Problem Solving

Problem Solving

Category : PROspective

2020 has thrown us one curveball after another. As I reflect on the skills that I have had to rely on most heavily during these last 10 months, the skill that has served me best is problem-solving. From figuring out how to transition my in-person class to be fully online within a week, to supporting virtual learning for 4th and 1st graders while keeping a toddler happy and out of the way, to how to safely celebrate the life of my dear grandmother — there has been no shortage of opportunities to flex this critically important skill.  

Problem-solving isn’t an innate ability – it’s a skill that anyone can cultivate to apply to any situation, both in your personal and professional lives, and lies at the intersection of critical thinking, compartmentalization, creativity, and composure. Though many problems do require extensive technical knowledge (some of which you already have as an epidemiologist), most of the work of problem solving takes place outside of that context – engaging skillsets and mindsets that can be applied to almost any problem. 

At our core, I think all epidemiologists are good problem solvers, whether we see ourselves that way or not. Epidemiologists build a toolkit of skills that can be applied to a wide range of problems. While you might start out as a cancer epidemiologist, maybe you pivot in a couple of years to begin work on the impact of environmental exposures on fertility. Take solace in the fact that you are growing your skillset in an area that is both incredibly versatile and one that the world needs now more than ever before.

As you work to hone your problem-solving skills, it is important to be mindful that the approach that works to solve one problem might not work for another. Do you remember that saying if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Creativity is an essential component in problem solving, and we ought to resist the urge to apply the same solution to every problem that we face. 

Not only does our ability to problem-solve help us get through some sticky situations, but we can also take these opportunities to help launch us forward towards achieving our goals. When you’ve overcome a particularly challenging situation, consider jotting down some notes for yourself about what the problem was and how you solved it. The next time you find yourself in an interview, you can draw from these experiences to provide concrete examples about situations where you faced a challenge and how you addressed it. 

For me, problem-solving always begins by trying to break the problem down into as many parts as I can. This provides some clarity to help understand exactly what I’m facing, and then I can identify which elements need to be prioritized and which might have some flexibility. 

For more ideas and strategies, check out the article linked above – and as a bonus, you can learn more about how to talk about your problem-solving skills on your resume and in interviews!



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