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.

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                        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


Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development?

October 6, 2014

The answer to this question in most instances is no; however this may seem to be the case if you are relying too heavily on your PI for this function. You must always remember, the person most responsible for your career development is the person who benefits most from it – you! Many trainees feel that their mentors are too busy and/or too important to “bother” them with their questions or thoughts. That shouldn’t be the case – they are there to help you learn and pass along their scientific knowledge to a new generation. While it can be difficult to approach your mentor to discuss career progression – and even harder to judge when this discussion is appropriate – this dialogue can be extremely helpful.

Your mentor likely has a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be very helpful as you prepare for your career. But, the rigors of the day-to-day functioning of the lab can sometimes delay or prevent career development discussions from occurring. In this case, it is certainly acceptable for you to request a meeting for this purpose. Below are some suggestions that may help as you think about this conversation:

Prepare thoroughly

  • Be able to articulate your strengths and weaknesses, short-term work goals and longer term career objectives.
  • Honestly assess your contribution to the lab. An accurate evaluation of your performance can build trust with your PI, and also allow you to point out contributions that you are making of which he or she may be unaware.

Identify areas in which your mentor can help you achieve your goals

  • This can also help facilitate the discussion by allowing your mentor to react to and comment on your assessments, and can avoid putting him or her on the spot.
  • Healthy discussion on this topic may identify additional areas of which you had not previously been aware.

Take care in scheduling the meeting

  • Remember, your mentor’s chief responsibility is for the success of the lab. Avoid scheduling around busy times and critical deadlines.
  • Potentially set it for non-working hours.

Be willing to engage in additional learning and development opportunities

  • This can be for the purpose of enhancing performance in your current position, preparing you for your career goals, or even both.

Even with preparation, making the initial request for the meeting can be daunting. A statement like (or an email), “I’d like to discuss my performance with you and get your input on my longer-term plans” can be effective. By approaching it in this manner, you are communicating to your mentor that you have thought about your career development and will not be relying solely on him/her on the topic.

This may sound like an intimidating challenge and you may be nervous for the first meeting. You will find that by using this approach, future meetings will become easier and more productive as you are able to build on past discussions. Next week, we will discuss in-depth how you can talk to your mentor about your career development, even if that means a career change.


Soft Skills = Today’s Critical Competencies

August 20, 2014

Image of a person surrounded by eight different bubbles. Each bubble represents a different soft skill, such as "presenting" or "being on time."Traditionally, soft skills were viewed as a secondary bonus to an applicant’s technical skill set; however, in today’s extremely competitive job market, employers are looking for proof of a mix of both hard and soft skills. In fact, recruiters will view a lack of demonstrated leadership or extracurricular activities on your resume as a potential red flag. Illuminating this fact is a study which shows that 60% of managers agreed that soft skills are the most important factor when evaluating an employee’s performance.

Recognizing the extreme importance of soft skills, The Department of Labor (DOL) developed an entire curriculum on the subject entitled, “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success.” Targeted toward teens and young adults, this program was created as an introduction to workplace interpersonal and professional skills.

The DOL’s list of key soft skills is very similar to OITE’s core competencies; it includes:

  1. Communication
    Permeating almost every aspect of a job, this skill is often ranked first among employers. It includes your ability to speak, write and present.
  2. Enthusiasm & Attitude
    Employers get frustrated with employees who are resistant to change or unable to adapt to new directions. Having an open and upbeat attitude will help your group generate good energy and move forward on projects.
  3. Teamwork
    There will be aspects of teamwork within every job. Leaders and project managers often lament that most of their jobs are spent trying to get colleagues to work effectively together. Therefore, it is essential to your career to work cooperatively and be able to participate in group decision-making.
  4. Networking
    Like teamwork, networking is about building relationships. It also involves critical elements of communication and the ability to represent yourself effectively to others.
  5. Problem Solving & Critical Thinking
    There is no shortage of challenges and issues that can arise on the job. Employers want employees who will be able to face these problems critically and creatively by gathering enough information in order to develop a solution.
  6. Professionalism
    No matter the job or the industry, professionalism is a critical key to your success. Professionalism isn’t one trait – it is a combination of characteristics. It often means conducting yourself with a high level of responsibility, integrity and accountability. Part of professionalism is having a strong work ethic and being willing to go that extra mile. Another integral component is being dependable, trustworthy, and always following through on your projects.

Soft skills are no longer undervalued by employers. Make sure you are practicing these skills in your current position and/or seeking out opportunities to develop these skill sets. You will not only be helping your professional development, but you will be especially thankful the next time you are in an interview and they ask you a common behavioral question like “Tell me about a time when you had to utilize effective communication skills within a group setting,” and you have a stellar anecdote to share.


Career Assessments: MBTI vs STRONG

January 22, 2014

Image of a pen marking answers to a quizCareer assessments are valuable tools to help you during your career exploration and planning. They can be a great starting point and the results can help you think more deeply about your own personal preferences and career interests. Two formal assessments are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Strong Interest Inventory.  To take these assessments, questions are answered online and then the results are shared and discussed during an appointment with a career counselor.

A career counselor can also help you determine which assessment (if any) is right for you; however, this blog will give you an overview of each assessment through the lens of three questions:  1. What is it? 2. Why should you take it? 3. How can you use the results?

MYERS BRIGGS-TYPE INDICATOR (MBTI)

1.  What is it?
The Myers Briggs is an assessment with the aim of measuring your personality preferences along four different dichotomous dimensions. The MBTI helps people answer the following questions:   Where do you focus your attention and/or get your energy?; How do you prefer to take in information?; How do you make decisions?; and finally, How do you organize the world around you? Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs extrapolated these dimensions from Carl Jung’s theories regarding psychological types.  Myers and Briggs believed that in order to have a more satisfied life, people needed to better understand themselves which could then help them choose an occupation which better suited their personality.

2.  Why should you take it?
Today, the Myers Briggs is one of the most widely used instruments.  Many people find it useful as a way of understanding themselves, as well as their commonalities and differences with others.  Not only is it often used as a tool for self-understanding and career development, but many organizations also use this assessment for the purposes of team building, management/leadership training, and to help recognize differences in communication styles – all of which have direct implications during every phase of one’s job search.

3.  How to use the results?
The Myers Briggs will not tell you specific career paths you should choose; however, you can utilize your results to consider the pros and cons of different employment sectors/occupations and how much they match with your personal preferences.

STRONG INTEREST INVENTORY

1.  What is it?
The Strong Interest Inventory was written by psychologist, E.K. Strong, Jr.  in 1927 with the purpose of helping individuals exiting military service to find suitable occupations.  Today, the Strong Interest Inventory is based on John Holland’s theory of occupational themes. Work environments are classified into six different theme codes — Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, & Conventional (RIASEC). Generally, the Strong gives each test taker a three letter code representing their highest matches.

2.  Why should you take it?
This is a helpful tool if you are uncertain about your career interests.  It connects your interests with possible career options and categorizes your interests based on four different scales: General Occupational Themes, Basic Interest Scales, Occupational Scales, and Personal Style Scales.  Anyone can take this assessment; however, young adults might benefit the most since it also helps to highlight new occupations which might not have been considered.

 3.  How to use the results?
The Strong Interest Inventory generates a list of your top ten basic occupations and these results can give you new ideas and occupations to consider as you continue your career exploration and planning. The Department of Labor (DOL) has been using the RIASEC model in its free online database, the Occupational Information Network  (O*NET).  This is extremely helpful because you can take the information that you learn from your Strong Interest Inventory to explore even more occupations of possible interest.  Then, you can utilize the DOL’s Occupational Outlook Handbook to look into each occupation more in-depth by examining preferred qualifications, projected industry growth and typical work environments.

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More information on both assessments can be discussed with a career counselor or online through CPP, Inc., the company which administers both the Myers-Briggs and the Strong Interest Inventory. Additionally, the OITE encourages individuals to participate in the Workplace Dynamics workshop series where the MBTI is administered and discussed as a group with the aim of helping you better understand yourself and your communication skills.


2014 Career Success Plan

January 10, 2014

Here at OITE, our continued resolution is to help trainees become skilled in a variety of core competencies.  We view these four competencies as vital to your career development.

They include:
1. Career Exploration and Planning
2. Communicating
3. Teaching and Mentoring
4. Leading and Managing

Our goal for the blog this year is to cover a variety of resources and projected outcomes for each of these core competencies.

One of the first we will tackle is career exploration and planning.  This often involves four phases: Exploration, Preparation, Action, and Adaptation.  You will most likely go through these steps more than once because one’s career development very rarely follows a linear projection. Look next week for a blog on the topic of career exploration and planning, specifically individual development plans.

Hopefully, by covering all four of the core competencies, we will help to establish a thematic framework as you continue to read the blog throughout the year.  We will label and categorize each new post accordingly, so that the blog becomes a searchable site for you to easily navigate.  In addition, we hope this gives you some inspiration as you set your own new year’s career goals.  For a more detailed view of the graphic, please click on the image to enlarge.

Diagram of four core competencies; including: Career Exploration & Planning, Communicating, Teaching & Mentoring and Leading & Managing