How to Talk to Your Mentor about a Career Change

October 13, 2014

Employment statistics today tell us that, though many of you start out your doctoral studies and postdoctoral training to pursue a career in academic research, the majority (the latest figure is about 70%) wind up in careers outside of academia. This change in focus may occur gradually over time or may be precipitated by a specific event and happen much more rapidly. This changing employment demographic means that a great number of you will need to sit down with your PIs or mentors to inform them of your new career path.

The prospect of this discussion can strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest trainees. As we discussed in last week’s post “Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development” this anxiety is often understandable. You need to tell someone who has built a successful career in academic research that you want to do something else, a path they didn’t choose. It is not uncommon that trainees view it as a failure; many feel that they are letting their mentor down. Trainees also worry that disclosing an alternate career path from academia will change the level of support they’ll receive from their mentor.

Often times, this is not the case and having an honest discussion about your career curiosities can actually enrich and help encourage a more meaningful discussion. Below are some suggestions that can facilitate the discussion and lead to a positive outcome.

Provide plenty of lead time

  • Plan to conduct the discussion when you begin the job search or at least while you are in the search process. You may be surprised; your mentor may have a contact or be able to help you in other ways.
  • Remember, most graduating PhD’s begin their search for a post-doc about a year before graduating. This time will help your PI find your replacement in the lab.

Develop a strategy

  • Your strategy should include your overall career objectives. This part of the plan will provide the rationale as to why this switch makes sense for you.
  • It should also include a transition plan detailing how your work can be transferred to others to keep things progressing in the lab.

Present your move as a positive

  • You have thought this through and think it is the best course of action for you. Take ownership of your decision – it represents an exciting career opportunity. It is not a Plan B or a failure.
  • The meeting is to ask for your mentor’s support of your decision, not his or her permission.

Reiterate the value you have received in this training

  • Explain how your association with this lab and this PI has enhanced your knowledge and experience. The skills and abilities you will need to draw on in your new career were developed during your time here.

“Success” is no longer defined as only “success in academia.” There is a big world out there with opportunities in any number of areas. When you find the opportunity for which you are best suited, you must pursue it even if that opportunity happens to be outside of academic research.

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Making the Most of Your Experience at NIH: The Scorecard

February 6, 2017

I arrived at NIH in October 2015. I attended the workshop “English Communication for Visiting Scientists” (ECVS) workshop in February 2016 because, as non-native speaker, I wanted to improve my communication skills. I remember that I was afraid of asking my PI to sign the written consent I needed to register for it. I soon realized how unwarranted my fear was! My PI was glad to know that I wished to improve my communication skills. This has been the first lesson I learned from The Scorecard: “If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.”

The ECVS workshop. The 2-day workshop itself was very useful. I learned and practiced how to write professional e-mails and to be assertive. But most importantly, I realized that I was not alone. Instead, I was surrounded by people who understood the fear and the frustration of jumping suddenly into a completely different world. During the ECVS workshop, I learned about the Scorecard: an intensive training program to be completed within 6-months. The program (Fig. 1) envisages 10 scores earned by completing the workshops/activities. They are  grouped into four categories: career development, mentoring, leadership/management, and communication.

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Fig. 1. Representation of the Scorecard categories. Numbers in squared brackets represent the points needed to complete each category. The activities I included in my scorecard are in bold.

The Action Plan. I am a person who likes challenges, so I decided to try and draft an action plan (Fig. 2). First, I identified among the listed courses/activities the ones I was most interested in. Then, I looked at the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) calendar, planned when to attend them, to ensure that I was able to meet the deadline. Last but not least, I identified what I call the “milestone” of my program, i.e. the most difficult and time intensive course. In my case, it was the “Scientists Teaching Science (STS) 9-week course”. I knew that completing it would have motivated me to keep following the plan. Among the other activities that I included in my plan, I chose to attend the Workplace Dynamics IV and V workshops and the mentoring course, and to give a presentation at OITE. I will briefly describe them in the next paragraphs by highlighting why I think they have been very useful for me.

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                        Fig. 2. My “action plan” to complete the Scorecard.

Career development. The milestone of my program – the STS 9-week course – is, in my opinion, a must for fellows aiming at an academic career. One of the assignments is to write the teaching philosophy statement, a fundamental piece of the academic job package! Having the opportunity to have a person with a long-term experience in education, read it and provide constructive feedback is priceless. Moreover, the course is entirely on-line and the teacher provides students with useful hints on how to organize on-line courses and incorporate active learning techniques in the classes. I simply loved it.

Leadership/Management. The Workplace Dynamics series opened my mind. At the beginning of the workshop, as soon as I realized that I had to practice by speaking to the person close to me, I wanted to run away! Yes, I am an extremely introverted person. I am afraid of talking to people, especially in a language that is not my mother tongue, and I prefer to write e-mails. E-mails that most of my colleagues never read, because they prefer to communicate verbally. It took me a while to realize that my approach was ineffective. The workshops provided me with helpful hints on how to address the differences in the personalities and communication styles between me and my colleagues that and made me more successful at work.  After attending the two workshops I needed for the scorecard, I decided to complete the series and I am going to attend the next Management Boot Camp.

Mentoring. The “Summer Research Mentor Training course” was another very helpful workshop. Similar to the STS course, one of the assignments was to write the mentoring philosophy statement. I have recently used both assignments as drafts for an application for an academic position. During the course, I learned the importance of aligning mentor/mentee goals and expectations and assessing differences in communication and learning styles. We all tend to communicate and teach the way it is most effective to us. Recognizing that what works for us does not necessarily work for other people and learn how to manage those differences is the first step to become an effective mentor. I look forward to have the opportunity to mentor a summer student.

Communication. As an introverted, not native speaker, presentations were a huge obstacle for me. I love to design and sketch them out but, until several months ago, I would have paid someone else to deliver them in my place. Most importantly, I would never have volunteered for a presentation. I now realize that my fear to present caused me to miss many valuable opportunities to practice! Now things have changed. Taking part in the activities suggested by the scorecard helped me to practice and build my confidence. I now look forward to presentations rather than trying to avoid them. The author of a book entitled “The Exceptional Presenter” states: “The time to practice is during your normal daily routines, when habits can be formed and mistakes are not costly.”

Final thoughts. All that said, the Scorecard simply acted as “firestarter”. The goal of earning a training certificate motivated me to engage in the program and meeting the deadlines helped me to stay on track. However, as soon as I realized how useful the program was, I attended many other courses beyond the Scorecard. When I earned the ECVS certificate, however, I was really surprised to know that nobody else completed the scorecard before me. So, I decided to write this post to encourage other fellows to engage in it.

Please fellows, don’t think you don’t have the time and don’t be a “rat in the lab”!  Please bear in mind that the knowledge you will gain by completing the Scorecard training program will help you feel better in your lab, communicate more effectively with your PI and colleagues, and develop your career. And please, please don’t miss any opportunity to practice your communication skills!

So, what are you waiting for? The next ECVS workshop is on March 1st, don’t miss it!

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This post was written by guest blogger, Dr. Antonella Ciancetta, Visiting Fellow at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and first fellow who earned the English Communication for Visiting Scientists Certificate


Science Careers in Industry: Top Ten Myths

May 9, 2016

Post written by Brad Fackler, MBAImage of a list with checked items. A pencil is to the right of the list.

When you have primarily worked in an academic setting, any other work path can seem like a confusing and scary venture. Many scientists consider career options in industry; however they often worry about what this transition will be like. Here are the top ten myths I often hear about an industry career in science.

1. I will have my project “yanked away.”

This thought is often repeatedly shared, but most of the industry scientists I have talked to have categorically denied this! In industry, projects often change for two basic reasons: 1. Your research was successful and the compound has moved on to a clinical trial.  2. Your project was unsuccessful and no further work is warranted at that time.  In both of these scenarios, an individual is generally given months advance notice for future planning. Moreover, you will likely be moved to a project where your skills and expertise can best be leveraged because most companies and bosses want employees who are scientifically engaged and happy.  After all, that helps with productivity in the end.

2. It is all about the money.

Funding is needed to make science happen, whether in the private or public sector and the total budgets between the two are pretty comparable. The fiscal year 2016 NIH research budget is $32,300,000,000, with this total accounting for extramural  (grants awarded to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions)  as well as intramural research spending.  In comparison, the sum of the top four pharma company’s R&D budgets in 2015 was $35,600,000,000. The breakdown is: Roche at $10.2B, Novartis at $9.3B, Merck at $8.2B, and Pfizer at $7.9B.

3. Industry conducts “bad” science.

Companies have to meet clear regulatory requirements by the FDA that academic labs generally aren’t held to. Development of drug therapy has virtually eliminated once common diseases like plague, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox. The average life expectancy after a cancer diagnosis is now greater than ten years.  With all of these advances, the average life expectancy in the US in 2015 is 80.6 for females and 75.9 for males. Compare that to the average US life expectancy 100 years prior in 1915 which was 56.8 for females and 52.5 for males. This increase in life expectancy has been attributed to better nutrition and the development of drug therapy.

4. I will no longer be able to publish.

Companies still publish findings. 5,585 science companies published 34,287 papers and 6,793 technology companies published 29,554 papers.  For example, in the first quarter of 2016, MedImmune had 40 publications. Industry scientists also report that the pressure to publish is diminished from academia and that is often viewed as a positive.

5. The work is not as satisfying.

Well, if you transition from an NIH lab to an industry bench science position, then you will be doing exactly the same things whether that is satisfying to you or not.  In industry positions, more emphasis is placed on meeting timelines and accomplishments, and most companies prioritize team work in a collegial work environment. If for whatever reason that doesn’t sound like a good fit for you personally and professionally, then it is might be necessary to question if industry is a good fit for you.

6. There is more career change and I’ll probably lose my job.

Most careers are full of change and even PI jobs change too (ex. Assistant – Associate – Full). Industry does offer multiple career tracks, including level and salary increases within the lab or the option to progress into management. You can also transition to other company functions.  Should you lose your job, most often companies offer placement services and severance options. Also, if working in industry, then it is likely that you are living in an area where there are other opportunities as well since most pharma and biotech companies are often clustered together geographically.

7. What if I hate it?

Many career decisions are fraught with worry. Remember that the choice you are making at the end of your training fellowship is for the next step in your career, not necessarily for the rest of your life. Pursuing an industry postdoc can help make you feel more comfortable about your decision to move into industry. Industry experience and pursuing new skill sets may help open doors to new opportunities and additional career choices, including returning to academia, which brings us to number eight…

8. I can never go back to academia.

In today’s environment, there is growing pressure to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of product discovery and development which often leads to public-private partnerships (PPP’s) and Industry-Academic partnerships like NCATS or Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP).  This has increased the flow of technology, capital, and human resources among the public, private, and academic sectors and has helped blur the lines of what used to be a bigger divide.

9. I will disappoint my PI and my graduate school mentors.

Even if it might not always feel this way, the environment is beginning to change. Faculty review panels are starting to give “credit” for non-faculty career outcomes. Similarly, PIs are starting to understand the shortage of academic PI opportunities and the benefits of multiple career options for trainees. Always remember, it is you career/life to live – not theirs. If you need help having this discussion with your boss, read this post on “How to Talk to Your Mentor about a Career Change.”

10. Not becoming a PI means I’m a failure.

It can be incredibly hard to reframe one’s internal thoughts about this; however, from an external perspective, this most definitely does not mean you are a failure. In fact, most employment statistics reveal you are in the majority. According to Sauermann and Roach (2012), more than half of entering biology PhD students had the career goal of becoming a research professor, but less than 10% of them went on to become a research professor.

Remember, that the best career advice often comes from people who are working within your aspired field/company/role, so if you are interested in industry, then talk to people doing that work. You might even find some of your own personal myths dispelled by these conversations.


New Year’s Resolution: Meet with a Career Counselor

January 1, 2016

Cork board with a white sheet saying "Resolutions: #1, #2, #3"It’s a new year and you are probably making resolutions in the hopes that 2016 will be a successful and productive year. For career-related resolutions, a good place to start within the NIH is the Office of Intramural Training & Education. Here at OITE, we often make resolutions of our own in order to help provide new resources. At the start of years past, we have created Career Success Plans as well Calendars for Career Success. However, often the first place to start with career development and planning is by meeting with a career counselor.

There are many reasons why you might want to meet with a career counselor. Even if you don’t meet with a career counselor, it is likely you are having career related discussions with mentors and advisors. Here are some things to keep in mind in order to make the most of those discussions.

Honesty is Key
Many people say things that are disingenuous simply because it sounds good or because it is what other people want to hear. For example, you may feel pressure from your physician parents to go to medical school or you might feel pressure from the PI you respect to go into an academic job. Individuals often struggle with internal micro-pressures as well as external macro-pressures regarding career choices.

These can compound into choices that don’t feel right to you and are often accompanied by a sense of confusion or ambivalence. It’s not fun to be in this ambiguous state, which makes it so important to find a safe place to express these struggles. Career counseling is often the space where you can honestly and effectively work through these challenges with a neutral third party.

Manage Your Expectations
A career counselor (or any one person for that matter) doesn’t have all of the answers for you. It will be important for you to seek out multiple career mentors. This is important because not only will you not click with everybody but it also helps to hear a variety of opinions and approaches.

Participate in the Process
Sometimes people think they will go to their mentor or a career counselor and they will receive the answer of what they should do next. That is just not how the process works. In order for it to be effective, you must participate in the process. In fact, it is imperative that you be an active participant. The most effective career counseling takes place when an individual comes in with an open and proactive mindset. You might not be in a stage where you are open to this process quite yet. That is okay and this usually becomes readily apparent early on in counseling. But, it is worth a try in order to assess your readiness for introspection and change.

Perhaps there is an obstacle standing in the way of moving forward toward your goals? Sometimes this is a concern about grades, lack of experience or confidence. It can be helpful to talk about these perceived obstacles with a career counselor to help you evaluate them and find a way to overcome them or find a path around them.

Avoid Analysis Paralysis
Assessing and thinking about your skills, interests, values and personality traits is a vital part of any career counseling process. It’s often one of the first steps; however, introspection only gets you so far. There will come a point when you or your career counselor will challenge you to move forward in the process. This is not always easy and it might come at a time when you don’t feel you have everything figured out quite yet. You will still need to take action. Career counselors can help you identify your goals as well as the first action steps to help you get started.

If your resolutions are career-related, we wish you the courage to be honest with yourself and the strength and determination to be a proactive participant in your own career development. At OITE, we hope we can be a part of your career success in 2016. If you are at the NIH, you can make appointment with career counselors here.


Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development?

October 6, 2014

The answer to this question in most instances is no; however this may seem to be the case if you are relying too heavily on your PI for this function. You must always remember, the person most responsible for your career development is the person who benefits most from it – you! Many trainees feel that their mentors are too busy and/or too important to “bother” them with their questions or thoughts. That shouldn’t be the case – they are there to help you learn and pass along their scientific knowledge to a new generation. While it can be difficult to approach your mentor to discuss career progression – and even harder to judge when this discussion is appropriate – this dialogue can be extremely helpful.

Your mentor likely has a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be very helpful as you prepare for your career. But, the rigors of the day-to-day functioning of the lab can sometimes delay or prevent career development discussions from occurring. In this case, it is certainly acceptable for you to request a meeting for this purpose. Below are some suggestions that may help as you think about this conversation:

Prepare thoroughly

  • Be able to articulate your strengths and weaknesses, short-term work goals and longer term career objectives.
  • Honestly assess your contribution to the lab. An accurate evaluation of your performance can build trust with your PI, and also allow you to point out contributions that you are making of which he or she may be unaware.

Identify areas in which your mentor can help you achieve your goals

  • This can also help facilitate the discussion by allowing your mentor to react to and comment on your assessments, and can avoid putting him or her on the spot.
  • Healthy discussion on this topic may identify additional areas of which you had not previously been aware.

Take care in scheduling the meeting

  • Remember, your mentor’s chief responsibility is for the success of the lab. Avoid scheduling around busy times and critical deadlines.
  • Potentially set it for non-working hours.

Be willing to engage in additional learning and development opportunities

  • This can be for the purpose of enhancing performance in your current position, preparing you for your career goals, or even both.

Even with preparation, making the initial request for the meeting can be daunting. A statement like (or an email), “I’d like to discuss my performance with you and get your input on my longer-term plans” can be effective. By approaching it in this manner, you are communicating to your mentor that you have thought about your career development and will not be relying solely on him/her on the topic.

This may sound like an intimidating challenge and you may be nervous for the first meeting. You will find that by using this approach, future meetings will become easier and more productive as you are able to build on past discussions. Next week, we will discuss in-depth how you can talk to your mentor about your career development, even if that means a career change.


How a Mentor Helped Me Succeed…and How I Now Get to Help Her

July 10, 2013

Post written by Lori M. Conlan, Director of the Postdoc Office and the Career Services Center at the OITE

This week I had lunch with the first mentor I had outside of the lab environment. In 2006, I had just left my postdoc to join a non-profit in Manhattan—the New York Academy of Sciences. I knew I could do the job running a career development program for graduate students and postdocs, but I was clueless about how life worked in an office. I started on a Tuesday, and by Friday I was sent off on my first business trip to Miami. One of my colleagues, the VP of marketing and membership, went with me. Through out the entire trip she explained the rules of the trade and actively engaged me in business meetings with university leaders. She was never officially charged to be my mentor, nor did I specifically ask her to be my mentor—it was a relationship that grew organically due to the integrated nature of our work. Over the next year or so this terrific mentor helped me learn to develop successful marketing campaigns, improved my non-technical writing, taught me how to be persuasive, and most importantly how to navigate office politics and big egos. I always knew that she was giving me more than she was receiving, but she has always been passionate at mentoring the next generation. We loosely stayed in touch after she left the organization, a common thing that happens with networking and mentoring. I was always appreciative that she smoothed the transition from the bench to the desk, but never knew how I was going to give back in the circle of networking.

Fast-forward seven years. She and her husband are moving to DC for his job and she is looking for connections here. Now, I am happy to be on the other side giving back to the networking relationship. We chatted about what her passions are and how she can relate her skill sets to those passions. She went away from lunch yesterday with broader ideas about the types of places she would like to work, specific venues in DC, and even a few introductions. I know she is a master networker, and has met with tons of people as she explores what is next in her career, but I did feel like I gave back a bit for all the good she did for me years ago.

When I talk with fellows about finding mentors, they often ask, “But what do I have to offer them?” So, as you ponder setting up mentoring relationships and you wonder about how you will give back to the relationship—don’t underestimate what you may be giving back in the future. Mentoring always leads to positive outcomes for both people in the relationship. And what those positive outcomes are changes as your lives change. I hope you too find a mentor that you can connect with for years to come.  And don’t worry if you lose touch, these good mentoring relationships can always be re-invigorated no matter how long you have been apart (even seven years in this case).

Check out the OITE’s other blog posts for more on mentoring and networking


Finding Time for Career-Enhancing Activities

May 6, 2013

Research is your top priority as a graduate student or postdoc. That, coupled with your passion for science, may drive you to devote every waking moment to your research.  You love discovery.  You need to publish.  However, regardless of your career aspirations, your regular routine may benefit from a slight change of pace.  Maybe there is a certain career you’ve always wanted to explore or skill set you’ve wanted to develop.  Participating in activities outside of lab can help you learn a lot about yourself, forge meaningful networks, and potentially guide your future career path.

Earlier, we discussed serving on the career symposium committee and how to make the most out of such opportunities.  Other activities may range from writing an article for a newsletter, organizing a monthly seminar series or social event, teaching a course or leading a journal club, taking the initiative to start a new interest group, or serving as a co-chair of a postdoc or graduate student association (such as FelCom or the Graduate Student Council). There is a variety of opportunities with a range of time commitments to explore.

Choose the right moment, but make the time: Develop a comfortable balance between your research and activities, and never overextend yourself.  For both graduate students and postdocs, the “middle-years” of your fellowships are generally good times to participate.  Don’t get heavily involved when just starting your fellowship or when your lab is in the midst of preparing for a sensitive event like a grant deadline or a BSC review.  For grad students, avoid periods of time when you have a high level of academic responsibilities.  Perhaps it feels like there is no perfect time or personal/family commitments make it difficult to participate in events that extend into the evening.  Though, let’s say you devote 5% of the “standard” 40 hour work to such career-enhancing activities.  That’s 2 hours a week!  Look at your schedule from that perspective and determine how you can find the time.

Do the job right or don’t do it at all: Don’t participate in an activity if you are just looking to add a line to your CV, and don’t agree to take a role if you are not truly enthusiastic about it.  That line on your CV alone won’t do or say anything if you can’t support it by explaining the transferrable skills that you may have acquired.  Make sure you clearly understand what is expected for each one before you volunteer.   If you don’t fulfill your responsibilities, it could irreparably damage your reputation with colleagues and staff.  Give plenty of warning if you have to respectfully miss a meeting or withdraw from an activity.  Again, research is your top priority and everyone understands if extenuating circumstances arise.

Taking the next step: Talk to your mentor about your participation in any activities during normal working hours.  If your mentor isn’t too enthusiastic about your participating in a certain activity, start with an event that doesn’t take up much time.  Explain to your mentor how these activities can be important for your future career path and show, specifically, how small the time commitment really is for many cases.  Show through experience that these activities are not interfering with your ability to get new data or proceed with your research.

The NIH (or your university) is a great place to explore your skills and interests both in and out of the lab.  If you choose the right activity, plan ahead and manage your time efficiently, you can significantly enrich your experience here.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 13 – Educational and Career Development Program

April 16, 2012

This is the thirteenth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Mary Litzinger

Current position: Manager of educational and career development programs, The American Association of Immunologists

Location: Bethesda, MD

Time in current position: 6 months

Postdoc: Tumor immunology and immunotherapy with Jeffrey Schlom at NCI

Finding a path: I did preclinical research as a postdoc at the NIH. I was actually there for so long—7 years—that I was promoted to a research fellow, an employee position. While I was there, I always knew I wasn’t interested in pursuing the research end and becoming a PI. I enjoyed science, but I was disenchanted with doing all the nitty-gritty details. I started thinking about non-bench positions like scientific journals and science policy.

Set yourself apart: While I was a trainee, I attended a lot of the career events held by OITE. Something that came out of many of the speakers was that a lot of scientists want to move beyond the bench, so you have to set yourself apart by showing why you want to make that transition.

I became involved with a science policy discussion group at the NIH. It was only a couple of months old. The leaders of the group had been approached by someone at AAAS who was interested in putting some of the discussions on their MySciNet website. I had an interest in getting some writing credits that weren’t scientific journal articles, so I got involved in posting material on the blog. I know that set me apart when I applied to jobs. It’s important to do as much as you can, even though it can be difficult to find the time.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.


Making the Transition from the Bench to an Office

January 17, 2017

Managing transitions is an issue that you will likely face throughout your career. Many PhDs choose to leave the bench to work in an office. While some things stay the same no matter where you work, some of the cultural changes that accompany a desk job may be surprising. Here are  some identified by members of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE):

Dress Code Alterations: While there’s no need to follow the lab dress code any longer (yay for sandals!), you also probably can’t dress as casually in an office. This dress code varies by each office setting, so you will want to find out as much information as possible about the workplace before interviewing, and then ask questions about the work culture and take note of how people dress when you interview. Likewise, you may want to consider wearing layers, as you will no longer have the added warmth of your lab coat or from being surrounded by running heavy equipment. For me personally, I did not realize just how many of my clothes were related to cartoons, sci-fi, or sports teams until I started working in an office. Thankfully, OITE has a more casual dress code than some places, so the transition was not as expensive as it could have been—but some of you may have to add a budget line for clothing.

Greater Interdependence: Being at the bench is often solitary work, and can allow you to have greater control over planning your day. However, in many offices (especially when you first begin), you may need help from your co-workers to find your way in the new setting. Your work might also involve more planning and execution as a team than what you currently experience, and you may discover a shift in power dynamics that differ from the lab (i.e. multiple supervisors for different projects rather than one PI). This can have some very positive aspects. According to Virginia Meyer, Director of Student Services for UGSP, “Even if you are friends with everyone in lab, there’s still a feeling of competition for resources, publications, attention, etc. Here [at her current office position], I feel like we work more collaboratively towards a goal rather than competitively on our own projects.” Therefore, it is important to have a “team” mindset, and to try to learn others’ favored method of communication so that you can all work together well. Additionally, depending on what kind of office you work in (such as anything involving the public), you may need to become accustomed to interacting with people from a variety of backgrounds all day. Many scientists mention that navigating team management and leadership is an early issue that they face in their career transition, and being able to interact well with others is an important soft skill that employers seek. In order to better prepare for these issues, you can attend some OITE workshops such as the Workplace Dynamics series and Management Bootcamp.

Changes in communication: When asking others in OITE about surprises in shifting to an office position, the sheer amount of emails that they receive came up multiple times. Keeping track of and replying to all of these messages can take up quite a lot of time, and easily derails your day. Likewise, there are additional office tools within email services such as Outlook (sharing calendars, meeting invitations, etc.) that aren’t commonly used by most scientists, but very useful in an office setting. “That first month of understanding Outlook and the volume of emails I received was overwhelming,” said Lori Conlan, Director of both the Office of Postdoctoral Services and the Career Services Center. Integrating some of these tools into your workday now could save you some time in the future. Additionally, in case you are not already using them, it is important to become accustomed to writing professional emails and the etiquette involved.

Hours Vary Less: Partially due to the increased interaction necessities mentioned above, it is important that you work within a more normal time range that is comparable to what is held by everyone else in the office. So while there are fewer odd time requirements (no need to be in lab at 7 am!), you may not have as much flexibility for maintaining the hours that you prefer. Also, there may be additional requirements or paperwork in order for you to request time off for appointments or vacations. Furthermore, while you are less likely to need to work on weekends, snow days are different because you might be able to telework. While teleworking can offer greater flexibility, it can also lead to unique challenges (technical difficulties, teleguilt, etc.). I find teleworking beneficial because I am able to gain back the time I would otherwise spend towards commuting, but I also enjoy being able to easily interact with my colleagues when I come to the office. Whenever possible, becoming used to more “normal” working hours now can help make this transition easier.

Different Physical Demands: “I think one of the things that surprised me the most was realizing how much physical activity I got when I was in the lab,” said Phil Ryan, Deputy Director of the Graduate Programs and Student Services. Thankfully, being away from the bench means fewer consecutive hours on your feet. However, the transition to spending the majority of your day sitting can be strange. Most desk work will also involve staring at a computer screen, which can take some time to get used to as well. Also, since you no longer work in a lab, keeping food and drinks at your desk is allowed and it can be easier to avoid getting dehydrated. Unfortunately, this increased availability can easily lead to snacking all day, and never taking real breaks because you can constantly continue working. This combined with a more sedentary workday can make it more difficult to stay in shape, and never taking breaks can lead to ceaseless eye strain while hunching over a keyboard. Therefore, it’s important to keep the benefits of occasional breaks in mind as you transition, and to continue (or finally implement!) self-care practices.

Lab Actually Prepared You Well: One of the best surprises that those interviewed, including Yewon Cheon, Director of the Postbac and Summer Research Program, mentioned was that “the skills that you learned in the lab are actually transferrable to an office job like this. All of the analytical skills and experience working to find a solution have been very useful.” Even if on bad days, you might feel as though you aren’t gaining any desirable skills from the lab, the truth is that you still learn a lot that is useful for other careers. If you need help identifying any of these skills, you can use this activity, and perhaps talk to a career counselor. Should you still feel that you are missing transferrable skills that would be really useful for an office position, you can try to gain them by serving as a volunteer or on a committee.

Overall, there are a variety of fantastic office careers for scientists, all with unique challenges and rewards. By learning more about potential cultural differences, as well as the environment and expectations at your new position, you can help smooth your transition when leaving the bench and entering a new workforce.

Post written by guest blogger, Courtney Kurtyka-Welsh, Education and Outreach Specialist, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) at the National Institute of Health