Get your brain on your team

Dr. Joseph Barber

Your brain is a funny old thing – filled with wonder, awe, mystery, and lots and lots of squishy parts. Some of you are currently studying very specific parts of the brain, and so you probably have a fairy good sense of how it all works at the cellular level. However, outside of your research, when you are busy thinking about applying for jobs and future careers, your brain can sometimes be a bit of a wild card – working in ways not necessarily predicted by action potentials and neurotransmitters.

Take this video showing a rather interesting visual illusion as an example:

In this case, the brain ignores what is blatantly obvious, and tells us something completely different (and wrong). It does it for all the right reasons, but still! If you don’t pay attention to the things that your brain is thinking to itself, then there is a risk that what should just be a private thought or feeling becomes something more overt and apparent. When we start unconsciously sharing our feelings with employers, we should definitely be concerned.

What I see a lot of when I am advising students and postdocs is the brain projecting doubt and uncertainty into people’s job application materials – without them even noticing. This doubt often stems from being unsure whether a new career path is the right one (e.g., when looking at non-academic jobs after years of assuming that being a faculty member at a university was the only path). Alternatively, it comes from people looking at a job announcement and thinking about all of the ways that they are not qualified for the position (as opposed to seeing the reasons that they are a great match given their education and experience). This doubt can lead to phrases like this popping up in cover letters:

“Although I don’t have direct supervisory experience, I did coordinate the internship programs within out lab for three years”

Your pessimistic brain sees this and nods in agreement. An employer reads this and also nods in agreement that you don’t have direct supervisory experience (those are your exact words – why would they argue with you?). A more optimistic brain would see this and realise that focusing on the negatives is not going to do you any good, and that coordinating an intern program is actually a form a supervisory experience. This optimistic brain might suggest (and career advisors would agree) that a better approach would be to simply eliminate the first part of the sentence. Your new approach could then be:

“I coordinated the internship programs within out lab for three years, providing supervision for all new arrivals and training lab members on the protocols we used for involving interns in the research”

See…, it is as simple as that. Get it into your brain that your diverse experiences and perspectives can make you very qualified for the majority of the positions you are probably interested in, and your brain can showcase your abilities in the best light possible. In most cases, you are best served by ignoring the negatives and focusing on the positives. This only works when you really do see how your positive traits can be valued by others (based on how they have helped you get where you are today), and so it is always a good idea to take stock of the skills and attributes that are unique to you, and transferable to the careers that most interest you. Not sure how to explore the inner you? Well, take a look at some of the resources here as a first step, and then come and see an advisor at Career Services to talk more about this.

Happy Memorial Day

In observance of the Memorial Day holiday, Career Services will be closing at 2:00pm on Friday, May 25th and will remain closed until 9:00am on Tuesday, May 29th.

We hope that you have a wonderful holiday weekend. Remember, Career Services is open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday over the summer and you can always access this blog or our website for more information.

Time Travel

by J. Michael DeAngelis

About two years ago, I got one of the more amusing text messages I have ever received.  It read: “I’m saving my Snapple cap for you!”

Now, this message came from a good friend, but it still confused me.  I like a gift from my friends as much as the next guy, but there are limits.  After all, I don’t ever think “I’m going to save this Big Mac container for Kevin” or “I can’t wait till Maura sees gum wrapper I’m keeping for her!”  I was apprehensive, to say the least.  But when I did get my gifted Snapple cap, it made me laugh and smile from ear to ear.  For on the underside of the cap was a fantastic quote:

“First things first, but not necessarily in that order.” – Doctor Who

My friend knew me all too well.  I love Doctor Who.  I have all the DVDs, enough collectables to open my own Ebay store and I may or may not have a quarter-scale model of the TARDIS in my hallway.  If you don’t know, the TARDIS is the Doctor’s time machine.  A machine that I wish I had today.  I’d jump back in time to yesterday when I was supposed to have posted this blog…or I’d jump to the future where all the many summer projects which have been halting my blogging will be over.  I wear a lot of hats in Career Services and blogger-in-chief sometimes has to take a back seat to, say, making sure pre-med students can access our new credentials system.

Luckily, there are other great bloggers in this office AND other Doctor Who fans!  So, in place of any great nuggets of wisdom I might impart on you today, let’s step back into the Career Services TARDIS and revisit a classic entry from last summer, “5 Job Hunting Tips You Can Get From Dr. Who” by the always eloquent Dr. Joseph Barber.


1) Your resume is actually bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. What? Well…, ok, all I mean is that the way you describe your experiences and knowledge by using specific illustrations of your skills in action achieving tangible outcomes will make even a 1-page resume feel like it is chock-full of relevant information. Your resume won’t contain any swimming pools, though.

2) You can’t actually regenerate – and so don’t try, but you can and should talk about your experiences in a different way when applying to different positions. There is no one-size-fits-all resume that will work for two different jobs, even if they are in the same industry (e.g., pharmaceutical industry jobs, consulting). The more time you can take tailoring your resume and cover letter (and even your academic CV to a certain extent), the better you will be able to convince an employer that your experiences are a good fit for their requirements.

3) If you spend too much time by yourself, you will end up talking to yourself. If you spend too much time looking at your own resume, your brain will begin to tune out, and you will start to miss those small errors that can creep in. Additionally, sometimes we can find it hard to think about the range of different skills we have used in different experiences – we get so used to talking about ourselves in one way that we can forget that we do actually have a bunch of transferable skills that are applicable to many jobs. Come to Career Services to get a critique of your resume, and you’ll find this fresh perspective to be helpful.

4) Time travel is actually quite hard, and rarely goes exactly according to plan. This means that you can’t go back and change your past – that really never works out well in the future anyway. For example, back in the past you may have started a PhD thinking you wanted to be a professor, but in the present you may have decided not to take the academic career path. Make use of your time at Penn to gain a wide range of different experiences to explore your options, take some courses outside of your subject, join and actively participate in some student/postdoc groups. Make sure you also have a convincing narrative as to why you are seeking the jobs you are applying to. Note: no employer wants to hear: “I realized I didn’t want to be a professor, and so I decided to apply for this job”. This isn’t a convincing reason why someone should hire you. Talk about what you gained from your academic and non-academic experiences, and how you can use your skills and abilities in a way that would make you an ideal candidate for the jobs you are interested in.

5) For someone with an identity problem, the Doctor has a rather extensive network of contacts. True, it is easier to make contacts when you own a small blue box that is bigger on the inside than the outside, and travels across time and space…, and when you are 900 or so years old/young. However, with a bit of courageous outreach to your own list contacts, and good use of social networking platforms like LinkedIn and, you’ll find that you can soon generate a comparable network – relatively speaking (which when talking about relativity can get very confusing). Don’t leave it up to chance, though. Set aside some time each week or month to connect with new people who might be doing jobs you are interested in, or to get back in contact with former colleagues, supervisors, and advisors. Networking is about building and maintaining meaningful connections with people over time…, wherever or whenever that time is!

Can you pivot?

Unless you have been sleeping the spring away, you know that Facebook recently bought Instagram, the photo sharing company, for $1 Billion. But Instagram didn’t start as a cool photo sharing app. The founders originally started a company called Burbn, which allowed users to share their locations as well as notes and pictures. Burbn did not take off, so the founders did what many successful start-up guys do: they pivoted in a slightly different direction. They stripped out the location and note sharing, and focused on photo sharing with filters and effects, thus setting Instagram apart from other apps. Its popularity soared. The rest is history.

I was reminded of pivoting founders this week when I attended a talk by former dean of Columbia College Austin Quigley, who discussed his own career, which developed in non-linear fashion, as do the careers of most of us. He stressed the need to learn how to change, or pivot. Today’s professionals will likely change careers multiple times. Even those who don’t must quickly adapt to rapid changes in their fields. Those who don’t stay ahead of the curve, Quigley said, will be left behind.

This was just the beginning of Quigley’s talk, which was fascinating and covered a lot of ground. I focus here on his emphasis on educating people for change. He feels institutions like Penn and Columbia are particularly able to provide this education through a thorough grounding in the liberal arts. This resonated with me, as I meet more and more Penn alumni who have successfully adapted to the challenges they face in their careers. They learned to pivot. And that is one of the most important things a Penn education can provide.

Can you recognize when it’s time to pivot? Are you ready to do so, again and again? To stay ahead of the proverbial curve, you must, regardless of where your career takes you. Success is not measured in billions, after all, but in the ability throughout one’s career to work and contribute in meaningful ways. Good luck with your pivots – and enjoy the summer.

Summer in Career Services

Congratulations on finishing another school year!

Just as a reminder, Career Services remains open all summer, Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm.  We offer many of the same great services over the summer that we do during the school year – appointments, walk ins, mock interviews, phone appointments and more.  Use our staff list to find your counseling team and make an appointment.  If you’d like to do a walk in over the summer, be sure to call ahead and confirm walk-in hours for that day.

The Career Services library is open whenever the office is and at your disposal to get great career resources or just to come in and take a quiet break from the heat!

Our staff is also available by e-mail and phone to help you however we can this summer.  Make sure you utilize all of the resources we have to offer on our website – and keep an eye out for our all new site launching soon! This blog will be continually updated, posting Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays all summer.

We hope that you have a fun, safe, happy and productive summer and we look forward to serving you!