Writing a Letter of Recommendation – Tips for Mentors

October 9, 2018

al-nik-382503-unsplashAs postbacs prepare to apply for graduate school, many might be coming to you to ask for a letter of recommendation. It can be hard to know how to start these all-important letters, so here are some things to keep in mind as you draft your reference letter.

First and foremost, you should only agree to write a letter if you feel you know the person well and if you can write positively about your working experience with them. If not, you might want to mention that the requestor should contact others who could better speak to their work. Don’t feel compelled to write a letter out of obligation, especially if you feel uncomfortable writing favorably or if you think your assessment could hinder their chances of acceptance.

What You Need to Write a Letter

If you feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation, then make sure the requestor provides you some background information. If it is for a job, they should give you their CV/resume and a copy of the job description. If it is for graduate/medical school, they should give you their CV/resume, a list of the schools they are applying to, and a copy of their personal statement. This information will be helpful background as you write your letter on their behalf. It would also be a good idea to check in with the person about the top three things they would like you to address in reference to the position or institution. For example, for graduate school, you will most likely want to speak to not only their analytical abilities but their work ethic as well. If you are writing a letter for a medical school applicant, you will want to check out the AAMC website where they offer detailed instructions for letter writers. Writers are encouraged to touch on the applicant’s competencies along four dimensions: thinking/reasoning, science, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

 

Formatting

In terms of format, letters of recommendation are generally one page and one to three paragraphs long. They must be signed and dated; ideally, it will be on official letterhead. You should start by noting how long you have known this person and in what capacity. Be sure to clarify your role/title and relationship (supervisor, colleague, etc) to the applicant.

Then, you will want to move on to your endorsement of the candidate. Keep in mind the three points they wanted you to address but be specific when doing so. General statements like, “Bailey is a hard worker” tend to fall flat unless supported with examples. You could rephrase it to say, “Bailey has demonstrated an excellent work ethic and commitment to the team. One of our projects required somebody from the lab to come in each weekend day to harvest cells. Bailey volunteered every time to help out and was a pivotal member of our team during busy work times.” It also helps admissions committees if you favorably compare the student to others you have known. As an example: “In terms of analytical abilities, Bailey is in the top 10% of undergraduate students that I have worked with in the past ten years.” Speaking to both their skill sets and personal characteristics is usually the winning combination. Try to address and conclude with one or two traits that make them especially suitable for where they are applying.

Be Aware of Gender Bias

We wrote about gender bias in letters of recommendation a few years ago. A study by Trix and Psenka (2003) examined 300 letters of recommendation for medical faculty positions and determined that recommenders unconsciously described candidates in stereotypically gendered ways:

  • Men were described as “successful” and “accomplished” and letters for male applicants contained more repetitions of superlatives such as “outstanding” or “exceptional.”
  • Women were described as “nurturing” and “compassionate” and letters for female applicants often include doubt raisers, statements like: “It appears that her health and personal life are stable.”

Letters for female applicants were shorter and lacked basic features like a description of the writer’s relationship with the applicant, comments on the applicant’s academic traits and achievements, and/or evaluative comments. Letters for males were more aligned with critical job requirements and used stronger language like “excellent research record” and “ability”.

Make sure you aren’t falling prey to gender bias when writing your letter. You can copy and paste your letter into a Gender Bias Calculator here.

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Preparing for Multiple-Mini Interviews (MMI)

August 27, 2018

Interview season for professional schools has begun! Those of you who are selected for interviews may be told that the school will use an MMI interview format.   This is a common interview format used by admissions offices for medical schools (MD, MD/PhD, DO), dental, pharmacy, veterinary and other health professions schools.   Using the MMI helps a committee assess candidate’s professionalism, interpersonal skills, ethical and moral judgement.   Other areas that are assessed are cultural awareness, empathy and listening skills, problem solving and judgement.

The Format

In a typical MMI interview, a group of 8 candidates progresses through a circuit of six to eight stations where they are asked to answer a question, complete a task or engage in an activity. Each session is approximately 10 minutes in length. After a brief group introduction, each candidate is placed in front of one of the rooms. Next, they will hear a signal and will have two minutes to read a prompt and think about how they will respond to it. At the next signal, the candidates enter the room and have six to eight minutes to respond to the prompt with the interviewer(s). A final signal will be heard and the candidate finishes their sentence, thanks the interviewers, exits and proceeds to the next room. This cycle continues (for about 90 minutes) until the candidate has visited all 8 MMI stations. In some schools, there is a final station that is about 20 minutes in length where a traditional interview is held.

How to Prepare

Here are some suggestions to prepare for the MMI interview.

  • Practice your answers to MMI questions verbally with a partner. Review websites to gain familiarity with the typical MMI questions. Here are a few: US News MMI Preparation |
    Portland State University website that has a comprehensive list of resources
  • American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC)
  • Review a reserve copy of Desai’s book Multiple Mini Interview MMI: Winning Strategies from Admissions Faculty from the OITE library.
  • Practice physically moving through a circuit of stations when answering each question to experience what it is like to adapt to new rooms and persons.
  • Practice and use the SAR behavioral interview technique so that you are able to describe the behaviors, feelings, and ways you think through a situation.
  • Stay abreast of current issues, events, and policies related to health care by viewing the AMA (American Medical Association), American Dental Association, etc. websites.
  • University of Minnesota – MMI Overview
  • Prepare for ethics and professionalism questions by reviewing the Hippocratic Oath taken by medical students. The University of Washington has a useful site to learn about ethics in medicine to help you prepare. Also review a copy of the Hebert’s book, Doing Right: A Practice Guide to Ethics for Medical Trainees and Physicians or Hope’s book, Medical Ethics: A Very Short Introduction located in the OITE library.

Visit the OITE website to take advantage of our about our premedical resourcesIf you are part of our extended readership, we encourage you to visit your college’s pre-med office or the AAMC for more resources to prepare.


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.


Welcome Summer Interns: OITE Blogs of Interest

June 19, 2017

 

The Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) of the NIH extends a warm welcome to the Summer 2017 interns. Over the next few months, you will engage in many unique opportunities in biomedical research that will encourage you to consider pursuing careers and further graduate study in the field.  As you are settling in to your lab and meeting your PIs and fellow trainees, we want to make sure that you are aware of a variety of helpful blog posts that will help you to maximize your summer experience.

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Getting oriented to a new lab and role as a researcher is both exciting and somewhat challenging for summer interns. We suggest reading the blog Understanding the Impact of Change to learn about the key factors associated with any transition.  Next read Making the Most of Your Transition to the NIH.

One of the challenges in most careers is how to achieve a healthy work-life balance. The OITE Director and our wellness programming staff encourage you to review our model of wellness and managing stress as part of your training to be a successful scientist.

Meeting your new mentor is another opportunity that you will have this summer. To prepare yourself for this essential growth opportunity, we suggest reading the blogs on Identifying Mentors and Learning How To Make the Most of Mentoring Relationships.

Career decision making and pursuing graduate or professional school options are also areas that which you will embrace during the summer.  In addition to utilizing the resources at your college and university during the academic year, the OITE Career Services Center has career counselors who will help you explore you assess how your values, interests, and skills relate to healthy career decision making and/or develop CV, resumes, and practice interviewing skills.   We also offer pre-professional advisors who will help you to prepare you to apply for graduate or professional school.  Stay tuned for a blog post that will prepare you for the Graduate and Professional School Fair on July 18, 2017 where representatives from a number of schools will come to NIH to meet you and share information about their programs.

We look forward to working with you this summer. Visit the OITE website for further information.  For our readers who are alumni or outside of the NIH, we encourage you to seek similar services through your training director, or your college and university or in the community.


Happy Pride! Helpful Career Resources for LGBTQ Scientists and Allies

June 5, 2017

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In 2014, to recognize Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Pride month, the OITE Careers Blog published a post addressing job search and work environments for LGBTQ scientists called Happy Pride!  This blog issue provides useful resources for scientists, their families, and allies in support of inclusive career decision-making and work environments.

LGBTQ Employment and Training Opportunities: In addition to the helpful employment resources referred to in the in the 2014 Happy Pride blog (see above), here are some additional resources:

National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technology Professionals (NOGLSTP).  A professional association that provides a listing of  career opportunities for LGBTQ science and technology graduates, mentoring, fellowships, and other forms of support.

New Scientist has published a useful article highlighting LGBT employers in the sciences.

GoAbroad.com published an article with links to an excellent on-line LGBT Student Guide to Studying Abroad that provides resources and helpful information that will help LGBT community members prepare to go abroad for studies.  The guide is also useful for international applicants seeking knowledge about LGBT safe communities across the world.

The Association of International Educators (NAFSA) published an informative article written for allies of LGBTQ international students regarding the specific needs of this population when they arrive to the US and later return to their home countries.

PFLAG International extends its advocacy for LGBT individuals and families globally.  This is a useful resource for LGBT individuals and allies who are preparing to go abroad for short or extended periods of time.

Preferred Gender Pronouns:   When applying for internships, jobs, graduate school, and/or professional schools, you may notice a question related to gender pronouns is added. This question allows applicants an option to request their preferred gender pronouns to use when referring to them.  Colleges, universities, and human rights organizations provide excellent resources used in ally trainings for students, faculty and staff about using gender neutral pronouns.

Ally Training: Many organizations (including the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) offer Safe Zone training that can allow allies the opportunity to learn more about the LGBTQ community and assist in the creation of a more welcoming environment.

LGBTQ Terminology:  One way to contribute to a culture of inclusion and respect for community members is to become aware of accepted terms to refer to members of the LGBTQ community. The human rights organization, PFLAG, publishes a terminology glossary  that is a useful reference to learn about the latest acceptable terms.

As you can see, it is important for job seekers and their allies to address LGBTQ-related topics in order to keep stress from derailing their life, job search, and/or educational process.  The OITE offers career development workshops and/or career, wellness, and pre-professional services. We suggest that you learn when to seek counseling from our office or the NIH Employee Assistance Program.  We encourage you to register for the Workplace Dynamics: Diversity in a Multicultural Society workshops and/or join the NIH LGBT Fellows and Friends (LGBT-FF) community.  Not at NIH?   We recommend using resources offered by your college and university or local community centers. It can be helpful to chat with other professionals who have been through this process to seek advice and support. Out for Work and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates are two good introductory resources.

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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.


Are you Ready for Video Interviews?

March 21, 2017

One of the current trends in the application process for industry positions is to use video interviewing. Currently, business, science, and technology companies are using video interviews as the first step in the interviewing process after a candidate applies for a position because it saves money and staff time for the firms to screen candidates prior to inviting them for face-to face interviews. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2016 Recruiting Trends report, there has been a 50 % increase in the use of video interviewing in the past year.  This trend could correlate with the relative decrease in employers coming to on-campus recruiting interviews and career fairs.   Also,  the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) is currently conducting a research study to pilot -test the use of video-interviews with its residency applicants.

In this post, we interviewed an NIH trainee who recently participated in several video interviews to gather a user’s impressions of the process and technology.

What type of company and position(s) did you apply?

They were generally biotech companies that had positions such as a Scientist 1 or Assay Development.

What materials did you use to apply?

I submitted a resume and cover letter through their website. Then you were sent an email with a link to the video interview. This company used HireVue software.  Before the question prompts, there is a short intro about the company mission and culture delivered by the company’s employees.

How did you prepare?

The video interview link came after I applied for the position. I followed the instructions given. You are allowed to complete a few practice questions (mostly behavioral) and to learn how to use the software.  I used Glassdoor to prepare for the interview questions. There was a combination of behavioral and technical questions.  Depending on the position, it may be more technical than behavioral.

Where in the interview process was the video interview?

This was part of the pre-interview process. It was sent after you applied.  I think it takes the place of the telephone screening interview.

How much time were you given to reply to the company?

I was given three business days to practice and then answer the interview questions.

What was it like to record the video interview?

It was both helpful and terrifying at the same time. It was helpful in that it is using a system that makes it convenient.  It was terrifying watching yourself (split screen) while you are answering interview questions vs. looking at someone else.  It’s hard to watch yourself interview.

How many questions were you asked?

You were given about 20 minutes to answer 7-9 questions (about 20-30 minutes). You are given 30 seconds to read the question and then between 1-3 minutes to answer the questions.  Some questions you are given are one minute and most others you have more time. Some questions have multiple stems in them, so you may feel rushed to answer everything in the 3 minutes.

What Questions were you asked?

I was given questions about why I chose this company, behavioral questions, compare and contrast technologies, describe how to develop or troubleshoot assays. I was asked how does product development differ from research and development in biotech.  For another interview, I was asked to summarize my molecular biology, troubleshooting, and optimizing skills.

It appears that the various teams in a company can select their own questions. For example, for some positions I was given one time to answer the interview questions.  However, in another interview, I was given multiple times to answer the question before submitting it.

After the videotaped interview, they presented a short video thanking me for completing the video interview, but the next steps in the process were unclear.

What would you recommend to others who are asked to complete video interviews?

Utilize the practice time to learn the software and practice questions. Be aware of your choice of setting, lighting, height of camera and monitor, and choice of dress for video interview.  You can have some have some notes in front of you.  You will see a split screen with the question on left, outline of self on the right, and countdown clock on the top right corner.

In the 2015 Science Magazine  article, Ace Your Video Interview,  by David Jensen, he recommends that candidates should be highly aware of their environment, appearance, and performance when using Skype technology for live video interviews.  For example, he described that shadows from lighting, animals in the background, and clutter are distractions that can cause a candidate’s interview to be less than stellar.  He also emphasizes that a candidate could be interviewed by several people.  It may be recorded as well.  Based on the experiences of our trainee and Jensen’s comments, here are some additional recommendations to how to prepare for pre-recorded video interviews:

  • Practice using any type of video-based software so that can get used to seeing yourself while you are interviewing. Check to see If there is a way to turn this feature off during your practice sessions with the software you are given. Please note that OITE does not endorse HireVue, SKYPE, or any particular any video interviewing products.
  • Be sure you are looking directly into the camera and that your background is free from distractions.
  • Practice your answers standard industry interview and behavioral questions.
  • Conduct company research in advance to learn about the company, its competitors, and trends in the industry.
  • Although it may end abruptly, send a thank you note after the interview. You may also record a thank you to the committee at the end of your video interview.
  • Dress in professional attire (at least from the waist up) because you are making your first impression with the employer.

While video interviews are not completely replacing the face-to-face interviews, you are likely to encounter them at some phase of the process in the future. If you would like to discuss any part of the process of applying for industry positions, have a mock interview, and /or review your application materials, feel free to set up an appointment with a career counselor. Also please remember to attend the NIH Career Symposium on May 11, 2016 where NIH alumni will discuss their transitions to a variety of careers in academia and beyond.