Understanding the Impact of Change

May 27, 2014

Part One of a Two-Part Series on Transitions

Almost everyone struggles with transitions – even positive changes can create stress. Transitions can really be anything, from needing to make a decision to struggling with a new job, new city, new culture, or adjusting to a new life event like marriage, the birth of a child, divorce, death in the family, etc. Psychologists have developed a theory that shows how we respond to transition follows two main paths but ultimately, each person goes through similar phases when rebounding from the feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy often created from a transition.

In today’s world, people tend to have more jobs over the span of their career, thus more times of transition. While work is only one aspect of a person’s total life experience, it is playing an increasingly primary role because we often work longer hours and technology allows for a greater connectivity to work and the associated stressors.

The model below details the common phases and features of a transition cycle, which accounts for both positive and a negative life events. Click on the image to enlarge.*

Model outlining the cylce of transition theory along a continuum of life events and well-being


Let’s look at this figure in relation to someone who has just made a decision to pursue a non-faculty career path. Usually, they have one of two initial responses:

1. They are excited to choose a path that fits them. Maybe they have met with a career counselor and the new option is exciting and they feel good about their career move.
2. Perhaps this person has realized that a faculty position will not work out, and they feel numbness and disbelief that their intended career path may not be obtainable.

Then as time goes on, both paths coalesce since making the move to a new career path can be uncertain (are you really sure you do not want that faculty job?) and confusing (there are so many career options, how do I choose?) which causes you to lack confidence that you will ever get a position. At some point you may hit a crisis—and the big question is how will you enter the reconstruction and recovery phase (and what support will you need).

With this example in mind, how then can you find a practical application for transition theory in your own life, particularly your career path?

We invite you to take a moment to consider your own transitions within your career development. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you review your career autobiography and the significant experiences, educational programs, jobs, or other events that have impacted your career choices either positively or negatively.

— What have you considered your successes?
— Conversely, what have you viewed as your failures?
— How quickly did you rebound after your perceived failures?
— What factors enabled a successful transition for you?
— What factors inhibited a successful transition?
— Have any of these events been defining moments for you?
— Where would you rate yourself in this moment related to career success, satisfaction, well-being and overall stress level?
— Do you know what kind of support is available to you?

As a follow up, and if you are inclined, sit down to meet with a career counselor to more fully explore your career timeline and what that has meant for your professional and personal development. Taking time to reflect on your past outcomes can give you insight into current issues you may be facing. It can also be helpful for understanding key transition management skills you might need to develop. For those at the NIH, the OITE can be an excellent source of support throughout your transition.



*Reference: Hopson B & Adams J (1976) Transition – Understanding and Managing Personal Change.

NIH GPP Alumni: Where are they now? Postdoc Fellow

May 19, 2014

Name: Julien Debbache, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Zurich

Location: Zurich, Switzerland

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

PHD Advisor, IC: Heinz Arnheiter, NINDS (Now NIH Emeritus); Individual Partnership Program (Rennes 1 University, France)

What do you do as a Postdoc?
I lead two main projects on two very different topics. One is dealing with the Wnt signaling pathways in melanoma using in vivo mouse models. The other is looking at the physiological roles of adult Neural Crest derived stem cells in healing of the skin upon injury, again using in vivo mouse models.

Since June 2013, I have supervised one PhD student and will mentor a new one starting June 2014. I am also more loosely supervising two other PhD students in the lab, playing the role of “scientific consultant” for their experimental strategy and troubleshooting.

I am involved in some of the institute’s teaching activities by helping with the histology courses. I will become the animal research representative for our group, which means that I’ll be the contact person for the state veterinary office if they have questions about our experimental procedures.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
Analytical skills, especially since I’m working with such different projects. Of course there is some overlap between them, but the biggest challenge is trying to digest the context and the particular differences between all the projects.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
Mentoring and helping people out. During my time at NIH, I realized that my greatest satisfaction came from the help I felt I was bringing to people more than from the results I was directly generating. I did not have the chance to mentor anyone directly then, even though I was helping out postbacs and summer students as well as a few postdocs from neighboring labs. But the time I spent helping people was truly rewarding on a personal level.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this position? What are some of the challenges you faced?
The hardest part of this process has actually been outside of the lab. Science-wise, Switzerland is very similar to the US — relatively good funding opportunities for labs and for fellowships, good collaborative networks between labs and universities and good international diversity among the students/fellows. So professionally, given the generous funding situation in Switzerland, there hasn’t been much of a difference from my previous work environment besides the outstanding support I had the chance to benefit from during my time at NIH. OITE/GPP has played a major part in the success of my PhD and I have never been able to find anything which relates to the level of support/help/advice I received at the NIH.

The language has been and is still a big problem outside the lab. Zurich is located in the German speaking part of the country and I have struggled a bit with it. Also my experience in the US made me appreciate the incredible convenience the American society offers its citizens and that is far from being the strongest attribute of Switzerland, even while living in the biggest city of the country. I’ve come back to the US twice since I left NIH for conferences and tourism, and I do feel “homesick” for quite some time when I return to Switzerland afterwards. So I would say my biggest challenge has been leaving the American lifestyle I got used to enjoying for five years.

What was your job search like?
Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to always get the position I was looking for. For my master’s degree, my PhD and now my postdoc lab, I only sent one application. In all instances, they were spontaneous applications, not openly advertised positions on websites or journals. I just wrote an email saying I was looking for a position and was interested in the work they were doing.

How did you come to choose this as your next step?
I went to a conference and attended a lecture from the lab I’m currently working in. I found their research highly interesting and it matched the idea of what I wanted to do after working for five years in developmental biology.

What are the most important soft skills needed for your position?
Critical and collaborative thinking. I no longer think of my work as solely mine but shared among the people I work with, and I think I get more satisfaction out of it because of this mindset.

How did you prepare for the interview?
I gave my interview presentation three days after my Thesis Defense so I just had to prepare for that one. I gave the same presentation, which was actually better spoken at the interview than at the defense.

Any last bits of advice? If you had to do your search differently, would you change anything?
Well, I now have a different approach to the type of job I want to do in science, so I would probably look for what I want now. But I don’t regret anything I have been through since these steps were essential to allowing me to figure out what I really enjoy doing in science. I would certainly tell people not to stay stuck with a job they do not enjoy waking up for. Sharon Milgram once told me, “With a PhD and enough motivation, you can practically do anything you want.”


You Need to Write Better Emails

May 12, 2014

Image of a blue envelope with a slip of paper denoting an "@" symbolEmails are a huge part of everyday life. Look at your own inbox and I am sure you will agree. In today’s world of constant digital communication, strong writing and effective communication skills are more important than ever. Especially if you are job searching, remember that all of your correspondence throughout that process is being critiqued. You only have once chance to make a good virtual impression, so pay careful attention to detail!

Here are some of the most common email mistakes to avoid:

1. Misspelling the recipient’s name.
Many people have uniquely spelled names or a name that is difficult for you to type correctly. Autocorrect can be your worst nightmare in this regard. Compound this with the fact that people generally focus on their name within a document and can immediately spot an incorrect spelling. So, whatever you do, double check your typing and make sure you are spelling the person’s name correctly.

2. Using an incorrect title.
If you are not sure whether you should use Mr. Ms. or Dr. then do a bit more research. Look around online and within LinkedIn to find the most appropriate title. When in doubt, address someone more formally to avoid offending them.

3. Stop defaulting to Dear Sir/Madam.
The best email communication is personalized and this is a generic catch all that often goes awry. Too many female colleagues complain about the number of “Dear Sir” emails they receive daily.

4. Skipping the salutation and valediction.
General pleasantries might seem like unnecessary filler to you, but they can help warm up the tone of your email. They are especially important when you don’t know the person you are emailing very well. Simply starting with your text and no greeting and ending without some sort of closing can come across as curt. Take the time to properly address your recipient (“Dear Dr. Smith,” or Hello Ms. Jones,”) and to close your email effectively (Best regards, Your Name or Thank you, Your Name).

5. Using a vague subject line.
Give your reader a heads up before they even open your message. By using a descriptive subject line, you are helping to get to your point quickly. Your reader will probably thank you for cutting to the chase and saving a bit of their time.

6. Don’t resend an unanswered email!
Forwarding an unanswered note to the same recipient with no new message can be perceived as annoying at best and rude at worst. Try to include a note saying, “I know you are busy, but did you get a chance to look at the message I sent about X?”

7. Don’t spam an entire office/department with the same question.
The problem with sending the same email to multiple individuals is that you often forget to tailor for each individual. So Mr. Jones may get Ms. Smith’s message and quickly realize the spammed message upon receipt. Don’t assume that co-workers aren’t conferring and making notes.

8. Avoid textspeak.
Abbreviations, non-governmental acronyms and emoticons are way too casual to include within a professional email. Always err on the side of formality.

Following these tips will help you avoid some of the most common email faux pas. Effective emailing can help you network, job search, and perform well in your current job. For even more tips on writing effective emails, check out a past blog post here.

What mistakes have we missed? What are some of your email pet peeves? Let us know in the comments!

Turning Down a Job Offer

May 5, 2014

Part two of a two-part series written by guest blogger Dr. Phil Ryan, Director of Student Services at the Office of Intramural Training and Education.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had used LinkedIn to promote my candidacy for a position that I was offered, but ultimately decided to decline. I wanted to share with you some of the factors I had to consider and how those factors made me change my priorities for my next job. We all have our own priorities — I listed and rank ordered mine. I learned through this experience that my listed professional priorities did not even contain my highest priority.

Throughout the interview process for this particular position, I absolutely loved the people I interacted with. The director of the office seemed like a fantastic boss and mentor. The people in parallel positions would have been fantastic coworkers. The few people that the position would supervise were hardworking and dedicated to the students they served. There was passion from every person that worked in the office. The position itself almost felt tailor-made for me. I left the on-site interview very excited about the position and preparing myself to share the good news with my wife and children.

The job fit all my listed priorities. It would be a great next step in my career and would put me in an institution with lots of opportunities to continue to advance my career. The benefits were outstanding, which is especially important for my family as we have two young boys and a third child due very soon. I felt confident I could negotiate the salary to be fair based on expected cost of living in that area. The job was a pretty standard 40 hours a week with limited travel. This is a must since being home with my family is important to me. Also, it was closer to both my family and my wife’s family and number of our best friends. Based on these critera, I would be a fool to turn down the position.

So why did I turn it down? After my on-site interview, I drove around the city in which the job was located. I realized the city really lacked energy. It was a nice day and yet, there were no people outside talking to one another. Businesses were not busy. Schools were just getting out and children were not playing in the parks. Parents were not talking to each other. I did not detect a sense of community. I am a scientist, so I realize that all this was basically an n of one and thus, I couldn’t make a conclusion based on two hours of observation. Luckily, I had a friend who lived in that city for seven years and had recently moved away. I gave him a call and while he did have nice things to say about the city, he confirmed that my observations were pretty consistent with what he and his family had experienced while they lived there.

There was one more factor that initially seemed like a big advantage. The city was two hours from everything! It was two hours from a major metropolitan area with all the culture, life and experiences that comes with big cities. It was two hours from a renowned national park and other outdoor adventure opportunities. It was two hours from snow skiing, water skiing, fishing, hiking, camping, professional sports teams, etc. It sounded great on paper. However, those two hours were a very lonely two hours. It was that city and then two hours to anything else. I tried to justify that while we may not have the most exciting life and community to live in, we would be two hours from all that excitement and all those friends. But the truth is, when you have small children, two hours is a long time. I realized that we would not be traveling those two hours very often and the city we would live in was the city that would help shape my children as they grow up. It would be the community that would support my wife and me. It would be the atmosphere that we would celebrate in good times and depend on in bad times. I know my wife and my children better than anyone and it turns out that my number one priority is providing the best life possible for and with them. This city was not that. So while the job and the people I would work with were amazing, it turns out my top priority is my family. My list of priorities in a job now reflects that.

Asking for a Raise

May 2, 2014

Imprinted image of a dollar sign with an arrow pointing up. The imprint looks like the face of a $5 bill.Asking for a raise can be anxiety provoking; therefore, many people put it off because they are afraid. A very common error is to hope the problem will be magically solved and your boss will automatically remedy the situation for you.

The second most common mistake is allowing the built up resentment of feeling underpaid to grow to a point where you begin making aggressive demands. Generally, neither approach is successful. If you are hoping for a pay increase, here are some things to take into consideration before having that conversation with your boss.

1. First and foremost, objectively research the worth of your job in your city. To discover the market value of your position, use salary comparison websites like salary.com or glassdoor.com. It can also be helpful to speak with colleagues in similar roles; however, just be aware that some companies have confidentiality policies prohibiting the disclosure of salary and benefit information amongst employees. And, speaking of policies…

2. Research your company’s policies. Here are some questions to consider: Are salary increases based on a set schedule or rank? Are annual performance reviews required for a salary increase? Who makes the final decision – your boss or HR?

3. Prepare a list of your accomplishments. Hopefully, this will help remind not only your boss but yourself why you are deserving of a raise. Remember that confidence counts! If you aren’t sure that you actually deserve a raise, your boss will doubt it too.

4. Expect three impasses. As you are preparing to have this conversation, try to anticipate at least three negative responses from your boss and plan your rebuttals accordingly.

5. It is professional, not personal. Keep your focus on the value you add to the organization. Personal factors like the fact that you have children, student loan debt, etc. are not the organization’s problem. Concentrate on why you deserve the raise – not why you need it.

6. Timing is everything. The best time to ask for more money is after you have demonstrated success on the job. Perhaps you finished a challenging project or implemented a more effective policy. Capitalize on the timing of your success. Keep in mind that you don’t always have to wait for your performance review to ask for a raise. Often that seems like a logical time, but many company’s form fiscal year budgets during a different time, so get your request in early.

7. Go for it! Gather your facts, rehearse your pitch, and go in and ask. Few managers are going to be surprised or offended by the request. Remember, the worst that can happen is your boss will say no.

If, unfortunately, your request is rejected, don’t steal away in embarrassment and try to consider some alternatives. Consider asking for a better title which could be more marketable for you in the future. If budgets are an issue, ask when it might be reasonable to consider this conversation again or ask if a one-time bonus is a possibility. If your boss seems unconvinced, pointedly ask what you could do going forward to merit a pay increase. Remember, there is no shame in asking for a raise. Even if you don’t get the result you want, it is important to get comfortable asserting yourself and that only comes with practice.