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


ACE Your Career in 10 Hours

October 3, 2016

Albert Chen, an MD/PhD student at the University of Michigan designed the ACE plan.  ACE is short for Active Career Exploration.  According the Chen and colleagues within their four-part series on Science Careers, “ACE is your protocol for career experimentation, a logical progression of steps designed to overcome common barriers and give visible results after just 10 hours.”

Just 10 hours?

To be clear, the authors note that this means 10 hours within one month. The steps aren’t meant to be drawn out over, say the last year of your postdoc.

Here is how the 10 hours break down:

2 hours = Read and reflect
3 hours = Send cold emails to people you don’t know
3 hours = Meet people for informational interviews
2 hours = Form your career plan

 

Image of the ACE Plan in steps

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chen created a guide to help you within your ACE Plan entitled “Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee” which can be downloaded for free.  One of authors’ guiding principles was to create limits on how much time a person could spend in one section since it can be so easy to get stuck in an area which feels the most comfortable to you.

Many trainees at the NIH are well-versed on the first step: reading and reflecting.  Many times this equates to trying to do their own research on a career field through articles and books; however, they then have a hard time making that leap into the second and third stages – the more active phases – which include sending cold emails and meeting people for informational interviews. The read and reflect phase spans into months instead of a mere two hours.

Why do people get stuck making the leap to the second and third phases within the ACE Plan?

Well, often because sending cold emails to people you don’t know feels awkward and you worry it won’t be well-received.  Chen and colleagues understand these challenges, so they devoted a whole article on how you can do this part well.  It is extremely important to normalize this networking process because it is so key to your career development. Often the worst that happens is you just don’t hear back.

If you have attended any of our workshops at the OITE, then the ACE Plan will sound very familiar to you.  It is a new spin on common recommendations, but perhaps the time-limited approach will resonate with you.

Give it a try and let us know how the 10 hour ACE plan worked for you!


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.


Are you a multipotentialite?

April 20, 2016

“The notion of the narrowly-focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling. The idea that we each have one great thing that we are meant to do during our time on this earth… but what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way?”

This is what Emilie Wapnick asked in her TED talk entitled “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling.” She coined the term “multipotentialite” and explores this topic on her website, Puttylike.

From a young age, we are asked what we want to be when we grow up and there is an expectation of a single answer. However, this often discounts an individual who has many varied interests and it doesn’t take into consideration that people often have many jobs (and careers!) throughout their lifetime now.

This lack of a singular passion often causes stress for multipotentialites, especially when it seems others (PIs, fellow med school applicants, etc.) appear to have extreme focus and drive.

If you have ever felt anxious about not having one true calling, then this video is a must watch.


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Project Manager

June 1, 2015

Name: Martha Sklavos, PhD, PMP

Job Title & Organization: Associate Research Project Manager, MedImmune

Location: Gaithersburg, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: 8 months

Postdoc Advisor, IC (when at NIH): Dr. Ligia Pinto

What do you do as a Research Project Manager?
I perform strategic management of drug projects within the preclinical drug development pipeline for MedImmune, but I do this by wearing several hats. I use my problem-solving and critical thinking skills every day to identify risks and opportunities to deliver on project based goals and work with several other people on the project team. There are three project leads: myself (research project manager) a scientific co-lead (oncology, infectious disease, etc) and a protein engineering co-lead. The rest of the team is comprised by functional team representatives (toxicology, translational medicine, PK, etc). The research project team must engage senior management to execute the project plan in alignment with the overarching strategy of the therapeutic area (oncology, infectious disease, etc). Thus, I’m an organizer, facilitator, mediator, and a scientific consultant. My role is to see the long-view of the project and steer the team to appreciate long-term (clinical) as well as short term (research-driven) project goals. I often comment on the science and brainstorm and give suggestions, but I am no longer at the bench at all.

I optimize delivery by challenging team members on assumptions for time, costs, and risks for each project. I am accountable for efficient milestone achievement (steps in project progression to the clinic), monitoring and mitigation of changes to plan and budget, risk assessment, and reporting progress to stakeholders. I am the hub of project information and I must be a model of collaboration. A desirable trait for a research project manager is a person who can get along with everyone because teamwork is EVERYTHING in industry. You cannot accomplish anything on your own, unlike academia. You are no longer operating in a vacuum or on an island and everyone is dependent on one another to achieve project goals.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
This isn’t a direct skill like graphing data but it really is communication. Everything is communication – you are emailing, having phone calls, going to in-person meetings, having teleconferences, and video conferences every day. It is a meeting culture here. Sometimes I have meetings all day, which is good but can also be a challenge because you still need time to process and do the work that came out of this meeting. Most of the time, I am running those meetings, so my day is intense in that it requires full engagement.

Another beneficial skill would be the ability to deal with change and ambiguity because it is a constantly changing and shifting environment. Each week can look different. The nice thing about being a project manager is that you are really plugged into upper-level management and upper-level decisions. Part of your job is to help take strategy or revisions back to your project teams to relay that information and field questions. You are plugged in to what is really going on in the company.

In industry, team members share a common goal. In academia, I found this wasn’t even the case with certain co-authors! When I was managing my projects in academia it could be quite difficult, let alone the authorship aspect, to figure out. In industry, while people are all working on different projects, the teams that they are working on are all striving toward a common goal and everybody is very motivated and invested.

Because I am not directly at the bench anymore, I have a little bit more flexibility. I can work from home if I need to, which is nice. After all, it is hard to do bench work from home! In industry, they know happy people are productive, so they support flexibility if say the weather is bad or you have a sick child. If you are running a meeting, there are avenues you can use to run a meeting remotely as well. There is built in technology if life happens and you can’t get into the office to run the meeting in-person.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
My favorite part is that I love being a problem solver and I love being a scientific consultant. I really enjoy being able to look at data and add to the science even though I am no longer performing the experiments. This could mean suggesting a different mouse model or that they look at a different marker on a cell that they didn’t consider. Before I knew this position existed, I was struggling because I knew I wanted to go into industry, but wasn’t sure there was a place for me and I would have to either be the hands doing the science or fully on the business side of the science. I was attracted to industry because it is bench to bedside, which can be difficult to see/achieve in academia. It wasn’t until I went to an NIH career fair event, where I listened to a panelist who was a Research Project Manager speak about their job. That is when the light bulb went off for me as it combined many aspects of what I wanted.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?

For me, I was fortunate enough in my postdoc (even though I was still the hands at the bench) that I still did a lot of project management for my studies which involved inter-disciplinary teams. I had an advantage in that I was already working cross-functionally with biostatisticians, epidemiologists, and clinicians and I was the immunologist that was also the project manager. I had a little edge coming from that experience, but what has been different is the industry atmosphere which is a thousand percent different than academia. It is instrumental that you can work and be productive within a team, and that you can functionally and productively work with people with very different personalities. It is also really important for this role to be a problem solver and a critical thinker.

What was your job search like?
It was a process because even though I knew I wanted to go into industry, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to be doing; plus, I knew it was difficult to get into. So, the NIH Career Symposium actually helped give me some focus and helped me narrow my net. Then, I was able to seek out research project managers and ask them about their jobs to see if that is really what I wanted to do.

A lot of people have the misconception that industry scientists are kind of a second-class scientist pool. Make no mistake about it – that is not true at all. Industry wants top talent, from the scientists to the project managers and all the way up. Once I decided that this was really what I wanted to do, I knew I had to make myself competitive for this hiring process and it was suggested to me that I get a PMP, which is a project management professional certificate to help me show intent. I had never been in industry before and they wanted someone with 5-10 years of industry experience, so I knew that was going to be a hurdle that I had to overcome. Showing the intent by getting this certification, which was a process in itself, was extremely important.

I also took advantage of as many NIH and OITE services that I could – I came in for resume reviews and I went to a lot of events, like the Translational Science Training Program and Workplace Dynamics. Workplace Dynamics has proven to be especially helpful given how much I work in teams now.

Can you tell me more about the PMP?
The actual PMP material and exam is structured as if you work on a construction job rather than in scientific/clinical project management. Even though it was a departure from a research project manager’s subject matter, it was helpful because a lot of the general concepts will be used every day as a pre-clinical or clinical research manager. For me, that was key because even when I was interviewing, I had several people directly ask me, “Are you applying for academic jobs?” They wanted to make sure that I was committed and that I didn’t view this as a backup plan. Having a PMP allowed me to be taken seriously and get an interview. The PMP is not a very simple process. First, you need credit hours of project management coursework that is either vetted through a university or through the project management institute. I was able to take an online course through GW’s School of Business. That accounted for the majority of the credits that I needed. I was also very fortunate because I was a Leidos postdoc. Leidos has an entire Project Management Office with the full support of project management instructors who are basically on retainer. They have frequent seminars which were a huge help. When I first went in to learn about the test, the whole office there worked to explain it and show it to me and point me to other resources. They had a two-day boot camp for studying for the exam which I was able to complete. That was absolutely one of the best resources available to me.

In order to actually be able to sit for the exam, you need 4500 hours of project management experiences. Your grad student and post-doc hours qualify because you are working on thesis and research projects and, of course, you were managing your progression (http://www.pmi.org/certification/project-management-professional-pmp.aspx). Again, Leidos had instructors that I could send information to. I would write a little blurb and they would give me feedback about how I had classified my experiences. You had to classify them under headings like planning, execution, monitoring, controlling, and different aspects of project management. Plus, you also had to put references down because they can audit you.

After all of this, then you can take the exam. I believe the exam was around $500 and that part I had to pay out of pocket but it was clearly well worth it to prove my interest in my career path and actually has set me ahead of some who have been in industry for years. My company wants their project managers to have PMPs, even those who have been doing it for years without the credential. The exam was four hours long and all multiple choice questions. It is intense. The instruction manual was about 400-500 pages long. It is like learning another language, or at least it was to me, with the different terminology and way of thinking. It is set in a perfect project management world where everybody always does everything according to process.

What was your interview like?
I had five interviews – two phone and three face-to-face. I got hired for my background in science but more so they wanted to make sure that I was going to be capable of soft skills like conflict management and working with different personality types. At the interviews, they asked over and over again about situations where I resolved a conflict, or a situation when you weren’t happy with an outcome and what would you have done differently. Also, it was no secret that I had no industry experience but. I tried to parlay any examples that I had which could relate to drug development into my answers. In the interview, they are really looking for a good mind with the knowledge and they can teach you the rest.

In hindsight, would you have changed anything about your search?
I just wish I had known earlier what I wanted to do. I think my postdoc was a huge benefit giving me that extra experience but there are people in my position who don’t have a PhD and haven’t done postdocs at all. So, they aren’t necessarily required and I think it is good to know that. While it would be nice if you have an extra ten papers on your resume, I don’t think that was a deciding factor. Doing a shorter postdoc won’t be held against you. For me, I am glad I did it because I felt like I had to get all of the science and bench research out of my system before I moved on.

Any last bits of advice?
Network like it’s your job! Your next job will depend on it. I stayed in touch with a contact I made from an NIH Career Fair and I followed up and spoke to her every few months. Now I sit next to her. She was the contact who told me about my job opening. I had no intention of interviewing at the time I learned of the job opening, but an opportunity came up and I couldn’t pass it up.

Another thing that was really helpful for me was the Healthcare Business Women’s Association (HBA). I had no idea they existed until I saw them on an NIH message board on LinkedIN. They have women in science scholarships and they will support your membership to HBA for a year and you get your own mentor. There are women like me who were pretty early in their careers, but there are also women who are professors who have PhDs, or women who have MBAs, there is a whole range of members.

They believe in making contacts and in networking through volunteering, so I planned a Breast Cancer Event with a group of amazing women and through them I was able to meet so many people from different places (MedImmune, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, FDA, etc.) and now we all go to know each other by working together so its networking without the awkwardness because you have a shared experience. Networking can sometimes be extremely awkward but this wasn’t at all because everybody was very supportive and we got to develop relationships by working on a project together. I’m sure postdocs are sick of hearing that they should be networking but the key here is that it shouldn’t be random – it should be very focused. If you are interested in industry, HBA should be at the top of your list.


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