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


Interviewing with Confidence

January 9, 2017

At last, all that you have worked for has led to the highly desired interview. Congratulations! The interview process can feel daunting, but don’t let it.  At the heart of all interviews is an exchange between two or more parties about shared interests and desires to determine “best fit”. Hopefully, by this point you have done some self-assessment and know yourself well enough to effectively communicate your fit for the program, school or organization.  If not, now is the time to reflect. Consider clarifying your strengths, areas of expertise and desires for your future. Re-evaluating your interests, values, and skills helps to enhance confidence that you are on the right track in applying for specific programs or positions. Ask yourself:

  • Why do I want this job?
  • How am I prepared to take on the responsibilities being asked of me?
  • What do I have to offer them?
  • What do they have to offer me?

Answers to these and other questions help you prepare to respond confidently to the interviewer in ways that show your fit for the position or program.

Preparation is the key to successful interviews. Interview candidates who fall short of receiving offers are often ineffectively conveying confidence in their skills and expertise as related to the position they are interviewing for. The more knowledge you have about the organization you are interviewing with, the individuals interviewing you, the mission and vision of the department or program, and/or specific duties and responsibilities involved, the better able you are to connect your strengths to their needs. Often individuals engaged in an employment or educational search believe their skill set will win them the job or offer.  Although indeed that may look great on paper, it doesn’t always lead to an offer.

Not long ago, a trainee shared their interviewing experience that reflected success in obtaining interviews, however, they had not yet gotten an offer. In this case, the interviewee found themselves problem solving for the interviewer – asking questions that may have laid seeds of doubt in the interviewers’ minds. As an individual skilled in analysis and problem solving, it was easy for them to do so. However, it wasn’t the candidate’s job to figure out solutions to potential problems they saw in their being hired, simply to convey confidently how they could help. Reflecting on their interviewing experiences and brainstorming alternative strategies for responding to interview questions allowed the candidate to more effectively convey their fit at the next interview.  Soon after the candidate received an offer which they accepted.  Success!

You too can come across confidently in the interview. Consider this as you prepare:

Know Yourself – Re-clarify your interests in the position, as well as your values and skills to allow for connections between yourself and the employer or program.  An OITE Career Counselor or Graduate School and Pre-Professional Advisor can help in this process:  https://www.training.nih.gov.

Prepare for the interview – Research information about the organization, institution, or program so that you are confident about your fit and can effectively communicate this as related to their core values, mission and needed skills and expertise.  We also suggest that you watch the OITE Interviewing Techniques workshop to learn and practice your skills.

Interview the Employer – Be prepared to ask questions in an interview if time allows.  Choose questions that help you determine whether there will be a good fit for you such as: “What opportunities for advancement are in place?”, “What type of mentorship is available for new hires?” or “What resources are available to help students engage in career planning?”  Knowing what is important to you will help you generate questions to ask.

Breathe, Relax, and Enjoy – Most interviews offer you the chance to meet new people, see different places and experience new things.  Take the opportunity to do so.  Whatever happens, this kind of mindset will help relieve worry and nervousness about the interview, allow you to stay focused on the big picture, and encourage confident communication in the interview.

Interviewing can be difficult, especially if you feel unprepared. Preparation will help you feel more confident about the unique things you offer and encourage a focus on where you fit with the employer, institution or program.  Remember, the absence of an offer after an interview doesn’t mean you were not qualified, simply that you were not the fit that the employer was looking for.  Keep in mind that getting an interview is evidence of success in the search or application process.  Be sure to give yourself credit and acknowledge your successes along the way.  Before you know it, you’ll have an offer too!


Staying Sane During the Waiting Game for Professional School Admission

December 19, 2016

You successfully applied to a range of medical or dental schools and now are anxiously waiting to be contacted about interviews and (hopefully!) acceptances to these schools.  During this time, it is normal to feel anxious, worry that you have not provided enough information, or think that there is something else you can do to improve your chances.  Maybe you are tired of family or friends asking, “have you heard yet?”

Here are common challenges and strategies to help you maintain your sanity and manage stress during this time:

Common Questions

  • Is it okay to call or email the schools and ask for an application status update?
  • Call only once. Curb your desire to call repeatedly.  Sometimes schools feel like students put them on re-dial with the volume of individual calls!
  • I want to update my application materials. Is this a good time to do it?
  • Some schools accept updates to applications and will publish this clearly on their webpage. If you do send updates, it should contain only SIGNIFICANT additions (e.g., papers published, new clinical experience position, completed science courses with a grade, leadership).  Remember that the on the original AMCAS application, a description of each experience is limited to 750 characters—this limit remains. In most cases, an update should be a concise bulleted list.  If you have a publication, use the formal citation.  No lengthy letters with veiled pleas for acceptance. One update letter is acceptable, a second is pushing it unless it contains something amazing.
  • I have been placed on a waitlist for an interview or acceptance. Does this mean I won’t get in?
  • Being placed on a waitlist or in the hold file is not a rejection. This means that you still have a possibility for acceptance. Some schools are sorting through their acceptances and attempting to figure out their yield rate before extending more invitations to interview.  Schools with a high number of applicants are still reviewing applications as well.
  • Should I send a letter of intent?
  • Submitting a Letter of Intent at this point in the cycle is of little value. You applied to the school, so the committee knows you want to go there.  It is not going to move you into the ‘accept’ category if you are not there already.  Letters of intent should not be sent to all schools.  Rather, letters of intent should be reserved for the school where you can guarantee that if you are accepted you would turn down other offers that you may have.  Check out the US News article on letters of intent.
  • How long can I expect to be on a waitlist?
  • Expect significant movement from Waitlists and Hold files after 15 March. Another time will be around  April 30 of each application cycle year, when admitted applicants are required to choose a medical school to attend and decline multiple offers.  This way, medical schools begin filling these spaces. Still, many in April, May, and often up to one week prior to the first week of medical school.
  • I have begun to receive rejections from schools to which I have applied.  Should I plan to re-apply next cycle?
  • Each year, many students are not admitted to school and decide to re-apply to medical school and successfully matriculate in later years.   You should re-apply when you have significantly improved your application materials and experiences. Meet with mentors, career or professional school advisors, medical students, and admissions officers to get feedback on how to strengthen your applications.  You may need additional clinical hours, research, or leadership experience. You could work on strengthen your AMCAS application and personal statement.  You should be practicing your interview skills.  See the 2015 blog article, “So I didn’t Get in Medical School Now What

Step 2   Do’s and Don’ts in the waiting game
Here are some do’s and don’ts behaviors that many applicants may default to during times of high stress.

Don’t

  • Launch a social media rant about schools or admissions teams. Admissions committees and students check social media.
  • Complain to admissions officers or medical students about the perceived amount of time it is taking for them to reply to you for interviews or admissions decisions.
  • Contact each school more than once to check on the status of your application.
  • Re-take the MCAT yet without significant preparation. Your goal is to raise your score significantly before re-applying.

Do:

  • Surround yourself with positive and healthy individuals, mentors, groups, and activities
  • Meet with advisors, career and personal counselors who can support you through this period.
  • Continue to show your continued passion for professional school. This includes staying involved in a combination of clinical, research, leadership, service, coursework activities.
  • Prepare for interviews. Many professional schools are now using the Multiple Mini Interviews.
  • Stay emotionally strong and resilient
  • Practice healthy coping behaviors including exercising, healthy eating, and involvement in social activities and mindfulness
  • Utilize any cultural, spiritual, familial, and other personal support to maintain hope and develop coping skills and strengths.

Feel free to visit the OITE https://www.training.nih.gov to meet with medical school advisors, wellness or career counselors who can further support you during this process.

* 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.


Life’s Got You Down?  Staying Strong and Resilient in the Midst of Disappointment

November 21, 2016

Life can be challenging at times, as scientists in training you know this all too well.  When daily life doesn’t go as planned it can lead to lack of motivation, frustration, and sadness. Stress and strain can be draining, leaving you with less than 100% of yourself to put into your work, relationships, and pleasurable activities.  How do you make it through?  Resilience—it can help you manage the tough times allowing you to persist and persevere in whatever the challenge may be.

Resilience refers to our ability to bounce back, learn from our mistakes and come out of the challenge stronger.  Years ago, in graduate school, myself and my fellow trainees experienced a very challenging work situation.  It was physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, so much so that several staff members left, including a fellow trainee, opting not to complete her degree. We had to find ways to persevere in spite of the challenges we faced.  Although it was extremely difficult and far too tempting to give up and quit, we quickly identified aspects of the training experience that felt supportive, focusing on relationships and people who offered support and encouragement. We re-examined our priorities, and began to shift our thinking so that we could see an end to the experience and the rewards to follow. Perhaps some of your academic work or personal life situations feel similar.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist and researcher of positive psychology, has spent years researching resilience, hope and optimism.  He and his research team have identified characteristics that help to build resilience. When things get tough, consider these strategies:

Acceptance – Accept that setbacks and disappointments are a part of life.  As much as we wish things would always go our way they simply don’t.  Dealing with small everyday setbacks helps us development the resilience to handle larger challenges in life.

Stay Connected – Connect with others who are supportive and will encourage you. Spending time alone when you are feeling down can lead to isolation, loneliness, sadness, and pessimism.  Find others in the lab, in your families, or among your friends who affirm you and acknowledge your strengths.

Keep Perspective –  Keeping things in perspective helps us see things as they are.  Having perspective allows us to see the broader picture which can offer us a more realistic view of the experiences we face in the moment.

Opportunity – Consider the setback or challenge as an opportunity for new learning.  Seligman’s research suggests that individuals who bounce back more quickly often see their failures as opportunities as opposed to those who struggle from the same experiences.

Optimism – An optimistic attitude allows us to view disappointments as temporary, isolated experiences that are brought on by external factors.  Individuals who are optimistic appreciate their experiences, value their relationships, and are encouraged by the future.

So the next time you find yourself faced with a significant setback, resist the temptation to give up.  Engage in the above strategies and look for the positive things around you.  If you are intentional about looking for them you will find them.

Other resources from the OITE on resilience:

  1. Join our Mindfulness Meditation group on Thursdays: https://www.training.nih.gov/mindfulness_meditation_group
  1. Need help now?? Check out resources for NIH intramural trainees: https://www.training.nih.gov/get_help_now
  1. Watch out for our next Tune In and Take Care workshop held each semester
  1. Check out our YouTube video: Resilience in the Job Searchresilienceresilience
  1. Related blog posts:
    1. Enhancing Optimism and Resilience in Your Job Search & Beyond
    2. Job Stress, Resilience and Support
    3. Is Grit the Key to Success?