Making Commitments to Unity

August 28, 2017

Blog written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, PhD, Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

In a time when it seems that every news report is another example of discord and polarization, it can be difficult to determine how any one of us can make a difference. We can find ourselves thinking, “How can I make any real impact toward advancing social justice in healthcare, education, research and the larger society? I’m just one person with very little influence.” But as my OITE colleague, Dr. Darryl Murray observed, progress in the arena of equality and social justice is lot like science – each small step forward contributes to a bigger picture and an eventual solution.  Without those seemingly “small” contributions, no progress is ever made.

Last Wednesday, the OITE hosted an NIH Trainee Unity event to help people consider what small, but important, steps they could take in building more welcoming and inclusive communities – at NIH and beyond. While munching on chips and salsa and bolstered by chocolate,*  about 50 people shared their concerns and hopes for creating a more just and compassionate society.  We were challenged by Dr. Sharon Milgram, OITE Director to identify, “What can you do to support unity?” Individuals wrote their commitments on brightly colored sticky notes, which are now posted in the OITE West hallway (Building 2, 2nd floor).  Come by and see them and add your own!

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  • I will continue to have “uncomfortable” conversations to make sure I understand all diversity in every variation that makes us beautiful.
  • Show up, speak up. Welcome people into our community (LGBTQ+, Immigrants, Latinx). Show empathy.
  • Open my home and heart to exchange students.
  • Volunteer in clinics for the uninsured; be more involved in mentoring junior colleagues
  • Teach my daughters to embrace diversity & inclusion, & to be proud of who they are.
  • I will dedicate my career to address health disparity & to encourage kids from underserved communities to aspire for higher education. We can make a difference if we all do our part!
  • As a white person, work to confront and dismantle white privilege and white supremacy.
  • Millions of people enjoyed the same eclipse a few days ago. We all live together on the same earth. We ought to work together to make our society better for all.

When making such commitments, it’s important to consider what is most meaningful to you and what is realistic. What matters to you most? Can you do this on your own or should you connect with others? How can you begin? What preparation might you need? What resources do you need? How will you stay motivated for the long haul?

It’s also critical to reflect on your “mind-set.” We talk a lot about “growth mindset” at the OITE. First introduced by Dr. Carol Dweck, growth mindset means that we believe our most basic abilities can be developed through dedication, hard work, love of learning, and resilience. Commitment to unity and advancing social justice requires a kind of growth mindset, too.  We need to develop our capacity for active listening (with your heart as well as your ears); respecting and learning from others’ experiences; and knowing when to stand up and take the lead, and when to stand back and support others’ leadership.  We generally aren’t taught these things, but we can learn them.  We will make mistakes along the way, but we can offer authentic apologies when we do – that’s also part of the learning process.

It’s also key to realize that every day brings opportunities to “practice unity.”   One way is through “micro-affirmations.”  Dr. Mary Rowe describes micro-affirmations as apparently small acts, often ephemeral and hard-to-see, either in public or private, sometimes unconscious but very effective, that occur whenever people wish to help others succeed.  I believe that micro-affirmations can also be used to communicate support and welcoming to others, especially when they or people like them are being targeted.  Asking someone to go have coffee or lunch with you, providing a safe space for someone to share their experience, smiling and saying hello to people on the street (and on campus!), telling a stranger how beautiful their child is…the possibilities are endless and only require that we look for ways to connect.

Building what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the beloved community” takes all of us. What will you do?  How will you contribute? The world needs you now more than ever.

OITE services are available to NIH intramural trainees only. Check with your home university or college and utilize the personal, career, and professional school advising resources they offer to you.

* No federal funds were used for these refreshments.

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Answering Diversity Questions During an Interview

August 22, 2017

As you prepare for graduate, professional school or job interviews, you may be asked a question related to diversity. Interviewers are very interested in selecting candidates who are aware of and who will contribute to the diversity mission of their organization.  Have you practiced how you will answer diversity-related questions?  In Career Services, we have seen trainees range in their comfort level about addressing diversity topics.  Some trainees have several experiences to answer these questions, that said—many others are unsure how to approach answering the question. Perhaps they do not feel well-versed in diversity-topics, may be from a majority or underrepresented group and wonder how to respond, feel that are being asked to disclose personal information, are unclear about why they are being asked the question, or how to structure their answer.

Here are some possible questions that you may be asked:

  • How do you define diversity?
  • Do you have experience with diversity in this field?
  • How will you contribute to the mission of diversity and inclusion in our company?
  • How will you enhance the inclusion and diversity of your colleagues/peers?
  • Have you had to address a diversity issue while at work?
  • How will you bring diversity to the classroom at our university?

Prepare Early.  Research and build your vocabulary related to diversity and inclusion.

Explore scientific organizations, newsletters, professional journals or Google related to diversity and inclusion issues.  In general, diversity relates to the range of human uniqueness, including race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.  Inclusion is the behavior of increasing the involvement and empowerment of individuals in a group to create a culture of belonging.  Ask yourself, what are the issues in your current and/or future profession?  What is your knowledge of disparities, diversity issues in research or treatment, the recruitment of a diverse workforce, serving a broader public.  See the OITE blog post about how those on the academic job market can respond to diversity statements that are requested by many teaching positions.

Are diversity questions illegal to ask?

Good question!  In general, diversity questions are asked to all applications equally by interviewers who have had training because there is an explicit mission to enhance the diversity and inclusion mission of their organization. You do not have to disclose personal information to answer a diversity question (i.e.: your age, ethnicity, etc.). However, with  illegal questions you are being asked to disclose personal information about your race, gender, sexuality, age, disability status in such a way that it does not speak to your strengths for the position.

What perspectives can I take to answer the question?

Once you are familiar with the issues above, re-read the wording of the question to determine what is being asked of you. If you do not have experience, then be honest and say so.  Go on to describe your awareness of diversity issues and specifics of how you plan to address them in the future. Answering this way will put you in in a positive light to share additional skills and experiences or connections to the position that will enhance your application.  For example, you could communicate leadership skills, teamwork, community service, other experience that you have or a program that you would like to start.   Here are some perspectives to consider taking:

  • Connect your experience and goals to their mission statement or programs they are already involved in? Give an example.
  • Discuss skills or abilities that you bring and how they will be useful to encourage a culture of inclusion.
  • Discuss an ethical in your profession that affects people differently.
  • Explain something from your personal life and describe specific ways that this it will help you in that organization
  • Think of diversity more broadly because diversity can include international experiences, experience with various age groups, and/or rural, urban, mountain communities that may have unique needs and resources.

Try using the SAR technique

Use the behavioral interviewing technique called SAR (Situation, Actions, Result) as a strategy.  This technique is based on the philosophy that if you have done it in the past, then you will repeat it in the future. It helps the interviewer envision the behaviors they are likely to see you doing to support the mission of diversity and inclusion while there. Get Involved Now

One of OITE’s goals is to create a culture of inclusion among our diverse scientist trainees.  The OITE leadership group creates quarterly get-togethers for all trainees.  Please join us for the upcoming OITE Trainee Unity Day, August 23, 2017 from Noon -1:00pm in building 50, Ground Floor Conference Room. The NIH Academy programs are designed for participants to explore and address health disparities. The Workplace Dynamics series prepares NIH trainees for leadership roles through a series of 5 workshops including the Workplace Dynamics V: Diversity in a Multicultural Society.. The OITE affinity groups are available to NIH trainees and their allies related to such affinity groups as international and visiting scholars, LGBTQ, trainees of color, and those who have families.  The NIH also creates community through SIGS (Scientific Interest Groups) where participants join from across the NIH Institutes on topics of interest to scientists.

Please feel free to visit the OITE Career Services website and take part in career counseling, pre-professional advising and schedule a mock interview to get prepared for graduate school, post doc, and job interviews. If you are beyond NIH, we recommend looking in your respective colleges, universities, workplaces, or larger communities to connect and find services.


Getting a Faculty Job – Revisited

August 14, 2017

We are reaching into the archives to update the August 2013 blog post, “Getting a Faculty Job.”   Starting in August, a large share of faculty jobs will begin accepting applications to fill positions that begin in the fall of the following year.  Here are some key elements of the academic job search to consider before you apply:

  1. What type of educational institution is appealing to you?
    Do you want to be at a large research university (like Columbia University in NYC), a state school that terminates in a master’s program (like Eastern Michigan University), or a four-year liberal arts environment, (like Swarthmore College) or community college.  Each of these types of institutions has different expectations regarding the amount of teaching and research expected from faculty.  Different institutions/schools have different expectations for grant funding, teaching, and service and obtaining tenure. Be sure to consider the type of position you are looking for so you can prepare the strongest possible package.  Another question to consider: does the location and setting (urban/suburban) matter to you? To research schools, look at the Carnegie Classifications.
  2. Find positions that interest you.
    Many schools post their domestic and international academic openings on-line at sites including:  Science Careers, New Scientist Jobs, Academic 360, Nature, Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), Cell Careers, Higher Education Recruitment Consortium, The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Identify universities that have strong research programs in your field who may have positions open.  Utilize your professional network with faculty at professional meetings, conferences, and visit their websites to learn about future position openings.
  3. Start to prepare your job application package that will include several elements.
    a.   Curriculum Vitae (CV )– a record of your academic career.  Your CV, as described in the OITE Resume and CV Guide, will be tailored differently if it is a research-intensive position or if it is a teaching-intensive position.
  1. b.   Cover Letter – This is a document that is tailored to the job for which you are applying.  The OITE also publishes a Cover Letter guide document that shows several examples to explain why you are interested in establishing your career at that university, and how you see your research goals fitting into their overall department.
  2. c.   Research Statement/Plan – The goal here is to get your future colleagues to be excited about you and your science.  This document typically includes some discussion of prior research accomplishments, but you should specifically highlight the work most relevant to your proposed work.  You need to lay out a do-able research plan for the next 5+ years that is similar in format to what you would use for a grant submission with a focus on explaining how the work you are currently proposing fits into your broader long-term goals. Depending on the position, you may want to explain how you will tailor your research for students at the institution; this is especially important if the expectation is that you will engage large numbers of undergrads in your research.
  3. d.   Teaching Philosophy/Plan – If you will have a teaching component of your job, this part of your application tells them about your personal beliefs on teaching and gives a hiring committee a visual of your approach (philosophy, learning outcomes, methods, skills, texts etc.) to teaching students in that subject matter. Include specific examples and reflect that you understand the student population at that specific institution.
  4. Diversity Statement – In recent years, several universities request a written statement that addresses such questions your past and future contributions to diversity through research, teaching, and service. You may be asked to link this to the mission of the college and university as well. Go ahead and consult the diversity statement blog from 2016.
  5. Letters of recommendation – You should start to line your letters up early.  They need to be very strong.
  6. Practice Academic InterviewsIt is important to practice answering questions for academic interviews. Most often these interviews will be on campus, however, in some instances they may be conference interviews. The key to this is to research the university/college before you interview to avoid any interview gaffes. This also involves preparing and rehearsing for your job talk presentation and addressing any challenging questions.  We recommend practicing with scientists in your field who can provide helpful suggestions and pose questions that you may encounter during your interview.

Creating strong application documents and active preparation are keys to success in the academic job search market.  We encourage you to attend academic job search workshops and programs offered by the OITE.  In addition, the counselors can help you with preparation and encourage you watch our OITE video casts online including the Academic Job Search Overview prior to scheduling appointments. For those of you beyond NIH, consider setting up a practice interviews with your home institution’s academic department or career center.


Carpe Diem: Asking for Letters of Recommendation

August 2, 2017

It is that time of the year when NIH summer interns are returning to their home institutions and the application season for graduate and professional school and academic/post doc positions are right around the corner. It is also time to request letters of recommendation (LOR) to document your NIH training experiences.   The PIs or program directors are the perfect candidates to offer their written appraisal of your work and development that they have observed and recommend you for further opportunities.

Who do I ask?  Ask someone who knows you very well!   Many fellows are lured by the appeal of having a well-known scientist write a recommendation. While this can be advantageous, it is equally important to ask someone who is exceptionally familiar with your work and who can clearly speak to your strengths for the opportunity.  Usually, you will usually need at least three LORs to support your application. Be sure to check if there are specifications about the types of letters you will need for each opportunity that you consider.  Here a few examples of potential reference writers that scientists often use:

  • Principal Investigators (PI)s and Supervisors
  • Summer research experience mentors and program directors regarding your research skills
  • Preceptors (those who you have shadowed) and who can speak to your direct patient contact (health professions)
  • Dissertation/thesis/academic advisers at your home school
  • Observers of your teaching abilities
  • Industry or non-bench managers
  • References who have observed leadership and teamwork abilities
  • Faculty member who taught a hard science course

Will I be bothering them? They are busy.  They expect you to ! Most recommenders have a process and set time aside to write letters because this is how they launch the next generation of leaders.  Request your letter now. In a few months or years, they may forget exactly what you did but won’t forget you personally.   They can always update the letter later.

How to ask?  Ask personally!  Reach out by requesting a meeting by telephone or email.  Use a professional tone and address them using their title.  It is to your advantage to ask for an in-person meeting so that you can explain your long-term career plans and next-steps (post doc, graduate school, employment etc.). You can also have a thoughtful conversation about your competitive edge during the application process. This is also your opportunity to candidly ask for a positive recommendation. This will ensure that they don’t have any reservations about your candidacy. While an awkward conversation to have, it is in your best interest to ensure that you are getting the best endorsement possible. If it is not in your favor, thank them and ask another writer.

When do I ask? Ask now…Ask early! Even though you may not use the letter right away, it can be helpful to ask while your work is still fresh in their minds. You can store letters in a recommendation file service for later use through your college and university.  You can also set up an account with a reputable on-line file service where you can store a variety of references for later use.

What should I send to my reference writer?  Help them write your letter! Provide your letter writer with everything they need to complete the letter.  This can include your updated CV/resume, where, how, and to whom to send the letter, deadline date, and any specific information to include (i.e.: comments about your clinical work, research, etc.).  Some organizations will send an email or regular mail directly to your reference with specific details for completion.  This is typical with centralized application systems for graduate and professional school and fellowships. For industry jobs and some fellowships, you will only need to send contact information for references including how you know the person. Be sure to inform your reference about this because they will not have to write a letter but still prepare for a verbal reference.

Help! Why was I asked to write the letter?   Awkward!  A common reply to many reference requests, this request saves the writer time.   Look at this as your opportunity for you to refresh the writer’s memory about your accomplishments.  You will also have an idea of what he or she will write in your letter. Try creating several bullet points highlighting the areas you wish to have highlighted.  The recommender will then transpose these comments into a letter.

How should I thank my reference writer?  Send a thank you note.  In your letter, be sure to acknowledge your appreciation to your reference in writing via email or regular mail.  Also inform them if you were successful or if you need to request additional letters.