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The USAJOBS Self-Assessment Questionnaire

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch August 10, 2020

Like other large employers, the federal government has a completely automated job application system. USAJOBS screens candidates for keyword matches and minimum qualifications. If you don’t make it through the first computer filter, a set of human eyes will likely never even have a chance to evaluate your candidacy.  

More and more companies are using self-assessment reports to help screen applicants. This is where you are asked a series of questions about your knowledge, skills, and abilities in relation to a specific position.  It is a good idea to scan the questionnaire first before tailoring your resume and cover letter for the job. The survey often gives you an in-depth look at the skills and qualifications they are seeking which ultimately helps give you guidance on how to tailor your documents.

Many applicants are screened out because they are too modest in how they are reporting their qualifications. This is understandable because employers often use very serious and slightly threatening language stating that if an applicant overstates their abilities, they could later be fired. It goes without saying that you should never lie within a job application; however, you do need to project confidence in how you are presenting yourself to employers.

Too often, candidates are using an incorrect barometer for comparison. When they ask if you could be considered a “expert” on a subject matter, compare yourself to the average person – not your PI or another renowned expert in your field. Conversely if you find it would be a stretch to rate yourself highly for a variety of different questions (not just one or two), then perhaps this is not the best ft for you. The self-assessment questionnaire is a critical and integral part of the automated application system. If you can’t rate yourself highly enough, you won’t be passed on to the next round.

When reviewing the questionnaires give yourself the most credit you can when answering and hopefully that will lead to your resume being referred.


The Sprint vs. the Marathon: Progressive Goal Setting and Planning

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch August 3, 2020

Post written by guest blogger Charlesice Hawkins, Detailee within OITE.

There are times when life is a sprint and times when it is a marathon. Even a job search can feel like both! Do you set a steady pace for the long haul ahead or do you put everything you have into it for a short time? A PhD is a marathon with a few sprints embedded in it. Advancement to candidacy is one of those sprints. It can be okay to sacrifice a few hours of sleep the week leading up to that meeting, but it is not okay to sacrifice sleep, and ultimately health, for an entire 4+ year of a PhD. Progressive goal setting and planning is one strategy for achieving success without the sacrifice of mental/physical health and it can be tailored to any goal.

Steps for progressive planning:

  1. Generate S.M.A.R.T. goals
  2. Break down large goals into increasingly smaller goals
  3. Reflect on progress/challenges regularly
  4. Re-evaluate and adjust when needed
  5. Rinse and repeat

Planning can be overwhelming often because we tend to set huge far off goals or so many tiny tasks that its impossible to complete them all. It can help to break down larger goals into incrementally smaller ones. For example, a 5 year plan can include a 1 year plan, a 3 month plan, or even weekly and daily plans. This kind of approach can help us focus on what’s immediately tangible without losing site of the bigger picture. Below is an example of this method, but it can also be drawn or sketched as a road map or timeline as well.

If you aren’t the DIY type right now there are many options for guided journals and planners.*

Another essential component of progressive goal setting is some form of reflection. The ideal time to reflect can be arbitrary and practical or very personal. It’s the reflection and the value it holds, not the schedule that is important. Reflection is critical because it keeps us on track, but also because it allows time for re-evaluation and adjustment. Understanding that goals can change, that strategies can shift, and that we can move tasks around helps to relieve some of the pressure and stress associated with setting goals. This strategy can help us find the middle ground where there is balance and where little by little can become a lot. OITE hosts groups that touch on similar topics such as self-compassion, stress, and health for trainees.

*The NIH does not endorse these specific products and has no affiliation with the respective companies


Assume Positive Intent

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch August 24, 2020

Dr. Brene Brown is a New York Times best-selling author. In her book Dare to Lead, she notes that many people, leaders included, are missing a foundational skill of assuming the best in people. She encourages all of us to extend “the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” This sounds great in theory, but it is often hard to put into practice.

Many of her examples are situations that could be applied here at the NIH and might resonate with trainees, including:

  • Your PI doesn’t get back to you and you think they’re wasting your time (don’t care about you)
  • Your PI/mentor cancels a meeting/discussion/experiments and you’re convinced they take you for granted (don’t appreciate you and/or think you aren’t a good enough scientist)
  • Your summer student/postbac ruins an experiment and you view them as hopeless
  • Your colleague asks you to do an additional experiment/presentation and you assume they are giving you too many responsibilities and offloading work on to you.

This can also happen during interviews.  Many times we meet with medical school applicants and hear that they felt flustered by basic questions which felt negative to them, such as:

Why are you here?
Why did you participate in X?
On your AMCAS it says _______, can you explain this further?

Rather than assuming the worst and viewing comments and behaviors as critical, practice a form of kindness – assuming that others are doing the best they can.  This, however, often requires a shift in your mindset.

This individual shift can often have larger effects. Within businesses and organizations, according to Seth Godin, “Kindness ratchets up. It leads to more kindness. It scales better than competitiveness, frustration, regret, revenge, merit, or apathy.”

The next time you feel frustrated, disappointed, or resentful of a colleague, family member, or friend, take a moment and consider that this person is doing the best they can. Likewise, in interview situations try to assume the best and not take often benign questions as slights against you. Try this out and let us know how this has worked for you by leaving a comment below.


VITA Interviews for Medical School

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch August 17, 2020

The season for medical school interviews is approaching! The pandemic has created a number of obstacles for applicants this cycle and the interview process is no exception. This year, the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) has launched a new video tool that will be used for admissions. This tool, AAMC VITA, will be used to supplement in-person interviews. This has been designed to assess competencies important for success in medical school and also within a future medical practice.

In VITA interviews, applicants will respond to interview questions by videotaping their responses to six questions. Responders will have one minute to read and three minutes to answer. The questions will likely be a combination of traditional and behavioral interview questions related to the five competencies that the AAMC deems important, including:

  • Social skills
  • Cultural Competence
  • Teamwork
  • Reliability and Dependability
  • Resilience and Adaptability

Applicants will record their interview answers only once and then each school will have access to the responses. As was the case for in-person interviews, schools conduct their own evaluation; your responses are provided to the school without an evaluation or assessment from AAMC.  

The AAMC has a guide for Virtual Interviews as well as five tips for VITA interviews.  In addition to these resources, the OITE has organized a series of virtual group mock interviews for trainees at the NIH to be run from mid-August to October. These groups will practice the most common questions for one-on-one interviews and discuss some general tips for MMIs. You can register for this online practice session on OITE’s website. 

If you are not a trainee at the NIH, you can find more tips on medical school interview through past OITE blog posts as well as our YouTube channel, specifically the video on “Interviewing for Professional School”.


Fulbright Tips from a Recent Award Recipient

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch August 31, 2020

Guest Blog Post Written By: Grace Betts, B.S., NICHD Postbaccalaureate IRTA Fellow, 2020-2021 Fulbright Study Award Recipient

Considering applying to Fulbright, but not sure where to begin? Here are a few tips and recommendations that will hopefully help you successfully navigate the process.

Program types. If you are a recent graduate from a bachelor’s program or a current Master’s or doctoral candidate, you will apply to the Fulbright US Student Program. If you have more than 5 years of experience or study (completion of a PhD) in the field to which you are applying, you will apply to the Fulbright US Scholar Program.

Selecting an award. As an NIH fellow, the Open Study/Research award, which allows grantees to propose and carry out their own research project or complete a degree in one of approximately 140 countries, will likely be the most relevant. There is also currently a special program called Fulbright-Fogarty Fellowships in Public Health that could be relevant for fellows. In addition to open study/research awards (but falling under the same award category), Fulbright has partnership awards for students applying to universities in certain countries. Australia and the United Kingdom are two countries with partnership programs; the UK has by far the most (almost 40), but several other countries offer partnerships, some with specific scientific focus areas. However, if you are interested in pursuing a degree, you can also apply to open study/research awards, which are offered in most countries. You can explore awards offered by each country here.

Strategize. Keep in mind that you can only apply to one award in one country, so it can help to have a strategy. Once you’ve determined the type of award you want to apply for and have narrowed down your list of options, head to the statistics page. Here you can search to see how many people applied to and were selected for each award over the past three years.

Apply through a home institution, if possible. You can apply to Fulbright “At-Large” or through a US institution. If you recently (usually within three years) graduated from undergrad or are currently attending a university, you can likely apply through them, and it is recommended that you do so. Institution deadlines can help you stay on track and at the end of the process, your institution includes a review/endorsement based on your application materials and campus interview. By working with my university, I was able to receive feedback on my statements from seasoned Fulbright advisors and experts in my field (during the campus interview process). The early deadline forced me to write several drafts of my statements, leaving time to seek feedback from multiple people. At the university deadline (about 4-6 weeks before the national deadline), you submit your application through the regular Fulbright portal and indicate your home institution. Your university is then able to access your application, and once they have reviewed it, they will open it back up to you for last-minute edits before your final submit. Campus interviews typically occur between these two deadlines. To find out if your university has a Fulbright team, which office manages the applications, and who the designated Fulbright Program Advisors are (including contact information) you can search here by institution or state. If your university has a team that works on Fulbright, applying through them will only strengthen your application. If not, you can still apply At-Large (see this page to get started), and Fulbright states that At-Large applicants are regularly selected for grants.

Affiliation letter. Fulbright only officially requires an affiliation letter if you are applying to do research, but they strongly recommend it for study awards. This can be tricky under any circumstances but is especially challenging because Fulbright applications are due months before university applications are due abroad. My suggestion is to get in touch with the director of your degree program or school. Professors whose research aligns with your own may also be able to write you a letter, but directors will likely have more freedom and authority to do so. The most direct route may be to reach out to the office of admissions or a general inquiries email because they should be able to connect you with the right person. Typically, once you’ve found someone willing to write you a letter, you will need to send them a draft or outline that they can adjust and sign. My university provided example affiliation letters, which were extremely helpful. If you don’t have an affiliation letter though, there is no need to panic. I heard from my advisors that many study award applicants struggle to obtain them. That being said, try your best to secure one because it will help to prove to Fulbright that your project is viable and that there should be a place for you at your chosen university.

If you are applying to a study award, don’t forget to apply to your host university. This may sound obvious, but with the huge window of time between the Fulbright application deadline and university deadlines, it can be easy to forget this crucial step. Fulbright study awards are “conditional upon acceptance by the chosen institution,” meaning that if you apply for a Fulbright to study at London School of Economics, you must also apply and be accepted to London School of Economics as a general applicant. For UK partnership awards, for example, Fulbright recommends that you apply to your host university by January 15th. If your university has rolling applications, once you are accepted you can send proof of your offer to Fulbright and they will add it to your application. I ended up waiting to apply until after I had heard if I was a Fulbright semi-finalist (which happened in late January), but this was only because I forgot about Fulbright’s recommended deadline. You might also be asking – What if I dedicate months applying to Fulbright, receive an award, and then am not admitted to my university of choice? Basically, what I was told is – don’t worry about this. The Fulbright award is likely more competitive than the university program itself and, depending on the award, you should also be fully funded through Fulbright, which looks good to any university.

Good luck! If you decide to apply, the site for the US Student program is full of resources, including recorded videos and tutorials and a calendar of live webinars. Beyond the main Fulbright site, there is a lively community of past and present applicants on Reddit where I found answers to several questions along the way. You can also find and connect with current and past Fulbright fellows via LinkedIn or by reaching out to your university. If you’re applying through your university, definitely check out their resources and attend information sessions. Lastly, most or all countries with Fulbright awards have an in-country commission (UK Commission, for example). This site may have more information on the awards being offered, as well as profiles for current and past Fulbrighters. Although the application process is lengthy and requires a great deal of effort, Fulbright is an incredible and rare opportunity to extend your research or studies outside the United States. If you decide to apply, I hope these tips help make the process a little easier.