Your Future Interviews: Gaffes v. Glory

February 24, 2010

I’m sure we all have them….our favorite bad interview stories. They may be our own, they may belong to someone else, but interview mistakes can be a blast to share around the snack machine or over lunch. My current favorite (and true) story is of a man who told someone at the organization where he was interviewing that someone else at the organization was “really annoying.” Ouch!

So how can you guard against becoming a cautionary tale for others? I once put a question regarding interview gaffes to employers attending a PhD Career Fair–what, in their view, was the biggest mistake interviewees tend to make? The biggest mistake, according to these employers, is not knowing much about the organization with whom one is interviewing. Candidates who spend time researching an organization in preparation for an interview will inevitably fare better than candidates who do not.

Thoughts to consider when preparing for an academic interview:

  • Research the college or university and the department

Has the department and/or university received a substantial grant recently that might dovetail nicely with your research? What research facilities are available on campus or nearby? How many faculty members are currently working in the department?

  • Understand the student population

Does the student population consist primarily of commuters? What is the percentage of international students? If you are interviewing with a community college, where do students typically go at the end of their studies?

  • Read through the courses offered

Which courses might you be responsible for teaching? How many students typically enroll in each class? What course could you potentially offer that might be a welcome addition to current course offerings?

  • Familiarize yourself with the interests of faculty in the department

What are the primary research areas of the current faculty? How might your work complement their research? What opportunities for collaboration exist between you and other faculty members?

Here are some ideas for those interviewing for jobs in industry:

  • Research the products and/or services provided by the organization

What drugs do they currently have on the market? Are there others in trials? Have they been growing or focusing their research efforts in a particular area?

  • Learn about the outlook for the industry in general

What’s hot right now in this field? Who’s failing? Who’s succeeding? Who are the organization’s chief competitors?

  • Educate yourself about the organization’s history and culture

What is the mission of the organization? Does it have a global strategy? How old/new/big/small is it? What are the backgrounds of the chief investigators/executives, etc.? If the organization is a start-up, where does it stand in terms of funding? Has the organization been in the news lately?

To find answers to these questions, you might try the following:

Preparation is key, and if you have done your homework, chances are you will feel more relaxed and confident going into the interview.

P.S. Send along your favorite interviewing stories, good or bad (with names omitted and details changed), and I’ll post your comments to give us all a smile—and to remind us how important it is to prepare. 🙂

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Trouble at Work? Put on a Happy Face

February 19, 2010

After months of careful preparation, your experiment failed. You recently received negative feedback from your PI. Your submission to a prestigious journal was rejected. You work alone most of the time and feel isolated from the rest of your floor, department, or Institute. On a broader scale, you might be nervous about finding a job in this market. You might feel you don’t have much to offer an employer and think that you will be unsuccessful in finding meaningful work.

How can you overcome negative feelings about your work? As suggested in a recent article entitled, “Thinking Happy Thoughts at Work Exit Disclaimer,” you have the power to change your mood and increase your happiness.

In this piece, columnist Sue Shellenbarger describes the impact that happiness coaching is having in the workplace. A relatively recent phenomenon and an application of positive psychology, happiness coaching encourages us to take responsibility for our moods and to express a more positive attitude at work. Some hands-on examples you can use to take a more positive approach to work are:

  • Write e-mails to your co-workers thanking them for something they have done.
  • Meditate daily to clear your mind.
  • Do something for somebody without expecting anything in return.
  • Write in a journal about things you are thankful for.
  • Look for characteristics you admire in people and compliment them.
  • Focus on the process of your work, which you can control, rather than outcomes, which you can’t.

While skeptics have questioned the effectiveness of happiness coaching, the author shares recent research that demonstrates what a powerful impact purposeful happiness, or “learned optimism” (Seligman, 2006) can have at work. One significant outcome that might interest scientists is an increase in creativity and innovation experienced by those who focus on having a positive attitude at work.

If you have been feeling negative about your work, explore one of the better-known books in positive psychology research, many of which include self-tests and exercises to assist you with increasing your happiness at work and in life. Some of the following titles are available for check-out from the OITE Library in Building 2:

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Martin E. P. Seligman, 2004.

Even Happier: A Gratitude Journal for Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, Tal Ben-Shahar, 2010

Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, Tal Ben-Shahar, 2007 (based on most popular course at Harvard University, Positive Psychology)

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Martin E. P. Seligman, 2006.


Resumes and CVs: Tailor Made

February 9, 2010

While I have been in career services for over a decade, I still begin each new job search with the same step: I read the job description. Wow–what incredible advice! Good thing you signed up for this feed!

This may not especially novel advice, but job descriptions often contain precisely the information you need to set yourself apart from other applicants. Knowledge, skills, and abilities required, experiences or techniques preferred, and other information in the description should be used to demonstrate that you are a viable candidate.

Take this excerpt from a science education job posted recently on usajobs.govExit Disclaimer :

Science Coordinator, National Park Service, Acadia National Park (ME)

Major Duties:

  • Create new science partnerships
  • Maintain a research program (within the incumbent’s science discipline), in collaboration with academic colleagues and others
  • Administer grant and cooperative research programs
  • Facilitate the translation and communication of scientific research results for program participants, employees, neighbors, visitors, and conservation partner organizations

The description includes more detailed information, but this list represents some of the basic duties required. Can you translate work that you’ve done in your degree program or postdoc using the language above? You might be able to demonstrate that you’ve done similar work in the past. While this process may seem fairly straightforward, including language tailored to the job on your resume or CV may determine whether you are invited to interview or not.

One last note on tailoring your job search documents: experiences that demonstrate your ability to do a particular job need not be paid experiences. For example, you may currently serve on a Visiting Fellows committee. How can you translate this experience to persuade an employer that you qualify for a certain position? I would encourage you to go through this exercise each time you apply for a job.

Happy tailoring!


Meet OITE – Dr. Higgins

February 3, 2010

From time to time, I will introduce members of the staff within the NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE). The first of the “Meet OITE” series highlights the background and accomplishments of William J. (Bill) Higgins, faculty member at the University of Maryland and a pre-professional advisor for OITE.

William J. (Bill) Higgins

After receiving a B.S. in Biology from Boston College and a Ph. D. from Florida State, I arrived at Maryland as faculty member at the University of Maryland in Zoology (now Biology) in August of 1973. Now older than dirt but with years of experience teaching and advising pre-professional and pre-graduate students, I spend some time in OITE assisting post-bac and post-doc clients achieve their professional goals. I still maintain a full schedule as a faculty member at Maryland, am a dedicated Terp fan, consider golf as a major religion, and will never understand why anyone would ever leave academia for a real job. I live on the shores of the South River in Edgewater with my wife, Wendy, and hope that my five sons and seven grandchildren only call with good news.

Dr. Higgins’ websiteExit Disclaimer


Networking….or Not Working

February 2, 2010

Last Thursday evening, I gave a talk to university students who are entering the job market this spring. Many of the students expressed anxiety about this market, given recent unemployment statistics. To assist these students in strengthening their prospects, I shared the same strategy I share with every candidate: network, network, network!

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but have you applied it to your own job search? Whether you are looking for a position in drug discovery, science writing, or student services on a university campus, building up a network of contacts in your field of interest in crucial.

Once we began discussing networking, the students at my talk shared the frustration of “not knowing anyone,” a sentiment I have heard more often than any other in my counseling career. For these students, as well as all students and postdocs trying to build a network, I suggested connecting with a professional association in a field of interest.

To illustrate this point, I described the situation of a research fellow who wanted to establish a career in science writing but had no contacts in that field. I encouraged her to connect with the National Association of Science Writers (www.nasw.org), and through this group, she found a local editor willing to mentor her and critique her freelance submissions.

Members of professional associations can be relatively easy people to approach, as they are typically satisfied with their work and are glad to help others interested in their field.  To build your own network, simply search for “association” and the name of a career field or occupation in Google (ex: association science writers), and you will see results emerge. If not, try using a different keyword in your search, like “society.” From a professional association’s website, click on either “Local chapters” and/or “Board of Directors.” Whether you find a local contact or the President or VP of a national organization, send an introductory email to establish contact. Chances are good that members of a society (and in particular its board members) will be delighted to speak with someone interested in their field, as it is ultimately the role of professional societies to grow their profession. Once you connect via email, set up a time to talk by phone or in person to investigate the best ways to conduct a job search in that field. And if at first you don’t succeed, try contacting someone else from the organization’s website.

Remember, people are still being hired every day, and it is likely that the most successful candidates have strong contacts in their field of choice.  Contact someone today to build, or add to, your personal network.


Greetings from the author

February 2, 2010

Hello, and welcome once again to the OITE Careers Blog!  My name is Melanie Sinche, and I will serve as this blog’s primary author. Future authors may include Dr. Sharon Milgram, Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE), Dr. Patricia Sokolove, Deputy Director of OITE, and others.

Before I start posting on career-related topics, I wanted to share my background with you. I am a certified career counselor, consultant, and speaker who has given presentations and training sessions to colleges and universities, government agencies, professional associations, and non-profit organizations across the country. I currently serve as a writer, consultant, and career counselor for all NIH trainees as a member of OITE.

Prior to this position, I worked for three years as a career counselor and speaker to individuals and Chambers of Commerce in Connecticut via the Center for Professional Development (CPD) at the University of Hartford. In addition to presenting on career-related topics, I have also offered presentations on collaborating and communicating effectively with multiple generations in the workplace.

Before joining CPD, I served as Founding Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). In this role, I provided individual counseling sessions and group seminars on career-related issues for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. I also worked with faculty to build training programs on effective mentoring. Prior to this, I worked with graduate students as Assistant Director of University Career Services at UNC. I have also served as a recruiter for a diversity recruiting firm and am still active in several biomedical sciences programs across the country to promote diversity in science.

I have a Bachelor’s degree from Colgate University and a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan. More recently, I completed a second graduate degree in counseling at North Carolina State University and earned the National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential.

I look forward to sharing my knowledge and expertise with you on a variety of topics related to careers in science. I will also be sharing information about OITE’s programs and staff with you. If there is a topic you would like to hear more about, please post a comment and I will respond! All the best to you in finding a satisfying career.