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.