Category: Curriculum vitae

My first media interview as a scientist

Today I did my first interview with a large media organization. While I had previously done interviews with some campus print media outlets this was the first time that I was doing an interview with media that was external to a university. The topic of the interview was the under-representation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). That’s a topic that is very personally and professionally important to me so it was extremely vital that the interview go well. I was therefore very nervous about the interview.

The first hurdle came up this morning when determining what to wear. I wasn’t sure whether the interview was for TV or radio. TV is a visual medium, so rightly or wrongly half of the message that you’re sending will be based on how you look. From previous conversations and photo shoots I’d learned that patterns are bad for TV. Stripes especially look awful and appear unstable when broadcasted. My husband thought that my original shirt made me look washed out and pasty, so I switched to a darker, solid coloured top for the interview. I did my make-up, hair, and accessories as usual and kept things simple. As it turns out it was a radio interview, so a tip for next time will be to clarify this piece of information in advance.

Since I’d never done something like this before I wanted to make sure that I was as prepared as possible, so I did what any reasonable person would do and I researched how to prepare for a media interview using a quick Google search. I’d also previously participated in a media training workshop as a post-doc and more recently as a faculty member at one of Informed Opinion’s excellent workshops facilitated by Sheri Graydon. I quickly learned that it’s important to have 1 key message that you want to convey and to use 3 points or examples to hammer home that key message. I spent about 20 minutes fleshing out my key message and 3 talking points that I’d like to convey during the interview and practicing how I could say them in response to an interviewer’s questions. I think that the interview went very well and was a positive experience. I learned a lot from participating myself and from watching two other people being interviewed for the segment.

Our interviews will be edited down to a 7 minute radio and web segment and will likely to live tomorrow or Monday. I’ll add a link once it gets posted.

I’d be curious to hear from more seasoned interview participants. What are your top tips for a scientist who is speaking to the media for the first time?

Funding graduate student travel to conferences

This blog post was prompted by a disturbing post over at Tenure, She Wrote by a graduate student talking about the lack of funding for conferences. I am happy to say that my experiences of conferences as a graduate student were not like the experience that this student is describing, but I was horrified by the situation detailed in the blog post.

I’m now a PI and my goals with regards to graduate student travel funds are to be as transparent and fair with my graduate students as I can be. It is what I would like a supervisor to do for me if I was still a graduate student. Since starting my position 5 years ago, I have had an unwritten policy on this topic, but this student’s post made me realize that I should be more explicit in my policy and perhaps write it down so that there is less chance of a miscommunication with one of my students.

My goal for each of my graduate students is to send them to 1 conference per year of their program. Most of my students complete their program in 2 years, so this usually means two conferences. Usually the first conference is local and therefore lower cost and they usually present on work in progress at this meeting. These are smaller meetings where I am able to help them network and the attendees are friendly. The second meeting involves the presentation of the full story of their thesis work and I try to ensure that this is either a national meeting or an international one. This is my philosophy on meetings. I allow my students to present work in progress or partial stories at the first meeting and I know many PIs who don’t do this; I feel that the experience is worth it for the students even if the work doesn’t yet represent a full story. I tell my graduate students several times during the year that my goal is to send them to one conference per year. If students wish to attend more conferences, then we discuss their reasons for attendance and negotiate my financial contributions based on grant funds available.

I also have a very explicit conversation with my graduate students near the beginning of their program about how the costs of the conference will be handled. I pay for all travel, accommodation, meals, posters, and registration costs. If I can charge the cost directly to my grant (usually using an institutional credit card) I do so. If the cost gets charged upon arrival at the conference I either charge it in person upon arrival, issue the student a travel advance, or if the student is comfortable with it they charge it on their own credit card and get reimbursed. Fortunately our institution is fairly speedy with reimbursements, so students do not have to pay interest on the amount or carry the balance for more than two weeks after our return from the conference. I let the students tell me what they are comfortable with and I don’t judge. I let them know that if funds are tight, we will come up with a solution that works for both of us and that they should not place themselves in financial hardship to attend a conference. If the student wishes to pair travel to a particular location with a vacation and stay for a bit before or after the conference, then I still pay for the return trip, but during those extra days they are responsible for their accommodations and food and I explain that clearly before we make any travel bookings. I also ask my students to apply for all available travel grants that they qualify for to help support their attendance, but these funds do not make or break the trip.

As a graduate student I often had to share rooms with other students. At times this was fine and I expected it and at other times it was awkward (e.g. when I was pumping milk while still breast feeding). I initially ask students if they are comfortable sharing a room or a suite of rooms with other students. Residence and hotel options differ quite a bit and I ask my students to explore all options and let me know their preferences. I have had students who preferred their own room with a washroom, students who share a room and washroom with one other student, students who share a suite with other students (they have their own room, but share 1-2 washrooms with others), students who have their own room and share a communal washroom on the floor, etc. I respect the requests of my students and I assume that they have logical reasons for any limitations that they place on housing arrangements. I do not share accommodations with my students as I am not comfortable with that arrangement.

Affording all graduate students with the opportunity to participate in conferences is one of the commitments that I make to each student that I accept into my laboratory. Whether or not they can financially afford it should not dictate whether they can attend. I consider this philosophy one of the privileges and responsibilities of mentoring graduate students.

How do other people handle conference costs for their graduate students? Any horror stories that you’d like to share?

Helping students to draft CVs and resumes

In preparation for this week’s lab meeting I asked all of my students to put together a draft CV or resume. They each emailed it to the other members of the lab and we all made constructive comments on these documents. At our lab meeting each person gave feedback to each student on their document that was useful and insightful. It was also a great way to generate questions and have a good discussion about CVs and resumes.

One thing that all of my students noted was how time consuming it was to put together this document for the first time. We talked a lot about content (e.g. what should go into the document) and organization (e.g. what sections or headings to use?). I also impressed upon them the importance of updating the document regularly (I do mine once a month) because if you leave it too long it becomes very difficult to remember what you’ve accomplished. My students also have a tendency to undersell their skill set or they often don’t recognize that they have particular talents or skills. In a previous lab meeting we addressed that issue by brainstorming about transferrable skills and how to capture and describe them to an employer.

I also encouraged by students to take their drafts to our campus Career Centre. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the non-academic job market, or the academic job market for that matter, and the staff at the Career Centre are much better informed about current job market trends and application expectations. I think that part of my job as a faculty member is to help my students prepare for their next phase of life, whether that is looking for a job, further education, or some other goal. I think that professional development is an important part of training students in my lab.

Transferrable Skills

I generally think that graduate students under sell their skill sets to employers. Many graduate students think only of technical skills when they are putting together their CVs or resumes and it’s a real shame. They are failing to capture many great skills that they have developed during the course of their graduate degree and are not effective in highlighting these skills in job applications. Many researchers are competent in running gel electrophoresis protocols, but not as many have competencies in project management or leadership. It is these “soft skills” that will make one applicant stand out from the crowd.

I also think that many principle investigators (PIs) don’t realize that transferrable skills are absolutely required by students in this economy in order to get a job. It is no longer enough to be technically competent; employers are looking for what additional value a researcher can bring to the job. I’ve always been dismayed by hearing stories from students about how their supervisor discourages them from attending professional development workshops. I think that this “chained to the bench” attitude has no place in science.

It is for this very reason that I encourage my graduate students to participate in professional development workshops, go to conferences and meetings, collaborate with other scientists, and take part in student government or organizations. These are opportunities that I took advantage of as a graduate student and post-doctoral fellow and they have served me well over the years. Frankly, these experiences (and the skills that I acquired participating in them) have provided me with an edge over the competition at every transition that I’ve faced in my research career.

Let’s talk about some tangible examples using the case study below. This is a case study that I’ve made up, but many graduate students would be doing these activities during the course of their degree.

Janet has just completed her thesis based M.Sc. degree in the laboratory of Dr. Jones. Her thesis involved the identification and cloning of a gene involved in the biosynthesis of digestive enzymes in mouse saliva. She also characterized the enzymatic activity of the protein encoded by the gene. During the course of her project, Janet was assigned two undergraduate summer research assistants by Dr. Jones to assist her with data collection. Janet’s research has led to the publication of 2 peer-reviewed research articles and 3 conference presentations. While in graduate school Janet was employed as a Teaching Assistant for a 3rd year undergraduate biochemistry course laboratory.

Here is a list of the obvious soft skills that Janet has acquired during her degree:

i) Ability to plan, execute, and finish a multi-year project

ii) Ability to supervise and manage staff

iii) Scientific writing skills

iv) Ability to present information in oral/written format

v) Networking skills

vi) classroom management

v) Ability to evaluate the performance of others

vi) Ability to work effectively with a supervisor


Some other skills that Janet might have gained along the way:

i) Teaching skills

ii) Ability to manage a research budget

iii) Ability to receive and use constructive feedback/criticism

iv) Ability to work as an individual and part of a team

v) Troubleshooting and problem solving skills

vi) Ability to adapt to new challenges quickly

You can see that the potential soft skills that could be developed by Janet during the course of her degree are diverse and that I have not included any of Janet’s technical skills (e.g. molecular biology skills, enzymatic characterization techniques, etc.) in this list. Obviously when you are putting together your CV or resume as a student you only want to list soft skills that you believe are relevant and that are your strengths. You also want to think about tailoring your application package to the specific job for which you are applying. When you think about your soft skills in addition to your technical skills, a larger range of job opportunities become available. Casting a wide net in terms of identifying potential employment prospects is a smart move these days.

Why You Should Join a Scientific Society

Depending on the scientific research that you do, there will be one or more regional, national, and international scientific societies dedicated to advancing research in that area. Many societies have very broad interests, while others will be focused on niche research areas. I have found it very useful and rewarding, both personally and professionally, to be a member of scientific societies.

I joined my first scientific society in 1998 when I was finishing up my fourth year undergraduate thesis project. I was encouraged by my supervisor to present my results as an oral presentation at the Eastern Regional Meeting of the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists. This was my first introduction to academic conferences and the first time presenting my research to a scientific audience. It was an absolutely terrifying, but exciting experience. My talk went great, I received an honourable mention for it, and I ended up being invited to join some people for lunch. One of those people ended up being my Ph.D. supervisor a few years later. This effectively illustrates that joining an academic society allows you to actively participate in conferences and can be a very effective way to network and advance your career. Since then I’ve organized the Eastern Regional meeting on my campus and am currently serving as the chair of a committee for a prestigious student award for this society.

I joined my second scientific society in 2005 during my Ph.D. program. While much of my work used plants as an experimental system, I had also started to move into animal models for my experiments. I joined the Canadian Society of Zoologists and attended their annual conference later that year. I gave a talk at that meeting that attracted a lot of positive attention and helped me to meet many colleagues and to develop strong friendships with a wide variety of scientists. As it turns out, the chair of the session that my oral presentation was slated in later become my post-doctoral advisor. This society has also supported my research through travel grants to conferences and a research grant to conduct some work at Stanford with international colleagues. I currently serve as a councillor for this society.

Membership in these two societies has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s allowed me to see amazing places all over the world, to meet some incredible friends, and to develop a wide range of useful skills. I strongly encourage all of my students to join a scientific society so that they can experience the benefits first hand.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Service

The final section of my CV highlights my service activities. Service activities take place at various levels of organization, both within your institution and outside of it. If we start with external service, this might include serving as a reviewer for grant applications (e.g. NSERC, CIHR, grants from other countries), serving as an external examiner on M.Sc. or Ph.D. defenses, and reviewing manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals. You may be chairing sessions at academic conferences, serving as an executive member of a professional society, judging student awards at conferences, and organizing scientific conferences. All of these roles are contributions to your profession. You may also be involved in community or campus events such as judging school science fairs or serving as a guest speaker and performing outreach by representing your science to a broader audience. Within your institution you may be taking part in many service activities. For example, I sit on several university-level committees such as the Biohazard Safety Committee and the Women in Science Committee. In the past I’ve served as the president of a post-doctoral association and the graduate student association. You may be performing service within your Faculty by attending convocations, meet and greets, and student recruitment events. When you are starting your academic career you will likely perform most of your service within your department. This might include organizing the departmental seminar series, sitting on hiring committees, and serving as a departmental representative at various events on campus. It is often through service activities that we gain important “soft skills” that are applicable to a wide variety of careers.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Teaching Experience

The next section of my CV describes my teaching experience. When I was in graduate school my teaching experience consisted of teaching assistant and course marker assignments and several workshops that I had presented. My current CV lists the undergraduate and graduate courses I’ve taught at my current institution (e.g. academic year, course code and title, and the enrollment). I also list my contributions to other courses; as an example I’ve served as a guest lecturer in colleagues’ courses several times. If you are a graduate student an excellent way to get teaching experience is to ask a professor in your department whether they would be open to you delivering a lecture in one of the classes that they teach. I also list any independent study courses and undergraduate thesis students that I’ve supervised and mentored in this section as well as research assistants and volunteers that I’ve taught in my lab. I have a sub-section called “Other Teaching Experience” where I list workshops that I’ve prepared and delivered on a variety of academic topics.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss the section of my CV that deals with professional activities, membership, and service.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Scholarship and research section: Training of Highly Qualified Personnel

The next section of my CV details the trainees that I have advised during my research career. If you are a graduate student or post-doc you may have served as a mentor or research supervisor to other students in the lab. It’s best to discuss your responsibilities and impressions of these duties with your principal investigator before listing anything on your CV. As a new faculty member I’ve supervised several undergraduate students, either as 4th year thesis students or volunteers, and several graduate students in my lab. I devote one table to talking about these trainees and use the following columns: Name of the Student, Type of HQP Training and Status (e.g. M.Sc.), Dates Supervised (e.g. Sept. 2011-April 2012), Title of Project or Thesis, and Present Position (e.g. student graduated and went on to do a Ph.D. at UBC).

In addition to training my own students, I contribute to the training of other students in my department by reading theses and sitting on thesis advisory committees. I capture this information in two tables; one for committee work that I have completed, and one for committee work that is currently in progress. I do this under two separate headers; one for graduate student committees and one for undergraduate committees. The columns in these tables are: Term (May 2010-May 2013), Student, Supervisor, My Role.

In my next post I’ll talk about how I list my teaching experience on my CV.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Scholarship and research section: Presentations

The next 2 sections of my CV serve to highlight the scientific presentations that I’ve given during my career. The first section is entitled “Invited Seminars”. This section includes research talks that I have given as an invited seminar speaker at other institutions and invited plenary talks at conferences. The second section is entitled “Conference Presentations” and is broken down into 2 subsections: oral and poster presentations. Under the oral presentation header I list all of the talks that I have given at scientific conferences during my career. Now that I run my own research group I also list presentations that my trainees have delivered. In this section I use an asterisk (*) behind the name of the person who delivered the presentation and underline the names of my trainees. Under the poster presentation header I list the poster presentations that I have delivered as well as those given by my students. During my career I have also led workshops or participated in panel discussions that are unrelated to the scientific research that I do. I list these presentations later on in my CV when I talk about my teaching experiences.

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Scholarship and research section: Awards

My CV contains a section for awards that is separate from my funding section. If I’ve held a scholarship, grant, or fellowship I put it in my funding section. My awards section contains achievements that have been recognized by my former departments and by professional societies. For example, I have previously won several conference presentation awards for talks or posters delivered at annual society meetings. I also won some graduate level awards that were offered by my department and graduate faculty. Once you’ve started graduate school I recommend removing high school awards, but it’s great to list any awards that you received as an undergraduate student. Some examples would include awards for best undergraduate thesis, recognition of extracurricular activities, etc. If you are early in your scientific career it may make more sense to have a single “Grants and Awards” section in your CV and list all scholarships, fellowships, grants, and awards together. Remember that a CV is a personalized document and that you should feel free to organize it in a way that puts your best foot forward.