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.

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Negotiating Across Cultures

July 30, 2018

It can be difficult enough to negotiate within your own home culture, but it can become even more trying when cultural differences are factored in. You have probably noticed cultural differences when communicating and collaborating with international labs. Language barriers aside, the way messages are received can vary widely and are often viewed through a cultural lens.

Erin Meyer, Professor at INSEAD, and the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through Invisible Boundaries of Global Business has been studying this topic for years. You can watch an interesting video on international communication styles at Harvard Business Review entitled “Getting to Yes Across Cultures”.

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She also created a spectrum and sorted nationalities based on how confrontational and emotionally expressive they are. For example, the U.S. is considered mildly emotionally expressive and confrontational. In America, it is quite common to say, “I totally disagree.” This could seem like a banal statement; however, in other cultures, this same sentence could provoke anger and a breakdown within the relationship and the negotiation. It might be better to be less blunt and say things like, “I don’t quite understand your point. Can you explain more?”

Some cultures, like Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, view open disagreement as a positive as long as it is expressed calmly. Whereas in cultures like Japan and Korea, any disagreement could be seen as a failure. So, the next time you are heading into a big meeting or negotiation, take a moment to remember how your own cultural lens might affect your perceptions all the while recognizing how this might be the same or different for your counterpart.


A Tool for Feedback: Situation – Behavior – Impact (SBI)

July 16, 2018

In last week’s blog, we discussed difficult conversations at work. Today, we are going to focus on a tool which helps give you a framework for starting that convo and offering feedback. Created by the Center for Creative Leadership, the SBI Feedback Tool offers a simple structure that you can utilize straightaway.

  1. Situation
    Puts the feedback in context by attaching it to a time, place, or specific circumstance

    For example: “During yesterday’s lab meeting, when you asked me for an update on my project…”

  2. Behavior
    Describe what you observed and clearly state the observable action

    For example: “During yesterday’s lab meeting, when you asked me for an update on my project, you interrupted and contradicted me three times…”

  3. Impact
    Outlines the feeling and thoughts which happened as a result

    For example: “During yesterday’s lab meeting, when you asked me for an update on my project, you interrupted and contradicted me three times. I felt I wasn’t given a chance to properly give an overview of my work and I was embarrassed in front of my lab-mates.”

Once you have given your feedback, be sure to allow the person time to comprehend what you have said. It is important to give the individual a chance to respond and you should check in with them by asking “How do you feel about this feedback? Is there anything you don’t agree with or that I missed?” Be sure to then offer specific suggestions that would help avoid conflict in future scenarios. For example: “Can we meet one-on-one to discuss your concerns with my work? Then, can we find time next week for me to present all of my data to the rest of the lab?” It is not enough to go into a conversation to just complain about what happened. Try to move the conversation into a more action-oriented and solution-focused approach.

The final step in this feedback scaffold is to summarize and express support. An example of how this might look with this particular scenario is: “I appreciate your willingness to review my project on Monday and it sounds like we are going to try again at next Thursday’s lab meeting.”

Conflict can be especially taxing when it is with your boss. Try your best to understand their preferred method in dealing with these issues and approach it in a way that will enhance their openness to hearing your feedback. It can help if you frame the problem in a work productivity way. For example: “I have found that I work best when X and I feel that putting Y system into place will help with my work flow. Would this work with you?”


Difficult Work Conversations

July 9, 2018

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Are you dreading a difficult work conversation? Perhaps you are already anticipating it will result in conflict. At work, conflict typically occurs when there are different perceptions regarding: 1. Tasks/Goals 2. Process – Methods, Quality, Timing, Resources 3. Status/Roles and 4. Relationship – Personalities and Values.

In a survey of scientists, more than two-thirds report having between 1-5 “uncomfortable interactions” with people at work each week. More than 75% report spending about 10-25% of their time on “people problems”. Take a moment and reflect on how you typically respond to conflict? Some people feed off conflict and it energizes them; while others feel extremely drained by conflict and have a strongly avoidant reaction. Conflict is very personal and we all tend to respond in different ways, which can reflect both a mix of our cultural/familial upbringing, our own personality preferences, and our feelings about the issue at hand. Both sides often have strong emotions which leak into the whole situation. Here are some responses you might encounter in yourself or others when giving difficult feedback or having a strained conversation.

  • Avoidance – Not responding and withdrawing either immediately or in days to follow
  • Excess Emotion – Tears, anger, sarcasm
  • Denial – “No, I didn’t…”
  • Generalization – “Everyone else does the same thing…”
  • Over personalization – Feeling unnecessarily called out “Why don’t you like/support/value me?”
  • Rigidity and Focus on Rules – “You said do X and I did X.”
  • Attacking the Source – Yelling, threatening “Who are you to tell me that?”
  • Explaining without owning – Citing personal reasons, stress, deadlines, etc.

It can be easy to identify these responses in others, but not necessarily see it in yourself. Remember to pay attention to what your inner voice is saying; and, if needed, reframe it accordingly. How can you do this though when emotions are running high and your inner tape is on a constant negative loop?

    1. Breathe & Slow Down The calmer and more centered you are, the more likely you will be to handle difficult conversations and/or any negative feedback you could receive. Take regular intervals or breaks on days that are especially stressful, whether that is a walk or an extra coffee break. Try to lower your overall stress level before the conversation begins. Likewise, during a conversation, try to slow the pace. Being mindful of your cadence and pausing every now and then can help defuse the tension.
    2. Be compassionate Try to adopt the other’s point of view for a moment. What frustrations might they be feeling? If you feel your boss is being too hard on you, it might be because they are getting pressured from their boss. Recognize there might be professional or personal pressure points on the other person of which you aren’t fully aware. It can be difficult when negative emotions are running high but try to assume the best instead of the worst.
    3. Change Mindset
      Once you label a conversation as potentially difficult, you are more likely to feel much more nervous about it beforehand. Likewise, this is true if you label a person as trying. Do your best to neutralize the interaction ahead of time and you will likely have a much more positive outcome. 

It can be tempting to avoid the face-to-face confrontation and try to settle conflict by email; however, it is extremely likely that an email communication will only exacerbate the situation. It is hard to read tone and other cues for meaning and usually the content is misinterpreted in a negative way. So, do your best to prepare yourself and go and have the conversation you have been putting off!


Managing Summer Interns – Tips for Mentors

June 11, 2018

Last week, we started to welcome summer interns to the NIH campus and shared some resources which might be of interest specifically for them.  This week, we are focusing on tips for mentors. So, if you will be mentoring an intern this summer, be sure to read on!

Mentors may find it difficult to find time and energy to manage and train someone, all while trying to satisfy their own work demands. In addition, teaching and training someone is a skill that must be practiced. If you are new at it, it can cause stress for all parties involved. Wondering how you can improve upon your own mentoring skills?

Here are some ideas for mentors:

Be mindful in selecting your mentee. The mentoring relationship, if conducted with care, can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both mentee and mentor. If the match does not fit though, it can also result in a lot of stress and unnecessary effort on both ends. Therefore, it is crucial that the mentor chooses their mentee with care. Assessing the mentee’s motivation, taking similarities and differences into account, and starting the mentorship with a trial period are all steps both parties can take to ensure a successful match. Selecting a good mentee also requires self-knowledge: what are your strengths and weaknesses, how much time and effort do you have aside from your own work, and how many mentees can you realistically take on?

Set clear expectations for performance from the start. In addition to getting used to the new workflow, mentees are also likely getting used to personalities and working styles of their new colleagues and superiors. As this takes time, being explicit about your objectives and expectations for the relationship from the get go will result in more productivity and a better mentoring relationship. Be sure to challenge your mentee, but do not set expectations so high that they feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Once you have seen the mentee’s performance, it is crucial to offer honest, specific feedback on a regular basis. Everyone loves positive feedback, but it is usually the negative feedback that sparks more learning and change. In instances where negative feedback is needed, it can be helpful to start off with a positive comment/suggestion, and perhaps end with one too. Once you have a sense that your mentee has attained mastery, escalate their responsibility over time to boost their confidence. Make sure to accelerate at a slow enough pace though!

Be accessible. Especially in the beginning. Even with the best communication and clear expectations in place, it can be difficult in a busy research environment to keep up to date and on the same page with both day to day tasks and long term goals. Projects and daily objectives change, mentees can learn of new opportunities that change their perspective. Therefore, keeping regular meetings, both formal and informal, can be a great way to check in, keep in the loop, and stay on the same page. Sometimes meetings are best in a formal context, but informal meetings over lunch or coffee can also help build rapport, and convey what you want in a more effective manner. No matter the context of the meeting, it is important for both parties to practice active listening, which includes dedicating full attention to the discussion, good eye contact, and engaging body language. In some settings, mentees could greatly benefit from even working directly with the mentor on a project; giving them direct exposure in your research and working methods could give them lifelong methods. No matter how you do it, it is imperative that you spend time engaging directly with your mentee.

Although mentoring a young researcher does not always result in a tangible benefit for the mentor, there are many valuable results that come from mentoring a student. First, creating a positive teaching relationship with a mentee often results in more work getting done for the lab’s or mentor’s own research project, saving time and energy. Playing the role of a mentor can also result in a greater self-understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a researcher and leader.  Lastly, mentoring a young researcher benefits the scientific field as a whole, because it provides direct hands-on learning experience for young professionals who might have no other way of getting such experience. If done correctly, it constitutes a win for all involved.

If you want to read more about mentoring relationships, check out previous blog posts on: Identifying Mentors: Why it Matters  and Getting the Most Out of Mentoring Relationships.

 


How to Write a Persuasive Personal Statement

March 19, 2018

It that time of year when applicants to medical schools are feverishly writing and re-writing drafts of their personal statements for medical school in anticipation of applying in June. To help our readers with this awesome task, Dr. William Higgins, Pre-professional Advisor with the OITE, has provided some suggestions that will help you to make a stronger case in favor of your admission to schools.

Persuade

To write a persuasive statement, Dr. Higgins encourages applicants to think about two main questions, “Why do I want to go into medicine?” and “How have I prepared myself to be successful?” In other words, applicants need to know that admissions committees are reading through thousands of essays looking for experiences that enabled you test the various roles (direct patient care, research, science, leadership, teamwork, service,) that a medical student and future physician will take on. Then you can select your key experiences that will persuade the admissions committee members that you have a strong foundation that has prepare you to succeed in medical school and as a physician.

When you are sitting down to begin writing your statement, Dr. Higgins urges you to stop and recognize that “generation of the content is a separate process from generating the actual text and words. Do not do them at the same time.”   Spend some time writing down and organizing your ideas and insight first. Then and only then, begin composing the text. Forego the writing strategies that are used in creative writing where you were “encouraged to use free writing, flowery language, complex sentence structures, and unfamiliar and artificial style.” For example, instead of writing write, “McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup” you would simply and directly write that, “McBride fell 12 stories…” Higgins suggests that a using logic and clearly worded statements to persuade your reader is appropriate because “medical or professional school essays must flow but don’t have to be a story.”

Dr. Higgins provides the following strategy to create a flowing and persuasive personal statement:

Step One: Do not write! Schedule time to generate the content.

  • DO NOT attempt to simultaneously brainstorm and start to write!
  • Find time when you are not under stress
  • Jot down your various ideas/experiences on notes (post-it notes) and place them on the wall or a large white board.
  • Use concrete examples from your life experiences that excite you

Step Two Choose key experiences and place them order that will create your argument

  • Organize your post-it notes on the wall
  • Select 1-2 themes of your essay
  • Then re-organize them determine the flow to persuade your audience
  • Start with the most important points (those that the admissions committees want to hear)
  • Note key phrases and catch words

Step Three: Start Writing Your Essay

  • Write an opening paragraph that forecasts what you are going to tell the reader during the statement.
  • Focus on key experiences. You don’t have to include everything. Do not rewrite your activities list.
  • Be clear and direct (i.e.: Tell them what you want them to know) No need for flowery language or many adjectives
  • Use the active voice and strong verbs.
  • Write often during scheduled times
  • Write positive statements and avoid negative ones. For example, don’t write, “I didn’t want to attend medical school or be a medical doctor initially…”
  • Eliminate unnecessary words such as, “Based on, In terms of, Studies have shown, Doctors are, It is thought to be, what happened was…”
  • Use correct punctuation
  • In the conclusion link back to your opening argument or thesis

Step 4  Proof Read and Edit

  • Put the essay away for 2 days before re-reading and editing
  • Read it aloud. TRUST YOUR EARS
  • Check for linearity
  • Underline the subject and verb in each sentence. Is the verb in the active voice, strong, appropriate for the subject?
  • Check each paragraph for structure, transitions, etc.
  • Check for continuity
  • Use spell check.
  • Schedule an appointment with a OITE advisor or counselor review your essay. Ask a peer.

Visit the OITE for all workshops and programs related to applying to professional schools. Seek similar services in your region or from your primary institution if you are part of our extended reading audience.


Thank You Notes

November 21, 2017

Heads Up!  With Thanksgiving, right around the corner, it is a terrific time to remind those of you who are (or will be) interviewing for professional schools, jobs and fellowships to send thank you notes.  One of the standard steps of applying for opportunities, this type of professional correspondence is often overlooked by applicants.   In many situations, a thank you note can be influential in moving you to the next stage in the process, or even obtaining an offer.  As written in a previous blog, giving thanks is very powerful for both the writer and receiver(s).  Here are some suggestions to help you craft a strong thank you letter.

Thank You

Who?      Send your letters to the primary person (Dean of Admissions, PI, manger, HR, or faculty member, student) who worked with you to coordinate your interview. If you met with more than one person, you can either send one letter addressed to the primary person and the committee/group who has interviewed you or individual letters.  Thank your interviewers after each telephone, Skype, or video interview and after second and final rounds.  Thank you notes can also be sent to acknowledge a network contact, mentor, informational interviewee, or recommendation writer.

 What to Include?      Thank you notes should be a short (one or two short paragraphs), signed and sent by you, to each opportunity that has interviewed you. While a hand-written personal note has historically been preferred, in today’s market, due to electronic application and communication during the job search process, it is appropriate to send an electronic thank you letter.  Simply thank the interviewers for their time interviewing you, emphasize something that you learned or positively experienced during the interview, and briefly restate your interest in the position and it match with your skills and interests.

 When?      It is best to send your note within a few days after your interview. Sending an electronic letter is quick and can be beneficial because decisions for positions are made within a few hours to days after your interview.  If you send it via US mail, that will take longer to be received and your interviewers will appreciate it as well.

Why?     Also, as part of job search etiquette, we know that are very appreciative and professionally thankful to those who appreciate their efforts to hire them.

 How?      It is best to send an electronic thank you letter to assure that your letter is quickly received and easily can be added to your electronic file, and/or forwarded to the others on your interview. Handwritten letters or notes (sometimes bought in a store) are appropriate and will be well-received as well.

Please feel free to visit the OITE website to schedule appointments with career counselors and to learn about additional programs and resources to prepare you for your job search.