Five things my cats can teach you about finding a job

Dr. Joseph Barber

1) Patience
For every 5 minutes I spend wiggling a piece of string in front of my cats to entice them to play, they only spend about 1 minute actively chasing it. They spend most of the time carefully watching it…, waiting for just the right moment to pounce on the string when it looks like they have the greatest chance of catching it unawares. This strategy seems much more successful than wildly chasing the string around and around. You could say, then, that the cats are investing a lot of time preparing for each pounce, resulting in an increased likelihood of success. Try the same thing when it comes to your cover letters and resumes, and you’ll find that you will also probably have much more success compared to sending out a large number of identical cover letters and resumes to many different employers. Tailor your application materials to each job and you’ll definitely end up with more than just a discarded old shoelace that is slightly moist with cat spit!

2) Take every opportunity to walk through an open door
It doesn’t matter if I am opening a kitchen cupboard, the front door, the coat cupboard, or any type of cardboard box, there is always a cat there as soon as I do. It is as if they have never heard of the old saying about curious cats! But who knows what surprises might be on the other side of those doors, or what delicious treats could be just waiting to be found inside those boxes? By being curious and taking a bit of a risk, my cats get more information about their environment – information they can use to be even angrier at me for there not being any nice surprises or delicious treats for them! At Penn, you can also look for opportunities to find delicious treats behind different doors – if by “delicious treats” you mean the opportunity to join student groups, meet new people, learn new skills, and get involved. You’ll find that the experiences you gain from getting involved will actually help to open more doors for you later on – after all, the best resumes not only illustrate academic and research skills, but also transferable ones like leadership, management, team-work, and problem-solving.

3) Always focus on the positive
Cats like to make a good impression. They try to impress upon people their graceful agility and poise. Every now and again, and despite all their efforts, however, they will fall. Splat! It is the cat equivalent of tripping up the stairs on the way to receive an award on stage – there is no hiding it! But cats have an amazing ability to focus on the positive, to suggest that they actually meant to fall, because falling somehow gave them the opportunity to do something that they had wanted to do right from the start – like licking their paws, for example. Lots of things don’t quite go the way we plan. You might be doing research that isn’t leading to any useful results, through no fault of your own. When applying for jobs, you need to focus on the positive aspects of these seemingly negative experiences. You can phrase every research set back as an opportunity to try new methods or techniques, or to seek out new collaborations. Many employers value initiative and problem-solving skills, and showing that you can face adversity with an upbeat and enthusiastic attitude will be seen as a positive. What you have achieved as well as how you have been approaching challenges in your work are both important.

4) Make new contacts and build on existing relationships
OK, so this is something my cats could do better. I have three cats, and they don’t always get along. As long as they have their personal space they are good, but any peace in the house doesn’t last long. Believe me, I have tried explaining the benefits of having a good network of contacts to them – especially when I find them yowling at stranger cats through the window, but they won’t listen. Although I sometimes find them making an effort to make new professional contacts, they could certainly do more. The problem is that cats like to live in the moment. To them, time spent working on relationships for some future benefit takes away from time that could be spent in the here and now trying to gnaw through a plastic container containing muffins (no, I don’t know why they like muffins so much). What they don’t realize is that I might be more likely to share some of my muffin with them if they sat on my lap more, and at least pretended to be friendly towards me. That’s the thing about networking – you are never guaranteed that it will help you find a job, but if you treat it as an opportunity to build long-term, professional contacts and share information (i.e., give and take), you will eventually reap some benefits. Of course, it is almost certain that actively “not networking” won’t be of much help at all – unless you have really sharp claws and teeth, and really want that muffin.

5) Make use of the resources available to you
My cats are very good at making use of the resources that are made available to them (and even those that aren’t). Whether it is pawing at my face at 2am to be let in to the toasty bed on a cold night, or taking a sip of nicely filtered ice water that I left (for me) on my bedside table, cats are very resourceful! By hanging around the kitchen in the morning, the cats get to sit in the warm rays of the morning sun and might get the opportunity to lick the last few drops of milk from my cereal bowl once I am done (or before if I am not looking). And the cats obviously see anyone getting up from the sofa to refill their cat-licked water glass after supper as an invitation for them to sit on the just-vacated and nicely-warmed cushion. One of my cats has perfected the “you are not still using this seat, are you?” look. Are you making use of the resources available to you? Have you attended some of the workshops, discussion panels, and career fairs that Career Services organizes? Have you scheduled a one-on-one counseling sessions with an advisor? Have you explored PennLink and INet, or considered what opportunities may be open to you through On-Campus Recruiting? Do you know how to make the most of PACNet and LinkedIn? If you follow the example set by my cats, you will see that these resources are ready and available for you to exploit.

Beware of leaky pipes!

by Dr. Joseph Barber

In the midst of the recent holidays, water began pouring from the living room ceiling in my house, which had all of a sudden developed a serious case of “leaky pipe syndrome”. The original 1926 lead waste-water pipe in the bathroom sink had given up and lost its structural integrity, providing a novel way for us to water the Christmas tree. [Editor’s Note: Must be contagious. Reminds me of last Christmas in Career Services. – JMD] The professional plumbers we brought in to address this issue replaced the pipe…, but only after accidentally rupturing the hot water pipe supplying water to the sink. Since they hadn’t turned off the water at the mains, there was suddenly a lot more water pouring through the ceiling, leading to a case of extreme “leaky pipe syndrome”. The issue has now been resolved, you’ll be glad to know. The lead pipe has been replaced with PVC, and the copper pipes supplying the hot and cold water have now been replaced with flexible plastic ones (the ones that Mike Holmes on “Holmes on Homes” is always talking about, so they must be good. Oh Mike Holmes, why can’t you come down from Canada and fix up my house?!).

This watery experience reminded me of a different type of leaky pipe that is much harder to address (even for Mike Holmes) – the so-called “leaky pipeline” of women in science. The essence of this issue is that despite there being a fairly equal number of men and women working through undergraduate and graduate science programs, there tend to be a greater proportion of men the further up the career ladder your go – both within academic and other research-focused career fields. The pipeline is leaky because there is a greater attrition of women over time. The NSF (2009) provides some evidence of this within academia in their study on “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering”, and some of the data from this study are summarized in the table below.

  % of women in BS programs % of women completing PhDs % of women as faculty members
Biology 50-60 50 25
Chemistry 50 13
Chemical engineering 30 25 10

As women still take on the majority of infant and child caretaking responsibilities, this is one of the main factors associated with attrition. Many other reasons have also been suggested for these leaks (Handelsman et al. 2005; Barrett 2010) including:

  • Long-term family responsibilities and other work-life conflicts that disproportionately affect women (e.g., maternity leave, breastfeeding; care of elderly)
  • Systematic inequities in pay and conditions of employment on the basis of gender
  • Conscious and unconscious biases that reduce female hiring or funding
  • Underrepresentation of women in leadership and decision-making positions

Biases exist that may affect both hiring and funding success. For the National Institutes of Health (NIH) career development awards in clinical research, Jagsi et al (2009) report that men tend to receive 25-30% more R01 funding than women. In terms of jobs, if fewer women reach senior positions, this by itself can have a trickledown effect on future generations of women coming through the system. Research has shown that there is a connection between the number of women faculty members at an institution and the future success of women students in the field (Trower & Chait 2002).

Obviously, the need or desire to take maternity leave, for example, should have no bearing on a person’s ability to generate good ideas, research, or teaching approaches in scientific fields (Justice 2009). Family commitments can contribute to longer times between publications, and fewer publications overall (Taylor et al. 2009), but there is no evidence suggesting that this decreases the quality of science produced, or the abilities of women to continue on and become leaders in their fields (Justice 2009).

What seems to be needed to address this issue is some flexibility. Like the flexible plastic pipes that now supply water to my bathroom sink, flexible career pipelines will ensure that women scientists can reach senior positions in their fields whether or not they have also invested time in their personal and family lives. There are some straightforward suggestions offered to help academic and research institutions increase flexibility for women and men (Chesler 2010), and these include:

  • Implementing dual-career hiring programs
  • Tenure clock extensions for childbirth, adoption, and elder care
  • Flexible part-time option for tenure-track faculty with care giving responsibilities
  • On-campus lactation rooms
  • Access to high quality or university-sponsored child care facilities (including emergency backup child care facilities)
  • Childcare options at academic conferences and symposiums
  • Emergency funding available to support a faculty member’s research program when he or she is facing significant life cycle challenges, (e.g., birth of a special needs child or illness of a parent)

How likely these strategies are to be implemented is uncertain, especially when finances at universities and research facilities are tight, but they seem to make a lot of sense. In the meantime, it is worth being aware of some of these possible challenges that exist within academic and research fields when it comes to balancing work and life. Everyone will likely need to overcome some of these challenges at some point in their lives. For those of you perusing the academic path, you don’t want to be surprised by whatever the life-equivalent of water pouring out of the ceiling is, and you certainly want to be able to make sensible career choices with your eyes wide open. It is also worth remembering that men and women voluntarily leave the academic pipeline for many reasons, and go on to have successful, fulfilling careers applying their academic skills elsewhere. I don’t think of these as leaks. They are purposeful changes in career paths. The flexible pipeline has many branches and can take you to many different places – here are just some examples of alternative careers.

The references cited in this blog have more information on the leaky pipeline, and on approaches that currently exist to plug the leaks. There are also resources at Penn that you can turn to. Career Services co-sponsors a “Faculty Conversations” discussion series each spring semester, with support from the Associate Provost for Education. One of the topics often covered is work/life balance, where current faculty members talk about their own experiences, the challenges they have faced, and what they have done to cope. The Graduate Student Center also has a page of resources for graduate students who have children or are expecting children.


Barrett J. 2010. Barriers to gender equality in US biomedical science. Physiol. Sci. 60: 232-234.

Chesler NC, Barabino G, Bhatia SN, Richards-Kortum, R. 2010. The pipeline still leaks and more than you think: a status report on gender diversity in biomedical engineering. Annals of Biomedical Engineering 38(5): 1928-1935.

Handelsman J, Cantor N, Carnes M, Denton D, Fine E, Grosz B, Hinshaw V, Marrett C, Rosser S, Shalala D, Sheridan J. 2005. Careers in science. More women in science. Science 309(5738): 1190-1191.

Jagsi R, Motomura AR, Griffith KA, Rangarajan S, Ubel PA. 2009. Sex differences in attainment of independent funding by career development awardees. Ann Intern Med. 151: 804-811.

Justice AC. 2009. Leaky pipes, Faustian dilemmas, and a room of one’s own: can we build a more flexible pipeline to academic success? Ann. Intern. Med. 151: 818-819.

National Science Foundation (NSF) (2009). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Division of Science Resources Statistics. NSF 09-305, Arlington, VA. Available at

Taylor KS, Lambert TW, Goldacre MJ. 2009. Career progression and destinations, comparing men and women in the NHS: postal questionnaire surveys. BMJ 338: b1735. [PMID: 19493938]

Trower C, Chait R. (2002). Faculty diversity. Harv. Mag. 98: 33-37.

Celebrate your Successes!

Dr. Joseph Barber

As 2010 begins to wind down – I know, it is hard to believe the year is almost over – now is a good time to think about some of the personal and professional milestones you achieved in 2010. This is an important exercise for two main reasons: 1) you will need to be able to talk about your achievements any time you are on the job market (in your cover letter, resume/CV, and during interviews); and 2) it is important from a psychological perspective to celebrate your successes and not just focus on those aspects of your life that you don’t think are going so well. If you are like me, and can remember all of the awkward, embarrassing things that have happened to you throughout your life much better than all of the times where you were actually suave and confident, then focusing on the positive is very important.

Let me talk about some of my recent successes. In terms of professional achievements, I was the primary point person for organizing the 2010 Biomedical & Life Sciences Career Fair at the end of September. I couldn’t have done this without the help of the rest of the graduate and postdoc team at Career Services, but this was a project that was most definitely on my to-do list. Working with my colleagues, and making use of all of the resources at my disposal (e.g., contact databases, LinkedIn, contacts I made through work), I was able to get 28 employers registered for the fair – and this was really the maximum number of employers that could fit in the space we had reserved. We also attracted 299 PhD students and postdocs to attend the fair, which is a great number even if it is irritatingly short of 300! If I hadn’t put in the hours working on this fair over the summer, then we wouldn’t have gotten as many employers or attendees. It was my actions that lead to this successful outcome. If I were writing about this experience in a resume, I might say something like:

  • Communicated effectively with CEOs, managers, scientists and recruiters at pharmaceutical companies and organizations seeking candidates with scientific backgrounds, resulting in 100% of career fair registration slots being filled by employers.
  • Coordinated actions of 4-person team to attract 299 PhD students and postdocs to attend fair, creating 4 posters/flyers as part of career fair announcements.

The first bullet above speaks to my ability to communicate with a wide range of people from different backgrounds. I am as comfortable speaking with scientists interested in finding particular candidates with certain types of research skills as I am talking with non-scientist recruiters looking to fill consulting positions. The second bullet focuses more on leadership/management skills, as well as sneaking in a mention of my creative skills. Both bullets use this formula: situation-skill-outcome. There was a situation where I used a specific skill to achieve a positive outcome. Use this formula in your resume and you will do a great job illustrating how effective your skills are (and not just saying that you have skills, and then relying on the employer to take your word for it). Only by taking the time to think carefully about what I achieved, and how I achieved it, can I highlight my skills in this way. So, when you are on the job market, celebrate your successes by thinking about all of the different skills you have used to achieve results (big results like getting a paper published, and small results like improving the efficiency of ordering supplies for your lab).

I am very happy that the career fair was a success. On a slightly more personal note, I am even happier that my own network of contacts played an important role in this success. If you have been to Career Services for an appointment or walk-in, chances are that you have been told how important building and maintaining your network are to your future careers. It is true – it really is. People can turn out to be great contacts for something that you never imagined they would be helpful for. Here are some of my networking experiences related to the career fair:

  • Got the names of two recruiters from a contact I had made with someone from Charles River Labs at a symposium I had spoken at 3-4 years ago. CRL did not end up registering for the fair, but I was able to add these new contacts into our employer database.
  • Reached out to a friend of mine from my undergraduate days who is a VP medical director at a medical writing firm in New York, resulting in her organization sending two representatives to the fair.
  • Followed up with a postdoc I had met with at Career Services who had mentioned in passing that she knew someone at a pharmaceutical company that I had been trying to connect with. I was able to get some contact details, and the company ended up registering for the fair.
  • My wife and I had a friend from Oxford stay at our house while he was visiting the US with his girlfriend over the summer. He is doing some website design work for Nature in the UK, and happened to know a good contact for me to reach out to in Nature Publishing’s New York office. Nature ended up registering for the fair.

Unlike the first three, my Oxonian friend has no connection with science at all. His PhD was in the humanities, and his current position in IT. Still, he was able to provide me with a contact for an organization that was on my high priority list. This was certainly a success worth celebrating.  Each contact in your network knows someone who knows someone who might just be the person you are looking to connect with. And who knows which organization your next contact’s significant other works for. Somewhere down the line you will find unexpected help from someone in your diverse network of contacts – especially if you take the time to maintain and build your relationships with them.

The more you focus on your successes, big and small, the more positive your outlook will become. This positive outlook will be reflected in your job application materials and in the way you come across in interviews – even if you are not consciously aware of this fact. People like to hire positive and confident people.

Celebrate your successes thus far in 2010, but don’t forget that there are still several weeks left for you to achieve even more. That is plenty of time for you to schedule an appointment at Career Services to see how we might be able to assist you. Making use of available resources to help you achieve your career goals is definitely a successful step in the right direction.

10 Similarities between Job Hunting and Surgery

Dr. Joseph Barber

I recently had some minor surgery, and now that I am home recovering I have been thinking about some of the various similarities and differences between the job hunting process and surgery. Note – I am still on some pretty powerful painkillers!

1)      You can spend a lot of time on WebMD trying to self-diagnose your ills, but you often don’t have an objective perspective (I always skip over “brain tumor” and look for something much less serious when seeing which diseases match my symptoms – something like “cat-scratch fever” always seems much less scary). However, it is always better to go to your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Similarly, get a fresh perspective and some expert feedback on your application materials by coming to Career Services for an appointment. Another pair of eyes can help you see your materials from the employer’s perspective.

2)      Job hunting can take a long time, and a lot of effort, but on the plus side, it is not as painful as having your insides poked at by someone with a sharp knife.

3)      I get just as nervous before job interviews as I did before my surgery, but at least you are allowed to eat and drink before the job interview (and this is a good idea, so long as you avoid that jitters-causing espresso!).

4)      It is important to dress appropriately for surgery and interviews. Business formal (e.g., a suit) is always your best option for interviews. And while no-one looks good in hospital gowns, you might get to keep your socks on, so choose a pair that has no holes.

5)      I was asked at least 18 times for my name and what procedure I was having done during the hospital admission process (so I guess writing “do not remove” in permanent marker all over my limbs wasn’t necessary). People who might interview you, especially when you meet with groups, may have little or no idea who you are, as they didn’t have time to review your materials beforehand – don’t assume they know your skills, or what you wrote in your CV/resume or cover letter, and don’t be afraid to make reference to achievements and illustrations of your skills mentioned in your materials.

6)      Always look for networking connections when job hunting. I was connected with my anesthesiologist as he also monitored my wife during her C-section. A connection like this when hunting for jobs can make all the difference.

7)      It is best not to black out completely during your interview. The opposite is true during surgery.

8)      Don’t leave the hospital without your discharge instructions (or your trousers). Don’t leave your interview without knowing their timeline for getting back in contact with you (so that you know when to follow up with them if they haven’t called).

9)      Give yourself some time to reflect upon your interview when it is all over and done with. Think about whether you can do anything better for the next one. On the other hand, try not to think about people poking at your insides with sharp cutting tools, because the remnants of the general anesthesia will make you nauseous enough as it is.

10)  Painkillers are important post-surgery. Talking with your peers, your supervisor/PI, your friends, or with advisors from Career Services is the best medicine to help you with that post-interview period, especially if it didn’t go as well as you had hoped.

Career Fairs for People Not Seeking Jobs

Dr. Joseph Barber

Six things you can do at career fairs even if you aren’t actively looking for a job

1) Hand people your well-formatted, mistake-free, Career Services’ critiqued resume. OK, if you are not looking for a job, this is one that you might be able to skip. But…, what happens if you are chatting with employers (see below), and someone asks about your experience, and then says, “do you have a resume I can take away with me?”. As you don’t want to miss this opportunity to network, which is the better answer:

  • Errr…., no, but I can write my name and email on this napkin”
  • “Yes, this reflects my experience to date, and obviously I am going to be gaining more experience over the next few months/years. If I were interested in this type of opportunity, can you see any areas where additional experience might help me in this career field?”
  • “What’s a resume?”

2) Network. People with effective networks build them continuously over time, and may not seek anything from their contacts for many months or years. They spend their time developing and maintaining their network so that when they do need help, the network is already there for them, and the people within the network know and trust them. The best time to network from a career perspective is when you are not actively looking for a job. You have more time, and you come across as less desperate. If you work hard to help people remember you by staying in contact, then you increase the likelihood that they’ll be thinking of you when future job opportunities arise. So, take time at career fairs to share your information with people in different career fields, think of creative ways to maintain contact with them over time to establish an effective relationship, and ask the most important question of all to gain access to their network: “Do you anyone you think I should talk with to find out more information?

3) Think about Plan B. You may have your heart set on one type of job, or working at one specific organization, and it is important that you work hard to achieve what you want. However, it never hurts to have a back-up plan, your career Plan B. If you are a graduate student, then you may be planning on following the tenure track, and seeking only academic teaching or research positions. The academic job market is hard to predict, and will always be changeable, but it will always be highly competitive, and there will always be someone who does not get the job they interviewed for. We hope that person is not you, and we’ll work hard with you to help you be the successful one, but it never hurts to be thinking about Plan B. If you need to switch tracks at a future date, will you have enough transferable skills and experiences to make you a competitive candidate in a completely different career field? At the career fair you can ask recruiters what they are looking for in resumes for the types of jobs they have available now. They might be able to help identify the kind of experiences you can gain in the present, and over the next few months/years, that might make you competitive for other types of jobs in the future.

4) Tell people about yourself. The question “tell me about yourself” will come up whenever you meet new people (whether spoken or inferred), but can also be asked during phone and in-person interviews. You need to have an interesting, succinct, and confident answer. You are the expert in the subject of you, and so it is the one topic that you should have no hesitation talking about. Career fairs are a great place to practice talking about yourself, as you need to summarize who you are, what skills you have, where you want to be going in the future, and how the person you are talking with might be able to help, all within about 30-60 seconds. When you are networking, people need to know what your network goals are so that they know how they can help you. For example, are you looking for information, opportunities, or future contacts?

5) Talk about your research. Graduate students have two types of tricky questions to answer in terms of what they have been doing with themselves. When telling people about yourself, you will of course mention the research you do, but research is not the only topic you should talk about. The “tell me about yourself” answer needs to be slightly broader (e.g., what brought you to Penn, what are some of the key skills you have, how have your experiences changed the way you think about aspects of the world, and how do you see yourself using your knowledge and skills in the future). When talking more specifically about your research, you will need to summarize what you do in a way that makes your subject understandable to a range of different people with differing degrees of expertise in your specific area. Can you tailor a summary about your research on ancient Aramaic texts or Tribble genes to experts in the field and to HR representatives? Can you make your research interesting and relevant to them? Again, career fairs are a great way to practice talking about your research, and it does take practice.

6) See how it is done. You don’t want your first career fair to be the one where you need to find a job. You want to work out all of your career fair nerves beforehand. Even if you don’t talk to any employers (and you really should – they won’t bite), you can still watch how your peers handle themselves at career fairs? You can see how they are dressed, and whether they are keeping their right hand free to shake hands with people they meet, without having to juggle paperwork and drinks (and that means thinking about which shoulder to hang your bag on, so it doesn’t slip off when extending your hand). Small things can sometimes count when you are trying to make a good first impression. You can listen to the types of questions they ask, and you can learn to emulate or avoid the good or bad approaches they use.

Here is a list of the career fairs coming your way this semester: