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.

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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.


MCAT 2015 – Information and Preparation for the New Test

February 9, 2015

MCAT 2015The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has implemented quite a few changes to the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Administration of the new MCAT begins in April of 2015; however, registration for this exam opens THIS WEDNESDAY, February 11th.

If you are planning on applying to medical school, here are some things you need to know. The 2015 MCAT is different from the old test in a variety of ways; here are a few to note:

  • It’s Much Longer
    In fact, it is nearly double the length. The old test had 144 questions and the new test has 230. This will require the test-taker to have much more stamina and focus; however, it also means that each question is worth fewer points. Speaking of points…
  • It has a Different Scoring Scale
    In the old test, each section was worth 1-15 and the total score was between 1-45. Each of the four sections on new MCAT 2015 will be scored 118-132, for a total possible score of 528. The mean is expected to be 125 per section for a total mean score of 500.
  • Tests on More Topic Areas
    Four sections will now be covered including: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
  • Fewer Test Dates!
    The test will be offered from April – September; however, since we always encourage applicants to apply early and get their AMCAS in by at least June, this means that we recommend you take the test in either April or May…June at the latest. It is extremely important to register for an earlier test date if at all possible!

Now that you have some basic information on the new MCAT, let’s focus on what you are really concerned about – the preparation! What do you need to do in order to perform well?

The first thing you need to do is to watch the entirety of this brand new YouTube video from OITE on Preparing for the MCAT. It is chock-full of great tips, so you are encouraged to watch the whole video and to take notes. Pay special attention around the 17 minute mark when Dr. Higgins gives step by step homework instructions on how you should prepare for the new MCAT.

Additionally, the official MCAT 2015 Sample Test is now available online. There is a small charge to download; however, it is probably well worth your time and money. The Khan Academy also has preparatory materials broken down by section that you should check out. Last but not least, the OITE is here to help you with any questions about the process.  We wish all the 2015 MCAT test takers the best of luck!