Don’t let your network be like my garden

Dr. Joseph Barber

I’m not a very good gardener, although I do have some skills. I can pull up weeds, for example. I usually go for the “if it looks different from everything else it is a weed” strategy, which has its drawbacks.  Some weed-like plants actually turn out to be beautiful flowers (or they would have done if I hadn’t pulled them up). I can mow the grass quite effectively, too. I guess slicing off the top half of the grass is similar to pulling out weeds – it is more destructive than nurturing. It seems as if the nurturing part of gardening is the problem for me. I tend to over-water houseplants. “Surely they must need a drink todayI tell myself as I slowly drown them. OK, the fact that my cats chew on them doesn’t help either. Just recently, I haven’t been watering my outside plants enough. I had hoped that my “let’s hope it rains a little each day so I don’t have to water my plants” strategy was going to work, until it stopped raining, and then got very, very hot. My plants now look like this. They are very sad. I started watering them again, but it may be too late.

The network of people you build around you also needs to be nurtured. They are like my houseplants: they need to hear from you every so often, but don’t need to be drowned by a deluge of not-so-relevant information. For example, you might have recently had an informational interview with a researcher at a pharmaceutical company you are interested in, just to find out a little about the company and the person’s role. It is a great idea to keep in contact with this new addition to your network, perhaps by letting them know you have spoken to someone they referred you to, or by forwarding a paper or article that touched on something you both have in common. But, you definitely don’t want to email them every day saying: “OK, now who should I speak with?”, or “I’ve just sent off yet another job application to X Company, just wanted to let you know”. You can slowly kill off your network with too much attention – just ask my houseplants. Most people know when to stop watering their plants or pestering people in their network, but they don’t often realize that too little attention can be just as devastating. You shouldn’t network only when you need something, like a job. You need to be networking all of the time so that when you do need something, people are already thinking about you, sending you leads, recommending you, giving you referrals, and so on. People know when you are just speaking with them to get something from them, and that is not ideal for your reputation.

Networking is about a mutual sharing of information and contacts. It will pay off in the future only if you invest in your network here in the present – before you are desperately seeking a job. If you haven’t spoken to an old PhD advisor for 5 years, and now need her help in writing a letter of recommendation for a job because your postdoc is ending, it is going to be much harder to get them write a positive, convincing letter that you are the right candidate for an editorial position – especially if they had no idea you were even interested in being a journal editor. If you had kept in better contact, she would have known about the various experiences you may have sought out to gain editorial experiences, and she may have even been able to give you the name of a contact at Nature Publishing Group who, quite coincidentally, happened to be her baby-sitter’s father.

The final piece to this whole gardening/networking analogy should be clear to you by now. Whatever you do, don’t let your cats chew on people in your network; it’s not good for the plants, your cats, or your reputation. So, if you don’t have a garden to worry about, then get out there and network today! I’ll join you as soon as I have pulled up some plants that may or may not be weeds, mown the lawn, drowned my houseplants (unlike these ones, mine are all plastic now, so I can water them as much as I like), and had a long conversation with my cats about why eating plastic plants is not such a bright idea.

What Disney can teach you about a good CV/resume

by Dr. Joseph Barber

Although my postdoc was run through the University of Central Florida, I was physically based at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK) – yes, that’s right, with Mickey and the gang. You might think this a strange place to do a postdoc, until you realize that my PhD is in animal behavior. There are lots of real animals at DAK, not just the giant-headed, costumed kind. Beyond my research into animal welfare, I learnt a lot from my Disney experience, and got some great insights into the corporate world of mission statements, branding strategies, marketing campaigns, and the laser-like focus that Disney has on customer service.

Harambe, Africa (Disney's Animal Kingdom)

Let’s take the idea of “theming” as an example of some of these concepts. Yes, theming is based on the noun “theme” that, like the word “friend”, probably should not be made into a verb. But anything is possible at Disney, and so that’s what they did. If you have been to DAK you know that you walk around several different environments within the park. The two main ones are Asia and Africa – not anywhere specific in Asia or Africa, but some broad idea of what we generally envision when we think about those far-off places (or at least what Disney wants you to think). When you walk around in Africa, looking at the range of fantastic wildlife, taking the safari ride, and saving elephants from poachers, you are meant to believe that you are actually there, not just in a theme park. The design of the buildings, the type of thatched roof used, the sights, sounds, and smells that surround you as you browse the vibrant marketplace or wait in the train station, they have all been designed to help you feel that you are really there. The Disney Imagineers, those people in charge of conceptualizing and creating the Disney experience, traveled far and wide to get inspiration to use in the design of the theme park.

Anandapur, Asia (Disney's Animal Kingdom)

In Asia, you may walk through a temple as you queue for one of the rides. When the park first opened, visitors who entered some of the temple areas started to take their shoes off because they saw a pair of shoes outside of the temple that had been placed there as part of the theming. They didn’t have to, and Disney probably preferred they didn’t for liability/health and safety reasons, but they were buying into the theming. It seemed natural to take off their shoes in that environment.

Every object you see as you walk around DAK is there for a reason, and has its own story. Perhaps the shoes were owned by a local bicycle repairman who had spent the day repairing a bike that had been damaged when its owner crashed it after being chased by tigers near to the old temple ruins. OK, now we are getting to the part where Disney can help with your CV/resume. There is such a rich context to every object and every building in the park, but the Imagineers’ goal is for you not to notice them. The objects are not meant to stick out as something you need to look at and investigate, they are they to help you become immersed in the experience of actually being in Africa or Asia. The more you notice the trimmings, the less rich your experience becomes. It seems strange to for the Imagineers to spend so much time on every aspect of their design only to want them to be ignored, but they realize that people value the overall experiences that they have at the end of the day more than they value being impressed by the range of objects that they have seen. They would be impressed by the objects if they realized how much thought has gone into them, but the objects are there to become the backdrop to the immersion experience, not the main parts of it.

If you have had your CV/resume reviewed at Career Services (and we recommend that you do if you haven’t), then you have probably received feedback not only about the content (your experiences), but also about the formatting (the trimmings).

  • Do you have consistent punctuation?
  • Are the hyphens between your dates the same size, with the same spacing either side of them?
  • Are the bullet points the same shape, and indented to the same degree throughout the document?
  • Is the font used consistent, and is the size the same throughout the document?

There is a long list of formatting issues that we can look for whenever we review your job application materials. But are these really important issues? Will a misaligned bullet point really lose you the chance to interview for your dream job? Well, there are some good practical reasons to make sure your formatting is in order. If you are evenly matched in terms of experience with several candidates for a potential job, but your resume formatting isn’t perfect, then perhaps an employer can make their short list of candidates to interview by thinking about who has the greatest attention to detail. In some jobs (think editing or medical writing), attention to detail is not just a bonus, it is an essential requirement.

The Disney approach to thinking about your CV/resume helps to ensure that the employers focus on the rich experiences that you have, and the skills you have illustrated in your documents, by trying to make sure that that they don’t think about your formatting at all. Employers don’t really care about the formatting…, up until the point where they notice an issue, and then that might be all they can think about. As soon as employers start noticing formatting issues, they are no longer concentrating on your skills and experiences – these are the elements that will get you the interview. You don’t want employers to walk away from reading your resume saying, “those were some nice shapes they used in their bullet points”, or worse, “Why don’t the bullet points line up properly?”. You want them to walk away saying, “Those bullet points really illustrated how effective their analytical skills were”. You have to format your documents so impeccably that no-one even notices all of the time you spent tweaking the look of the text and proofreading for spelling/grammar mistakes. You want the formatting to become the backdrop to the content you want to get across. When employers are immersed in your skills and experiences, they will value you more. When this immersion is interrupted by a spelling mistake or misplaced comma, your theming is ruined, and the key message that you are the most suitable candidate becomes obscured.

Disney knows how to sell their brand and the experiences they offer. Career Services can help you market your own skills and knowledge for your future careers. Stop by and see us, or visit our website to see how we can help you.

Jambo everyone!

Don’t get your lines crossed!

Dr. Joseph Barber

Hello, I love you!”

You don’t expect to receive that kind of e-mail message from anyone other than your significant other or family member.  You might be surprised to hear, then, that several of the counselors at Career Services have stories about receiving this kind of e-mail from students who they have previously advised, or sent program/workshop information to.

There is an explanation. The “hello, I love you!” messages are usually followed by this sort of message:

Dear Dr. Barber, I am very, very sorry that you received that last e-mail. Please ignore it. My phone was taken by my friend/roommate/drunken colleague and they sent out prank messages to my contacts. I apologize for the inconvenience.”

Of course, that’s only if the owner of the phone realizes that messages have been sent out on their phone by their “friends”. Who knows what mischief they are up to with your phone while you are off in the bathroom? At Career Services, we are used to receiving the odd message that has been sent by mistake. After any program announcement that I send out by e-mail to our listservs, I usually get one message along the lines of:

Hey, I’m at the library, let’s do lunch. Are you done with classes yet? See ya!”

I let the sender know that they sent their message to the wrong person – no harm done. But what if your mischievous friends, or a slip of your finger, mean that wrong messages get sent to that prospective employer you have been e-mailing? How are they going to react to messages where you seem to be telling them that you love them (or worse)? Well, probably not well. They are unlikely to e-mail you back and let you know that you sent them a wrong message, and they might be much less forgiving than we are when they receive your hastily sent apology e-mail. First impressions always count, and it is hard to convince someone that you are well-organized and professional if you cannot keep track of your phone or e-mail.

Employers receive far more applicants than they have jobs available, and the job of whittling down 200 applicants to the top 10 is a tough one. Don’t make it easy for them to discard you – keep your phone and your e-mail secure, double check your e-mail recipient list before you send, and don’t drink and phone/e-mail/text (and especially not when driving).

Mistakes with e-mails can happen – it’s not the end of the world when they do, but it should be something that you take care to avoid whenever possible. In a somewhat creepy fashion, Mayor Nutter appears on my TV at night and asks: “Do you know where your children are?”. You should heed the mayor’s advice and always think about the location of your phone in a similar way.

Using Dirty Diapers to Illustrate Transferable Skills

Dr. Joseph Barber

I have been thinking about skills and competencies quite a bit just recently. This was triggered first by the fact that my introductory period working at Career Services recently ended. Many jobs have a 3-4 month introductory period, after which your progress is evaluated. All being well, this introductory period evaluation is a time to focus on future goals to reach for, and skills that should be acquired or put into action. In my case, the good news is that I passed the evaluation, and so here I am today! Ok, so it wasn’t really an exam where there are simple questions that need to be answered, of course, but an assessment of how effective I have been doing what is required of me in this role as career counselor for graduate students and postdocs. The only way to pass this kind of assessment is to illustrate the skills that I have by putting them into action to achieve measurable outcomes. Remember this last sentence, because this is really the key to being successful with any job application and interview. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

The second reason I have been thinking about competencies is based on the fact that I have just become a first-time parent. I’m a dad…, and all of a sudden I feel completely incompetent in terms of this enormous responsibility. Right now I dealing with the basics: burping, changing, rocking, changing, carrying, changing…, and this is already proving quite the challenge. I haven’t even got to the point where I need to figure out when to buy her first cell phone, how to teach her to drive, or how to convince her not to date boys from rock bands. Strange as it might seem, however, many of the skills I have been using here at Career Services are the same skills that I am trying to use when caring for a baby, and the same skills that most employers are going to find attractive.

I am talking about those elusive “transferable skills”. These are skills that you gain from one experience (let’s say completing a PhD in English), that you can go ahead and use in a totally different experience (for example, getting a job outside of academia as a development director at a non-profit organization). Your work on the writings of Oscar Wilde may not seem to have much application outside of university research, but what’s most important are the skills you put into action that allowed you to perform all aspects of this research effectively.

When you apply for jobs, employers not only need to see that you have skills, but that you can use those skills effectively. In your CV, resume, cover letter and interview, you need to be able to illustrate your skills in action by using real-life examples that show just how effective they are. Anyone can say that they are a good problem-solver. By showing how you solved a problem, and why solving that problem was ultimately important, you are much more convincing. It doesn’t really matter what the problem was, so long as you can show how you identified and addressed it.

To see an example of illustrating skills, and to show that transferable skills really are transferable, let’s look at what I am spending most of my time doing right now (career counseling and child care), and see how I can market these experiences effectively.  Here are some of the most important transferable skills that you should always be on the look out to put into action:


  • Career Services: Successfully coordinated panel discussion program by inviting three speakers to talk about alternative career options for scientists for an audience of 40 students.
  • Child care: Utilized on-line resources to improve effectiveness of baby swaddling technique, leading to a 20% reduction in infant ‘evil arm’ escapes, and maintenance of doctor-defined core body temperature.


  • Career Services: Gained working knowledge of Dreamweaver to update Career Services website, and added multimedia resources (Articulate presentation, audio clips, video interviews with alumni) to enhance experience for users.
  • Child care: Maximized daily productivity by utilizing quiet periods in early evening to powernap, leading to effective use of nighttime hours to provide child care with no decrease in day-time work output.


  • Career Services: Presented 4 workshops to groups of 10-25 students on career strategies, wrote 3 blogs, and assisted in the development of 4 PowerPoint presentations to effectively communicate career advice to wide diversity of graduate students and postdocs.
  • Child care: Maintain detailed logbook of feeding, pooping, and sleeping activities performed by child to provide pediatrician with accurate representation of daily activities.


  • Career Services: Collaborated with 6-person team to develop in-print and online program evaluation forms for use after each workshop and panel discussion given during spring semester, to assist in tailoring programs to meet the needs of students.
  • Child care: Complete efficient removal of soiled child packaging units by identifying behavioural precursors to child discomfort prior to loud audible indicators, resulting in additional 40 minutes of sleep for over-worked co-parent.

Project management

  • Career Services: Identified and contacted 4 alumni to request participation in video interviews during career fair; recorded and edited video footage to create podcast for Career Services website to assist students in developing strategies for maximizing outreach to employers.
  • Child care: Coordinate scheduling of 3 local family assets to assist in daily care of child, moving care resources to upper or lower levels of care facility to facilitate needs of volunteers of different age-ranges with varying locomotory abilities.


  • Career Services: Identified need for technology updates to allow office cameras to record complete mock interviews, and worked with office manager to order and acquire updated resources.
  • Child care: Developed stepwise process to systematically identify causal factors leading to infant crying, resulting in 30% reduction in Tylenol consumption needed to address noise-related cerebral discomfort.

Team work

  • Career Services: Partner with career counselor to develop interactive workshop on transferable skills by identifying program goals, creating group exercises, and framing discussion points based on experience of presenters.
  • Child care: Coordinate all daily activities with co-parent to effectively manage resource acquisition, consumption of nutrients, reorganization of living space, and financial responsibilities, leading to 50:50 division of labour, and 100% completion of household chores.


Well…, leadership skills are an important area for me to focus on in the future. Hopefully, when I coordinate the Biomedical & Life Sciences Career Fair as part of the Graduate Team here at Career Services, there will be plenty of opportunities to illustrate my leadership skills. From the baby perspective, I continue to work with my wife to develop our strategic plan for effective child-rearing. We can come up with all of the house rules we want (e.g., no computer or TV in the bedroom), but an illustration of leadership skills in this case will be sticking with these rules. I’m no fool…, I am expecting this to be a near impossible task!

Take a look at the list of transferable skills I have provided above, and try to look back at your own academic and non-academic experiences to see if you can come up with effective illustrations of you using these skills to achieve quantifiable outcomes. If you have trouble finding a good example for a particular skill, try looking for new and different experiences where you can put this skill into action (e.g., joining a club, volunteering). If you are interested in thinking more about transferable skills, then consider meeting with us here at Career Services

FrankenFood for thought! How lunch can help you find a career.

Dr. Joseph Barber

If you are interested in the way that animals are treated in captivity, then when it comes to mealtimes you probably fall into one of these three categories:

  1. You are a vegan/vegetarian and don’t eat meat;
  2. You try to be a humane carnivore by selecting some of the welfare-friendly farming options (e.g., free-range chickens, outdoor-reared pork);
  3. You really try hard not to think about the delicious meat that you are eating, where it came from, or whether animals were poorly treated to get it (a very wise idea when eating ‘mystery meat’ pies and hotdogs).

I recently had my Hunter College (CUNY) masters students discuss the idea of ‘cultured meat’ (Hopkins & Dacey 2008) – meat that doesn’t come from whole animals, but that is grown from cell cultures (for more information click here and see this recent news article). If we believe that animals can suffer from physical or psychological ill-treatment, and there are many intensive farming practices that may potentially lead to suffering (e.g., confinement without social companions, overcrowding, early weaning, beak trimming), then the idea of cultured meat actually sounds very attractive. From an environmental perspective, cultured meat would also probably need less space, fewer resources (e.g., water, food), and be less polluting than whole animals as well.

On the whole, my students were supportive of cultured meat (and it was generally meat-eaters who tended not to like it), but all of them identified some very relevant obstacles that this future technology would have to overcome to be a viable alternative to whole animal farming. Growing cell cultures is a current technology, but turning these cultures into tasty steak and kidney pie or pulled pork is going to require more research. And then you have to think about marketing it to the potential consumers of the product. All you would need is for the press to refer to cultured meat as “FrankenMeat”, or as another author put it “mindless chicken tumours” (Warkentin 2009), and you will probably lose a significant number of customers!

So what does this have to do with careers? Well, first of all, I like the idea of cultured meat, and so I thought it might be good to encourage any of you looking for PhD or Postdoc research opportunities to consider this as a potential topic. I think this could be a break-out product within the next 10-20 years, and the more of you who are working on it, the faster this might happen. If the vegans in my groups of students said that they would be willing to try cultured meat, then there is likely to be a huge portion of the population who might buy this. Secondly, the idea that mis-marketing of cultured meat as “mindless chicken tumours” might turn people away from this potentially great idea is a good reminder that how you talk about your research, especially to people who are not experts in your field, is very important. Cultured meat probably does have a lot in common with tumor growth at some biochemical level, and scientists in the field may know this, but talking about tumours and food in the same sentence to non-scientists isn’t going to get you very far when extolling the virtues of this idea. Whether you are looking for postdocs or jobs, networking, or even just trying to apply the results of your research, you will need to talk about your research to people from many different backgrounds, and you will need to do this in a way that makes your research interesting, relevant, and completely not gross or retch-inducing. An easy litmus test to use: if people ask you more questions about your research after you give them a 1-2 minute, tailored introduction to it, then you have done a good job. If people start dry-heaving and then run off in the other direction, looking over their shoulder at you to make sure you are not following them, then you may need to practice your 1-2 minute research talk a little more. We have a Career Services’ workshop that deals with talking about your research (Thursday 4th February), and so keep an eye out for this on our schedule.

Finally, if you are interested in the application of your research within industry or the business world, it might help if you have some understanding of marketing, economics, and business methods. These may be very transferable skills when it comes time for your job hunting. The wealth of student-based organizations here at Penn offers you an enormous choice in terms of skills that you can acquire or practice (e.g., Penn Biotech Group).

As always, visit us at Career Services for more information on your job search strategies, and I promise I won’t talk about a future filled with “mindless chicken tumour” nuggets.

Do blogs have a reference section? They do now!

Hopkins PD, Dacey A. 2008.  Vegetarian meat: could technology save animals and satisfy meat eaters? J Agric Environ Ethics 21: 579-596.

Warkentin T. 2009. Dis/integrating animals: ethical dimensions of the genetic engineering of animals for human consumption. In: Gigliotti C. (ed.), Leonardo’s Choice: Genetic Technologies and Animals. Springer, Netherlands. Pp.151-171.