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Interviewing with Social Anxiety

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 8, 2021

Interview anxiety is very common; sometimes people even say that your anxiety will give you an adrenaline boost and help you to perform better on interview day. But for those with a social anxiety disorder, even everyday interactions - let alone a job interview - can be difficult and, at times, debilitating.

Each person’s set of social anxiety triggers is unique, but some common causes of social anxiety can be: meeting new people, having to make small talk, being the center of attention, public speaking, being watched while doing something, and/or speaking with authority figures. All of these triggers often happen in an interview setting, so interviews can be especially taxing for those with social anxiety.

In her book “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety”, Ellen Hendriksen offers some helpful techniques to combat social anxiety. She notes in an interview with The Verge that she often talks to clients who say “I wish I could hit pause on the world and I could retreat and work on myself and gain confidence and remerge confident and be ready to live my life.” She remarks “That is backward. A nice analogy is that of mood and action. We think we have to feel like going to the gym before going to work out. But if we lace up our shoes and go to the gym, often our mood catches up, and we’re glad we went.”

She proposes “magic questions” for socially anxious people to ask themselves before an event like an interview. It is important to be super specific in your questions. She says, “Anxiety is often vague and says things like “everybody will hate me” or “something bad will happen” or “what if something bad happens?” So if we can specify, what exactly we’re afraid of, who exactly would “hate you,” sometimes that’s enough and we realize that our anxiety is not particularly credible and that the worst-case scenario that it’s spinning and is setting off our alarm bells is not likely.”

Interview anxiety tends to peak right before the interview begins or at the start. With virtual interviews, many also find that they have intense anxiety about technology working properly. Social anxiety can peak during a transition, for example when you are sent to a new breakout room and have new people to meet. Receiving fewer social cues about overall body language can also make it feel like the cues we are getting are more critical. A person with social anxiety might interpret someone looking down as being bored, or they might view a person’s on-screen gaze as more discerning and unfriendly.

Practicing and rehearsing can help ease interview anxiety. For those with social anxiety preparing for an interview, it will be important to identify some coping mechanisms ahead of time whether it be ideas for small talk conversation, transitional phrases you could use if you find yourself panicking such as, “Let me pause and reflect on that question for a moment.” Sometimes slowing down and allowing yourself a breathe can also help ease anxiety.

If anxiety is something you contend with regularly, please consider attending OITE’s new seminar series: The Mental Health and Wellbeing of Biomedical Researchers. Last week's seminar on Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders will be available to view here.

Networking During the Pandemic

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 15, 2021

The pandemic has disrupted every aspect of our personal and professional lives, including a key fixture in our careers – networking. This activity which used to happen at conferences and professional meetings has now been moved to Zoom breakout rooms. Most professionals agree, especially with economic uncertainty, networking is more important than ever.

The lack of networking opportunities is worrisome and as Exequiel Hernandez notes in an article for the Wall Street Journal, “What this is going to do is enhance the advantages of those who are well-connected. For those who are disadvantaged, it’s going to be harder to develop the new ties they need to advance their career. This is not helpful for graduates looking for jobs, or those on the periphery of professional networks.”

Here are two simple things that you can be doing to continue networking efforts amidst the pandemic:

Be Proactive with Online Tools 

Take some time to peruse your contacts on LinkedIn. Prioritize them within a spreadsheet and then reach out. Your message can be as simple as checking in and asking how they are doing and if there is anything that you could do to reconnect and add value to their current work.

You may also need to increase your use on networking site and apps in order to keep in touch with existing contacts and hopefully meet new ones. In the past, we have recommended using Twitter for networking. Ziprecruiter, an online recruiting platform, also recommends using Followerwonk, a Twitter analytics tool, which will enable you to get a list of relevant and influential though leaders in your field.  If you connect and check out who they follow, you will hopefully expand your network and perhaps even learn about new courses and/or events. 

Widening your networking circle to include “weak ties” is important because these connections are likely to have new information you wouldn’t readily learn about from your regular contacts.

Be Considerate

Now, more than ever, it is important to think about the timing and tone of messages. Everyone is dealing with a lot these days. Starting your message with some acknowledgment of this challenging moment in history is fine to do, maybe even necessary. Recognize that the person’s job situation may have changed, even if it is not broadcast online yet. And, if you have faced a professional hurdle during the pandemic, it is okay to be upfront about that in your messaging.

Our professional and personal lives overlap and the time and energy we have to commit to things has become compressed. When networking, be considerate of the amount of time it takes to simply schedule meetings/calls. It can be helpful to use a calendar app which will do much of the work for you and hopefully will eliminate the back and forth friction of finding a common time between calendars. Some sites include: Book Like a Boss or Calendly*.


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


How to Stand with Black Colleagues as an Informed Ally

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 1, 2021

This “From the Archive” post was originally published in June 2020. Reflecting on Black History Month, we hope you will take another read and specifically look at some of the anti-racist resources noted in the article.


In a Medium article entitled “Maintaining Professionalism in the Age of Black Death is…A Lot” the author, Shenequa Golding, quite simply enumerates: “Your Black employees are exhausted. Your Black employees are scared. Your Black employees are crying in between meetings.  Your Black employees have mentally checked out. Your Black employees are putting on a performance.”  Similarly, in a Huffington Post article, “This is What I Want to Tell My White Professors When They Ask ‘How Are You Today?’” Nolen describes her experience as a Black woman at Harvard Medical School where she feels she is forced to leave her personal experience at the door for the sake of “professionalism” and she often reminds herself to: “Smile; Sound articulate; Don’t intimidate; Don’t talk about race; Definitely don’t talk about racism.”

The recent murders of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, and countless other named and unnamed victims are acute examples of a daily fear with which Black people in the United States live. For centuries, Black people have been victims of police brutality, inequalities, and systemic racism. And yet with all of this, Black people across the U.S. go to work and move about their day. Just with an added weight on their shoulders, minds, and souls.

Many allies (whether friends, colleagues, fellow trainees, PIs, bosses) question how they can best support at this time. Here are some ideas on how to show up for your Black colleagues right now:

Acknowledge/Speak About What’s Going On
It sounds like a simple step; however, during tragic times, many people fear they’ll say the wrong thing, so they end up saying nothing at all.  To acknowledge that you are aware of what is happening and are open to talking with your staff as a group or individually is helpful to all of your staff and colleagues.  Even simply checking in and asking how someone is doing is helpful. Silence is often viewed as being complicit with racism and keeping your mouth shut is worse, especially if you are in a leadership position. Your team is often looking to you for direction and guidance. If you go about the day with a “business as usual” attitude, it could feel callous, cruel, and dismissive of this trauma. Black staff and trainees, those of other cultures, and those who have African-American family members, are experiencing yet another collective trauma and need to be given permission to have time and space to process these events without worrying about maintaining composure at work or losing their jobs.

Check-in and Listen
Truly listen in a way that doesn’t make the conversation about you or a need you might have to validate your own worldview and experiences.  This can be difficult if you feel like these are being challenged or if you feel uncomfortable. Listening open-mindedly will be nearly impossible if there is a denial of White privilege and how you/others may have benefitted from the structural racism that undergirds American society.  Empathizing, or recalling how you have felt when you have been disrespected, not heard or not helped about something important (even life-threatening) will be important to consider and remember. Especially at this moment, people are dealing with a lot of stressors and have multiple things going on at the same time like learning how to work from home, research, applying to grad/professional school, child/family care. All of this on top of the stressors of disturbing news coverage can be extremely overwhelming.   Part of truly listening would also mean not making any assumptions or sweeping generalizations about your colleague’s experiences with race and racial injustice. It is also important not to expect comfort from Black colleagues for your own distressing feeling about what is occurring.

Educate Yourself and Act in Solidarity
Don’t put the onus of responsibility on your Black colleagues or friends to educate you about the insidiousness of white supremacy and structural racism.  History taught in the American school system is often not a full (or accurate) representation. The Atlantic shared an “Anti-Racist Reading List” that could be a good starting point in addition to this Google document with anti-racist resources.

At this time, everybody needs to develop their own framework for action. Repeated tragedies like this are traumatizing, especially for members of marginalized groups. Each person needs to take time to process their own feelings while working to create a safe and inclusive work environment for everyone. Part of creating a safe environment at work is speaking up when you experience or witness intolerance, mistreatment, or bias in action. Microaggressions and discrimination need to be called out. Take some time to watch this video from an OITE event: Moving from bystander to updstander: take action to combat harassment and aggression.  This  OITE blog post also focuses on how to effectively stand up as a bystander.

Part of processing these events and taking action could mean acting in solidarity, such as posting about issues on social media as a means to amplify Black voices, but we encourage you to also focus on action steps “off-line” like calling local representatives to demand justice or donating to non-profits.

If you are a government or state employee, we encourage you to follow guidelines with regards to political actions as an employee.  Prior to taking any actions, consult with your human resources or diversity offices to be informed of such policies. However, please remember that checking in with a colleague as a human being and sharing that you care about how they are doing is not a political act. If for some reason, the discussion veers to politics, you can simply say, “Thanks for sharing your opinion; as a government employee, I am going to leave it at that.”

Reach Out and Seek Support

There are many resources available through your institution or school’s diversity and inclusion, human resources and staff training offices for you personally to speak confidentially.  You can also learn about where and how to refer staff for additional support.    With regards to working with the trainees at NIH, the OITE has hosted a virtual webinar for PIs and administrators working with trainees to provide information and a space to ask questions and develop resources. A workshop that could also be helpful is “Supporting Yourself and Your Trainees”.  We have listed a variety of resources here to help give you an overview of where to begin.  The OITE has career counseling and wellness staff who meet with trainees virtually in groups to discuss this and other issues as they develop their professional identities. Refer to Upcoming Events within OITE’s website to see a listing of event under the title: “Building Resilience Discussion Groups”.


Beat Burnout by Tending to Transitions

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch February 22, 2021

Post Written by: Sara Hunter, OITE Wellness Advisor

When our room is where we sleep, eat, and work it’s hard to differentiate between the start and end of a workday. Leaving our laptop open to get that one last task done as we start dinner becomes a bit more tempting. Sending that final e-mail as we crawl into bed becomes a new norm. And we do this without realizing that other parts of our lives and relationships may be suffering as a result. We rationalize these seemingly small behaviors because we fool ourselves into thinking that increased access to work equates to increased productivity. And that may be true for some, but only to a certain point. We are not wired – mentally, emotionally, or physically – to always be on. It’s like driving a car without stopping for gas. You’ll eventually run out of the fuel it takes to keep going. This is the essence of burnout – going and going with no planned breaks or shifts in behaviors. And one way to guard against this all-too-common ailment is to create purposeful transitions in our day.

Are there clear indicators to the start and end of your day? How do you let your system know that one role you play in life is ending and another is beginning? Are there clearly spelled out boundaries to when to respond to your phone and e-mails so you don’t have to make those decisions in the moment?

If you answered no to any of these questions, you’re not alone. Most of us move through our day, letting unconscious habits lead the way. So even in the times you do happen to close your laptop or put away your phone for dinner, your head is still at work. Or maybe you know the frustration of going to bed at a decent hour but still struggling to fall asleep because you never quite left that project or task you were working on all day. We’ve all been guilty of this – letting one part of our day spill into another, leading us to feel distracted. Overtime, we feel exhausted.

Transitions don’t have to be big and they don’t have to take up a lot of time. They are simple demarcations in your day that are planned and purposeful. They may look something like:

  • Taking three deep breaths before getting out bed to start the day or right after you close your laptop to signal the end of the workday
  • Engaging in a reflection exercise after the workday is done:
    • What did I learn today that was useful? What was difficult and how did I get through it?
    • What may I need to feel better prepared to face that challenge more effectively tomorrow?
    • How do I want to show up as a partner, parent, friend, roommate, dog-mom when I get home today?
  • Shaking limbs or dancing (yes, dancing)!
  • Recreate a commute (even when working from home) by going for a walk at the start/end of the day
  • Setting an intention for the role you’re stepping into next (ex: I want to be a present parent; I want to be an efficient worker, I want to be a compassionate friend). This creates behavioral anchors for when we feel stressed or overwhelmed.
  • Putting your phone and laptop in a separate room once you’ve finished
  • Changing clothes or taking a shower or bath
  • Playing your favorite song

There is no one right way to mark your transitions. It’s about using what works for you and then making that a deliberate part of your day. Burnout will lessen and your ability to be more productive and engaged in the various roles you play in your life will increase. Give it a try.