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. Another tool you both can use is an online gender bias calculator. You can copy and paste your recommendation and see a listing of all the male or female-associated words that are listed in your letter. 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!


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Senior Scientist

September 2, 2014

Name: Amir Zeituni, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Senior Scientist, Global Science & Technology

Location: NASA HQ

How long you’ve been in your current job: Since July 2013

Postdoc Advisor, IC (when at NIH): Dr. Carole Long

What do you do as a Senior Scientist?
I work as a Senior Scientist for a contracting company called Global Science & Technology in support of the Space Biology Program at NASA. My daily responsibilities change all the time, but basically I help the program executive do a lot of scientific analysis to make sure we have programmatic balance. The program executive in NASA fills the role of the program director/ officer at the NIH. We fulfill the role of science management: writing solicitations for science to be done on the International Space Station, and then hold peer-review panels to have the community evaluate the proposals we get.

Personally, I helped write the research funding announcements (RFA’s) or NASA research announcements (NRA’s) I don’t look at budgets but I will make recommendations and suggestions based on the types of science proposed to the program executive. In December and February, we just released two NRA’s back to back which is somewhat unusual for Space Biology. This requires a lot of writing to ensure that everything goes through legal, procurement and international affairs. We are finishing one of those calls now. What’s great is that we are involved in expanding a program and there are many exciting experiments being selected to be conducted in space. Since NASA is an engineering organization, we need to make sure that our biology work in space can be executed to the satisfaction of our PIs. This leads to a lot of lot of back and forth discussion and collaboration with the PIs and the engineers.

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

1. Critical thinking and analysis
2. Oral and written communication – I am on teleconferences and email all the time, so you really have to have a good presence.
3. Overall, you have to possess a good foundation of basic science research and what makes a good experiment and how to write a good grant.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I love the people I am interacting with; it is a really good community here. I also love that it is challenging and that everything is new, so it feels like a lot to learn.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
Basically I was trained as a microbiologist and an immunologist and the scope of what we are looking at here is huge. I’m looking at all life sciences, so everything from cell science to plants to invertebrates to rodents to humans. We are interested in all of it and it all falls under the umbrella of Space Biology. So, you really just have to get caught up and become proficient in a lot of different fields and sub-disciplines.

What was your job search like?
I was looking for program manager or senior scientist type of positions. I definitely wanted to transition away from the wet bench, so I was looking at what I could do in order to leverage my strengths and find a position that would make me happy. I spoke with a lot of different people who were either scientific review officers or program managers/executives at the NIH and in industry. I settled with something in the government that would be a good fit. After having more follow up discussions, they all basically admitted that in order to get your foot in the door, you have to be a contractor for a couple of years first and then you would be qualified and competitive for a position, sometimes the organization they contracted for would open up a position for them.

How did you identify this company and come to choose this as your next step?
I looked at the NIH OITE website a lot because they would post a lot of job opportunities. I also looked at Indeed.com and LinkedIn and had a search parameter that fit that bill. I had a couple of first and second round interviews with different contractor and different government agencies. What really helped me though was that I saw a position posted and then I got an email from another person in my network about the same position, so I used him as a referral to get in.

What was your interview like?
It started off with a phone interview and where I talked about my science and my general qualifications. That ended up being about a 45 minute conversation with one of the HR recruiters. I was then invited to interview with the manager at the contracting company, which was a more involved interview. I believe that was a three hour on-site interview. Then, I was invited to interview with the potential client and after that I had a follow up interview with the contractor. For this position, I had four interviews in total. I applied for the job in February and I started in July.

What are the most important soft skills needed for your position?
Interpersonal communications through and through – it’s how you interact with people and how you identify who will respond to different types of communication better. Knowing how the client likes thing and how I can get information from other entities is very important. For example, if I need something form person X, I fire off an email; however, if I need something from person Y, I will give them a call.

Any last bits of advice? If you had to do your search differently, would you change anything?
The only bit of advice is to do a lot of informational interviews. They really helped because I learned how to talk the talk essentially. Plus, it is a safer environment so you can ask a lot of the dumb questions that will probably not get you a job offer. I was doing a couple of interviews concurrently, so I ended up applying and learning from those mistakes, which all helped me eventually land this position.