Behavioral Interviewing for Scientists

April 11, 2017

Behavior based interviewing is an effective tool used by many science industry recruiters and graduate/professional school admissions officers.   They differ from technical or scientific interviews because they are designed to give a glimpse into how you will perform in the future on “soft skills” by having you reflect and talk aloud about behaviors that you have done in the past. The answers that you provide will inform the interviewer about your potential for succeeding in their organization or school based on your experience in such areas as being an effective team player, ethical and professional, and using your critical thinking , leadership, communication, and problem solving skills.

Often interspersed with scientific interview questions, behavioral interview inquiries will usually start with, “Tell me about a time when…,” or “Give me an example of a time when….”  The best responses to require you to specifically describe actions and behaviors that you used in the past s and then describe the outcomes from this approach.   The SAR technique is an excellent formula to use to create the best answer. Memorize the following acronym and then recall it when you are answering questions.

S              Situation – the background to the problem that you are going to discuss

A             The actions (behaviors) that you took to address the situation from this role

R             The results of your actions

The more thoroughly you describe your behaviors the better the interviewer is able to visualize you fitting into their organization.   You can use examples from the lab, graduate or undergraduate school, internships, work, community, and leadership roles.  Industry and academic examples are welcome.  Here are a few behavioral interview questions for you to try:

  • Tell about a time when you had to make a difficult decision at work.
  • Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure.
  • Give me an example of when you showed initiative and took the lead.
  • Give an example of a time when you had to arrive at a compromise with members of your team.
  • Describe a situation in which you had to adjust to changes over which you had no control.
  • Give an example of how you set goals and achieve them.
  • Tell me about how you worked effectively under pressure.
  • What do you do if you disagree with your boss?
  • What do you do if you disagree with your co-worker?
  • How you would you deal with a co-worker who wasn’t doing his or her share of the work.

Your interviewer may ask additional clarifying questions such as:

  • What were you thinking at that point?
  • Tell me more about what you specifically did at that time?
  • Lead me through your decision-making process.

Although awkward, go ahead and answer their questions because they are attempting to understand the full spectrum of specific behaviors that you used in the situation.

To prepare for the behavioral interviews, identify several examples of past experiences in which you utilized the soft skills mentioned earlier.  Select examples where you accomplished something, overcame an obstacle, or something did not go as planned.   Feel free to choose academic experiences and non-academic experiences.  Next, practice answering the questions using the SAR technique.

For more practice, visit the OITE website  make an appointment for a mock interview with a career counselor to receive constructive feedback on your answers to behavioral interview questions.  We encourage you to visit our interviewing blogs or skills workshops.

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.


Analyzing the NIH Alumni Database: Where are our NIH postdocs going?

March 13, 2017

In the OITE we are often asked about the career paths of former postdocs. While we do not conduct mandatory exit surveys, we do have some data from the OITE NIH Alumni Database. This database is populated as fellows leave the NIH. To date it contains about 1100 entries. Of those, 639 contain career information that we have been able to analyze. Caveat: this information is only from former trainees who have voluntarily created entries in the database; it does not capture the full range nor percentage of actual career paths*.

PDAlum Figure 1
We began by comparing data on our intramural research program (IRP) alumni to the data published in the 2012 NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report (BWF). This report analyzed a post-training workforce of 128,000 people in terms of six categories. Academic Research/Teaching accounted for 43% of the workforce, followed by Science-Related, non-Research (individuals employed by industry, government, non-profits who do not conduct research) and Industrial Research at 18% each. The Non-Science-Related workforce employed 13%, and Government Research accounted for an additional 6%. Two percent reported they were unemployed.
In Figure 1 we show that fractions of IRP alumni who have continued in Academic/Research Teaching (39%) and Industrial Research (14%) were similar to those in the national BWF survey. However, far more IRP alumni continued in Government Research (15% of NIH IRP vs 6% in the national survey) and Science-Related, non-Research (33% of NIH IRP vs 18% for the national survey) careers, while far fewer went on to careers in non-Science-Related professions (< 1% vs 13%). No one in our alumni database reported that they were unemployed.
Our percentage of alumni staying in government research is higher than the national average (15% vs. 6%). This is not surprising that some fellows choose to stay as staff scientists or become tenure track within the IRP. The information of what careers are considered non-science related was difficult to find. Our analysis of alumni careers suggests that science-related non-research careers are more common than the national average.
Dissecting the Academic Research/Teaching data provides us with more information about what types of positions are held in this sector, Figure 2.

PDAlum Figure 2

This category includes only positions directly associated with research or teaching; careers in academic institutions in offices such as tech transfer, policy, academic affairs, etc. are counted in the Science-Related, Non-Research category. Three-quarters of alumni in this sector are in academic tenure-track or tenured positions. In fact 192 total alumni in the database are tenured or tenure track faculty (185 are in academics and 7 in government research). From this data we predict that 30% of IRP alumni have tenured or tenure track faculty positions.
The data for the Science-Related Non-research careers demonstrates the breadth of career options that are available for PhD-trained scientists, Figure 3. We binned careers based on the job titles that were submitted to the alumni database. Discerning the exact jobs of the 25% of reported careers in program management/analysis is challenging. The titles range from program coordinator to manager, director and advisor. Similarly, it is very likely that the 5% of alumni that report working in grants (as program officers, analysts, or review) is low due to the lack of precision in the job titles within the program management/analysis category. The data still provide evidence that program administration (making sure that science runs) is a common career choice. Science policy is a career path selected by 20% NIH of reported alumni. These careers are in all sectors, but are mainly spilt between the Federal government and non-profits (i.e., professional societies). Other career choices reflected in Figure 3 show the breath of career choices for NIH postdocs.

PDAlum Figure 3

If you want any addiional information about the careers in these categories we suggest that you explore the alumni database. As a current fellow with an OITE account you can search the database: https://www.training.nih.gov/alumni. Additionally, you can use the contact information in the alumni database to set up informational interviews as you plan your career post-NIH.
In 2017 we hope you will help us with this data project! Are you an NIH alum? If so, join the database or update your earlier submission. Last year around 800 people logged-in to the database and updated their information. But we still have too many gaps. 460 postdocs, for example, have an alumni database account that include no information about their current position. Only have ~20% of our postdocs* actually contribute to the database. The OITE really does want to know where you are! Current and future postdocs want to be able to see career trends and how training at the NIH might influence their career choices. So join the database or update your record now: https://www.training.nih.gov/alumni/register
*The database was built in June 2010. We estimate that 800 postdocs per year leave the NIH. Therefore the maximum sample size could be ~5200 alumni. With 1100 reporting that represents 21.2% of the potential sample size.

To learn about the full range of services and programs offered by the Office of Intramural Training and Education, visit us at https://www.training.nih.gov.

 


Five Steps to Evaluate Organizational Culture Before You Accept the Offer

February 28, 2017

One of the most important criteria to consider during the job, graduate school, or Postdoc search is to learn about the culture of the place where you are applying.   This means to gather information about the employee’s opinions of the work environment, the support and benefits that they receive, and the values that drive the organization. This is important because you will work and /or study in this environment for many years and you want to find a good fit for your interests and personal style.  But how do you assess this when you are applying?

Step 1: Learn about and list your values

  • Factor in your personal and work values into your career decision. For example, if you value work where you have multiple work assignments, a culture that values family, work-life balance, opportunities to publish, and/or working in an urban environment, then these will become the criteria that you use when considering multiple options.
  • Meet with a career counselor who will help you to identify a broad range of important work values through the use of career assessments around values, interests and skills

Step 2: Research the organization for information about their values

  • Look for a mission and/or value statements
  • Read the job description carefully for words that give you a glimpse into the culture. For example, wording such as collaborative, team, independently, diverse, fast-paced, results oriented, balance multiple priorities, etc. shed light upon the nature of the work environment.
  • Conduct informational interviews with alumni, colleagues, PIs, Postdocs, etc. Connect via Linked In who are familiar with the organization.
  • Listen to what your mentors and colleagues say about the organization.
  • Attend the NIH Career Symposium or the 2017 NIH Graduate and Professional School Fair so that you can meet NIH Alumni, current employees, and recruitment professionals who will give informational sessions and answer specific questions about their environment.
  • Explore employer surveys such as the ones posted on the AAAS , Corporate Quality IndexThe Scientist, Science Magazine.

Step 3:  Listen closely during your interview

  • Listen carefully to the questions that are asked during an interview. Is there a common thread that gives you some insight?
  • How were you treated when you arrived to the interview? Who greeted you, were they pleasant, outgoing, distant, stressed?
  • Was the host(s) welcoming, approachable, resourceful?
  • Were there any specific qualifications that the interviewer stated about their culture (i.e. fast-paced, long days, independent, work interdependently, cultural diversity)?

Step 4:  Ask Good Questions during the Interview

  • Ask interviewers to describe the environment.
  • Learn about opportunities for professional development.
  • Ask if employees work as a team, independently, collaboratively.
  • Ask the employers to describe a typical week.
  • Ask about work-life balance.

Professional/ graduate school and Post Doc opportunities:

  • Ask faculty and students to describe the culture?
  • Learn how the curriculum structured and how students study.
  • Review OITE blogs to learn how to select a mentor.
  • Attend the second look (medical schools) and or pre-matriculation program.
  • Learn about opportunities to become involved in the community.
  • Ask about students support services are available to support wellness.
  • Are there special interest groups or student organizations? Where do participants live? Is there family housing and partner benefits?
  • How is research, conference and publishing encouraged?
  • Determine how the school /department supports diversity and inclusion.

Step 5: Create a spread sheet to evaluate each opportunity

  • List the places where you are applied on the left column.
  • Write your personal values on the top row.
  • Place a check mark and any comments in each box for each organization.
  • Analyze your results to determine which organizations one(s) have the most values.
  • Note the organizations that have the closest match to your values.
  • Factor into any additional criteria.

Feel free to visit the OITE https://www.training.nih.gov to meet with career counselors, Premedical school advisors, and wellness counselors who can further support you during this process.  Also see our events and services.

* 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.

 


Where Do I Begin? Industry Careers for Scientists

February 13, 2017

One of the most challenging questions that developing scientists must answer is, “Should I pursue an academic or industry career?” For some, the pursuit of an academic career  is their path of choice.  For scientists who wish to pursue industry careers, the answer is more difficult to come by because they lack sufficient knowledge of how to pursue the variety of careers in industry.

This OITE Archives post will help scientists to answer this question by providing suggesting the following OITE Archives to begin gathering information about career paths for scientists.    To begin, read the following articles about moving from Industry to Academia and the Top 10 Myths about careers in industry discussed by guest blogger, Professor Brad Fackler.

Next, read through several of the recently published OITE Career Options Series blogs about popular careers for scientists. The information is still relevant and worth reviewing as part of your career decision-making process.

For those who have an interest in working abroad, here are several blogs that will open your eyes to career global opportunities for scientists

If graduate or professional school is needed as part of the pathway to an industry career the following posts will be helpful.

Will a Master’s Degree Get You Where You Want to Go?

Getting In: Everything You want To Know About the Graduate and Professional School Applications

We encourage you schedule informational interviews with NIH alumni and scientists employed in industry to learn more about how they made the transition.  Schedule an appointment with a career counselor to learn more about careers and how values, interests, skills, and lifestyle and how they factor into your decision.   Finally, attend our various career development programs such as the NIH Career Symposium to gather career information from NIH alumni help you make this important career choice.


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


On the Road Again: Actively Forging Your Career Path

September 26, 2016

Image of green mountains and a roadPerhaps more so than ever, it seems that finding a well-paying and rewarding job can be a difficult task for young adults. According to analysis of the 2014 Current Population Survey, median income for people between 25 and 34 has decreased in every major industry since the Great Recession, with the exception of the healthcare industry. In addition, the underemployment rate for recent college grads is still at its highest point since the year 2000 — about 7 percent.  According to the New York Fed “the share of underemployed college graduates in good non-college jobs has fallen sharply, while the share working in low-wage jobs has risen.” In a tough job market, where rewarding work experience which also pays well is hard to find and highly competitive, here are a couple of ways you can take your career path into your own hands.

Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of finding a career is the process of taking your own concepts of a field of interest, work preferences, and vision of your future, and boiling it down to workable tasks toward achieving concrete goals. One effective strategy is the Active Career Exploration Strategy (ACE) in exploring your preferences and connecting with employers. We will discuss the ACE plan in depth in next week’s blog, but in the meantime as an exercise, try allotting 2 hours of free time toward strategic career exploration. Start with some self-reflection: think about all the components of a job/career that most matter to you, and try to make a list of the three most important points. From this list, start researching potential careers that interest you, and make a workable list. Keep in mind that you may come across a career you did not know existed (for example, if you like biology, but are not interested in working in the lab, perhaps bioinformatics is a field worth looking into.) Once you have found a career that seems of interest, start looking for people to contact in order to learn more. LinkedIn is a great tool to find professionals to contact for informational interviews, and you can also spark curiosity by looking at TedTalk videos related to your field of interest. Once you have found someone whose work you are interested in, start drafting questions for them, and contact them for an informational interview.

Another important skill to have in all steps of career exploration is to understand the competition in your field. Whether you are applying to a job in the private or public sector, research or non-research, getting a sense of the relevant and in-demand skills is absolutely crucial to being a competitive candidate. This can be done by reading articles online, speaking to friends and family working in a similar career, and especially by setting up informational interviews. Once you have gotten a sense of what these skills are, you can make sure to highlight these skills on your resume if you already have experience in this skill, or invest time in learning the skill in order to become a more appealing candidate.

Although knowing your skills and preferences is crucial in finding a good career match, one very common misconception is that finding this match is solely up to you. To the contrary, Jeffrey Kudisch of the Robert H. Smith School of Business suggests that the best way to finding a good job is to assemble a “job search work team,” or “a group of people committed to helping each other” find optimal career matches and professional success. Kudisch explains this optimal career team as being between five and eight people who are centered around a central career focus or niche, yet not too similar in their skills and outlooks. Team members must also complement each other in their skills and outlooks, and must also meet regularly to set and work towards measurable, attainable goals. With an optimal job search team, you can utilize knowledge and wisdom beyond your own in order to find what career works best for you.

No matter your field of work and level of experience, job searching and career planning can be an exhausting and even terrifying experience. Despite this, it is important to remember that you have the power to find a rewarding career path for yourself, and there are always resources available to help you find the perfect career if you get lost. For additional resources, check out the OITE Careers Blog, or schedule an appointment with OITE’s Career Services Department.


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.