Saturday, 31 July 2010

Achievements VS Tasks; writing for your audience when applying for a job

Since my current contract ends in December, I’ve been watching the various geology email lists and job boards for interesting sounding jobs. Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a position that isn’t in the academic world, but sounds like it would be fun, and I meet all of their “essential” requirements, though not necessarily all of their “desirable” ones, unless you take into consideration things I’ve done that are similar to what they are looking for.

However, this position has a much more formal application process than I underwent to obtain my current job. Their application packet makes it clear that a CV will not be considered, but instead we are instructed to fill in “details of your previous employment, starting with the most recent. Please include details of any time not accounted for (including unemployment)”. I had never had to compile a complete job history before, and it took a fair bit of time to remember everything I’ve ever done and fill in the boxes on the form (Date of employment, Name and address of Employer, Position held, description of main duties and responsibilities, achievements and reason/s for leaving). Once I’d completed that task and written my “Statement in Support of Application (Outline your reasons for applying and how your experience, knowledge and skills meet the job description, person specification and key competencies for the post. All the essential criteria must be covered)” I sent my completed form to my sister for comment.

While I have spent my life in Academia, my sister has been in the business world. She completed a Master’s in Education degree, but wound up going into corporate training rather than teaching at a school. She is also a writer (although I keep a blog, I don’t consider myself to be a writer; I’m a reader, who is willing to share thoughts via writing now and again). The feedback she gave me on my application packet was amazing—in just a few short paragraphs she captured the essence of one of the biggest problems I have in writing.

She had commented to me that I should delete some of the detail from my job list—that there is no need to show more than one job that happened at the same time, and no employer will care that I did modeling for a life drawing class while I was an undergraduate. I pointed out that I tend to err on the side of caution when deciding what information to include, and my brutally honest tendencies mean that I want to write down “everything”. To which she replied:

“Resumes and job apps are no different than any other type of writing: you must consider your audience and what they will be looking for, as well as your topic, angle, and goals for writing. That is, my guess is when you worked on a geology paper or presentation, you have more data points available to use than you actually include in your paper. That does not mean that you have been less than honest, or incomplete, it just means that you have likely chosen a specific idea to focus on, and analyzed, synthesized, and used the data that best informs that topic. Similarly, the level of depth and detail will vary if you're presenting to geologists in the same area of specialty to you, vs a broader field of geologist, vs a group of multi-disciplinary scientists, vs a room full of lay-people. In these situations, you would naturally think about who your audience is, the starting point they're at, what they would understand, and what might engage their interest.”

I laughed when I read this, thinking of the complaints I’ve heard people make about papers submitted for publication by recent PhD’s—that we tend to write papers that “read like a thesis”. In short we include too much information, wanting to share *everything* we learned in the course of our PhD projects. My first attempts at writing up my results certainly went that direction, and my advisor told me that it read too much like a thesis, and that I needed to go back and change it to the style of a paper. He even gave me papers I might use as a model. I’ve been putting off doing just that (it has been a year and a month since I submitted my thesis—my how time flies!), but reading my sister’s comments above, I think I may have a better handle on how to accomplish that goal.

My sister then went on to say:

“A resume or job application is only different in that it is a marketing document as much as it is a historical document. Its entire purpose is to get you to an interview. Anything that does not advance that purpose should not be included. Now, in the case of "list your entire work history and account for any gaps" listing all your experience does have a clear purpose. Still, you do get to decide how you present each item to make it relevant, or downplay it if it is not, as well as whether or not to include multiple items over the same time span. Also, you get to decide the "starting point" of your work history. Going back to a paper route when you were 9 years old is probably more information than the hiring manager needs to know (actually that was me with the paper route, but you get the idea).”

While I have long known the rule “write for your audience”, I don’t think I had *really* thought about what this meant in terms of job applications before. No wonder some of my applications never made it to the interview stage!

Her next paragraph included the gem “First, frame everything in terms of what you have achieved versus what you have done. (It's the difference between "managed the sales department" and "Improved sales by 40%" - or in your case between, "researched " to "published over xx papers, and conducted xx presentations on "” Re-writing my job history using this piece of advice has actually been quite fun—breaking up the information into the “duties” vs “achievements” has given me a whole new way of looking at it. Even if I don’t get the job for which I currently applying, the process of learning how better to apply for it has been so helpful I will still feel like I’ve won.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Reading Maps, or How I learned, yet again, that it is never safe to make assumptions

When I was an undergrad enrolled in a Field Methods course my teacher wouldn’t even talk to us about the map unless we first “oriented” it (aligning the north arrow of the map with the north arrow of our compass). This is a very sensible idea, as one is much less likely to confuse one’s location by thinking that this hill on the map is that hill in the real world, when, really, it is the other hill over there. However, when printed in a book or posted onto a sign maps are often oriented with a “north at the top” convention.

Before today I would have used the word “always”, rather than “often”, but today I found out that the maps in Glasgow, Scotland are not oriented with north to the top. I have just spent a week visiting friends in Edinburgh (and enjoying the fact that the temperature was nice and cool—unlike southern Europe was before I left), and my return flight was out of the RyanAir airport in Prestwick (which is not that far from Glasgow). To get there from Edinburgh one takes a train to Glasgow Queen Street Station, and walks from there to the Glasgow Central Station to board the train to the airport.

I had thought about printing a map from google of Glasgow city centre before traveling, but forgot to do so before shutting down my computer. However, I didn’t worry about not having a map of my own, since I’d seen a Glasgow map and I knew that the two stations were quite close to one another; my destination is about two blocks west and 4 or 5 blocks south of the station to which I would be arriving. In addition to that information, my friend also told me that there are maps of Glasgow posted on signs in quite a few locations in the city center, especially near the train station, so I knew I could look this information up again when I got there.

When I arrived in Glasgow I exited the train station, looked around, and saw a map just up the street. When I reached the map I looked at the street signs for the intersection upon which I was standing to learn their names, then looked at the map (marked with a “you are here” arrow and a large circle of everything that the mapmaker thought was within a five minute walk of that point). Sure enough, the “you are here” spot was located at the intersection of the two streets whose signs I’d just read.

However, the bottom of the map ended only a couple of blocks below the “you are here” mark, just outside of afore mentioned large circle. Central Station was not visible at the bottom of the map (where I expected it to be, since I was using the assumption that the map was oriented with the top = north convention). Therefore I reasoned that the station I wanted is located just off of the area covered by the map, and I started down the street in what I assumed to be the correct direction.

One block later I found another sign with a map posted on it, but much to my surprise, there was still no Central Station at the bottom of the map. However, looking closer at the map I discovered that the station is on the map, but instead of being where I expected to find it, it was located near the top of the map.

A more careful perusal of the map in front of me revealed an over-street foot bridge located just above the “you are here” marker on the map. Looking past the map I saw that there is, in fact, such a foot bridge over the street in front of me. Ah-Ha! This map is not oriented “north = top”, it is oriented “top” = “direction you are facing as you look at the map”.

This prompted me to search the map for any sort of north arrow. There wasn’t one. Therefore, in order to determine that “up on the map” = “direction you are looking” one would need to either expect it to be so, or take time to do a careful comparison of the map with the real world. Fortunately, I’d only walked one block out of my way, so no harm was done, and I now know to take just a bit longer when reading maps posted in strange towns to see which convention (if any) they are using for how the maps are oriented.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

What could be more fun than extending the boundaries of the sum of human knowledge?

Not too long back I got into a conversation with a friend of mine, who was complaining about his job and how little he enjoys it. It is always difficult for me to be properly sympathetic in such conversations. Having learned as a child that “work” or “a job” meant "something unpleasant that people had to do but didn’t want to do", I have done my best to avoid ever having to do such a thing myself. Indeed, this was one of the largest motivating factors in my decision to be a life-long scholar—to stay happily in the academic world, learning interesting things.

When my academic career progressed to the point of undertaking a PhD project I was totally excited about it—I was about to learn something new, something that no one else ever knew before. This is heady stuff. Sure, there can be a fair bit of tedium in research, but that is more than offset by the ability to set one’s own hours and choose for oneself the topic and direction of the research. Having finished the PhD and moved on to a post-doc position doing experimental petrology I find that I am still expanding the bounds of human knowledge. The experiments I’m doing are ones that no one has done before—each run I do provides new information that needs to be analyzed—looked at, compared with the previous information, and understood.

I am aware that there are people out there who have the misfortune to spend their days doing things that don’t interest them, and I am grateful that I am not one of them—that I have the joy that comes from learning new things. Not just new to me, but new to everyone. What could be more fun than that?

Friday, 23 July 2010

re-finding motivation

How much I accomplish on any given day depends upon a lot of factors. With the heat that has plagued southern Europe recently my motivation levels have been at a very low ebb. The longer the heat lasted, the less motivated I was to do anything near the computer (which generates its own heat, making matters worse). Eventually, in hopes of getting out of the cycle of thinking “I should be working, I’m too hot/miserable to work” I booked tickets to go visit a friend in Scotland for a week, thinking I could bring my computer and get more done while here than I’d been accomplishing at home, even with the distractions of a friend to visit.

Much to my delight, it is, in fact, much cooler here. This morning I enjoyed my first hot shower in weeks (it has been so hot that only very cold showers feel good at home). However, I then had to face a related challenge. One I am aware of, yet still get caught up in now and again. The dreaded “must work/can’t work” mentality often, for me, leads to “work” becoming a vague, nebulous, undefined thing that I “should” be doing, but am not. My first full day in Scotland I spent visiting friends, helping my friend get settled into his new flat, and baking bread and cookies. All with the vague sensation in the back of my mind that I “should” be working, but without any specific thoughts about what “work” means. I find it difficult to actually sit down to “work” when I don’t have a specific task in mind to accomplish.

Fortunately, late last night I took the time to actually open my files, see the list of tasks I have accomplished recently, and what more still needs doing, and I found a specific, identifiable task that needs to be done next. At that point I was much too sleepy to do it, but that is a good thing—this morning, when I woke up, I woke up thinking, for the first time in weeks, about work. About the specific things that need to be done next, so that I may compare the data I’ve been generating with the data that has been published in the literature. In short, I have re-found my motivation. So, with that I leave you and depart to my spreadsheets for an afternoon of fun with data…

Saturday, 17 July 2010

today’s vocabulary lesson

While reading my 1000 words of geologic literature today I encountered the sentence “However, these data may be the result of sampling mixtures of discrete fabric elements. Thus, the age of the older event is equivocal”. Since I was doing “active reading” (typing up a summary of each paragraph in my own words), I decided that I’d best actually look up “equivocal”, since while I *thought* I knew what it meant, I wasn’t willing to swear to it. So I checked the on-line Oxford English dictionary:

equivocal, a. and n.
A. adj.
1. Equal or the same in name (with something else) but not in reality; having a name, without the qualities it implies; nominal. Obs. (dates back to 1643)
2. Of words, phrases, etc.: Having different significations equally appropriate or plausible; capable of double interpretation; ambiguous. (dates back to 1601)
b. Of evidence, manifestations, etc.: Of uncertain bearing or significance. (dates back to 1969)
c. nonce-use. Of a person: Expressing himself in equivocal terms. (dates back to 1601)
3. Of uncertain nature; not admitting of being classified, ‘nondescript’. equivocal generation: the (supposed) production of plants or animals without parents; spontaneous generation. (dates back to 1658)
b. Of sentiments, etc.: Undecided, not determined to either side. Chiefly in negative sentences. (dates back to 1791)
c. Music. equivocal chord: one which may be resolved into different keys without changing any of its tones. (no date given)
4. Of advantages, merits, etc.: Dubiously genuine, questionable. (dates back to 1797)
5. Of persons, callings, tendencies, etc.: Doubtful in character or reputation; liable to unfavourable comment or description; questionable; suspicious. (dates back to 1790)
B. n. An equivocal word or term; a homonym. (dates back to 1653)

I find it fascinating that a word which comes to us from “equal” means “uncertain” (which, from the context, is the best match in this case).

Thursday, 8 July 2010

My Dream Location

The August Scientiae Carnival asks “what is going on in your life right now? What will be happening in six months or a year from now? What are your goals? Are you looking forward to the next year, or dreading it?”. This is a good time to be asking these questions of myself, since I have only six months remaining of my 1.5 year contract. I am starting to see jobs advertised with January start times, and have been re-vamping my CV and sending out applications and letters of enquiry. I’ve also been looking into the process of applying for funding, with the thought that while it is certainly easier to simply accept a job that is already funded, if I were to do my own funding application I would be able to work in a place of my own choosing doing a tasks that I want to do.

Where do I want to be in six months time? If I could have *everything* I want in life, I’d want to be doing research at a University located in a large town (or small city in the mountains). Someplace with a moderate to cold climate, and a winter where it not only snows, but the snow stays on the ground all winter. I’d want there to be plenty of hiking and cross-country ski trails in easy access from my home. I’d want an indoor rock-climbing gym at the Uni, located reasonably near my office. I’d want there to be a locally active branch of either the SCA or some other Medieval Reenactment organization that hosts camping events in the summer and has lots of music/singing/dancing at their winter events. I’d want my research to involve both field work and laboratory work and involve interesting metamorphic rocks that are pretty and have lots of information to convey. Does anyone know where this dream location is?

Friday, 2 July 2010

Marie Curie Conference

I first heard about the post-doc position I now hold from an e-mail to the geo-metamorphic email list, and it wasn’t until I received a copy of the contract that I found out that by accepting the position I was becoming a Marie Curie Fellow. Since my very favorite book when I was a child was my copy of a children’s version of Madame Curie, a bibliography written in 1938 by her daughter Eve, I was quite delighted to find out that my funding is associated with such an amazing woman. Spending my childhood reading (over and over) about her love of learning, and how much she sacrificed in her youth to be able to attend University was probably a factor in my own love of learning and drive to attend University.

One of my favorite glimpses into her personality takes place after she has, after years of hard work, managed to isolate the element radium from pitchblende ore. Soon after that accomplishment was published she and her husband, Pierre, who had abandoned his own research to assist her with hers when he realized how important her work was, received a letter from a fellow scientist asking them to please share with him the details of the process so that he, too, could obtain pure radium for his studies. She and Pierre discuss it, acknowledging that since they invented the process they could charge people money to share the details. Had they gone that path they would have likely become quite rich thereby. However, they both agreed that in science it is far more important to freely share knowledge than to sell it—selling ideas was simply not appropriate in their minds.

I very much agree with them on this point. Consequently, the couple of hours of lectures at this week’s conference for Marie Curie Fellows (held in conjunction with the EuroScience Open Forum) which focused upon questions on intellectual property and the process of obtaining (and selling) patents rubbed me the wrong way. While I have no doubt that if Marie could know that there are 1000’s (I guess—there were over 400 of us at the conference) of people who are receiving funding to do research in other countries in her name she would feel honoured and delighted that so many talented scientists were getting such good opportunities, I also feel that she would not have approved of the message presented by those two speakers or who seemed, to me, to be equating science with an opportunity to gain financial profit.