So, What’s a Detail?

Post written by Sandra Bonne-Année, former postdoc at NIAID and current detailee at OITE.

If definitions like ‘an individual fact or item, a minor decorative feature, or a meticulous cleaning of a motor vehicle’ come to mind when you hear the word “detail”, you are certainly not alone. As a postdoctoral fellow at NIH, I had a vague understanding of what a detail was and no real understanding of when or how to secure one. The “detail” is a chance to volunteer in another work-space to gain skills and exposure to careers.

Entering the final year of my fellowship, I had reached a point of utter frustration with my research projects, dismay with my job search and confusion about my career path. In commiserating with other fellows during informational interviews, I would be asked, “Why don’t you do a detail?” However, the particulars on where I would find such a position were always left out. I began researching detail opportunities and after several emails and a few interviews I found myself no closer to securing a position.

So, I decided to ask for help on the matter and in doing so I landed my detail in the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE). I know it sounds a bit serendipitous. It certainly felt that way, but what I found was a person who recognized that my interest in science education and outreach aligned with the work being done in her office. She could also see that I could benefit from the experience of working outside a laboratory setting. While my experience might not be the norm, many postdocs are able to secure detail opportunities simply by doing informational interviews with offices of interest. Don’t be afraid to ask what opportunities might be available within an office.

How do you go about finding a detail experience of your own? The first thing I’ll say is there is no one way to land a detail and no two experiences are the same. Keep in mind a detail experience can be created for you given of course that your interest and the circumstances align. Lastly, detail opportunities can also arise through job openings depending on the needs of the hiring office, your enthusiasm and qualifications. Details can be full or part time experiences, in which the later may encompass a hybrid of research and office time. When negotiating a detail opportunity, try to maintain an open line of communication between your detail supervisor and your PI, whenever possible. This is particularly important for a smooth transition or when crafting a schedule that includes both research and office time.

Explore the OITE Job Board or the Office of Human Resources for more information on detail opportunities at the NIH. The Office of Human Resources website includes opportunities for various levels so be sure to select opportunities that fit your experience level.

So, whether you’re interested in pursuing a different career path or feeling like it’s time to move away from the bench entirely, a detail may be the perfect experience for you to immerse yourself in a new environment and learn new skills. For me, once I was separated from the bench, I was able to spend more time working on myself by implementing more wellness and stress management techniques. By virtue of my detail office, it afforded me more time to devote to working with an OITE Career Counselor and enroll in a Job Search Group that allowed me to work on self-assessments, job search material and creating a realistic plan for my next job search. The experience also allowed me to take on new responsibilities, learning new skills and rediscovering things about myself that I had long forgotten. Ultimately, stepping away from the bench allowed me to rediscover my passion for research and what drives me as a scientist.

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