Megan Bohn, Ph.D.

Megan Bohn, Ph.D.

Like most of you reading this article right now, I was once an NICHD fellow trying my best to do significant research while simultaneously trying to figure out my career trajectory. In 2015, I completed my postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Karl Pfeifer, Ph.D. (Senior Investigator, Section on Epigenetics). I proceeded into a large career shift to academic administration, first at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, followed by a few years of intensive work on predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowship programs at the NIAID Training Office.

After eight years of devoting myself full-time to advancing biomedical trainees' careers and professional development, I now find my journey coming full circle back to NICHD, where I have just joined the Office of Education as its new deputy director. I've learned quite a bit along this journey, and this introductory article is an excellent time to share a few truths I've discovered that shape how I help fellows reach their dreams.

“I should be there by now” is a false belief that holds you back.

I've met hundreds of fellows over the years as they sought career coaching or even a friendly ear. I repeatedly hear fellows express the feeling that they're behind the curve—that they've failed to achieve some crucial milestone and that they're just hopelessly behind. This is simply not true, and it's certainly not helpful. When I work with fellows, I meet them exactly where they are and work with them to define their challenges and to align their career goals with the job market.

There are so many options available to today's young biomedical workforce. It can look like a huge, insurmountable mountain. The key is to climb the mountain one step at a time, always looking for ways to get to the next step. First, you should seek out people with the wisdom and support to help you take one step at a time.

Accurate self-awareness is key to improvement, but it's harder than you think.

This seems self-evident, but the ability to accurately self-assess interests, strengths, and weaknesses is key to any type of success. Some thought leaders on workplace satisfaction and productivity have proposed that relatively few of us are truly outstanding at self-awareness.1 The people who succeed in this skill perform better in the workplace, often leading to more creativity and job satisfaction.2 The first thing I do with fellows when they come to me for career coaching is to get to know them and get them to talk about their challenges and the problems they're trying to solve. We focus on three things:

  1. Skills (What are you good at?)
  2. Values (What’s important to you?)
  3. Interests (What motivates you?)

Paradoxically, I have often found that fellows feel compelled, perhaps even obligated, to pursue goals that don’t match their inner wishes. In a friendly conversational environment, we identify and discuss potential blind spots, false beliefs, and wrong assumptions. We work together to find paths that match the person.

Networking is important, and it's easier than you think.

Yes, many of us in science tend to be introverts, and the idea of going out and “working a room” might sound awful. The good news is that effective networking can look different from that. It's about systematically, consistently, and habitually creating small connections with people in your area of expertise or interests and being genuinely curious about what they know. For instance, if a fellow is interested in science policy, I'll work with that fellow to find ways to identify people in their larger peer network to contact for coffee chats or informational interviews. We don't try to network all at once over a short period. That's overwhelming. We make small goals of regularly reaching out to people every week and learning over a sustained amount of time. It adds up!

From my reflections above, you may notice that there is a method I use in working with fellows. It begins with getting to know them and figuring out what they perceive as their challenges and weaknesses. It moves next into identifying skills, values, interests, and exploring ways for those three attributes to work in unity to create a productive, meaningful professional life. In this method, we always work to find ways to break the journey down into manageable steps, setting specific goals that align with an overall larger objective.

I know this method works because it served me well when I was a postdoc myself. Using the resources from the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) and the NICHD Office of Education, I learned that my interests lie in improving aspiring scientists' training and career outlook and building on my existing skills such as organization, program management, teaching, and mentoring. I didn't do this alone, and I certainly didn't do it all in one day. My career breakthroughs have always come when I break down my challenges into manageable steps and seek guidance and mentorship along the way. I think you'll find that it will be similar for you, and my door is always open to help with the journey.

References

  1. Talesnik, Dana. “Eurick Explores Why Self-Awareness Matters.” NIH Record. June 28, 2019. https://nihrecord.nih.gov/2019/06/28/eurich-explores-why-self-awareness-matters.
  2. Eurich, Tasha. “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It).” Harvard Business Review. January 4, 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/01/what-self-awareness-really-is-and-how-to-cultivate-it.

Self-Assessment Resources for All Training Levels (and Beyond!)

NICHD fellows are always welcome to schedule a time with the NICHD Office of Education staff to discuss self-assessments. Please reach out to Dr. Erin Walsh (erin.walsh@nih.gov) or Dr. Megan Bohn (megan.bohn@nih.gov) to schedule an appointment.

You also have access to a large array of self-assessment resources and related activities through the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE), including:

Updated Resource! OITE has recently updated their online career guides on informational interviews, cover letters, CVs, and interviewing. All updated guides are available for download at this link.

Outside the NIH: The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) provides an online Individual Development Plan called myIDP. This career-planning tool begins with a skills, values, and interest assessment, which guides and helps establish potential career goals.