First Generation College Students: Challenges, Strengths, and Resources to Develop Confidence and Move Ahead

June 6, 2016

Image of a graduationg cap with the phrase "I'm First!"If you are the first in your family to attend college, you may have already experienced some challenges or concerns like: not knowing many contacts in the fields of science or medicine through your circle of family and friends or feeling like an imposter and wondering if you really belong in various professional groups or meetings.

You are not alone.  Research shows that first generation college students often have concerns like these, but research also highlights many of the strengths which first generation students bring to their lives and careers including:

  • Resilience after coping with obstacles and challenges
  • Appreciation for opportunities
  • Persistence to achieve goals in spite of difficult circumstances
  • Adaptability in the face of change

It is extremely important to take advantage of the resources around you. Here are some strategies to develop confidence and move ahead:

Learn how to develop professional career networks

You can learn how to how to develop and strengthen your professional/career networks.  Research has shown that specialized support programs can be very helpful to first generation college students.  If you are in training at NIH, you have access to numerous free support programs and resources to help you learn how to build professional networks:

  • Learn about informational interviewing as a first step in the networking process.
  • Watch videocasts to learn about networking.
  • Contact former NIH trainees for advice about their career paths. The NIH Alumni Database lists many scientists who initially were post-bacs, graduate students and post-docs at NIH.  You may contact them directly to get advice about their career fields.

Incorporate your personal values into your career choices

For first generation college students, sometimes there is a gap between family experiences/values and the demands of a career and degree process.  If you struggle with how to manage this gap, there are two things you can do to help clarify your values and to move ahead toward your goals:

Identify how mentoring can help you build your own community in science

Start by reflecting on the kind of mentoring you think will help you progress in your career. If you are unsure, read some articles to find out what makes a good mentor.

  • Reach out to finds groups that will support you. A large part of feeling comfortable in your career and work environment is having a community to share the experience.  The NIH is a big place.  Groups like the ones listed here will help you to find a community that will help you to feel at home.

Let OITE staff know how we can help you during your training time at NIH
It’s not always easy to reach out for help and support. In the Office of Intramural Training and Education, we are excited to have you here at NIH and want to do everything we can to help you be successful .

  • Start by talking with a career counselor to begin your career planning or reach out to another OITE staff member.  We can help you to take the next step to a successful career.
Advertisements

Taking Ownership of Your Career: Developing an Individual Development Plan (IDP)

February 6, 2014

Silhouetee of a person looking at arrows pointing in different directionsHave you drafted a career plan? Do you know if you have the required skills for your dream job? Figuring out the next step in your career and how to prepare for it can be stressful. But developing a plan, early on in your career, will help guide you through this process of identifying and achieving your career goals.

This year, the OITE will be dedicating its blog to help you develop a Career Success Plan, focusing on a variety of core competencies that are critical for your career development, the first being career exploration and planning. This is where creating an individual development plan (IDP) comes into play. But, what is an IDP? And why it is so important?

An IDP is a personalized document developed to help you define your career goals and implement strategies to help you accomplish those goals. There are many ways to develop your IDP. In fact, some universities, organizations, and/or institutes may have their own IDP documents in place. No matter what stage your career is in (postbac, grad student, postdoc) or what career path you are pursuing, an IDP can help you focus on short and long term goals with an action plan to follow. Remember, that as your career progresses, your plans might change, so you can always come back and review your goals adjusting them to your current situation.

Developing an IDP requires time and effort. So it is important that you not only think thoroughly about your career by doing an honest self-assessment but also, by being committed to applying the strategies established in your plan to reach your goals. To help you build your IDP, we discuss briefly the some important elements of the IDP.

Conduct a Self-Assessment

Self-assessment helps you identify skills, interests and values that are key to finding a career that fits you. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your skills (such as communication and leadership), interests (such as mentoring and designing experiments) and values (such as fast-paced environment and flexibility) will all help you evaluate your needs and priorities in your career.

Explore Different Careers

Once you understand your needs and priorities, how do they relate to possible career paths? With so many career options, you want to make sure that the career path you choose matches your skillset and interests. You might also find a career path that you didn’t think about before but fits your needs. When exploring career options, networking and informational interviewing play a critical role to understand those careers that you are unfamiliar with and learn insights of the job.

Set Goals

Now that you have explored different careers, what is your plan to get there? This is where you should develop your short and long term goals that are SMART. By doing so, you will hopefully establish a timeline to stick to your goal.

Implement Plan

Finally and most importantly, is to put your IDP in ACTION! Remember, you are in control of your own career. If you don’t take it seriously, no one else will.

Even though you can complete an IDP by yourself, you should choose a mentoring team that can guide and advise you through this process. Mentors play a critical part of the career planning process not only because of their personal and professional experiences but also because they can: provide feedback about your skills; help you reflect on your interests and values; and keep you motivated and focused.

* Science Careers has a web-based career-planning tool called myIDP that can help graduate students and postdocs develop their IDP. SACNAS-IDP also provides advice on how to build a IDP for undergraduate students

** Disclaimer: This blog is informational and does not constitute an endorsement to Science nor SACNAS Website by NIH OITE


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


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Communications Manager

August 12, 2013

Name: Benjamin Porter, PhD

Job Title & Company: Communications Manager, Office of Communications; The University of Texas at Dallas

Location: Dallas, Texas

How long you’ve been in your current job: 3 months

Postdoc Advisor, IC and subject: Alan Koretsky, NINDS, Behavioral fMRI

What do you do as a Communications Manager?
Basically, my job is public relations — I handle both internal and external public relations matters for the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas. When researchers do interesting work or if they just received a grant or published a paper, I will write up a story for the University website. If we think it could be a bigger news story, then we try pitching it to a newspaper or TV station. Similarly, if there is a current events topic going on at a time when it makes sense for an expert to comment, then we will also pitch our faculty as experts. A recent example is the explosion at the chemical plant in West, Texas. We were able to pitch a chemist who could explain the basic science behind that event.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
A lot of it is listening and being able to interpret what is being said. One of the reasons I was hired is because I have a PhD, and I am able to understand the science behind what the faculty are doing. I can then take that and translate it into layman’s terms. I can also understand the faculty’s concerns in talking to the media and the fear that they might be misrepresented.  On the other side, I understand what the media needs and what they need the faculty to say, and I can interact between the two parties well.

I write press releases and internal newsletters, so being able to write and edit goes a long way.  I am currently learning AP style and how to write for the news, but these are things you can pick up as long as you have the basic skill. Writing for the NIH Catalyst or the Record are great ways to practice writing for the public.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
For me, I like to be absolutely certain about what I’m doing and know that I am doing it well, so not necessarily knowing every aspect of the job and having to keep asking people if this is correct has been an adjustment. But I think that comes with transitioning careers.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I love getting to hear about everybody’s research and getting to meet with the faculty. There are about 80 faculty members that I work with and getting to meet all of them and hearing what they are doing is great. Then I get to brag about them, which is also fun.

What was your job search like?
My job search was weird. I started off looking for a job in DC because I was planning on going into science policy. I spent the last year of my postdoc getting prepared to find a job in science policy – making all of the connections and laying the groundwork. Then, the sequestration came around and my wife’s job at the Department of Defense became less stable. It was no longer feasible to live in DC and provide the life for our kids that we wanted, so we decided to move to Dallas because of our family connections here. I shifted my career path somewhat, but the part of science policy that I really liked the most was promoting science, which I still get to do.

My job search was remote at the time, so I used my network as much as possible. I also did a lot of cold calls and cold emails to find job leads in the area.   It turned out that a friend worked at UT Dallas and promoted the school as a great place to work. Then I just applied to an online job posting and worked my way in from there.

What was the response to your cold calls and emails?
A lot of the time, I would be told that the company wasn’t hiring, but they almost always gave me somebody else to call or another direction to go. One contact always led to two or three others.  I did probably 15 cold calls and only three or four didn’t get back to me. Just be sure to be upfront that you are looking for job leads in a cold call and not necessarily inquiring for a specific position. Limiting yourself to an inquiry into if the company is hiring will result in a simple yes or no answer. Leave it more open-ended than that.

How did you find people to call?
I did a lot of informational interviews when I was in DC. I did something like 50 informational interviews. From those interviews, I was able to ask people for connections. Also, my mentor at NIH encouraged me to get involved in extracurricular activities. I joined AAAS (The American Association for the Advancement of Science) and I started the Washington, DC, Metro Area Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience, which is still running strong. These involvements helped me to meet people and develop soft skills; plus, I was very lucky to have my mentor — my success seemed like his priority. Dr. Koretsky was one of my biggest assets.

What are the most important soft skills needed for your position?
The ability to get along well with people, especially with multiple bosses and multiple demands. You have to be able to work with others and compromise with them. I did a wonderful detail with the Office of Extramural Research, which allowed me to report to both my mentor and my detail manager. Balancing the needs of two very different jobs was a great preparation.

Open and straightforward communication is hugely important in my position, as is being able to jump right in. If you are switching careers, you don’t necessarily have to be comfortable, but try to be comfortable with your discomfort.

In hindsight, is there anything that you would have done differently with your job search?
I might have started earlier and looked a little more aggressively. And by that I mean meeting people. The connections that I made in DC were fairly limited to NIH. Towards the end, I was starting to branch out to some of the nonprofits in the DC area, and I wish I had started doing that earlier. I would recommend establishing your network fairly early and making it a broad net.

Any last bits of advice?
Don’t do it alone! NIH is a fantastic resource. OITE is a fantastic resource.  The people there are really great about helping out. Get to know the folks there well and early.  Plus, with all of the informational interviews that I did at NIH, I can say that almost everybody is willing to help you.

From the over 50 informational interviews, I only had about five that never got back to me.  Of those 50, I probably only cold called five to ten people.  All of the other connections were sparked from those first few calls, so always be sure to ask the person for another connection recommendation. The informational interviews also helped make me more comfortable when the time came for an actual job interview.  NIH is a great place for career development, so use it as much as you can.


Dont Leave Us Hanging!

July 16, 2013

As you get ready to end your summer internship or your summer rotations as a grad student, don’t forget to keep in touch.

We often hear from our younger trainees that you enjoyed your summer experience.  You like the research and felt you got along great with your mentor(s). Yet, when many of you write to join the lab again the following summer or to get a letter of recommendation your feel like you never hear from the advisor or you get a lukewarm response.  “Why?” you ask,  “I did good work.”   Of course you did, you just forgot to demonstrate how much the work meant to you and how much you want to stay a part of that work.

We know that it can be hard to keep up with your labs when you leave (without feeling like a stalker).  So, here is a suggestion to get started.  Send your PI a brief thank you note within a month of leaving.   This does not need to be a long email, just a few short lines thanking them for letting you be in their research group, something valuable that you learned, and that you hope you can keep in touch.  Write a separate (and different) letter to your day to day mentor or supervisor in the lab, probably your postdoc or graduate student.

You can always follow up anytime with a quick hello, and to let people know that you still are thinking about your experience.  Once a semester is even enough.  Ask about the project you worked on and if there has been any progress.

If your research has helped your coursework or your coursework has finally made something you learned during the summer more clear, let people know.  (i.e. this week we studying signal transduction which made me think about…)

Follow pub-med-watch to see if that paper that the lab was toiling over all summer was finally published.  Then send a note to congratulate the authors.

Connect online, LinkedIn is a terrific way to make a connection.  You should ask your advisor and other labmates if they would like to be connected before you send them an invitation.  Also, remember LinkedIn is static, and not everyone in the scientific community yet uses it to its full ability.  It will not replace an active networking outreach as described above.

When it comes time to return to the research group or to ask for a letter of recommendation, remind them who you are and what you did in their group.

Good luck to you as you wrap up your summer research experience, we are glad you came!


How a Mentor Helped Me Succeed…and How I Now Get to Help Her

July 10, 2013

Post written by Lori M. Conlan, Director of the Postdoc Office and the Career Services Center at the OITE

This week I had lunch with the first mentor I had outside of the lab environment. In 2006, I had just left my postdoc to join a non-profit in Manhattan—the New York Academy of Sciences. I knew I could do the job running a career development program for graduate students and postdocs, but I was clueless about how life worked in an office. I started on a Tuesday, and by Friday I was sent off on my first business trip to Miami. One of my colleagues, the VP of marketing and membership, went with me. Through out the entire trip she explained the rules of the trade and actively engaged me in business meetings with university leaders. She was never officially charged to be my mentor, nor did I specifically ask her to be my mentor—it was a relationship that grew organically due to the integrated nature of our work. Over the next year or so this terrific mentor helped me learn to develop successful marketing campaigns, improved my non-technical writing, taught me how to be persuasive, and most importantly how to navigate office politics and big egos. I always knew that she was giving me more than she was receiving, but she has always been passionate at mentoring the next generation. We loosely stayed in touch after she left the organization, a common thing that happens with networking and mentoring. I was always appreciative that she smoothed the transition from the bench to the desk, but never knew how I was going to give back in the circle of networking.

Fast-forward seven years. She and her husband are moving to DC for his job and she is looking for connections here. Now, I am happy to be on the other side giving back to the networking relationship. We chatted about what her passions are and how she can relate her skill sets to those passions. She went away from lunch yesterday with broader ideas about the types of places she would like to work, specific venues in DC, and even a few introductions. I know she is a master networker, and has met with tons of people as she explores what is next in her career, but I did feel like I gave back a bit for all the good she did for me years ago.

When I talk with fellows about finding mentors, they often ask, “But what do I have to offer them?” So, as you ponder setting up mentoring relationships and you wonder about how you will give back to the relationship—don’t underestimate what you may be giving back in the future. Mentoring always leads to positive outcomes for both people in the relationship. And what those positive outcomes are changes as your lives change. I hope you too find a mentor that you can connect with for years to come.  And don’t worry if you lose touch, these good mentoring relationships can always be re-invigorated no matter how long you have been apart (even seven years in this case).

Check out the OITE’s other blog posts for more on mentoring and networking


How We Learn

June 27, 2013

Post written by Sharon Milgram, Director of The Office of Intramural Training & Education.

Science careers, at or away from the bench, require us to be life-long learners. To be successful, we are always learning – and teaching – new skills. While many of us enjoy this, it also comes with frustrations and challenges. In considering how we learn, I was struck by the excellent and concise explanation of the stages we typically go through as we learn and develop new skills. I found this in a short book entitled “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager” written by Ken Blanchard. Intramural trainees can find the book in the OITE Career Library, and it is widely available in other libraries and on-line. In this book, Blanchard summarizes the four stages of learning: enthusiastic beginner, disillusioned learner, cautious performer, and high achiever. This summary is helpful to us as life-long learners and as colleagues, mentors and supervisors of others in our work groups.

At the outset, enthusiastic beginners are confident and excited. However, this confidence and the excitement of a new challenge can get in the way as enthusiastic beginners often forget how challenging a task might be. Enthusiastic beginners need a lot of supervision and direction so they stay focused on learning the fundamentals and solidifying the basics. After a short while, and after a few (too many) mistakes, enthusiastic beginners typically become disillusioned learners. We realize how hard it is to truly develop that new skill and doubt starts setting in. In this stage, we need support and encouragement to stick with it. Once we gain some proficiency we enter the cautious learner phase; we are more proficient and more confident and as a result we learn more quickly. In other words, success breeds success — and we are on our way toward becoming a high achiever. At this time, we need the right balance between supervision and independence, as one can only become a high achiever by taking risks and learning from our mistakes.

Whether you are a postbac or summer intern learning how to do PCR for the first time, a grad student preparing for your first committee meeting, a postdoc mentoring your first summer intern, or a senior fellow ready to launch your independent career, remember this simple model of how we learn. Be proactive and find support, encouragement and direction when you need it. If you are the supervisor/mentor, use these strategies to help your employees and mentees learn. It may just keep you going when you get stuck and will help you be compassionate as your colleagues, students and mentees learn new things as well.