggling a lot of different tasks. Before, in an interview, I would say, “Sure, I can multitask because I can run two different experiments at a time.” Now, I have way more balls in the air than I did before and that was something that I had to learn.

Some of the things that I do now which are very transferable from what I did in the lab include: analysis, critical thinking, and being able to work in a very detail-oriented but also big picture way. Right now, I manage budgets and I move grants through the process and that is all very detail-oriented and you really can’t let anything fall through the cracks. However, I also do a lot of big picture thinking. For example I helped with the planning of a whole new program. Another example is thinking about how to best do outreach or to help grantees continue to succeed after their grant is done. There are a lot of big issues, which is really fun. It is also something that I did in the lab. I had to plan these individual experiments while thinking about how this fits into the big picture.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
It’s very challenging, but there are some really cool things. It is really cool to see a very broad view of science. In the lab, I was very focused on one receptor but now there are hundreds of diseases within the mission of NINDS and I see grants looking at a range from drug development to diagnostics to devices — all kinds of things. It is a really diverse portfolio and it is really cool to see a very broad view of neuroscience. It’s also really cool that I feel like we can shape the landscape of science. When we put out a new funding opportunity announcement, it can encourage scientists to go in a new direction. In that way, we can shape the field in a much broader way than when I was in the lab. I also really like supporting science; if somebody that we supported succeeds, I can feel proud that, in some small way, I helped make that happen. I will never be in the spotlight for the discovery but I had some role to play in bringing that to patients and that is exciting to me.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career? What are some of the challenges you face?
Oh, it is an extremely different environment. It was a hard transition. It’s drinking from the fire hose here. The whole grant process is very complicated and there are a lot of details that you can’t drop. It’s just a very different world. Learning how government works was different as well; for example, trying to set up a workshop can require HHS approval, which can take twelve months. Learning the limitations of what can and can’t be done and then looking for creative ways to work within the system is challenging. There are just many things that you have to learn. Plus, you are working with so many other people and you aren’t just doing your own thing.

Being on detail was also a struggle for me in that it is a temporary assignment – you only have a three month MOU and my job back in the lab was gone. That was a struggle because I didn’t have a lot of stability at that time.

How did you come to choose this as your next step, including the process of deciding to pursue a detail?
Well, it was kick started when my mentor was running out of money for me, which I think happens to a lot of postdocs. I followed the advice of your office and even though I am an introvert by nature, I contacted a lot of people and did a lot of informational interviews to learn about a lot of different kinds of jobs. I talked to people in government but I also talked to people in nonprofits. At NIH, I talked to people in review and in program. After hearing about a lot of different things, I decided that program work sounded really exciting. Once I made that decision, then I started the process of applying to jobs and like I mentioned that didn’t work out and I eventually started looking for the detail.

Any last bits of advice?
I was pretty shy about talking to people I didn’t know, like a friend of a friend or a complete stranger for an informational interview. I really hesitated to do it, but your office suggested that I do it and so I did. And, it really made all the difference. That is really how I found out what I wanted to do and it is how I got the detail. My best advice is to not be shy about doing that.


Answering the Weakness Interview Question

February 14, 2015

Picture of a notebook and pen with a running list of four strenghts and zero weaknesses.The question which often stirs the most dread in interviewees: “What is your greatest weakness?”   Interviewers may also ask it in other ways like: “Tell me about some of your areas for professional development and growth.” or “What are three weaknesses you have in relation to this job description?” or “If I were to speak to your previous supervisor, what would they say you needed to work on?”

No matter how it is phrased, you need to be prepared with a response. Many times this question is asked simply to evaluate your preparedness for the interview itself. Like everything else, there is often not one “right” or “wrong” way to answer this question, but here are some things to keep in mind.

Turning a negative into a positive can backfire.
This is the way you are supposed to answer this question, right? Say something negative that is actually a positive. We hear these answers all the time. Some examples include:

  • I tend to be a perfectionist.
  • Sometimes I work too hard and push myself too much.
  • I have extremely high standards for myself and others.

Sorry if you are reading this and genuinely identifying with these statements because you’ll have to come up with other weaknesses to share. Statements like these often come off as contrived and disingenuous.

Turning a negative into a positive can work – if done correctly!
This tactic can work if you focus on a specific skill that you are trying to improve. Important note: make sure the skill is not a critical one for the job at hand. A good formula to follow would be, “I realized my presentation skills needed some work and since it is not a major part of my current job, I sought other opportunities like joining Toastmasters and asking my supervisor for more feedback on my presentations.”

Being genuine doesn’t mean you have to be too honest.
Authenticity is the key to a good interview. You’ll want to be yourself and see if you are a genuinely a good fit for the position. It goes without saying that you should be honest at every step of the application process – interview included, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be strategic. It is sometimes shocking what an interviewee will reveal if they are feeling stressed and unprepared for the question. Individuals will offer up deal breakers like being “quick tempered” or “always late to everything.” You might laugh but these are real examples and they will raise real red flags.

Don’t shut down during the answer.
Some individuals will take way too long to answer the question and then finally assert that they can’t think of a single weakness. Well, we just discovered a couple for you – a lack of self-awareness and a lack of preparation for this interview!

Take some time and prepare for the question as best as you can. Doing an honest self-assessment about what you would feel comfortable revealing will help you on interview day. If you need help practicing, come into OITE for a mock interview.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 513 other followers