Tag: academic job search

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.

Are you unintentionally writing biased reference letters for your female trainees?

While it can be argued that acts of outright sexism have decreased in the academy, acts of underground, unconscious, and unintentional sexist behaviour are rampant. We unfortunately have plenty of examples covered in the popular media of such behaviour that we can point to in the past several months alone.

A few years ago I heard about a study that indicated that male and female researchers exhibited unconscious negative bias when writing reference letters for female trainees. At the time I was concerned because I had just come back from a 9 month maternity leave after my son was born. Years later, I took a second maternity leave after the birth of my daughter. Was it possible that my reference letter writers, in an effort to be helpful, could actually be harming my chances of succeeding in academia?

A few days ago Natalie Samson wrote a great article for University Affairs that brought this issue back into my consciousness. In that article she confirmed that the Canada Research Chairs program is now including explicit guidance to letter writers on how to ensure that unconscious bias does not enter into their reference letters written for female nominees. Natalie Samson outlines quite effectively why the program has decided that these guidelines are necessary for letter writers.

Let’s take a look at some of the CRC recommendations for letter writers. There are two sub- sections in the “Guidelines and Best Practices for Reference Letter Writers” section that are pertinent. One is entitled “Best Practices” and the other is called “Limiting Unconscious Bias”. Several are really interesting.
For example, letter writers are warned against being “unduly personal” and to avoid using the applicant’s first name. Most of the letters that I write are for undergraduate students and in my introductory paragraphs I list the student’s full name (e.g. Ms. Jane Doe or Mr. John Doe) and then refer to them as Jane or John throughout the rest of my letter. I have yet to write a reference letter for a post-doc or colleague and in that case I think that I’ll now refer to them as Dr. Doe given this advice.

Another example that I would hope would be painfully obvious to everyone is to comment only on information that is relevant to the position and to “not include information related to ethnicity, age, hobbies, marital status, religion, etc.” The fact that this is included in the guidelines indicates that some letter writers have done this in the past.

The third great piece of advice is to avoid “revealing personal information about the nominee”. This is a fine line to walk and you need to consider carefully whether introducing particular pieces of information will actually be relevant or helpful for the candidate. The example that the guidelines give is mentioning “circumstances where health issues or family responsibilities have led to career interruptions.” Is it appropriate to mention your graduate student’s maternity/parental leave? Are you mentioning Jane’s maternity leave in the context of impacting her productivity? Would you also mention the fact that John being a new father impacted his productivity? Is it your place to disclose your student’s cancer treatment, a disability, elder care issues? I would argue that you should explicitly talk about those issues with your trainee prior to writing the letter and ask them how they would prefer that you handle it. I would argue that this would be the only context where talking about a student’s personal life is potentially relevant enough to include in your letter and that you should do so only after asking their permission.

What do we do as letter writers that is a disservice to our female trainees? According to the CRC Guidelines page, the letters we write for women are more likely to:
• be shorter in length and incomplete;
• include gendered terms (e.g., woman, lady, mother, wife);
• include fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g., excellent, outstanding etc.);
• include ‘doubt raisers’ (negative language, hedges, unexplained comments, faint praise and irrelevancies);
• focus on interpersonal attributes versus research skills/achievements (e.g., kindness, compassionate etc.); and
• include personal information that was not relevant to the position.

Three effective ways to prevent this are to:
• Avoid using stereotypical adjectives when describing character and skills, especially when providing a letter for a woman (e.g., avoid words like nice, kind, agreeable, sympathetic, compassionate, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.).
• Consider using ‘stand-out’ adjectives for both men and women, where appropriate (e.g., superb, excellent, outstanding, confident, successful, ambitious, knowledgeable, intellectual etc.).
• Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).

These are great recommendations and should be required reading for any faculty members who are writing reference letters for their students and trainees. They have made me rethink several practices that I use in crafting my reference letters and have identified some things that I need to stop doing.

Things that I Learned While Putting Together my Tenure Package

This fall I applied for tenure at my university. Below, I’d like to share some of the things that I learned putting the application package together. This includes a lot of legwork that I was glad I did over the past several years which made it much easier to organize and articulate my arguments for why I should keep my job.

1. It is never too early to start thinking about your tenure package. I advise all new faculty to start a paper filing system for each year that they are on the tenure-track as well as an electronic filing system for digital materials. When you do something that is relevant to research, teaching, service, outreach, etc. put something that documents that activity into one of these folders. Your future self will be emphatically thanking your past self when tenure time rolls around. This is also a handy tip for completing annual activity/performance reviews.

2. Use your calendar to document meetings and events and make sure that your calendar records from previous years are accessible and searchable. It doesn’t matter if you prefer to use a paper or electronic calendar, but having a tangible record of past efforts is extremely valuable.

3. As soon as you start your job make a list of what materials might be relevant to include in a tenure package; some of these are not obvious. This step allows you to plan ahead. When you start your tenure track position, think about what information is useful to include in your tenure package. For example, I conducted my own teaching evaluations in addition to the official institutional ones. This allowed me to get some useful comments and feedback from my students about my teaching. I used these evaluations as another line of evidence to support my claim that I am an effective and engaging teacher. Are there any graduating students that you would like to approach for letters of support before they move on? When someone sends you an email to thank-you for something that you did, make sure that you save it. Try to keep duplicates of important documents. Papers get lost and computers can cease to function at any time.

4. Keep that CV updated every month. I have a standing appointment in my calendar that reminds me to update my document once a month. It is amazing how many different things you can accomplish in just 30 days! If you stay on top of keeping track of what you’ve done as you go, you won’t be rooting through piles of paper or electronic files years later. Keeping your CV updated is also a good idea so that you can take advantage of opportunities that have tight deadlines (e.g. collaborative grants, award nominations, guest speaker invitations, etc.) when a current version of your CV is requested.

5. Preparing your tenure package is a great opportunity for self-reflection and to feel proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish in a few short years. It gives you some time to think about where you’ve been, where you currently are, and where you want to go next. The other side of this is that it is also an opportunity for the imposter syndrome to rear its ugly head and cause a great deal of self-doubt. Be kind to yourself during this process. Accept that you have done your best given your individual circumstances. I was up for tenure at the same time as a colleague and we offered each other support, advice, and encouragement during the process which was immensely valuable.

6. Don’t leave it to the last minute. There is a lot of personal and professional reflection that needs to occur during this process. I started working on my package at the beginning of the summer and did little bits and pieces here and there. I completed the content of the package by the end of July and then went on an extended vacation. When I came back I made some final adjustments, but by that time all that was left to do was organize and assemble the package.

7. This is one time in your life where you do not want to be modest. You need to toot your own horn effectively, but do it in a way that is not off-putting. Make a statement, support it with evidence, and build your case. Don’t make people put two and two together or read between the lines.

8. Ask several colleagues to look over your package before you submit it. They will see things that you don’t and will make excellent suggestions for improvement. Be sure to ask people who will not be in a conflict of interest (e.g. avoid co-workers on the tenure committee or who will be voting on your package).

Any other tips to offer on putting together a tenure package? Feel free to leave advice in the comments!

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.

McDonald Lab: Applicants wanted for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program

The McDonald lab is seeking applicants for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program for Fall 2014. The award is valued at $70,000 per year (taxable) for two years (non-renewable). Further details about the program and eligibility requirements can be found at: http://banting.fellowships-bourses.gc.ca/home-accueil-eng.html

Our lab focuses on the electron transport systems of photosynthesis and respiration. Our particular interest is alternative proteins involved in putting electrons into or taking electrons out of these systems. Current research projects focus on the alternative oxidase, plastoquinol terminal oxidase, and alternative NAD(P)H dehydrogenases of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. We use various techniques to study the molecular, regulatory, and functional properties of these enzymes. Trainees receive training in bioinformatics, molecular biology, protein biochemistry, and respirometry. We strive to do excellent science and have fun while doing it! I take a strong interest in my trainees’ professional development and encourage them to maintain a positive work-life balance. Further information about the McDonald lab can be found at: http://www.wlu.ca/homepage.php?grp_id=12358&ct_id=2893&f_id=4.

Wilfrid Laurier University is a growing institution in Waterloo, Ontario. The city of Waterloo is a thriving community and technology hub centrally situated in southwestern Ontario with access to other large metropolitan areas including Guelph, London, Hamilton, and Toronto. The Biology department is a tight-knit community and offers many opportunities for collaborations and research support. Research at Laurier is question driven and uses a variety of techniques and approaches to answer hypotheses through investigation at multiple levels of biology (e.g. molecular, cellular, physiological, ecological, evolutionary). Our trainees leave with a solid biological background, the ability to use critical thinking to address important challenges and issues, and are prepared to succeed in a variety of career paths.

An application package consisting of a CV, all postsecondary education transcripts (can be unofficial versions), a one-page description of career aspirations and rationale for your desire to pursue a postdoctoral research experience at WLU with me (highlighting the benefits expected with respect to fulfilling career aspirations), and a 3-4 page research proposal must be sent to Dr. McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by midnight on July 18, 2014.

The successful candidate will be expected to put together a complete application for the internal competition at Wilfrid Laurier University and submit it by August 22, 2014. Further details are available at: http://www.wlu.ca/page.php?grp_id=36&p=24457.  Applicants will be notified of the pre-selection results by September 3, 2014.  Successful applicants will be asked to submit their final application by September 24, 2014.

Responding to Requests for Academic Reference Letters

I have just made it through the deluge of reference letter requests that occurs annually from January to April. I am relatively new to the act of writing reference letters for students and have some words of wisdom to share based on my personal experiences.


1. Create a policy for academic reference letter requests and stick to it. Useful things to think about are who you will write letters for. For example, I only write letters for students who have: i) taken 2 or more classes with me and performed well in the courses, or ii) taken one or more classes with me, but have built a professional rapport with me by visiting office hours regularly, or iii) performed research in my laboratory. In order to write a solid reference letter I need to know the student and be able to talk about their particular strengths and weaknesses. I also let students know that reference letters need to be requested 1-2 weeks in advance of the deadline so that I have time to put together a strong letter.


2. Be honest with the student if you cannot write a strong reference letter for them. This can happen for a variety of reasons. You may not know the student well enough, you do not have the time to write the letter, or you may think that the program and the student are not a good fit. In these cases let the student know that you cannot provide them with a reference letter. If you feel that it is appropriate you can suggest other people who might be more supportive letter writers. You do not do the student any favours by writing a luke-warm reference letter.


3. Require students to provide relevant support materials to you in order to help you to craft your letter. I ask most students to provide me with a resume/CV, an unofficial record of academic transcripts, and information about the program that they are applying to. These materials allow me to make a strong case for the student in my letter. I also make it the job of the student to ensure that I receive any electronic links etc. that might be required for completing on-line reference letter submissions. If you see something in the student’s materials that should be corrected do them the courtesy of pointing it out and offering advice for improvement.


4. Write the strongest and most honest letter of reference that you can. Submit the letter on time. Confirm with the student that you have submitted your letter. I have been on the receiving end of poor and late reference letters from other academics and it is an embarrassment to the profession. If you agree to write a reference letter then you owe it to the student to do the best job that you can. I also ask students to keep me updated and let me know if or when they receive acceptance or interviews for programs or positions so that I can share in their success!

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.

Book Review: Promotion and Tenure Confidential by David D. Perlmutter

As a newer faculty member, the goal of earning tenure is a big and omnipresent one. I’ve approached this goal by doing my best to be strategic about where to invest my time and energy. In order to do this effectively I’ve sought advice from colleagues, administrators, websites, blogs, and books. One book that I recently finished reading is “Promotion and Tenure Confidential” by David D. Perlmutter. While the book was published in 2010, which is now four years ago, I believe that what Dr. Perlmutter conveys in the book will stand the test of time very well. This is because he chooses to focus on what he calls the 3P’s: “the people, the politics, and the personal conundrums”. Regardless of how the academy changes in the future, the 3P’s will always hold heavy sway in tenure decisions. His writing style is engaging and honest and he uses humour quite effectively throughout the book. I was also amused to discover that several pseudonyms used in the book reveal him to be a “Game of Thrones” fan.

He takes a chronological approach to the tenure track by starting with the doctorate and concluding with the awarding (or denial) of tenure, but much of the advice offered in each section of the book will be applicable regardless of the career stage of the reader. In contrast to other books that I’ve read that only warn of potential problems on the tenure track, in his book Dr. Perlmutter identifies the problem, offers several ways that it could be addressed, and then goes on to describe the likely outcomes of different scenarios. It is this compare and contrast approach to solutions to problems and the admission that “one size does not fit all” that makes this book useful. The scenarios described are realistic and the advice offered is extremely practical.

I’d recommend this book to later stage Ph.D. students who are preparing to defend their thesis and are thinking about going on the job market, post-docs who are preparing academic job applications, and tenure-track faculty members who are just starting out or who are in the process of preparing their applications for tenure.

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.