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Giving Feedback When Inappropriate Behavior Occurs

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch November 8, 2021

For those of you who are trainees at the NIH, the OD Anti-Harassment Blog is a great resource to check out.  One post in particular “How to Give Feedback When Inappropriate Behavior Occurs” is well worth a full read, although we try to summarize the main points below:

The first thing to remember is that your goal should be to change the undesired behavior not to escalate the dispute. Here are six steps to consider when trying to address inappropriate behavior.


You will need to assess where the behavior falls on the Continuum of Conduct. This continuum ranges from general conflict (workplace disagreements, communication issues) to policy breach (egregious and/or pattern of disrespectful and inappropriate conduct) to unlawful (any conduct of a sexual nature, bullying, harassment/hostile work environment) to criminal (property damage and/or physical violence).  You must report policy breach, unlawful, and criminal behavior to the Civil Program or the NIH Police. If your issue falls under general conflict, you can consult EAP or the Ombudsman at NIH and proceed to Step Two.

2. Write it down
Write out what you see as the issue using as many “I” statements as possible. An example would be “I feel that I am often blamed for the team’s mistakes.” Be as specific as you can about the behavior in the hopes that the individual will better understand the feedback.

3. Practice
Once you’ve drafted what you’d like to say, practice it out loud with a friend, counselor, or even EAP of the Ombudsman can help assist with this preparation.

4. Choose the right setting/venue

You should attempt to give the feedback to the individual directly and in private. Private doesn’t have to mean alone if you are worried. If meeting in-person, you can grab coffee at a café where others are around but your conversation will be mostly private. If meeting online, it is better to have a phone/video call versus an email/text so that tone can be clear.

5. Listen
Have an open mind and be willing to hear the individual’s response to your feedback.

6. Reset
Propose a resolution to help “reset” the relationship. An If/then statement might help. For example, “If we find ourselves in another situation like this, then we should…” Thank the person for being willing to listen to you and receive your feedback while expressing how difficult it may have been for you to do this.

Two resources you should take advantage of while at the NIH are the Employee Assistance Program and the Ombudsman. Both can help with mediation and can serve as a resource for difficult work-place situations.


Professional Development and Productivity

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch November 1, 2021

Post written by guest blogger, Janette Norrington, PhD, NIH Trainee

PhD scientists are increasingly choosing careers beyond academia, so many institutions have incorporated professional development within doctoral training. Professional development programs provide learning opportunities to doctoral students such as internships and specialized career workshops aimed to help students develop a broad set of critical skills. Students are exposed to different workplaces and taught transferable skills such as communication, working in teams, and leadership that are beneficial in academic and/or nonacademic positions. Career exploration programs allow students to have more options and flexibility in career prospects in addition to doctoral training.

There is concern among some faculty and institutions that professional development programs may take doctoral students’ focus away from research and the lab. Many doctoral programs struggle to shorten the time to degree, prevent attrition, and guide students to meaningful careers after training. There is some worry that participating in career exploration and development programs will negatively impact efficiency, research output, grant funding, and lengthen students’ time to degree. Doctoral programs often struggle to find the right balance of providing adequate professional development to students and intensive research training without losing students’ productivity.

A recent study analyzed data from ten US academic institutions to determine whether participation in professional development programs negatively altered biomedical doctoral students’ productivity or efficiency. Study investigators found that the participation in career development activities did not result in a significant impact on the doctoral students’ time to degree or publication record (Brandt et al, 2021). Even extensive participation in programs, including internships, was not associated with an increased time to degree or a reduction in publication output for doctoral students. In fact, two institutions found that high participation in career development programs was associated with higher first-author publication output and shorter time to degree compared with nonparticipants. Findings from the study demonstrate that programs that promote professional skills to complement scientific development are not distractions for doctoral students but are beneficial to graduate education.

Fortunately, more academic institutions and faculty are accepting the importance and benefits of career development for doctoral students. Studies show that more faculty view professional development programs as beneficial to trainees and that these programs lead to enhanced to happiness, positive effects in the lab, and more confidence in career exploration. While many studies have focused on doctoral students from biomedical fields, the conclusions about the benefits of professional development are likely applicable to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in other fields such as STEM and the social sciences (Brandt et al, 2021). The next generation of scientists will not only need to be excellent researchers, but also be equipped with professional skills to prepare them for a variety of diverse and important careers in the workforce. Trainees can take advantage of the many career exploration and professional development resources available at the NIH with the knowledge that these programs are designed to enhance career prospects without hindering productivity and efficiency.


Dealing with Uncertainty

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch November 15, 2021

Post Written By: Sara Hunter, Wellness Advisor, OITE

As humans, our brains like familiarity. It allows us to create patterns and connections that provide a structure by which we can formulate decisions and make sense of the world. So, when uncertainty arises, as it always will, it’s no surprise that we can be thrown off, a bit unsettled and even overwhelmed. Our brains are trying desperately to pair the incoming information from our environment with our collection of memories to find any familiar link between the current stimulus and our past experiences. But because of this new, unknown stressor we are coming up against, our brain’s pattern-making process sometimes can lead to oversimplification or faulty thinking, such as unchecked biases or cognitive distortions. Other times, it simply signals a fear response – an alarm against the unknown – and activates our sympathetic nervous system, triggering a release of cortisol and adrenaline and initiating what’s commonly known as our flight, fight, or freeze modes. 

Understanding our brain’s tendencies in response to uncertainty is an important part of interrupting old patterns and building in new, adaptive responses as we navigate all the unknowns we face today. Outlined below are three common, habitual responses to uncertainty, followed by some alternate ways to train our brain and body to move through it more effectively. 

Common Response: Catastrophizing – Our brain tries to fill in the unknown gaps of stories, often by thinking of worst-case scenarios, in effort to get ahead of the fear you may feel in response to uncertainty.

What to Do Instead:

  • Regulate your body, first and foremost, by bringing it back to the present moment. This is important because it signals your immediate safety which is necessary for the higher order functioning parts of your brain, like the pre-frontal cortex, to come back “online” and do what it does best -- plan, problem solve, think creatively. Some simple ways to regulate your body are through:
    • Breathing: try breathing in as you count to four, hold count to seven, and exhale for eight. Repeat at least three times to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
    • Grounding the body in the present by noticing five things you see, four things you hear, three things you smell, two things you can touch, and one thing you can taste. Repeat if necessary or focus on one sense if that’s simpler.
  • Call out your catastrophic thoughts by NAMING them for what they are. This allows us to move forward in productive ways as opposed to getting lost in the directions these distortions can take us. Thank your brain for trying to protect you, but let it know that you got this. One way to distance yourself from these thoughts is to imagine them being said to you in a funny or at a painfully slow pace. This allows you to relate to them as just thoughts and not necessary reality.

Common Response: Worrying – Worry is a habitual mental response to stimuli in our environment that signals discomfort or stress. It gives the allusion that we’re doing something about a problem when it’s only providing a false sense of relief from the fear we may feel around uncertainty. This immediate relief creates a reward system in our brain, reinforcing an unhelpful worry habit loop that goes something like this: feel fearful or anxious about the uncertainty à worry about the uncertainty to avoid the underlying feeling of fear (allusion that you’re “doing” something) à experience temporary relief from feeling the fear/anxiety à the feeling of anxiety increase next time we notice, think about, experience uncertainty. 

What to Do Instead:

  • Replace your worry response to uncomfortable feelings, like fear and anxiety, by regulating your emotions using RAINN:
    • R- Recognize what emotion(s) is coming for you - put a name to it. 
    • A – Accept what is coming up for you in the moment. Often our suffering/stress is extended because of the judgment we have in response to our initial emotional reaction. By accepting what we’re feeling, we can figure out an effective way to move through it as opposed to avoid it or berate ourselves for having it in the first place.
    • I – Investigate why this emotion is showing up in the moment. Ask yourself, what else may be underneath it? What is going on around you that may be contributing to how you’re feeling?
    • N – Non-identify with the emotion. This is simply a reminder that what you’re feeling in the moment is a piece of data to consider, not the whole story so you don’t have to be consumed by it.
    • N – Now what? Ask yourself this question to figure out how you want to move forward, given the information above. Approach this from a place of curiosity and compassion. 

Commons Response: Numbing or Avoiding – Our current culture of instant gratification, abundance, and easy access to comfort and the things we crave makes this response easier than ever before. And as a result, this is often one of the hardest to shift away from, but with practice and intention it’s possible. As you deliberately move away from your normal numbing behaviors and learn to act opposite to your urge to escape discomfort or let go of your resistance around feeling the anxiety triggered by uncertainty, you’ll see that it becomes easier to manage over time. Numbing only reinforces a false belief that you must escape the discomfort quickly because you can’t handle it. But trust me - with practice, you can!

What to Do Instead:

  • Practice Mindfulness - Ride the wave of the discomfort you feel in response to uncertainty by paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. You can do this by simply noting what you are experiencing in your body, naming what emotions show up and what thoughts follow. When you notice yourself evaluating physical or psychological feelings as good or bad or scary (or anything else), that’s okay. Simply bring yourself back to the present moment by observing your thoughts and emotions as if they are an object outside of you, like a cloud passing in the sky or train moving through town. Do the same in your body by describing the sensations you feel – tension, heaviness, ease – with as much objective detail as possible.

Interrupting our old, patterned responses takes practice and patience, but with deliberate intention you can begin to rewire your brain’s ability to handle uncertainty more effectively. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to the OITE Wellness Team at [email protected] of you need support in the process. We are here to help. 


Sunk Cost Fallacy – How It Affects Career Decision-Making

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch November 22, 2021

The sunk cost fallacy describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits. In economic terms, sunk costs are costs we’ve already incurred which cannot be recovered.  The sunk cost fallacy can be seen in big life decisions (staying in an expensive graduate program because we are already paid for the first year) as well as small day-to-day decisions (continuing to watch a movie to the end even if it is boring and unenjoyable).   In career terms, the sunk cost fallacy often looks like individuals committing to career paths despite new data that it is no longer the right fit.

We often hear trainees fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. Many postbacs will say, “I was a pre-med major so I must go to medical school.” Similarly, we often hear graduate students and postdocs say, “I have researched this topic for over five years; I can’t stop now because I have invested so much time into this work.”

These are all examples of a sunk cost. This often occurs because we as humans are not purely rational decision-makers. We are often highly influenced by our emotions and our own commitment bias, when we continue to support our past decisions and recommit to them even in spite of new evidence suggesting this isn’t the best course of action. This leads many people to a decision fallacy where decisions are based on past costs instead of future and present costs and gains.  This mode of decision making often leads to suboptimal outcomes.

This could happen in part because of loss aversion, where losses tend to feel much worse to us than the impact of gains. People are more likely to try to avoid losses than seek out gains. The unfortunate truth of the sunk cost fallacy is that it becomes a reinforcing cycle. The more time you commit to something the more loss you will feel walking away and making a new decision.

There is no way to completely avoid the sunk cost fallacy when making decisions, but it can help to recognize its power within your own thought process. If you feel a career path is no longer a good fit for you, cut your sunk cost and walk away. It is okay to make a new decision based on new data and personal evidence.

Topics like this one are addressed in our workshop The Psychology of Career Decision-Making. You can also read more about the Sunk Cost Fallacy at The Decision Lab.


Voices of OITE

Submitted by Amanda Dumsch November 29, 2021

Starting next week and going over the next few months, you will be hearing new voices and perspectives from the OITE Career Blog. Staff from OITE will be writing and sharing their own experiences with you in a series we are calling “Voices of OITE”.

We look forward to sharing these personal and professional insights as a chance for you to learn a bit more about us. We hope you enjoy this series!