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.

scorecard1-002

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.

scorecard-3

                        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

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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


Public Speaking for Introverts

August 15, 2016

According to Chapman University’s Survey of American Fears, public speaking is the number one fear. For Americans, it beat out heights, bugs, snakes, flying, clowns, and even drowning!  So, given the anxiety surrounding public speaking, if you are reading this in North America, then there is a good chance that public speaking makes you a tiny bit nervous.

Graph showing what Americans are afraid of - Public Speaking #1

In the world of work though, especially in science, you have to present all the time.  How then can you get over a public speaking phobia, especially if you are a self-described shy introvert?

Here, we have compiled a list of relevant links which will hopefully give you some tips and even inspiration to tackle your next presentation with confidence:

  1. Susan Cain, the author of the book Quiet – The Power of Introverts wrote a great article  for Psychology Today on “10 Public Speaking Tips for Introverts.”
  2. What Grey’s Anatomy Creator, Shonda Rhimes, Can Teach Us Introverts about Public Speaking is a catchy title and a great article from Career Coach, Lindsey Plewa-Schottland on how she overcame her fear of public speaking. Hint: preparation was key!
  3. Watch this TED talk on Secrets to Great Public Speaking to help you tailor your next presentation to make it go from good to great.

When trying to improve any skill, public speaking included, preparation and practice are two essential components.  If you are at the NIH, it might help you to get involved with the NIH Toastmasters Club, with open meetings every Friday at noon.  Toastmasters is an international organization with clubs and meetings all across the world aimed at helping you become a confident speaker and a strong leader.

What has helped you get over public speaking anxiety? Let us know with a comment below.


Revealers and Hiders: Discussing Vulnerability in the Workplace

May 16, 2016

Discussing one’s weaknesses in the workplace can be a challenge, especially in the rigorous environment of research and academia. In a competitive atmosphere, students/trainees want to appear confident and skilled, and are hesitant to give off the impression that they are unable or unwilling to complete a task. Instead of communicating effectively, students often decide to cover up their weaknesses in hopes of learning new skills to move past them.

But is this strategy effective?

Dr. Brené Brown is a professor and researcher at the University of Houston who studies vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her decade-long research on shame, composed of focus groups, interviews, and journal pages, showed a separation between people who had a sense of worthiness – who believed that they were worthy of love and belonging, and people who instead felt more shame and fear. Analysis of qualitative data from this cohort showed that they in fact live differently from the shame cohort– they live whole-heartedly. They had a sense of courage – as Brown puts it, “the courage to be imperfect.” This ability to “own weakness” gave them a sense of authenticity, and a capacity to be compassionate to themselves, which in turn led to a better sense of connection and compassion towards others.

Most importantly, Brown juxtaposed the outlook on vulnerability of this whole-hearted cohort to that of the shame cohort from her previous research, explaining “they didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating, as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary.” As opposed to seeing vulnerability in a debilitating way, this cohort was able to utilize their weaknesses to make themselves stronger.

Research at the Harvard Business School extends upon this idea of conceptualizing and communicating vulnerability, concluding that, in fact, divulging unflattering information about oneself is perceived better by prospective employers rather than hiding it. Participants evaluated two different job applications that asked applicants the lowest grade they had ever received on a test. Revealer/Hider conditions indicated either a grade of an F, or chose not to answer. Participants had to estimate the actual grade, indicate which of the two applicants they trusted more, and select the candidate they were most likely to hire. On average, Hiders were deemed less trustworthy than Revealers, and were also less likely to be hired by participants, despite the fact that they were perceived to score higher on the exam.

Although divulging one’s weaknesses in a professional context – whether that is a job interview or on the job itself – can be hard to do, learning to utilize and effectively communicate weakness and vulnerability are crucial parts of working as a successful professional.

Mentors and colleagues can’t help you if you don’t clarify areas of need.  Doing so could lead to better suggestions and advice for your own professional development as well as an increase in your overall holistic health.


6 Writing Rules

April 29, 2015

Image of a book cover entitled, "Politics and the English Language, An Essay by George Orwell"George Orwell was an English novelist, essayist and journalist; among some of his most famous works are the novels 1984, Animal Farm and Down and Out in Paris and London. He outlined six rules for better writing in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He noted “But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails.”

The following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    Orwell encouraged you to ask yourself: “What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” Overused phrases like “leave no stone unturned” or “toe the line” often fall flat because they are so common.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    It is great to have a robust vocabulary, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to find fancy synonyms for all of your words. Many break this rule when writing personal statements or cover letters in an attempt to impress the reader.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    Clear and concise writing often doesn’t happen in the first draft. You will need to edit, edit, and then edit some more.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    Writers frequently break this rule, especially when writing resume bullets. An active voice is better because it is often shorter and more powerful. Not sure of the difference between an active voice and passive voice? Here is an example.  Passive: The boy was bitten by the dog. Active: The dog bit the boy.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    This rule applies to non-academic writing because obviously scientific literature and publications will contain highly specific and technical language. For non-academic writing, it is important to follow this rule so that a layperson can understand.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
    This last rule seems to be tacked on as a reminder to use your common sense about the application of the first five rules. Also, it seems Orwell could have followed rule #2 more closely and found another word for barbarous.

NOTE: Orwell applied the rules to politicians and political speak. You might be interested in his thoughts. Whether you are writing a personal statement, a cover letter or simply just an email, try these rules out.

Let us know what you think? What are some of your rules for writing well?



What Are My Transferable Skills?

March 23, 2015

Image of a stick figure with a question mark over head with different colored arrows pointing in different directions.Whether you are seeking a career in academia, industry, government or the non-profit sector, it is important to communicate your skills to employers. There are skills that almost every employer seeks no matter the sector. These often include: analytical, writing, leadership, communication and problem solving skills. Your work as a trainee has given you many opportunities to develop these skills. As emphasized in a Science Careers article, “The Transferable Postdoc,” don’t underestimate these abilities.

You can identify skills that you have already developed which will transfer to your next professional position. If you think about examples that show when you used these skills, you will be more confident about presenting these skills to potential employers.

In a training position, you may have strengthened your skills in a variety of ways. A postdoc experience is deconstructed as an example in the chart below:

Transferable Skill
Application of Skill
Analytical and
Problem-Solving Skills
Designing, planning and trouble-shooting projects
 Writing Skills Writing memos, reports and
papers for publication
 Public Speaking   Skills  Presenting your work in a lab
meeting or at a professional conference
 Communication Skills  Negotiating how to carry out projects/experiments with your
PI and/or colleagues
 Leadership Skills  Mentoring postbacs, graduate
students and other lab technicians

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has determined six core competencies and they even created a self-assessment checklist to help you rate your current level. This can help you identify any gaps in your skills set. If you haven’t yet taken time to focus on some of these skill areas, particularly the communication and leadership skills, you can find opportunities now to get involved. Organizations like Felcom, your professional associations and NIH Institutes or Centers can provide good opportunities to develop skills.

• Volunteer to work on a committee or group to plan an event or program.
• Volunteer to mentor postbacs or summer students.
• (Professional Development) workshops and events also provide ways to strengthen skills or learn new ones. At the NIH, the OITE offers workshop on topics that include: teaching science, leadership, how to deal with conflict and many others. Check with your institutions to see what services they provide.

There are many other resources available to help you identify your strengths and skills. Start with myIDP*, http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/. This assessment tool will get you started thinking about skills interests and values, and can help you start planning your next career step with more confidence.

As a follow up, then meet with a career counselor, who can help you with goal setting and career planning as well. If you are an intramural trainee, you can make a free individual appointment with a career counselor by going to: https://www.training.nih.gov/career_services.

 

*Noting this resource does not constitute an endorsement by NIH OITE