Skills

What goes around, comes around

I wonder why this is happening. I feel like I am going from unknown depths in my life, to climbing back up that mountain within days. Which means that one week I’m making you read how miserable things are and then in the following week I tell you how fabulous life is. Lets hope I won’t keep bouncing as strongly…

On Thursday, I attended a course organised by the Medical Sciences Department on how to teach in small groups. Having my recent application for a teaching fellowship in the back of my head, I figured this might be a good preparation for an interview – should I be invited for one… And let me tell you this: I’ve never been to such an informative and fun course before. After half a year in Oxford, asking occasional questions about the University and its colleges but getting only vague answers, I now finally understand what these colleges are. And also know what these mysterious tutorials are good for. (note to self: write a post some day to share these insights with the wider world!) Unfortunately, the course ran a bit longer than scheduled and I had to run for an appointment at the dentist (of which I seem to have too many lately…).

I decided to send one of the organisers an email to apologise for running off like that, before they had finished. And to tell him I thought the course was really good and was even considering to go further than this one day and try to get an official teaching qualification. Not because I anticipate to need that in near future, but because I’ve always been interested in education and this course had rekindled that spark.

On a side note, I strongly believe that positive feedback is very important. If I am happy with something, I tend to tell people. I realised that the British are even more surprised with that than people back home. When one of the PhD students in our lab had given me a protocol that was really easier than my protocol, I told him I couldn’t believe that would work, but would try it anyway. When it did work, I told him and thanked him for sharing his secrets. And I’ve also told our lab manager that I’m impressed with the way he built a lab from scratch in half a year and is juggling the partially opposing expectations from us, the PI and the director. They both seemed genuinely surprised with my feedback, but really happy. They both told me that generally the British don’t say that kind of thing out loud. On the other hand, they also don’t complain. It’s still pretty alien to me, why can’t you show some emotion and let people know how you feel?

But to get back to this course. I went home after seeing the dentist (and being told that a third tooth is dying off too 😦 ) and sent a tweet into the world, linking to this course and telling how good is was. Then, I phoned some friends and told them too. And realised that I had really enjoyed it, so why not give them that feedback? So I did just that. I googled one of the organisers to get an email address and sent off this email. The next day, I got a reply that he was really happy with my feedback, as they rarely got any. Which convinced me that it is good to let people know when you appreciate them or what they do. I really dislike the fact that people seem to be more willing to complain about negatives than to truly appreciate positives.

Which would’ve been fine, if this had been the end of it. But then I got an email from the other organiser (there were two) to thank me for the email I sent the other guy. Turned out it probably was the last course he would run and my feedback made that kind of special to him. I explained what I said earlier in this post, that I am convinced people should speak up more when they appreciate something. To which this second organiser replied that this was exactly what they had been trying to explain during the course, that teaching isn’t only about getting facts through, but about inspiring people and making a difference.

And then. I still can’t believe my luck. He offered to mentor me if I’d like to start with a portfolio, which is necessary to get this teaching qualification, and that if my molecular biology is any good, he might even be able to help me get started with teaching. Are you kidding me? Most people apply for millions of things before they get offered a position, because of the high competition in medical sciences in Oxford, and he just throws something in my face? I still have to reply to his email to accept his offer, but I definitely will!

I’m absolutely not trying to say that you should become a slime ball trying to convince everybody you love them, because you think they will then magically fix your life for you. That’s not gonna get you anywhere. But you can make a big difference for people by genuinely appreciating them and what they do. With little to no effort, you can make people happier. And every now and then this comes back to haunt you 🙂

 

How to write a successful application

I wish I could give you THE answer, tell you how to write THE application that will land you THE job. Unfortunately, I can’t. What I can do, is tell you how I approach applications – which thus far has been quite successful.

Don’t be afraid of applying for positions where you might not be a perfect fit. The vacancy description states what candidates should ideally have, but in some cases this might be utopic. Like the position open for fresh graduates – ideally with years of experience. Applying for jobs that might not sound all that interesting at first, might be a good idea too. Maybe you discover during the interview that certain job aspects are more flexible than they seemed, or maybe they are looking for someone who takes the initiative to reshape the position.

If anything, I think it’s good to apply for application’s sake. You build up a basic set of material like CV, cover letter ideas, you know who you can rely on to write letters of support. Once you start getting invited for interviews, you learn how to handle those, recognise the ever-returning questions.

Maybe I’m not the one to preach this by the way – I’ve only applied once for a teaching position, where I in the end pulled out. Other than that, I landed my PhD position and postdoc position by approaching labs that didn’t have open positions. I got in touch with both of them because I was interested in their research and asked them whether we could talk about possibilities for me in their lab.

Back to the topic – how do you write a good application?

First, look at the job description again. What are they looking for? Look at the company’s website, what are the things important to them?

Next, sit down and look at your master CV. This is a list of everything you ever did. All jobs you did as student, all the voluntary causes you supported. Take a look at the job description. And start shaping your CV. Applying for a teaching position? Drag your teaching experiences to the top and include everything that makes you look like an absolute expert. Include everything important – your education, relevant work experience. Don’t swamp them with irrelevant stuff, take out the things that couldn’t possibly make you a better candidate for the job you are applying for.

With a draft CV in hand, start thinking about your cover letter. As with the CV, a standard letter never does. In the first paragraph, mention why you are writing a letter, where you stumbled across the vacancy and briefly who you are. Then, DO NOT merely list everything that’s in your CV already. No, convince them. Take one paragraph to convince them you have a lot of qualities that make you an excellent candidate for this job, highlight your most valuable assets. Also, spend a paragraph describing why you want this job, how it will help you in the grand scheme of things. If you can convince them you have the necessary skill and are motivated to do the job, I guess you’re halfway in.

Add a brief summarising paragraph, to once more take the message home that you are an excellent candidate for the position. Finalise by stating that you’d be grateful for the opportunity to further talk about this in an interview, offer to send them any additional information if required. Remember, the goal of your application is to get that interview, not necessarily the job yet.

Something which is less easy to control, are the letters of support. First, you have to decide whom to ask. In academia, you often can’t exclude your PhD supervisor so that’s easy. Should you need more referees, always consider what you are applying for and who can support this. For my long-term research fellowship, I asked a prof at another university whom we often collaborated and published together with, as I felt he could make my scientific potential appear stronger. However, for the teaching position I’d like to have, I have asked the coordinator of the courses I taught in. He might not be the big shot the other prof was, but he can comment on (and hopefully praise!) my teaching skills. Finally, if you aren’t sure about the writing skills your referees possess, you might offer them to write a draft letter. Include precisely the skills you want them to highlight, praise yourself. They can always cut it down if they think it’s too much, but this way you are more likely to end up with a letter supporting you in the way you’d like it to.

For my teaching application, I have just finished the cover letter and CV. I’ve sent them to a British colleague to check whether there’s some no-go in there, such as including too much personal information. I’ll leave them a couple of days to rest, then look at them again with a fresh mind. If I’m still happy with them, I’ll send them off and start crossing my fingers!!

The best environment to write an application

Last year, I have written 2 application for a post-doctoral research fellowship and have been awarded both. Currently, I am writing an application for a fellowship that will give me some money to spend on for example travel or consumables. As I am in the writing process, I’ve been thinking about what works best for me and thought I’d share that with you.

I have two personal favourite places to write an application. The first one may strike you as a bit odd at first, but it kind of makes sense to me. It would be in a pub. Or train. Or somewhere with a lot of people. Why? I don’t want to be looking at embarrassing Facebook pictures with half a coupé watching them with me. Nor do I want to write an email about my deepest secrets when the barman is reading along. No, I’ll focus on my work as nobody will read along with that. Plus, in places without wireless internet I am not tempted to do a lot of other things. That’s what always happens when you have to do something, right? Other things immediately become more pressing. Writing your mother. Solving the issues with your bank. Anything really. But write. Which means that a place without internet access is a good place to be.

Alternatively, like now, at home. On my sofa. In my pyjamas. With whatever foods and music keep me happy. For all the obvious reasons of course, it’s comfy, I have everything I need. But as witnessed by this post – it is easy to get distracted. I just give myself some time limits for those kind of distractions. Maybe define what is okay to do – like writing a post is okay, but clicking around Facebook for an hour isn’t. And then stick to that.

Right now, time’s up. Gotta back to my application. Let’s hope something good’ll come from it! Now sure about one thing: there is also a part about science communication/outreach… Think I should mention having a blog?! I’ve not been that good at writing regularly…