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.

5 Similarities between your PennCard and Job Hunting

by Dr. Joseph Barber

1) PennCards can take a while to find in your bag, but they are in there somewhere. Job searching can take a while too, but persistency does pay off.

2) Over the course of a day your PennCard exchanges information with lots of different entities. Expanding your own contacts through effective networking will also maximize your chances of finding a job.

3) Dirty, old, crinkled PennCards usually don’t swipe successfully. Poorly formatted and unorganized resumes and CVs don’t impress much either.

4) Eating and drinking on the run whilst trying to use your PennCard often results in sticky cards. The information that you get from Career Services’ workshops and seminars, and from individual appointments with Career Services’ advisors, will stick with you too. Bring your card along and come and see us!

5) Your PennCard opens doors for you. Your Penn academic credentials and the stellar resume/CV that we can help you put together will also open doors – doors to career opportunities.

Pregnancy. Never to be described as the elephant in the room, for obvious reasons.

Dr. Joseph Barber

My wife is having a baby. Well…, not right now obviously. I’m not one to “tweet” about the immediate goings-on in my life, as it is hard enough for me to keep track of them, let alone update other people. So…, my wife is going to have a baby in early spring. This is a fact that is now obvious if you see her, but was not, until recently, apparent to my colleagues at Career Services who had not seen her, and did not know her.  It was a fact that I had not shared, for no other reason than it had not really come up in conversation.

“Yes, we have three speakers confirmed for the “Expanded Career Opportunities for Science and Engineering PhDs” panel discussion scheduled for the 30th November. Unlike my wife, none of them appear to be pregnant”

The proverbial cat was let out of the bag when my wife came to speak at the “Expanded Career Opportunities for PhDs in the Humanities and Social Sciences” panel discussion put on by one of my colleagues at Career Services. My wife has a PhD in anthropology and now works as an Executive Director of a non-profit organization here in Philadelphia.  As soon as that cat was unleashed from its bag, it ran around the Career Services office with frightening, supersonic speed. My colleagues both congratulated me and then chastised me for not sharing this exciting news earlier. I only started at Career Services in September, and so perhaps I can use this fact as a partial excuse.

You can probably see where I am going to go with this. It is easy enough for me to (unintentionally) conceal the fact that my wife is pregnant, and despite the many adventures that March will bring (caring for a baby is much like taking care of cats, right?), I can continue to turn up each day and do my work without too much trouble. If I were applying for a job, would my wife’s pregnancy be something I would share? Probably not, unless it just came up in casual conversation, perhaps with an interviewer who had also recently had a child. Building some common ground with future colleagues is not necessarily a bad idea. Would employers care if my wife was having a baby? Well, some employers might see this as a positive, because if I got the job, I would probably work hard to keep it and the necessary benefits that came along with it.

Understanding the culture of the organizations you are applying to will be important in terms of how much information you might be willing to share. Some places are likely to be more “baby-friendly” than others. Taking the opportunity to conduct informational interviews with someone from the organization might help you find out more about this culture, and give you a better perspective. You should also find out about Family and Medical Leave benefits that employers might offer for fathers and mothers.

But what if I was a woman…, or perhaps less confusingly, what if my wife was applying for jobs while pregnant? Should she talk about babies, family, personal goals, or any of that? In general terms, if she were not showing, then she wouldn’t have to say anything about being pregnant. The same is true during phone interviews where there are no visual clues. Being pregnant does not prevent anyone from using their academic and work-based skills in the jobs they are applying to, whether these are academic or non-academic careers. When it is obvious that you are pregnant, you should probably make mention of it, even though you are generally not required to do so during interviews. Most employers are legally bound not to ask you about personal matters like this as part of interviews (or to discriminate against you for being pregnant), but the topic of families might come up if your interviews have some social element associated with them (e.g., a 2-day campus interview for a faculty position with lunches, dinners, or other social gatherings).  If it is obvious you are pregnant, it is best to address it head-on, and address it confidently.


Being pregnant provides you with an opportunity to illustrate some key skills, and show your understanding of the requirements of the job. For example, if you have thought about how you intend to rear a child and work full//part-time at the organization you are applying to, and can present your proposed approach coherently to employers, you are showing an ability to plan and organize your time effectively, and to use a little creative problem-solving to do so. For example, for academic jobs you might be able to have your classes organized ahead of time, or be able to convert them into hybrid/blended courses (part face-to-face, part on-line) prior to the start of the semester. But interviews should not get side-tracked by your pregnancy; you need to make sure that the focus remains on your teaching and research skills for academic jobs, and your relevant transferable skills (e.g., leadership, team-work, communication) for jobs outside of academia. You need to stick in your interviewers’ heads as an outstanding candidate, not as a pregnant candidate.

You can learn more about pregnancy and its relation to academic job searching, and non-academic job searching, by following these links. Wish me luck for the spring, because there is no doubt in my mind that I will need it – lots and lots of it – especially as I have just been told that looking after a baby is absolutely not the same as looking after cats.