Author Archives: Timothy L Lash

How to Avoid Common Interview Mistakes

Category : PROspective

I have previously written a PROspective column with tips for online interviewing (https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/epi/prospective/preparing-for-interviews). Even as the COVID-19 pandemic diminishes, many organizations have kept to online interviewing, especially for first round applicants. It makes a lot of sense. Online interviewing is more time efficient, allows interviews for more candidates, and reduces the carbon footprint attached to recruiting. I suspect that online interviews will remain the norm, especially for first rounds of interviews, so these tips remain relevant. Many of them apply also to in-person interviews.

Today I have been asked for tips of what NOT to do during an interview (online or in-person). For the most part, these ideas apply to first-round interviews, and they fall into three categories: don’t be unprepared or generically prepared, don’t be presumptuous, and don’t try to stand out for reasons unrelated to the job.

Don’t be unprepared or generically prepared. To prepare for an online first interview, be sure that you have a good idea of the job description and the organization. Do some research in advance to understand both the job and the larger mission of the organization. As I wrote in the earlier column, you will almost certainly be asked what appeals to you about the position or why you think you might be a good fit for it. Since you know this question is coming (and a few others; see earlier column), you should be ready with a compelling answer. Do not just repeat back elements of the job description. Tie elements of the job description to work you have done, classes you have taken, or other experiences. Imagine the job description says that summarizing and interpreting epidemiologic data is part of the work. If you answer, “I like the idea of summarizing and interpreting epidemiologic data” when asked why you are interested, you have only repeated back to the interviewer an element of the job description they wrote. If you answer, “I really enjoyed analyzing data for my practicum on XXX, summarizing it for a poster, and then presenting it to students and faculty. I remember one conversation where we talked about YYY and it gave me ideas for ZZZ new directions. I think I can bring those skills to this position” – now you have really tied a specific experience and skill set to an element of the job description. Since you know this type of question is coming, you can be ready in advance with a specific answer that shows you are ready for the job and enthusiastic about it.

Don’t be presumptuous. One of the great hazards of first interviews is to ask questions that presume you might get the offer. Avoid asking about salary, start dates, benefits, vacation time, etc. These questions are important, but should be reserved for a second interview. The only fair question in this space is to ask what their timeline is for next steps (don’t ask about timeline for an offer – next step will often be another interview or in-person meeting). You have good reason to know their schedule so you can coordinate with other opportunities you might be pursuing. Skilled interviewers will always say when you will hear back, so keep even this question to the end and ask only if the information has not been given by the interviewer by the time the interview is closing.

Don’t stand out for reasons unrelated to the job. It is tempting to think about something memorable that will make you stand out. Do not put something clever in the background of your zoom camera or hanging on the wall behind you. Do not ask a question you might think is clever (like “What types of restaurants do you visit when you travel?” – someone actually asked it; it has nothing to do with the job). Don’t share horror stories about your previous job or supervisor – if you complain about past jobs, interviewers assume you will eventually complain about this job. Don’t search the internet to find clever questions or things to say at an interview. Be your authentic, professional, and collegial self – it’s more than enough to land the job.

Featured Image by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash


Flexibility, Empathy, and Patience: A Year Later

Category : PROspective

A year ago, I wrote a PROspective column to welcome students to the Department of Epidemiology at the start an academic year that would be largely completed by virtual learning. This year, we are fortunate to anticipate an academic year that will be largely completed by in-person learning. It is a big and important step towards the lives and learning styles we remember from before the COVID-19 pandemic. But we are not all the way back to the before times. The column below contains many of the same messages from last year, with updates to reflect what we have learned in the last year and what we anticipate in the year ahead of us. We will all be learning, adapting, and improving as we go. That process will accrue benefits most rapidly if we recognize and practice flexibility, empathy, and patience in our endeavors and interactions. Humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient, much more so than we sometimes realize, especially when we can recognize common goals, reorient quickly when necessary, and maintain composure in the face of hardship. With that in mind, I want to take this opportunity to share a few suggestions that, in the past, have helped students to make the most of their Fall semester at Rollins.

Stronger Together

One of the great strengths of the science of epidemiology is that those who study it come from widely different personal and professional backgrounds. We embrace the diversity of perspectives as a strength. In our previous educational experiences, some of us studied public health, while others studied biology, mathematics, economics, psychology, languages, or arts, among others. What you already know will help you with your curriculum this semester, so let it shine through. Bring your unique perspectives to your classrooms and share it with others, and listen to the unique perspectives that others will share with you. Realize, also, that because of the differences in earlier education and experiences, some parts of the curriculum will come easier to you and some will be more difficult. This too will be an individualized experience.

There is no point in comparing your academic progress with your peers; you will only steal your own joy by making such comparisons.

Commit to growing your network

The ongoing social and physical distancing related to the pandemic response will make it more difficult to develop a professional network. We humans are pack animals and having six feet or a computer screen between us is an unnatural way to socialize. It is critical, though, that we adhere to these public health requirements during this pandemic – to protect our own health and the health of our entire community. Finding solutions and strategies for how to develop a social and professional network despite the barriers starts with realizing that it is a problem, and you will have to invest more than the normal effort to solve it. Get to know your peers in the program through the shared experience, even if less than optimal. Imagine how nice it will be to one day greet them with a smile not hidden behind a face covering. The department’s Canvas site provides guidance on how to network with faculty. The guidance suggests that your initial contact with faculty include a specific request. My friendly amendment is to keep the bar low for that ask. For example, many faculty members hold regular meetings with their research groups. Rather than asking to join their groups, ask to listen in on one of their research group meetings. That is not difficult to arrange and provides a point of entrée to the group’s network.

Don’t forget career skills

The department’s overriding educational goal is to prepare students to be influential public health practitioners. The knowledge, skills, and philosophies that you will learn in the classrooms will be instrumental in achieving this goal. Important, too, will be the career skills that, despite often being complex and nuanced, are seldom part of the classroom learning experience. This PROspective column has often addressed these skills, so I encourage you to read the archives and begin work on honing these professional competencies. Once again, the artificial social interactions related to pandemic response will make it more difficult to practice these skills. Recognize the problem, and plan to solve it. Realizing the importance of career skills and learning how to practice them will be instrumental in your success while at Rollins and for many years thereafter.

We can do it!

Welcome to the department and thank you for your faith in us to provide an excellent learning experience this semester. The faculty and staff have worked hard to prepare, and are ready to change and improve as the semester progresses. We look forward to working with you to make it a success.

 

Featured Image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


Preparing for Interviews

Category : PROspective

By Timothy Lash, MPH, D.Sc.

 

The spring season often brings a calendar with interviews for Applied Practice Experiences, summer internships, post-graduation jobs, and graduate school admissions. These are an important part of the path towards achieving your career goals, yet are also unfamiliar territory for students early in their careers. Like most things, preparation and practice are the key to success. Here are a few tips to get ready.

 

Questions to Prepare For

 

First, most interviews will start with some variation of the question “Tell me about yourself.” Because you can count on getting this type of question early in the interview, it’s an opportunity to be prepared and practiced. This week’s suggested reading (Entrepreneur, 2019) gives concrete advice about the importance of this question and being prepared for it. Avoid simply restating the chronology on your resume or CV – the interviewer has already seen that. You will want to give a brief biography, but focus on your career interests and how they fit with the position. Talk about anything in your work or education history that is particularly relevant to this position. Conclude with a clear statement about your interest in the position and how well suited you would be to it. Most important, prepare for this question, even if you write out the answer. You do not want to read it during the interview, but you should be prepared for this question and ready to answer it effortlessly when it comes.

 

Second, there will almost always be a question about why you are interested in this particular position. Again, because you know this question will be asked, you can be prepared to answer. Research the position and what will be required so that you can tie particular aspects of your knowledge, skills, and experiences to what you think will be required to succeed in the position. A subtle but important point is to frame your answer (and the whole interview) in terms of what you can do for the position, not what the position will do for you. This is a subtle reframing that becomes important as you advance in your career. Early in our trajectory (college and graduate school interviews), it’s only natural to think about why you would like to join a particular educational institution. However, once you have a graduate degree, interviewers want to know that you will add value to their organization. They are less interested in what the organization can do for you. So frame your answer in terms of how you will help the organization to achieve its goals, and less so on how happy you will be to have the position.

 

Third, there might be a question about how you would define your ideal workplace. Here it’s important to be authentic about the type of work style where you are most productive. Unless specifically asked, avoid answering in terms of the physical workspace (office, cubicle, open office, remote work). It is better to answer in terms of the work style. Do you prefer to have several projects at once, or one project at a time? Do you prefer to work regularly with a team, or do you prefer to work alone and then combine your work with others. Do you prefer to travel often for work, or to spend most time working near to home? These are all elements of an answer that you can give that demonstrate that you are self-aware of your work style that is productive. Wherever possible, it’s best to answer these questions as a  balance, not one or the other. For example, instead of saying “I work best when I have only one project at a time,” you could say “I work best when I have one project that is my focus, and I usually expect there would be several other smaller projects ongoing at the same time.” The second answer demonstrates that you are not rigid about this work style, and still conveys your authentic preference.

 

Fourth, there will almost always be a question at the end such as, “Is there anything else you would like to discuss.” Many times candidates pass on this question and answer “No, I think we have talked about everything I had in mind.” This is then a missed opportunity to seize the moment. Again, with some preparation and practice, you can take advantage of this opportunity to leave a terrific final impression. Instead of answering with some version of “No,” answer with “I would just like to reiterate that I am enthusiastic about this opportunity, think it’s a great fit for my skills and experience, and that I would really do a terrific job working with all of you.” With this answer, you leave the impression of your enthusiasm for the job, confidence that you can do it, and understanding that you will be joining a team that aims to succeed. Avoid using this opportunity to ask about salary, start date, or when you will hear back from them. Skilled interviewers will tell you as the interview wraps up about the process moving forward. If they don’t, you can always ask before saying goodbye. I advise against asking about salary or start date, or any of the other offer terms, at a first interview. If you are asked, it is fine to say what you expect.

 

Getting Ready for Zoom Interviews

 

Given that these interviews now occur by video (and that may continue for first interviews indefinitely), there are a few tricks to keep in mind. First, be sure that you are professionally dressed and that your background is clean and orderly (or use a background). Second, be sure that there is no window or bright light behind you. You want the light in front of you (even if you use a background). Third, raise the height of your camera so that it’s level with your forehead. It gives a better impression to be looking up at the camera than to be looking down at it. Fifth, and this one is difficult, try to look at the camera and not at the screen. Looking at the camera gives the feel of eye contact, whereas looking at the screen does not. It’s difficult because looking at the person on the screen feels like you are making eye contact, but it does not look like that on the other side. Try it out with some friends and you will see a big difference. Finally, it’s possible to write some bulleted notes and tape them to a wall behind the screen. You can glance at them during the interview to be sure you covered the points you prepared to answer. No one will know it’s there (so long as you do not use it to read!). Do not put the notes on a paper on the desk or table in front of you – then it will be easy to see that you are reading.

 

Finally, the most important part of the interview is to be your authentic self. People are very good at seeing when others are not being authentic. You are prepared for the job and the interview, try to enjoy it and that will allow you to be the best version of yourself. 

 


 

Dr. Lash is the Chair of the Department of Epidemiology, co-author of Modern Epidemiology, 4th edition and Applying Quantitative Bias Analysis to Epidemiologic Data, and the Editor-in-Chief of Epidemiology

 


 

Join the Conversation!

Are you an alumni or current student in the Department of Epidemiology? Do you want to share your professional advice and experiences with a large audience of your peers? We want to hear from YOU! Consider becoming a contributing author for PROspective!

To inquire, email your article idea directly to the editors at Confounder [at] emory [dot] edu!

 


 


A Mentee’s Journey

Category : PROspective

In last week’s PROspective, our department’s Vice-Chair described her career-long mentoring relationship with Professor John Boring, our department’s first Chair. Her moving description prompted me to reflect on my good fortune to have had outstanding mentoring beginning even as an undergraduate. Today, I will share a snippet from the three main mentors I have had and what I learned from each of them. The main theme is that it is important to learn to take constructive feedback and to act on it.

Rigor


For my undergraduate research opportunity project, I worked in the laboratory of Marie Chow. She was a newly appointed Assistant Professor, and she focused on the genetics and protein structure of the polio virus. She and a post-doc in the lab were the first to sequence the polio virus genome, a result they published in Science while I was working in the lab. At any given moment, Marie might come into the lab and ask what you were doing, what each step in the experiment was meant to do, the importance of each reagent, how you made the reagent, and to show her where you had documented it all in your lab notebook. At first it was terrifying and felt confrontational, but she was an equal-opportunity interrogator. I got the same treatment as the two post-docs, PhD student, and technician. We all heard one another go through it. We became used to it, and came to understand that she was setting a standard for rigor in her laboratory that was paying dividends. When you hear me talk about the importance of rigor, you are hearing me channel Marie Chow.

Sponsorship


My first full-time job was at an environmental health consulting company owned by Laura Green. Laura and Marie were friends from their post-doc days, and I later learned that Laura would never have hired me without Marie’s encouragement. Sponsorship is an important role of a good mentor; Marie made a difference again for me at this critical time. My first writing assignment was to prepare a summary of the carcinogenicity of trichlorethylene. I did the research, wrote what I found, and handed it over for Laura to review. The next morning, she sat down across from me and said, “Did you write an outline?” I thought I would be fired. Instead, she worked with me to improve that piece and many others over time. Laura has outstanding interpersonal skills. Watching her over ten years set standards for communication that I still aspire to meet. She and I talk a couple times each year and I learn something new and important every time.

Collegiality


My first academic job was as a project manager working with Professor Rebecca Silliman. Becky had a growing research program in breast cancer survivorship. She was ultimately a member of my PhD committee and has been a mentor to me throughout my academic career. She is retired now, but I still talk with her every second Monday and value that time immensely. I realize that she is the one person who has only my interests in mind, and she has seen it all in the academic environment. Just last week, she kept me from making a mistake by anticipating the long-view fallout. I once asked her what she thinks was her main secret for success and she answered, “I choose my collaborators well.” When you hear me talk about the importance of collegiality, I am channeling Becky Silliman.

So I have been immensely fortunate to have outstanding mentoring for a long time. There have been others, but these three were easily the most influential. On my side of these mentoring relationships, I have had to be willing to hear their constructive criticism. That is a skill that does not come easily to me, nor to most people. It is a skill, and it can be improved. This week’s extra reading provides a place to start.


 

Join the conversation…

Are you an alumni or current student in the Department of Epidemiology? Do you want to share your professional advice and experiences with a large audience of your peers? We want to hear from YOU! Consider becoming a contributing author for PROspective! To inquire, email your article idea directly to the editors at Confounder [at] emory [dot] edu!


 


To be an Epidemiologist in 2020

Category : PROspective

2020 has brought many challenges for students, staff, and faculty. These challenges resonate with the experiences that people throughout our society have faced. We are working and studying without the usual social supports and infrastructure to assist us, and all the while anxious about our own welfare and the welfare of others. Many are simultaneously juggling dependent care, which compresses a difficult schedule into even fewer hours.

Most of this is true for most people. Epidemiologists and other public health and health professionals have had an added challenge, which is to participate directly in the pandemic response. Towards the end of the summer of 2020, the editors of Epidemiology (I am Editor-in-Chief) decided to solicit short commentaries from a diverse group of epidemiologists, asking them to describe “What it has meant for them to be an epidemiologist in 2020.”

We were not asking for anyone to speak for the profession; rather the goal was to get an overview at the cross-section of a number of personal views. We nominated a long list of potential writers, and then selected a short list with the aim of obtaining a diverse set of views representing a range of backgrounds, work settings (academic, government, industry), and geographic regions. To further diversify the set of writers, we asked each invited writer to nominate a second writer, with the emphasis on suggesting someone whose voice might not usually be heard. Using this process, we obtained 20 short commentaries, which are accompanied by an overview editorial by Sonja A. Swanson, who led the effort for the journal. The entire compilation is available here.

I hope you will find time to read through them – many of us will find a writer whose experiences resonate with our own, and we hope that provides some comfort, inspiration, and maybe even a sense of solidarity as we approach the final stretch of this unprecedented year.

 


 


Compartmentalizing

Category : PROspective

The Fall 2020 semester has already brought new challenges and new successes. Students, staff, and faculty have implemented and improved new modes of learning and communication, all without the respite of a fall break or holiday, and all without the usual means of interpersonal social support. There is room to do better, and we are all working towards that, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how well we have done overall.

Planning for the home stretch

The last part of the Fall 2020 semester overlaps with the US election season, and we ought to plan accordingly. Our department community is engaged in the voting season, and we are especially grateful to student leadership to promote civic engagement. The voting season ends November 3, but that may not be the end of the election season. November may bring longer than normal waits for election results, and then these results may be contested in courts and legislatures. This waiting will likely stoke anxieties and distract us from the classroom, at exactly the time that we are all working to finish a difficult semester. Each of us needs to have a plan.

What’s your strategy?

Your plan may profit from the strategy called compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism used to prevent mental discomfort and anxiety caused by having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, and demands. Compartmentalization is not about being in denial; it’s about putting things where they belong and not letting them get in the way of the rest of your life. As described in today’s reading,

“Compartmentalizing is one of the most important strategies for setting healthy boundaries. It allows us to establish mental barriers between one priority and another so that we can direct all of our energy into what’s right in front of us.”


In this week’s article, the author outlines five steps to become better at compartmentalizing. TL;DR, the main points are to:

  1. recognize the conflicting emotional and structural demands on your mental energy, and
  2. give all of them their own individual space in your day.

Compartmentalization in practice

There is a 24/7 news cycle these days, but election news is unlikely to change much minute to minute. Schedule the times that you will check in on the news, and then work on the semester at other times. You may choose to exercise your right to peaceful protest (while taking care to protect yourself by following pandemic protocols). Schedule the preparation and protest time as a compartment, and keep that time separate from the time you spend following the news and the time you spend on finishing the semester.

The Road Ahead

We are all hoping for a just and swift election result. If there is uncertainty, the period of uncertainty will overlap with the end of our semester. Spend some time in October planning for how you will react and how you will assure that all of the demands on your mental energy and time will be met, and your mental and physical wellbeing will be preserved.

The Fall 2020 semester is unlikely to be the last time that the sum of your personal, social, and professional lives demand more attention than you can deliver. Honing the skills needed to meet these challenges will serve you well later.

 


 


Managing Up

Category : PROspective

These PROspective columns are meant to help RSPH EPI students to be more influential public health practitioners, especially after they graduate and join the public health workforce. Our department works hard to assure that students’ learning experiences prepare them with the knowledge, skills, and philosophy to be influential, but career skills are often as important in determining influence and success once graduated. This week’s PROspective takes on the difficult topic of how to succeed when your workplace supervisor stands in the way.

Supervising in Epidemiology

Poor supervisory skills can emanate from many sources, as described in this article from Harvard Business Review. One possibility, especially in some pubic health workplaces, is that the supervisors have never had any help preparing to manage. They may have risen to their position because of the skills in epidemiology, which typically provide little foundation for managing others well.

So how do you cope in this circumstance? I have written in a previous PROspective column about how to disagree, and many of those same skills may apply here. But beyond disagreeing about work products or workplace priorities, poor supervision often emanates from failure on the supervisor’s part to set clear expectations.

Setting Expectations

Expectations are the sets of goals and standards that your supervisor expects you to achieve, with some understanding of which are most important and should receive most of our effort. Failure to set and enforce standards and expectations is one of the most common management failures. If you are working without a clear understanding of what is expected, then it will be difficult for you to feel satisfied with your work.

Fortunately, failure of your supervisor to set expectations is something that you can help to address. If your supervisor has not set the expectations, you can take the initiative and suggest them. You can write out short and long-term goals and deadlines and ask for your supervisor’s feedback. Be sure that these pertain to the organization’s goals and priorities, and not to your own career aspirations. It’s a good idea to write these down also, and maybe to share them with your supervisor, but that’s a separate task. Hopefully the two will align.

Soliciting Feedback

Failure to provide constructive feedback is a second common failure associated with poor management. Again, it is something that you can help to address. When you reach a milestone, or complete one of the short or long-term goals on the list described in the previous paragraph, you can ask for feedback. Be sure to ask more than “Was my report okay?” You will probably only get back “Yes, it was good.” That’s not feedback that will help you to improve. Ask a question that requires a longer answer, such as “How can I do this task differently next time so that it will be even better?” Importantly, do not tie these requests for feedback to requests for additional compensation or leave time.

Zooming Out

Last, if your workplace dissatisfaction continues, it might be worth a self-check about whether your values align with the values of your supervisor or organization. If your values differ from theirs, it will be hard to ever feel satisfied with your work; a change may be needed.

 


 


Flexibility, Empathy, & Patience

Category : PROspective

Whether you are brand new to Rollins (Welcome Class of 2022!) or returning for your 2nd year after a summer applied practice experience, you’re probably asking yourself, “What does success look like for the Fall 2020 semester?”

Excellent question. No one has ever done this before, so the truth is—no one knows how to make a success of it. We will all be learning, adapting, and improving as we go. That process will accrue benefits most rapidly if we recognize and practice flexibility, empathy, and patience in all of our endeavors and interactions. Humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient, much more so than we sometimes realize, especially when we can recognize common goals, reorient quickly when necessary, and maintain composure in the face of hardship. 

With that in mind, I want to take this opportunity to share a few pandemic-adapted suggestions that, in the past, have helped students to make the most of their Fall semester at Rollins. 


Stronger Together

One of the great strengths of the science of epidemiology is that those who study it come from widely different personal and professional backgrounds. We embrace the diversity of perspectives as a strength. In our previous educational experiences, some of us studied public health, while others studied biology, mathematics, economics, psychology, languages, or arts, among others. What you already know will help you with your curriculum this semester, so let it shine through. Bring your unique perspectives to your classrooms and share it with others, and listen to the unique perspectives that others will share with you. Realize, also, that because of the differences in earlier education and experiences, some parts of the curriculum will come easier to you and some will be more difficult. This too will be an individualized experience. There is no point in comparing your academic progress with your peers; you will only steal your own joy by making such comparisons. 


Commit to growing your network

This semester’s hybrid learning experience will make it more difficult to develop a professional network. We humans are pack animals and having six feet or a computer screen between us is an unnatural way to socialize. It is critical, though, that we adhere to these public health requirements during this pandemic – to protect our own health and the health of our entire community. Finding solutions and strategies for how to develop a social and professional network despite the barriers starts with realizing that it is a problem, and you will have to invest more than the normal effort to solve it. Get to know your peers in the program through the shared experience, even if virtual. Imagine how nice it will be to one day greet them in person, with a smile not hidden behind a face covering. The department’s Canvas site provides guidance on how to network with faculty. The guidance suggests that your initial contact with faculty include a specific request. My friendly amendment is to keep the bar low for that ask. For example, many faculty members hold regular meetings with their research groups. Rather than asking to join their groups, ask to listen in on one of their (now Zoom enabled) research group meetings. That is not difficult to arrange and provides a point of entrée to the group’s network.


Don’t forget career skills

The department’s overriding educational goal is to prepare students to be influential public health practitioners. The knowledge, skills, and philosophies that you will learn in the classrooms will be instrumental in achieving this goal. Important, too, will be the career skills that, despite often being complex and nuanced, are seldom part of the classroom learning experience. This column has often addressed these skills, so I encourage you to read the archives and begin work on honing these professional competencies. Once again, the lack of usual social interactions will make it more difficult to practice these skills during the pandemic. Recognize the problem, and plan to solve it. Realizing the importance of career skills and learning how to practice them will be instrumental in your success while at Rollins and for many years thereafter.


We can do it!

Welcome to the department and thank you for your faith in us to provide an excellent learning experience this semester. The faculty and staff have worked hard to prepare, and are ready to change and improve as the semester progresses. We look forward to working with you to make it a success.

 


 


Active Listening

Category : PROspective

I have previously written a few PROspective articles on the importance of developing career skills that will help you to be influential. Today I am flipping the script and writing about how to be influenced.

 

Changing your mind is an important career skill, and possibly one of the most difficult to accomplish. We all have beliefs and values that developed over a lifetime, and changing them requires us to contemplate the possibility we were wrong. This contemplation poses a threat to our identity, and that’s where the difficulty begins.

 

To be influenced, we must start by realizing that we will have to let go or modify what we had previously believed. For a scientist, this willingness to change beliefs is inherent to our work. It is our job to change our minds in reaction to accumulating evidence. We can borrow this skill, which we develop as part of our scientific training, and apply it outside of the scientific realm.

 

Now, of course, we are in the midst of a time of social and cultural change when we must all be prepared to modify our beliefs and values. Borrowing our willingness to learn from our scientific selves and applying it in these other realms should accelerate our progress.

 

It is most important, then, to listen. Active listening is also an important and learnable skill. This week’s PROspective article provides ten concrete suggestions for how to improve your active listening skills. The article explains the importance of active listening in building relationships: “Active listening builds rapport, understanding, and trust.” It also emphasizes the importance of committing your whole self to listening: “Active listening involves fully concentrating on what is being said rather than passively absorbing what someone is saying… This type of listening involves participating in the other person’s world and being connected to what the other person is experiencing.” In these months of remote communication, #6 has become difficult or impossible (#6: Pay attention to their body language and make appropriate eye contact). This shortcoming requires all the more attention to the other aspects of active listening, especially avoiding internal and external distractions (#1), listening to the tone of voice (#4), and sensing the emotions of the speaker (#5).

 

Building active listening skills will help you to be rightly influenced, and will improve your ability to fully engage in the needed social and cultural changes that are at the forefront of our national conscience. And, if developed in this context, you will be able to loan your active listening skills to enhance your career as well.


Work and Study Efficiency in Difficult Times

Category : PROspective

 

I hope this message finds you and yours well during these difficult times. We have worked hard to keep open channels of communication with students and faculty and, in addition to concerns regarding physical and emotional wellbeing, a recurring theme has been a concern about the efficiency of the time they can allocate to work or study.

There is no single strategy to address this concern; though here are some ideas for how to take it on if you feel your efficiency could be better. It starts with reflection about the source of the self-perceived inefficiency. More than one of the below may be at play, and they may be weighted differently on different days or even over the course of a single day.

If you believe you could be more efficient with the time allocated to work or study, take a moment to think about which of the following may be operating and how to diminish their impact.

 

Expectations

To start, it’s possible that your expectations of your efficiency are too high. Our schedules have been disrupted, we are grieving the loss or distance of our social networks, and we are all concerned about friends, colleagues or family who are not well and/or experiencing anticipatory grief about the same. It is normal to work less efficiently under these circumstances. Are your expectations of your efficiency calibrated to the reality of the current moment? Is some recalibration necessary? It’s also possible that you need to help your colleagues, instructors, and peers to recalibrate their expectations of you. External pressures that we cannot meet are uniformly demotivating, so do your best to avoid them or resolve them.

 

Distractions

Second, it’s possible that you are distracted by more than the realities described in the preceding paragraph. When our ability to concentrate is diminished by circumstances, other distractions invade more easily, occupy more time and a higher proportion of mental reserves, and therefore have an ever larger than normal effect on our efficiency. Turn off the email, close the browser, turn off the television and music, keep clear of the kitchen. Duncan’s earlier PROspective article provided some great ideas for creating a productive work-at-home space.

 

Productivity 101

Third, it’s possible that you could be more productive with the time that you have available. There is a large literature on work productivity, most of which remains relevant even under new circumstances. Make a to-do list for the day that is realistic given the time that you will have available. Delete anything that is not important (aligned with your goals and values). Organize what is left into what is urgent (impending deadlines or helping someone else to keep working) and not urgent (chipping away at larger projects with later deadlines). Take on the urgent and important tasks first, working first on the ones that are least appealing to you. Be sure to save some time each day to work on what is important but not urgent, so that you don’t face unmanageable deadlines later. Work in short bursts without distraction (25 minutes is often recommended), and then reward yourself with a distraction (check email or Twitter or Instagram) for five minutes (no more). You can set a timer to keep the rhythm for you. Be sure, also, to optimize your productivity by eating well, avoiding too much sedentary time, and sleeping well. As advised in Duncan’s earlier PROspective, schedule time to give yourself a break; it’s too easy to sit in front of the work screen all day, even if that time is not productive.

 

Motivation

Fourth, it’s possible that your motivation has truly waned. Lack of motivation may emanate from a combination of all the above, and is also possibly influenced by feelings of despair and loss of perceived control. To restore some of your missing motivation, start by addressing the first three. Also, find ways to restore a sense of control where you can. We cannot come back to campus for class, but we can organize our closet or write to a high school friend we have been thinking about for a long time. Taking on nonwork items that have been lingering on your personal to-do list will reassert your locus of control, and that will spillover to improve your motivation. Structuring your time will also remind you that you are in control: keeping a daily schedule will help to be sure you have regular sleep, diet, work, and relaxation.

 

Looking Forward

Feelings of inefficiency during times like these are normal, and some days will be more productive than others. On those days when you aren’t able to tackle as much as you would have hoped, give yourself some grace, and know that you’ll have another chance at it tomorrow. 

It might also be helpful to envision what success will look like for you in the long term. We will all one day tell the stories of what happened to us and what we did during the COVID-19 pandemic. You will want to say that you did your part and put your shoulder into it as best you could. Imagine your future self and the story you will want to tell, and then make it so.