Scientists as Parents: A Balancing Act

April 18, 2017

In recognition of Take Your Child to Work Day on April 27, 2017, we are re-posting an informative three-part series from the Careers Blog archives related to starting a family while in scientific training.   We asked graduate students, postdocs and clinical fellows three questions related to parenting as scientists. These interviews provide helpful advice to trainees who are considering starting families while attempting to manage the various work and family priorities.

Multi Family

Question #1: Why was this a good time for you to start a family?

https://oitecareersblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/18/families-and-science-can-they-mix/

Question # 2: What were the challenges you faced?
https://oitecareersblog.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/families-and-training-part-2/

Question # 3: Do you have any advice for NIH trainees thinking about starting a family?
https://oitecareersblog.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/families-and-training-finale/

Visit the OITE website and learn about OITE’s affinity support group called Mom-Dad-Docs that is open to all trainees who have children or are considering having children. The OITE has posted numerous additional resources for trainees that are parents.  If you are interested in learning more about this group, please contact Ulli Klenke.

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.

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Are Millennials the Burnout Generation?

April 1, 2019

12In her viral BuzzFeed essay, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” Anne Helen Petersen thoroughly details how economic and social demands/constraints have led millennials to feel burnt out. Unlike previous generations, millennials accrued more education, more debt, and were more willing to put career progression ahead of anything else.

Millennials are seen as the generation to have killed various objects and industries. One example is the diamond industry. Many millennials are not getting married and, if they do, it is later in life and partners rarely have the financial stability to spend on a diamond engagement ring. But, many millennials feel the promises made to them growing up have been killed off, too.

Petersen notes millennial “parents – a mix of young boomers and old Gen-Xers – reared us during an age of economic and political stability. As with previous generations, there was an expectation that the next one would be better off – both in terms of health and finances. But as millennials enter into mid-adulthood, that prognosis has been proven false.” This doesn’t seem to be afflicting a generational few, but rather is seen as the condition for the whole. This feeling of instability and of always needing to catch up is the basis of the generational burn out millennials are experiencing.

Petersen argues that burnout is “not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: it’s the millennial condition.” It can be seen by the high numbers of people patching together jobs in a gig economy operating on their own schedule but without health care or paid time off. It can be seen as “academics teaching four adjunct classes and surviving on food stamps while trying to publish research in one last attempt at snagging a tenure-track job.”

Older millennials had their early careers rocked by the dot com bust. It was even worse for millennials entering the job market during the 2008 recession. But, it seems many millennials still have this underlying feeling of constant anxiety that they should be doing more to optimize their time and their work in order to try and get ahead. Even self-care techniques like getting an oxygen facial or keeping a bullet journal are implemented to help you become a better person but do little to help ease your burnout.

Petersen addressed this point on Twitter when she tweeted:

THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE WILL NOT CURE YOUR BURNOUT

THE HEADSPACE APP WILL NOT CURE YOUR BURNOUT

DRUNK ELEPHANT WILL NOT CURE YOUR BURNOUT

Petersen’s essay doesn’t actually offer any solutions to help you cure your burnout. Rather she asks the reader in earnest:

“So what now? Should I meditate more, negotiate for more time off, delegate tasks within my relationship, perform acts of self-care, and institute timers on my social media? How, in other words, can I optimize myself to get those mundane tasks done and theoretically cure my burnout?”

Many other generational groups have argued that millennials aren’t the only ones that experience burnt out. Jonathan Melsic, a Gen Xer, wrote an article “Millennials Don’t Have a Monopoly on Burnout” where he contends that Petersen understates the scope of the burnout problem stating that about a quarter of all U.S. workers exhibit symptoms of burnout – it seems to be a societal problem, not a generational one.

If you are feeling burnt out, or if you want to understand the psychological landscape for millennials a bit better, Petersen’s BuzzFeed essay is a must read.


Advice on Getting Advice

November 13, 2018

clem-onojeghuo-381193-unsplashPeople tend to have a lot of varying opinions — on every topic possible. Just imagine how many different responses you could get when asking what flavor of ice cream you should order or what type of car you should buy. Everyone has their own unique preferences and often their distinct experiences have helped shape their opinions on these topics.

The same is true for advice about career and life choices.

This sounds like common sense, right? However, it is often surprising how many trainees will make major life decisions based on one PI’s opinion or another mentor’s passing advice. At OITE, we often hear trainees say they received conflicting advice/input and need guidance on how to proceed. Here are some basic principles to keep in mind when receiving advice.

Understand that advice should help you to make a decision, not tell you what your decision should be. This is a crucial distinction. Most well-trained career counselors will not share their opinion on what you should do with your life and career; rather, they often ask open-ended questions to help get you thinking about your options and what your preferences might be. The goal in career counseling is to help you develop new ideas and/or to share resources that might eventually help you have that lightbulb moment of clarity.

With that said, advisors, mentors, PIs, parents, partners, and friends all will often share their advice with you. Most are well-meaning and trying to help you. But, just like product reviews on Amazon, you can’t take any one opinion too seriously, unless it really resonates with you. It is important to remember the source for the advice. Often we hear postbacs report advice they received on their medical school application from a PI who never went to medical school nor served on a medical school admission committee. The advice may or may not be sound, so it is important to verify that you are getting accurate advice from a trustworthy person.

Another common mistake alluded to about advice is the tendency to take one opinion as fact. Just like in your experiments, you want to have a broad and diverse sample to pull from as it will only help strengthen you research findings. The same is true with advice. We often recommend doing informational interviews, but are surprised when trainees rule out an entire field because of one bad informational interview. Remember that you might not have the exact same personality or work style as that person and be sure to seek multiple opinions.

Asking for advice and seeking help in making a decision or solving a problem is a great thing to do; just be sure to weigh these opinions properly and don’t let any single advice-giver have more power than you allow yourself.


UPDATE 2018: Which Federal Agencies & Contractors Hire Scientists?

August 6, 2018

Piece of paper with the words "Government Jobs" in boldWhich agencies hire scientists?

While the OITE is an NIH entity, great science happens in other divisions all across government.  Almost all of these places hire scientists for both bench and non-bench positions.  Non-bench positions can include: science administration (grants management from almost every agency, managing research programs, career development training), science policy (how innovative science is completed and promoted), regulation (determining if a drug is safe or an agricultural product is good for the environment).

Here is a list of government agencies hiring biomedical scientists. The list is not complete, and we would love your feedback on ones we missed!

National Institutes of Health (NIH): The NIH hires scientists for both bench and non-bench positions in the intramural research program (IRP), as well as non-bench positions within the division of extramural science, which manages the grants process in order to fund science around the country and the world.

Department of Health & Human Services (HHS): As the parent agency of the NIH, this organization hires scientists to do administrative jobs understanding how to improve health care and fund science for America.

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC):  This agency is tasked with disease prevention and protection.  They have labs to understand the mechanisms of diseases and infectious agents, both at the bench and through epidemiology.  They also have administration jobs to help set policies and run the organization.

Food & Drug Administration (FDA): Most of the time people think of the FDA as only regulatory review; however, they have writing jobs, policy jobs, and science administration.  In addition, the FDA does a large amount of bench research in areas critical to the FDA mission. View more details here.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): The USDA has the Agriculture Research Service its division of lab positions.  There are also many laboratories across the US and the world to test our food supply safety.

National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA): NASA has an entire division set aside for biological research.

Department of Defense (DOD): The Department of Defense has many research programs housed in each branch of the military, and you can apply as a civilian (or opt to join the service).  These research programs focus on welfare of the military (protection and prevention), and also general labs for hospitals and forensics.  Also, there may even be faculty opportunities at the Academies.

Public Health Service: This is an all officer core tasked with protecting public health.  They have opportunities for scientists, clinicians, dentists, nurses, vets, and public health people.  Scientists in this group work all kinds of jobs both at the bench and away from the bench in the NIH, CDC, EPA and other government agencies.

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS): The medical/dental university of the armed services, which is located on the campus of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  This is a medical school with positions for faculty member (including research programs), and other types of academic support positions.

Veterans Affairs (VA): Bench based positions will be within the hospital laboratory systems.  Non-bench jobs can include policy and administration to improve the lives of American’s veterans.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): The EPA hires scientists to understand how things in our environment will affect humans and the world in which we live.  There are bench jobs examining environmental factors to our health, both from a basic science perspective from the NC facility and also from labs strategically placed around the country.  Administration jobs can range from science policy, grants administration, regulation, and more.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO): This organization reviews all patents submitted to the U.S. government.  Scientists review these patents according to their area of discipline.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): The FBI hires scientists as special agents and also to do research in the core labs (such as DNA forensics).

US Congress and Executive Branch: There are policy based jobs helping us guide science through the political process both in the US and abroad.  Congress has whole committees dedicated to science (like the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee or the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee).  The Executive Branch has the Office of Science and Technology Policy and also science policy within the State Department.

***

Now, many people think that the only way to get a job with the government is to go through USAjobs.gov.  Not true!  Most offices also use a variety of contracting firms to help fill openings (for example at the NIH we often use Kelly Scientific, SAIC, and Leidos).  Contracting jobs are a great way to get your foot in the door and gain additional skill sets to make you even more competitive for a federal position.   They are also typically hired much faster than positions within the federal system, and may or may not have the same citizenship requirements.  Most offices treat contractors just the same as they do federal employees, so do not feel like this is not a good option to help move your career forward.

Here is a list of contracting firms to explore; again, sure we missed some but this is a terrific start:

Contractors * Web Link
Booz Allen Hamilton http://www.boozallen.com/
CAMRIS International http://www.camris.com/
General Dynamics Information Technology http://www.gdit.com/
Kelly Scientific http://www.kellyservices.com/global/science/
KForce http://www.kforce.com/
The Henry M. Jackson Foundation (HJF) http://www.hjf.org/
Lab Support http://www.labsupport.com/
Lab Pros http://www.labprosinc.com/
The McConnell Group http://www.themccgroup.com
The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) http://orise.orau.gov/
Research Triangle Institute International (RTI) http://www.rti.org/
Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) http://www.saic.com/
TechFlow http://www.techflow.com/
Yoh Scientific http://jobs.yoh.com/
   

* Posting of these contractor names does not constitute endorsement by NIH OITE.

 

 

 

 


Before Accepting a Job Offer

April 16, 2018

Table with a croissant and black coffee with a woman writing in her daily planner.It can be easy to get swept up in the excitement of a job offer and immediately say, “Yes, I’ll accept!” During the interview, you probably already learned a lot about the organization and role; however, it is imperative that you take even more time – once an offer is in hand – to get clarity on job specifics. If you have recently been offered a position, here are some points to consider:

  1. Negotiate and confirm your salary while exploring options for bonuses.
    Salary negotiation can be stressful, but this is the only time in the entire job process when you can do it – take advantage! Here are some past blog posts on how to prepare when negotiating non-academic job offers and academic job offers.
  2. Clarify your title and the reporting structure for your role.
    This sounds pretty basic, right? It is surprising though how many times at OITE we hear trainees say they didn’t realize they’d be reporting to a postdoc or staff scientist instead of the PI. Make sure you are clear on the actual hierarchy within your new position and assess this person’s management style. Will it be a good fit for you?
  3. Understand your benefits and when they start.
    Employees have come to expect certain benefits be associated with their job – health coverage, retirement, commuting costs, tuition assistance, etc. Recognize that these benefits can widely vary between organizations. Additionally, they might not kick in immediately. Some organizations have a probationary period that you first must successfully complete. For example, at a new employee orientation, an employee was shocked to learn that health coverage didn’t start for two whole months. A delay in benefits can be costly, so be sure to ask these questions before you sign on the dotted line.

  4. Know how your performance will be evaluated/measured.
    What will be the main priorities for your role? In the first six months? First year? Are there certain metrics you will be required to meet? Even if the job isn’t in sales, many positions now quantify results they expect employees to hit. Ask this specific question now, so you aren’t surprised later. Also, try to ascertain if there are expectations to be “on” evening and weekends.One great way to do this is by…
  5. Meet your future colleagues.
    You have met your boss and your boss’s boss, but if you still haven’t met the team you will be working with day in and day out, then this should be a red flag. While it might not be completely transparent within the first meeting, you can get a glimpse of the work culture and office politics by meeting your future co-workers, either individually or in a group. This can also be a good chance to ask insightful questions to see if this work environment will ultimately be the best fit for you. Be sure to check out this past blog post on “Five Steps to Evaluate Organizational Culture Before You Accept the Offer”.

If you need more help evaluating a job offer, feel free to make an appointment with an OITE career counselor. The OITE can serve as a resource and sounding board as you embark on your decision-making process.


Family: An Important Influence in Career Decision Making

April 11, 2018

 

In recent weeks, many of our trainees have received offers to attend graduate school or for academic and industry jobs.  Others are making decisions about where to apply and what career paths to choose. While exciting, it also can be stressful to choose among various options and offers.  Here are a few family related questions that trainees bring to counseling sessions.

What are the best jobs for scientists with families?

We are returning to our home country to be near our family raise our children.  How can I go about finding a job abroad?

Should I disclose that I have a family during my interview?

Will you help me find job in industry because I need to make money to take care of my family?

My family wants me to be a doctor.  I want to do something else.

Will my family be able to live with me in graduate school?

How can I investigate school systems for my children when I accept a job?

I cannot decide if I want a master’s or PhD because I want to have children and don’t want to be in school for a long time.

What are the best companies for families?

We are an LGBT couple, what are the best places to work?

My parents are aging, so I need to be near them while raising my current family.  I need flexibility in my schedule which seems impossible as a scientist. What are my options?

As you can see from these questions, the impact of family can change over the course of your time as a trainee preparing for a career in the sciences.  Career counselors often encourage clients to engage in self- reflective assessment at each stage to help our clients make better informed career decisions with more confidence.  Here are a few questions to reflect upon:

Who is in your family currently?  Has this changed (i.e. marriage, children, extended family)

What people in your life encouraged/discouraged/challenged you in your career pursuit?

What messages did you receive from your family about your career choice? Ability to pursue this career?

What is going on in the world around you now that will impact your career choice?

Are you the first to pursue this path? Is your career choice the same as others in your family?

Will family be relocating with you during this choice of careers?

Have you considered housing, cost of living, school systems?

Are three expectations of your partner/spouse relative to your career choice?

In what way will your extended family be involved in your career plan?

 

The OITE provides a variety of programs and services that support trainees with families.  Feel free to make an appointment with a career counselor to discuss these or related to your career decision.  Visit our website to look at resources for trainees who are also parents and read the OITE Careers blogs “To Share or Not To Share: Family Planning in the Job Market and Scientists as Parents: A Balancing Act . If you are part of our extended readership beyond NIH, we encourage you to pursue similar services in your community.

 


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!

IMG_0690 (002)

  • 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.


Investing in Yourself: Knowing When to Seek Counseling

May 15, 2017

Post written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, Ph.D,. Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Office of Intramural Education and Training, National Institute of Health, Bethesda, MD Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

When our usual ways of coping are not working, it may be time to find a counselor. The reality is that most of us could benefit from professional counseling at various points in our life. I know for myself, the stresses and strains during my doctoral program was a time when going to counseling made all the difference. Since then, I think of obtaining counseling resources as investing in my own well being.  After all, we routinely take our cars in for tune-ups, our pets to the vet, and our bodies to the doctor for physicals.  Holistic self-care means investing in our own mental and emotional health, as well!

From talking with NIH fellows in wellness workshops and individual appointments, I know that many face a number of challenging life situations. For example, adjusting to being in a new geographical area in a large, competitive work environment without your usual or familiar supports.  Or trying to determine your own career path when what you’re interested in pursuing differs from the vision of parents, PIs, or mentors.  Or trying to excel at work while finding time to give to partners, spouses, children or other important people in your life.  Or struggling with trying to make your own health and wellbeing a priority when receiving messages that nothing matters but getting the work done.  And sometimes beginning to realize that patterns of behavior that you’ve used in the past just aren’t working anymore – and, in fact, may be making the situation worse.  All of these circumstances can be managed better with the help of focused and supportive counseling.

Some people are comfortable with the prospect of seeing a mental health professional, but others are not open to the idea. They may have an internalized belief that going to a counselor means that something is really wrong with you or that you are weak or that you are avoiding responsibility for your life.  These ideas often stem from 4 prevalent myths about counseling:

Myth #1: Only “crazy” people go to counseling.

Truth: Very few individuals receiving outpatient therapy fall within the “severe mental illness” categories. Most people seek counseling because of everyday stressors or difficult life situations.  A counselor can provide support and assistance in learning how to better cope with these as well as attend to any feelings of depression or anxiety that may be present.

Myth #2: Why can’t I just talk to my friends?!

Truth: Counselors differ from friends in many ways. Beyond the obvious difference of their years of training and experience, they rarely give advice or tell you what to do like well-meaning friends often try to do.  They are there to listen to you and help you come to your own decisions within a non-judgmental and supportive environment. They can also provide an important “mirror” for you to better understand what you’re going through.

Myth #3: Counselors always want to go back to your childhood and blame your parents for everything.

Truth: Counseling involves learning how to accept responsibility for your own life. Sometimes exploring childhood issues that may be contributing to your current situation is indicated, but not always.  The major focus is on changing perceptions and behaviors in your current life that are creating difficulties for you.

Myth #4: Therapy can take years – once you start, it never ends!

Truth: Most counseling is short-term (8-20 sessions) and focused on specific and attainable goals. Sometimes longer work is needed and desired, and other times people take a break for a while and come back to counseling later.  But the decision to end therapy is one you make with your counselor – you are not held captive!

The NIH Employee Assistance Program provides counseling services to help current employees with their health and wellness issues. The OITE also provides short-term wellness advising and can help you get connected with a local counselor.   We can help you understand the training and expertise of different kinds of counselors (e.g., social workers, licensed professional counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists) and what to look for in a counselor.  [You may want to get started by reading this article on “How to Choose a Counselor or Therapist”: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/how-to-find-a-therapist/] We can also help you better understand the insurance process.  So invest in yourself and contact us if you think you would benefit from some counseling.  We’re here to make the process easier!

 

 

 

 


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Chief Executive Officer

February 16, 2016

Name: Catherine C. Swanwick, PhD

Job Title & Company: CEO, Catlilli Games

Postdoc Advisor, IC: Dr. Robert Wenthold, NIDCD; PRAT Fellow through NIGMS

What was your career progression like after your postdoc?

Near the end of my postdoc, I wanted to look into details to gain experience away from the bench. I ended up getting a position as a Scientific Writer for a non-profit lab called MindSpec in McLean, VA. This was a good fit for me because I was a neurobiologist and I studied synapse development and regulation at the NIH, so I was able to contribute to the scientific conversations. I started doing bioinformatics research for them, but after a couple of years, I decided I wasn’t getting enough people interaction.

Even though I love research, I am more of a people person and I am more of a big picture person where I like to see the direct impact on people’s lives, so I found a job doing science education at a children’s science center. It was kind of like the Little Gym but for science, so we ran a lot of after school programs, fieldtrips, workshops, taught home school groups. I was there for two years as the Director of the Life Sciences Program. I wrote the entire curriculum for ages 3-14 for biology, chemistry, anything in life sciences. I also taught about 14-15 classes per week. It was a pretty intensive teaching boot camp. I worked really hard and since it had such a large age range, one hour you would be teaching three year olds about density, for example sinking or floating; then the next hour, you would be teaching middle schoolers about wave properties. You really just had to be ready for anything. I invented a lot of the curriculum on the fly based on what was or wasn’t working. I was used to the scientific world where I planned everything out very carefully and teaching wasn’t like that at all. I had to learn to improvise, teach different ages and simplify high-level concepts. I really enjoy bringing that cutting edge research world to kids.

While I was there, one of the things that I loved to do was to make games for my classes. I found it to be the most effective way of teaching kids and getting them to learn without realizing it. I would make up games that weren’t trivia games, but would use scientific concepts for the basis of the game. So, as you are playing it, you learn vocabulary and how things work. I had a colleague who did the same thing and he is a brilliant game designer, who has been really passionate about games his whole life. We started making games together that outside people noticed, like the Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences. After this, we realized there weren’t that many STEM applied games. There are math and trivia games, but not many games focusing on life sciences.

We decided to create our own company and together we co-founded Catlilli Games. The name is a combination of our names because my name is Catherine and his last name is Nardolilli, so that is how we got Catlilli. We formed it in January 2015, so we just celebrated our one year anniversary.

How has it been starting your own company?

I’m not a business person at all, but in many ways my training as a postdoc was like small business training because you learned how to manage people and how to budget as well as how to supervise and organize your time. Running a lab is like running a small business.

I have learned that it is not just science skills that you learn at the NIH, you learn a lot of things like management that are applicable in many jobs. I have learned a lot along the way, but my postdoc at the NIH really gave me a strong foundation.

So, I do the business part and my co-founder, Jon does the game design. It has gone really well because Jon has so many ideas and can just churn out games. In July of last year, we were accepted to George Mason University’s game institute. It is called Virginia Serious Game Institute, which isa business incubator for game companies. The other companies make computer games and we are the only tabletop game company. The mission is to make games that teach people and to make learning fun. The other companies focus on a variety of topics, but at Catlilli we focus on K-12 STEM.

We have residency at George Mason, so we occupy office space and we have business mentorship. It has been life changing for our company. We have quarterly deadlines within our year to help us create business plans and get IP patents and things like that. After a year, we graduate from this program but will most likely stay in residency at George Mason.

How did you learn about this opportunity?

I heard about it through the George Mason Enterprise Center, which help small businesses start. They told me about the game institute because I had never heard of such a thing. Apparently, this is the only one in the country but there are some in England that they modeled themselves after. There are world class computer game designers here, so it is really just remarkable. We applied and I didn’t think they would take us because we didn’t make computer games, but they did and they are really excited about our mission and they think it fills a space that isn’t being hit yet.

Since we’ve been here, we have actually been collaborating with the other companies and have been working to turn our tabletop games into apps that can go along with them. They have really liked working on this because the game mechanics are all worked out before moving on to the digital version.

How do you market your games?

We do a lot of events at museums and at schools and then we’ll sell the games. We also sell a lot to teachers and to home school families. In our first year, we haven’t produced a lot because we have been testing to make sure they are right. After we graduate from the institute in July, we are hoping to get investors to mass produce these games and go for a national market.

What has been the most rewarding part of this new venture?

My dream was to have my own lab. I love academia, research and the lab. I never wanted to go to industry. But, being in this position is like having my own lab — only my lab makes board games.

It is almost exactly the same thing, so it is really fun. We are making board games so we have to design them and plan them and test them and there is a lot of scientific method and analysis as well as communicating results to people. I still feel like I’m using that analytical part of my brain, but I also feel like it is toward something that is immediately applied and useful to people, providing more instant gratification. When I show the games to teachers and kids, it seems like everybody really enjoys them and I see that they learn a lot. They will come in not knowing anything about genetics and then they’ll play one of our games and they will leave talking about dominant and recessive genes and the combinations and what that means. That makes me really happy, especially since I feel like I haven’t wasted my training and I am still doing something that makes a significant impact on people’s lives.

What has been the biggest challenge in starting your own company?

I have no business training. I have had to learn how to write a business plan and do finances and all the really fine details. It has been a steep learning curve but I have really great business mentors at Mason, so that has been comforting. It is still a challenge because it is out of my realm.

What are the most important skills which have enabled you to be successful?

I think communication skills because when I was a postdoc, I loved presenting and writing. I enjoyed synthesizing information and presenting it to people. Knowing and connecting with your audience has gotten me far. When we applied for George Mason, I had to come for an interview; on paper I didn’t look like a good candidate. I am a scientist with no business background and I didn’t make computer games. But, I feel like I convinced them that I was passionate about this and dedicated to STEM education. I think that is what got me into the program. My ability to impress upon people that this is a really important issue and we need to connect the cutting edge science world with the education system and I am uniquely suited to do it.

What advice can you give to a postdoc who would like to pursue a similar path?

A lot of postdocs have the ability to have their own small business. If they are interested at all and are creative and have that initiative, the best thing I did was to volunteer in FELCOM. When I was at the NIH, I was in FELCOM and I co-chaired the Career Development and Social Committee. That taught me so much about how organizations work and how people interact with each other, as well as how formal meetings go. I learned so much from getting outside the lab and getting involved in committee work. That type of experience gave me a lot of practical skills.

What are you the most proud of?

We have gotten two awards recently. We were selected in December by the Washington Post as a semi-finalist in their pitch contest. It was kind of like Shark Tank in a way. They picked ten young start-up companies out of 200 nationwide and we were one of them. We had to go downtown to the Washington Post office and give a one minute pitch to try and win $250,000 in advertising.

Out of all the talks that I have ever given, that was the most stressful ever. I was in front of a crowd of 300 people and there were cameras on me. It was stressful, but giving talks at the NIH – so many posters and so many powerpoints – was really good preparation. I kept telling myself it is just like a science talk and it is just one minute.

Even though we didn’t win, it was really exciting and we got a huge amount of exposure.

Last month, we were chosen as a finalist for the Duke University Startup Challenge. I went to Duke as an undergrad and they have this competition every year since 1999. There is one for undergrads and one for alumni, so we are in the alumni competition. So, we were chosen to be in the finals and we launched a campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing campaign. We are competing to raise money against other Duke alumni and faculty.

Any last bits of advice?
I wish more postdocs would make the connection between lab and business. I feel that if more postdocs realized this, then they could certainly launch their own biotech startup or whatever it might be. Now that I think about it, George Mason has biotech incubator for businesses that do bench lab work and are trying to get off the ground.

But, I love to work and I am used to that research life where you just work, work, work. I take all of the skills from the lab and I use it here. I have learned how to be self-disciplined through doing my PhD and then doing my postdoc project and I don’t need somebody standing over me telling me to work. I credit a lot of these lab skills with teaching me how to be independent.

My biggest advice is just to not be in the lab all day, especially at NIH where there are so many amazing opportunities that you can’t get anywhere else. Whether it is through volunteering or seminars, get out of the lab.


Super Activity – Life Roles Worksheet

February 2, 2016

Last week, we provided an overview on a relevant career  development theory. Now that you have an understanding of Super’s Life-Span/Life-Space Theory, let’s take a moment to further explore its applicability to real life. We often see individuals dealing with a variety of issues that relate to this theory, including the following:

  • Many fellows have been intensely focused on their role as a “student” or a “trainee” and have a difficult time seeing how their skills and professional identity can transfer to a new role.
  • After a PhD and postdoc, more roles often get added and intensified, sometimes so rapidly that an individual doesn’t recognize that their values around these roles are changing.
  • Even if they do recognize that their values and priorities are changing, they don’t always own them or feel free to acknowledge them. This often happens in part because they have been in environments with less ambiguity and/or complexity.
  • Complexity often comes with additional roles. It can be harder to say what’s important when you are not only considering yourself, but your lab work, your mentor, your partner/spouse/significant other, your child(ren), your ill or aging parents, your leisure pursuits, and the list can go on and on.

Maybe some of these points resonated with you. Combining all of these factors with the need to find another job in a complex and often changing world of work can make things quite challenging to say the least.

As noted, Super’s theory challenges individuals to construct their own identification and understanding of all of their life-space identities. Your life roles will likely change overtime depending on your particular stage of life; however, also remember that not all roles hold the same value to you. Additionally, you might have a co-worker or a boss who highly values a life-space that seems unimportant to you. Given all of this, it can be hard to be introspective and identify what is most meaningful for you, right now in this very moment.

This can also be a useful framework to think about when trying to achieve life balance. A blogger created a Balancing Life Roles Worksheet, where you estimate how much time you currently spend in each role and how much time you would prefer to spend in each role. This can be a good way to keep tally; however, it also often helps to visualize it, so career counselors often recommend a life roles activity.

Draw a large circle on a sheet of paper. Then using this as a pie chart, divide the circle into various “life role wedges” that represent the different “hats” that you wear in your life. The size of the wedges should coincide with the prominence of each role. For example if you feel that a work or family role is how you primarily define yourself, then that role make take up a significant chunk of the circle. See the example below and try it out for yourself.

Image of a pie chart with different colored wedges representing a different life role.