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.

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Community Provides More Than Support

June 17, 2013

There are many important aspects to having a successful career.  One aspect often overlooked is making sure you have a community of peers.  Communities provide more than just support for everyday life and challenges.  They are great for building networks, developing co-mentoring relationships and gaining leadership experience.  Coming to a large campus, like the NIH or a college campus, can feel like you have landed on a different planet.  Everything is so different.  Finding welcoming and supportive groups and peers can help ease that transition.  But, it can also help you prepare for the next step in your career.

While the resources below are specific to the NIH, all universities have similar groups to make you feel welcome.  Check your campus list of organizations. This is not an exhaustive list of groups available, but is meant to provide an idea of what types of organizations exist.  All of these groups are welcome to everyone in the NIH community.

  • The Graduate Student Council and the postdoc association Felcom both support trainees by providing social events, career networking and communities for intramural trainees.
  • NIH Black Scientists and Friends Network, an informal group dedicated to the mentoring and career enhancement of Black scientists at NIH. For more information, contact Dr. Roland Owens.
  • LGBT-Fellows and Friends helps its members thrive in their professional and personal lives by addressing issues unique to the LGBT community.  Join the LGBT-FF listserv to learn about up-coming LGBT-FF seminars, professional development activities and networking opportunities.
  • The NIH SACNAS (Society for Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos & Native American in Science) chapter provides a trans-NIH resource to provide a forum to network, share successes and strategize about future goals. For more information and to learn about upcoming events, join the NIH-SACNAS listserv.
  • The Women of Color Research Network supports all scientists interested in raising the voice and visibility of Women of Color (WOC) in biomedical and behavioral research.  This new social media site is for women of color and everybody interested in diversity in the scientific workforce.  Visit the Web site to join.
  • MOM-DAD-DOCS seeks to provide mentorship, support, and networking to intramural trainees (basic or clinical) with children.  Contact Lori Conlan (conlanlo AT mail.nih.gov)
  • The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management plays a lead role in making certain that representatives of all groups feel comfortable and can work optimally on the NIH campus.
  • Visiting Fellows Committee, ~60% of the NIH postdoc population is visiting from other countries.  There are over 20 country groups to connect you with fellows from around the world: https://www.training.nih.gov/country_support_groups

Making the Transition to a New Position

November 26, 2012

You have a new job!  (or hope to soon).  Here are some tips to make the transition to your new position successful and as easy as possible.

First, remember that transitions are always tough.  While you are likely very excited about a new position, the transition can be overwhelming, especially if you are moving to a new location. You are closing out a chapter in your life that has likely lasted between two and five years (or more).   You are saying goodbye to friends and colleagues and disrupting an established routine—so some anxiety is totally normal.

Finish strong and leave your current job on a positive note.  Finish those last minute experiments, organize those freezer boxes, clean your personal spaces (bench, desk, etc), train other people in the group on what you do, and organize/clean/save important computer files and emails.  This always seems to take longer than you think it should, and many of us have put this off to the last minute and then scrambled to finish everything before we walk out the door.  Also, decide how many of those last minute experiments can honestly be done before you leave.  Someone else in the lab can likely perform the rest after you leave.

Make sure you take time to say goodbye to people.  Things can be chaotic as you transition, and sometimes we forget the people.  Schedule enough time to say goodbye (without over-scheduling so that you are going crazy trying to keep your social calendar in check).

If your new job requires you to move, ask the organization you are moving to for relocation help.  Even if this will just be a colleague that will point you in the right direction for good neighborhoods, childcare, restaurants, etc.  Finding a good place to live will make the transition much easier.  You can even search the alumni databases or Linkedin to find other people who are in that location to get guidance.

Make a plan for your arrival at your new job.  Some recommend a 90 day plan of what you would like to get done.  A good book on is The First 90 Days, by Michael Watkins.  Also, if you are heading to an academic appointment, you may want to read Making the Right Moves (published by HHMI), and At the Helm by Kathy Barker.  Create a summary and overview of your position, as you see it.  Then make a list of goals that you should (and can) complete in your first 30, 60, and 90 days.  In this, also mention the assumptions that you have and any required resources needed in order to make this happen.  This gives you some good guidelines and goals as you move into a new position with many other unknowns.

Build a good reputation with both your new boss and your new coworkers.  Be part of the team.  Volunteer to tackle doable projects.  Ask your co-workers on the best places for lunch and coffee (and even invite them to share in a cup of coffee with you).  Don’t try to integrate too quickly into every conversation.  Remember, these people have built a bond and you will need time to really understand all of the nuances of the relationships.

Finally, make sure to take some time for your own work-life balance.  Finding new places in the community is a great way to find a new support system, to gain friends and to make this transition less lonely.

So good luck!!!  And keep in touch…..your transition now makes a terrific success story for those coming through the ranks behind you!


Get More Done: Take A Break

July 9, 2012

The title seems a little contradictory.  How is it that you can get more work done, but spend less time working?  According to a New York Times article about a study from the University of Toronto Scarborough, it is because small breaks make you more efficient.  The study authors suggests that the brain “becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest period before it can recover, he explains — much as a weight lifter needs rest before doing a second round of repetitions at the gym.” 

So here are a few of the tips from the article:

  • Symptoms of needing to take a break are drifting or day dreaming.
  • If you are in “the zone,” keep working.  It isn’t working hard that drains your brain, it’s when you are forcing yourself to go on when you really need a break.
  • Taking too many breaks leads to procrastination.  So, be smart about it.  Everything in moderation

Here are a few ideas for break:

  • Go for a walk – Even just doing laps on your floor gets you moving and gives you a break from your work.  If you are at the NIH and don’t want to melt in this heat wave, consider walking the track in the basement of building 10.
  • Go get a coffee (or something else) with a co-worker – After all, you have to walk to where the coffee is and having someone with you makes it less likely you will just sit and start thinking about work.  According scientists who have spent time in England, many labs there still take a break in the afternoon for tea (or other beverage) for about 30 minutes.  In fact, there is often a break in the morning as well for around the same amount of time. 
  • Stand at your computer while you read the OITE Careers Blog – The article mentions that standing while doing your work can help relieve some of the brain drain.
  • Take a nap – We are aware this is not a culturally acceptable practice here in the USA, even if it is supported by science.  However, in other cultures a break in the afternoon to rest is quite common.  The Spanish Siesta is famous, and so I asked a visiting fellow and friend from Spain about how the “Siesta” works in the research community.  She pointed out the siesta is as much about food as it is about sleep.  The main goal is to sit down together around the table and have a meal as a family or group of friends.  If you can grab a siesta in that time, that’s even better. 

Working hard is a hallmark of the research profession.  Most scientists I know take a lot of pride in putting in long hours.  We are certainly not suggesting that any of us not work hard.  However, research suggests that taking breaks can help us work smarter as we work hard.  And isn’t that what we all want to do?

 

 


NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 9 – Supervisor, Assay Development

February 13, 2012

This is the ninth in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Kai Cheng

Current position: Supervisor of genotyping services assay development, The Jackson Laboratory

Location: Bar Harbor, ME

Time in current position: 5 months

Postdoc: Mechanisms of axon guidance using a transgenic mouse olfactory system, with Leonardo Belluscio at NINDS

My story: Toward the end of my postdoc, I felt I did not want to do academia as a PI but I didn’t know what I’d really like to do. When I started to talk to people for informational interviews, I had no direction. I talked to my mentor. He said, I cannot advise you if you don’t know what you want to do! I started actively going to OITE for a lot of instruction. I took the Myers-Briggs and tried to form a direction for myself and know what I’d really like to do. It’s a personality test so it won’t tell you that you have to do this or that type of work, but it shows you people who are happy and successful in different fields, what kind of personalities they have. It helps you to think, Do I look like those people? Would I like that kind of work?

I discovered I wanted to go towards an industry setting, technology-based but also service-related. In academia, you have to be able to write grants very successfully. It seems to be endless. It’s not my thing. In industry, you don’t have to write grants. Also they rely a lot on teamwork, which I really like. You talk to everyone and have interdepartmental collaborations and understand the whole pipeline. With OITE’s help, I further narrowed down my direction and tried to combine it with my experience to see what would be a realistic starting point.

Job search frustrations: I didn’t really seriously start looking until I had been a postdoc for 6 years. I sent out some resumés to companies online. Some friends did that and it worked for some of them, but I’m a very unlucky guy—I sent out probably hundreds and never got any responses. So I was frustrated. Then I attended a career fair organized by OITE, and a company had organized on-site interviews with hiring managers. I really liked that company and prepared as much as I could. I did go quite far and got a second interview. Unfortunately I didn’t get that job. I heard that the person who got the offer prepared for 1 year and had 3 interviews before and that was their 4th. So I was thinking, Really, it takes that long? I really want a job now! But it takes time and patience.  Read the rest of this entry »


Top 7 Reasons That You Should Visit A Career Counselor

February 6, 2012

In the beginning of January, we posted a calendar with monthly steps to move your career forward.  The February task was to meet with a career counselor.  Here at OITE, we have two career counselors on staff.  Anne and Elaine were kind enough to introduce themselves on the blog a couple of years ago.  What makes them an enormous asset for you is that they exclusively advise scientists.  They understand the career dynamics of fellows here at NIH and researchers in general.  They have a wide breadth of knowledge and experience in career counseling and have already helped hundreds of fellows take the next step in their careers. 

Whether you know where your career is heading or not, meeting with a career counselor can help you be more competitive in fulfilling your career goals.  With the help of our two career counselors on staff at OITE, we have determined the top 7 reasons to visit a career counselor.

Read the rest of this entry »


Families and Training: Finale

September 2, 2011

For the final post of our conversations with NIH trainees about having a family during their training period we asked:

Do you have any advice for NIH trainees thinking about starting a family?

Their answers: 

Anna: Find a daycare that you are 100% comfortable with. Accept that your child is going to get sick and you will have to miss some work. Plan ahead with your spouse what you are going to do if the child gets sick or if the child’s day care is closed for whatever reason. If you can afford to have people help you out at home (ie- a house cleaner), do it.

Natalie: The key thing is learning how to stop thinking about kids while at work and to stop thinking about work with the kids.

Michael: Surround yourself with other cooperative colleagues, and your chances of success are improved.

Mark: To keep my productivity at normal-ish levels has taken discipline.  I prioritize ruthlessly—taking on only maybe 1 in 10 projects that are brought to me.  I say no to bad projects even if it hurts my relationships with mentors.  The way I figure it, a post-doc only has his/her time.  Allocation of this scarce resource is the only determinant of whether a post-doc succeeds.

Stephanie: I was a postdoc for a little more than two years before my first son was born. This gave me time to get acclimated to the new lab and model organism, and bring one project to completion. I think it was a great decision to give myself a little while to adjust to the postdoc before bringing a baby into the mix.

Liz: I once attended a work-life balance seminar where an audience member asked the panelist how to know if when it was a “good time” to start a family since each stage of the research career track comes with obstacles.  The panelist responded: “The best time to have children is when you and your partner decide it’s time to have children.”  Her response resonated with me because there’s clearly no one correct answer.

 What advice would you add?