Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What On Earth Was I Thinking?

So there you are sitting in the conference room on the first day of your new job.  It's an "all-hands meeting" of the organization, and the Director announces that there is a new employee.  She looks at you and says, "Jane, how about introducing yourself to the group and telling us a bit about what you bring to our lab?"

Gulp.  You hadn't counted on this.  You thought you would have a chance to get your bearings and a feel for your co-workers before being put on the spot like this.  You stumble through a litany of your educational background and some other things.  You finally sit down, thinking, "What on earth did I say? Did it sound as ridiculous as I think it did?" After the meeting breaks up, you slink out, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone.

This wouldn't have happened if you had been prepared beforehand (long before) with your brag sheet.  I'm not talking about boasts of how great you are.  I'm talking about a description of yourself based on your understanding of what makes you unique and why people should pay attention to what you have to say.  Of course we know our history, our accomplishments, and our special skills.  But it takes planning and practice to develop an effective spiel that can be produced at a moment's notice and that sounds spontaneous and honest.

How do you start to develop your bragging talking points?  A good place to begin is to write out detailed answers to common questions asked during interviews or upon meeting new people.

1. Why did you go into science and how did you end up in your specific field?
2. What are you working on right now (and why should I care about it)?
3. What was the most important thing you learned in your last position and why do you consider it to be important?
4. What early experiences did you have growing up that have proved helpful in your career?
5. Have you any special skills or hobbies--that others would find interesting or might also be involved in (mountaineering, scuba-diving, fossil-collecting)?
6. What do you love most about a career in science?
7. Can you tell me about an experience you had working as part of a team or leading a team?
8. What professional service activities or volunteer work are you involved in (be specific about your contributions--e.g., volunteering for the "Make It Right" foundation to rebuild the 9th Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina)?
9. Do you have any examples of problems you've solved or innovative methods you've developed?
10. What are the five most interesting places you've ever visited?

These are just a few suggestions to get you started.  You can tailor these 10 or create additional questions to develop a full spectrum of information that you can draw upon.  You may think that this exercise is unnecessary, but give it a try.  You might be surprised at what you think of when you actually write down the answers to these questions.

What you are looking to accomplish is a unique picture of yourself and what makes you tick.  Don't just write down the facts, provide examples. Tell a story.  Bring in the human-interest details that bring your story to life.

OK, so now you have a collection of interesting anecdotes about how you helped eliminate the Guinea Worm in Niger volunteering with the Carter Center; had a new species of insect named after you by a taxonomist you assisted as an undergraduate student; or during your dissertation fieldwork, had Colombian guerrillas help you break into your car after locking your keys inside.

Maybe you don't have anything as extraordinary as these examples.  No problem.  You might explain that you are a plant biochemist, and that your field trips are to the local grocery store to buy spinach, which you use to study plant membranes.  Or you might explain how you started out wanting to be a doctor, but after working in a hospital during college realized that you could not stand being around sick people--and went into botany.  Everyone has an interesting or funny story to tell about their education or jobs.

Don't overdo it, though.  Formulate sets of facts and stories for different situations: interviews, conference mixers, introductions, etc.  You need only one extraordinary, interesting, or funny story per conversation to illustrate your work ethic, perseverance, honesty, creativity, or whatever might be called for in each situation.  The key point is that these stories celebrate your uniqueness, and people will tend to remember you because of them.

Next post considers situations in which you might use your brag list.

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