Communication Tip: Don’t say “next Friday”. Say “Friday of next week”.

Today is Monday, September 24, 2018.  Suppose that my co-worker Jessica asks me, “Can we meet on next Friday to talk about our report?”.  Does she mean

  • Friday, September 28, 2018?
  • Friday, October 5, 2018?

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Image courtesy of rawpixel.com via Pexels

The word “next” is tricky to interpret in this situation.  By definition, “next” denotes the instance immediately after the present.  Thus, “next Friday” should mean Friday, September 28, 2018.

However, most Anglophones would interpret this phrase to mean the Friday of the next week, which is Friday, October 5, 2018.  This is not logical, but it is the dominant interpretation.

To prevent this confusion, I avoid saying “next Friday”.  Instead, I say

  • “the upcoming Friday” to denote Friday, September 28, 2018
  • “Friday of next week” to denote Friday, October 5, 2018

These approaches are clear and unequivocal, and they eliminate any chance for confusion.

If this is communicated in an email, then I suggest confirming the correct “Friday” by adding the calendar date.  Thus, I would write, “Let’s meet on Friday of next week, October 5, 2018”.  This method helps the reader to know if we will meet during this week or next week, and it adds another way to confirm the date.

 

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Communication Tip: Write both the day of the week and the calendar date when organizing meetings or planning events

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Image courtesy of rawpixel.com via Pexels

When proposing a meeting or planning an event in writing, I strongly suggest stating both the day of the week and the calendar date.  For example, I would email my co-worker Mark, “Shall we visit our client on next Tuesday, September 25?”.

Note the contrast between my proposed approach and the following 2 alternatives:

  • “Shall we visit our client on next Tuesday?”
  • “Shall we visit our client on September 25?”

Some careful comparisons will reveal 3 advantages:

  • It forces me to check that I wrote the correct pair between the day of the week and the calendar date.  This is an extra layer of quality control.
  • If I simply write “Shall we visit our client on September 25?”, then I implicitly force Mark to check what day of the week that is.  If I send that email to 10 people, then I’m multiplying this hassle by 10.  I can save all parties a lot of headache by taking the initiative to write “Tuesday, September 25”.
  • Knowing both are very helpful, but often for different reasons.
    • Knowing the specific calendar date eliminates any source of ambiguity about which day it is.  Instead of relying on words/phrases like “tomorrow”, “next Tuesday”, or “the day after”, stating “September 25” is perfectly clear to Mark.
    • If I propose a meeting on a Wednesday afternoon, Mark may immediately know that it is a bad time, because he needs to coach his daughter’s basketball team on Wednesday afternoons.  This illustrates how the day of the week is helpful for coordinating one-time events with events that recur weekly.

In the above example, I have omitted the year, because the working context between me and Mark would imply that meeting in September of next year would be rather strange and unrealistic.  However, stating the year may be helpful or even necessary for certain situations, especially if legal formality is involved.

 

Communication and Email Tip: Propose meeting times in both time zones

When I arrange a phone call with someone in a different time zone, I propose the time in both my time zone and their time zone.

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay via Pexels.

This has 2 benefits:

1) I save the recipient’s time and headache from determining what the correct time is for their time zone.

2) The recipient can check if my conversion is correct.

On at least 2 occasions, this practice has helped me to identify a mistake in the proposed time of a meeting.

Arranging a teleconference via an online calendar invitation solves this problem, because the online calendar will automatically do the conversion. However, not all meetings are arranged this way, so this is still a good practice to adopt.

Update to “A Story About Perseverance – Inspiration From My Old Professor”

Names and details in this blog post have been altered to protect the privacy of its subjects.

In 2014, I wrote about a former professor, Dr. Baker, who suffered from a chronic liver disorder and endured complications from her liver transplant.

I recently heard from Dr. Perez and Dr. Baker about some wonderful news: Dr. Baker just earned tenure in her job as a professor.  This required her to get letters of recommendation from researchers in her field.  Trusted sources revealed that those letters contained glowing appraisals of Dr. Baker’s work.  I was very glad to learn of both this endorsement and the eventual attainment of a treasured milestone for Dr. Baker.

Besides this professional achievement, Dr. Baker has also improved her health significantly through disciplined care of her health, especially via exercise.  I was delighted to learn of this progress.

Congratulations, Dr. Baker.  Your example shows that perseverance can bring great rewards.  I hope that you and Dr. Perez enjoyed your celebratory lunch together.

Write a personal message when inviting people to connect on LinkedIn

Strangers send requests to join my network on LinkedIn every week, sometimes every day.  When I get such a request, the enclosing message is usually

“Hi Eric, I’d like to join your LinkedIn network.”

This is the default message, which means that the sender did not take the time to write a personalized invitation.  This is very disappointing, especially because LinkedIn suggests you to write a personal note before sending every request.

When you don’t write a personal message, it shows a lack of effort to engage with that person and develop a rapport in this new connection.  In this age of social media, it is easy and common to add new contacts just for the sake of increasing the size of one’s network, whether it’s “Friends” on Facebook, “Followers” on Twitter, or “Connections” on LinkedIn.  Although social networking is virtual, connecting with people is still a human endeavour, and your effort level in that endeavour will reap proportional returns in the long term.

In your personal note, here are possible things to mention:

  • how you met that person
  • what you valued in your past professional encounter(s) with that person
  • what you hope to learn from that person

 

If you accept a thoughtful invitation from someone on LinkedIn, then write a personal message in return to thank them.  Either way, read their profiles carefully, and ask insightful questions based on what you learn from their profiles.  Your new connections will recognize your efforts in noticing their work/education and trying to learn from them, and they will likely appreciate your initiative.

A tip about the word “college” to my American neighbo[u]rs who wish to work in Canada

Canadian English and American English are very similar, allowing Anglophones in both countries to work and live with ease when crossing the border.  However, there is a subtle difference in our vocabularies that can have big consequences for job searches and professional development.  To my American neighbours (or neighbors, as it is spelled in the United States of America), I offer this tip to avoid any confusion.  It concerns our different usages of the words “college” and “university”.

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The Peace Arch is a monument situated between Blaine, Washington and Surrey, British Columbia. Near this monument is a major border crossing between the USA and Canada.

Image courtesy of RGB2 from Wikimedia.

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My Silver Medal from the Canadian Society for Chemistry – Reflections After 10 Years

In June, 2008, I received an email from Dr. Ken MacFarlane, then the Undergraduate Advisor in the Department of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University (SFU).  He wrote to inform me that I had won the Canadian Society for Chemistry‘s Silver Medal, given to the top undergraduate student in chemistry entering their final year of study at each Canadian university.

I won the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s Silver Medal for being the top fourth-year student in the Department of Chemistry at Simon Fraser University in 2008.

Later in November of that year, I received this medal at a dinner banquet, which honoured all of the award winners from the universities and colleges in the Vancouver Section of the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC).  (Awards were given to the top students in their second year, third year, and fourth year of study.)  Here is a photo of me receiving my medal from Dr. Daniel Leznoff; he was then the Chair of the Vancouver Section of the CIC and a professor specializing in inorganic chemistry at SFU.

Eric getting medal from Dr. Leznoff

I received the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s Silver Medal from Dr. Daniel Leznoff at a dinner banquet in November, 2008.

The CIC publishes a magazine called Canadian Chemical News, and it covered the above award banquet in January, 2009.  You can find a photo of the award winners from that night on Page 29.

Dr. Cameron Forde succeeded Dr. MacFarlane as our Undergraduate Advisor in 2009.  In an email to me in October, 2009, Dr. Forde wrote that 100-120 students were eligible for the CSC’s Silver Medal in our department in 2008.

This is one of the greatest achievements of my life.  I am even more excited about it today than I was at that banquet, because I now have 10 years of perspective about how this medal has benefited my career.  In this retrospective article, I write to share my reflections about the impact that this medal has had on my professional trajectory – which has been unusual, to say the least.

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Include a professional photo of yourself in business attire in your LinkedIn profile

One of the easiest ways to polish your LinkedIn profile is posting a photo of yourself in business attire.  I strongly encourage every LinkedIn user to spend several hours to take at least 100 such photos of yourself.  Ask a friend or family member to take these photographs, if they would be so kind and willing to do so.  Alternatively, you can hire a professional photographer.  After this session, you will have a large stock of photos that you can use for various purposes.

Position yourself with many backgrounds, and take those photos from many angles.  You should always look straight into the camera, smile, and maintain an upright posture.  Here is what my LinkedIn profile looks like.

When you build a professional network and an online brand, people need to know who you are and what you look like.  When they meet you in person, your photo allows them to visually connect you with the online profile that they saw on LinkedIn.

This is especially crucial for people with common names; showing your photo allows others to easily distinguish you from others who share your name.  It turns out that there is another person named Eric Cai who works as a data scientist!  Not only do we share the same name, but we also have the same profession.  Without photographs, it would be quite difficult to distinguish between us in a professional setting.

 

Common Mistakes

I recently spoke at the Canadian Statistics Student Conference and at the University of Toronto’s Biostatistics Research Day, and I talked about this with students at both events.  Here are the common mistakes that I see in LinkedIn profile photos, and I urge you to avoid all of them.

  • Not having a profile photo
  • Not wearing professional attire
  • Not smiling
  • Covering your eyes with sunglasses
  • Looking away from the camera

Remember: This photo is for your professional branding, and your future employers or clients will look at it.  It is not for Facebook, Tinder, Grindr, or other social networks that are personal in nature.  Do not try to be cute, funny, sexy, or controversial – be professional.

Communication Tip – Write the message of the email BEFORE the subject and the recipients’ email addresses

In every email service that I have used so far,

1) the address fields are on the top

2) the subject field is in the middle

3) and then the text editor for the message is at the end.

However, when I write most emails, I usually write these 3 things in reverse.  This has several important advantages.

Email on laptop

Image courtesy of Pixabay on Pexels.

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Forgot a new co-worker’s name? This could be an opportunity to establish a positive relationship.

Meeting new people is a constant part of my life, whether it is through new jobs, social events, or networking events.  The first task in establishing rapport with a new acquaintance is to learn their name, yet I sometimes forget it after our first conversation.

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Image courtesy of rawpixel.com on Pexels.

Forgetting new names is very common and forgivable, especially if you are meeting many new people at once.  However, I notice that most people are afraid to admit this.  Perhaps they are embarrassed or worried that their new acquaintances will feel offended.  Thus, they often greet them many times without referencing their name, and this could continue for days, weeks, or even months!

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A Comprehensive Guide for Public Speaking at Scientific Conferences

Introduction

I served as a judge for some of the student presentations at the 2016 Canadian Statistics Student Conference (CSSC).  The conference was both a learning opportunity and a networking opportunity for statistics students in Canada.  The presentations allowed the students to share their research and course projects with their peers, and it was a chance for them to get feedback about their work and learn new ideas from other students.

Unfortunately, I found most of the presentations to be very bad – not necessarily in terms of the content, but because of the delivery.  Although the students showed much earnestness and eagerness in sharing their work with others, most of them demonstrated poor competence in public speaking.

Public speaking is an important skill in knowledge-based industries, so these opportunities are valuable experiences for anybody to strengthen this skill.  You can learn it only by doing it many times, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.  Having delivered many presentations, learned from my share of mistakes, and received much praise for my seminars, I hope that the following tips will help anyone who presents at scientific conferences to improve their public-speaking skills.  In fact, most of these tips apply to public speaking in general.

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I spoke at the 2016 Canadian Statistics Student Conference on career advice for students and new graduates in statistics.

Image courtesy of Peter Macdonald on Flickr.

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Maximizing Your Learning Potential at Professional Conferences – A Detailed Guide

Introduction

During last summer, I attended the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Statistical Society of Canada (SSC).  I spoke on the career-advice panel at the 2016 Canadian Statistics Student Conference (CSSC), and I met some colleagues and professors to share ideas about our mutual interests in statistics, statistical education, and the use of social media to promote statistics to the general public.

From observing and talking to many students at this conference, I realized that most of them did not use it effectively to maximize their learning potential.  A conference like this is a great opportunity for networking, career development, and – eventually – finding a job, but I suspect that most statistics students do not comprehend the depth of its value, let alone how to extract it.  Thus, I’m writing this advice column to help anyone who attends a professional conference.

Image courtesy of Rufino from Wikimedia Commons.

Objectives

Most statistics students want to succeed academically and find a job after completing their education – that job could be within or outside of academia.  Thus, at any professional conference, they should have the following objectives:

  1. To learn new ideas in your fields of interest
  2. To meet others who share your professional interests
  3. To learn soft skills from veterans in your industry for developing your career
  4. To build valuable relationships in your professional network

Unfortunately, based on my anecdotal observations, many students in statistics, math and science don’t seem to grasp Objectives #3-4.  These students tend to be passive in their attendance and shy in their participation.  When they do try to pursue Objectives #3-4, they are often unprepared and do not take advantage of all of the learning opportunities that are available to them.

The first step in maximizing your learning potential at a professional conference is recognizing that it takes preparation and hard work.  To do it well, you need to take all 4 objectives seriously and practice them frequently.  Attending a professional conference is a skill, and developing this skill requires thought and effort.  It involves much more than just showing up, talking at your turn, and listening at all other times.

Hopefully, the rest of this article will help you to develop this skill in an intelligent way, but you must realize that there is no substitution for hard work.

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Analyst Finder – A Free Job-Matching Service for Statisticians, Data Scientists, Database Managers and Data Analysts

If you are a statistician, data scientist, database manager, or data analyst, then consider using Analyst Finder for your next job search.  It is a web site that connects job seekers in data analytics with employers.  The service is free for job seekers, and it earns money by charging companies and recruiters a small fee to find qualified candidates through its job-matching service.

To register for this service as a job seeker, you simply need to complete a check list of skills and preferences.  It’s quick and easy to do, and you can change this list whenever your wish to update your qualifications.

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Employers and recruiters can register for this service to search for qualified candidates, and the fees are displayed on the web site.

This company was founded by Art Tabachneck, a former president of the Toronto Area SAS Society and a veteran analytics professional.  In case you’re interested in learning more about him, SAS has a profile about him in recognition of his expertise in SAS programming and his contributions to online support communities and user groups.

My Alumni Profile by Simon Fraser University – Where Are They Now?

I am happy and grateful to be featured by my alma mater, Simon Fraser University (SFU), in a recent profile.  I answered questions about how my transition from my academic education to my career in statistics and about how blogging and social media have helped me to advance my career.  Check it out!

During my undergraduate degree at SFU, I volunteered at its Career Services Centre for 5 years as a career advisor in its Peer Education program.  I began writing for its official blog, the Career Services Informer (CSI), during that time.  I have continued to write career advice for the CSI as an alumnus, and it is always a pleasure to give back to this wonderful centre!

You can find all of my advice columns here on my blog.

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How to Ask for Reference Letters From Your Professors

This following article was published on the Career Services Informer (CSI), the official career blog of Simon Fraser University (SFU).  I have been fortunate to be a guest blogger for the CSI since I was an undergraduate student at SFU, and you can read all of my recent articles as an alumnus here.

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Image courtesy of Frank C. Müller on Wikimedia

I recently blogged about fast-approaching deadlines for professional programs and graduate studies. Applying to those programs and scholarships requires reference letters from professors, and – having done so as a student at SFU – I have learned that this task is far more intense than simply sending a quick email. Here are some tips for how to make it easier for your professors to write the best reference letters for you.

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Get Ahead in the Race to Graduate Studies

This following article was published on the Career Services Informer (CSI), the official career blog of Simon Fraser University (SFU).  I have been fortunate to be a guest blogger for the CSI since I was an undergraduate student at SFU, and you can read all of my recent articles as an alumnus here.

 

As most students return to school in the upcoming semester, their academic studies and back-to-school logistics may be their top priorities.   However, if you want to pursue graduate studies or professional programs like medicine or law, then there are some important deadlines that are fast approaching, and they all involve time-consuming efforts to meet them. Now is a good time to tackle these deadlines and put forth your best effort while you are free of the burdens of exams and papers that await you later in the fall semester.

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Image Courtesy of Melburnian at Wikimedia

Speaking from experience, these applications are very long and tiring, and they will take a lot of thought, planning, writing and re-writing. They also require a lot of coordination to get the necessary documents, like your transcripts and letters of recommendation from professors who can attest to your academic accomplishments and research potential.  Plan ahead for them accordingly, and consider using the Career Services Centre to help you with drafting your curriculum vitae, your statements of interest, and any interview preparation.

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Leaving My Dream Career – Reflecting on My Decision 10 Years Later

I just couldn’t pretend any longer.

It was near the end of my second year at Simon Fraser University.  My GPA was pretty high, and I had just won a competitive NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award to work with an accomplished cardiac physiologist.  I attended all of the relevant seminars to get the “inside scoop” on how to successfully apply to medical school, and I volunteered in numerous organizations to demonstrate my non-academic credentials.  I had already developed good relationships with several professors who would have gladly written strong recommendations for my application.  All of the stars were aligning for my path to medical school.

I was also miserable, angry and devoid of any further motivation to stay on that path.

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Image courtesy of Carsten Tolkmit from Flickr.  Obtained via the Creative Commons License.

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Eric’s Enlightenment for Thursday, May 21, 2015 – A Special Edition on the Mental Health of Chemistry Graduate Students

Today, combining

  • my passion for chemistry,
  • my experienced knowledge of university culture in North America,
  • and my deep concern for mental health issues,

The Chemical Statistician will feature a collection of writing about the struggles that graduate students in chemistry face during their studies, and how those struggles affect their mental health.  This is a special edition of Eric’s Enlightenment.

  1. Chemjobber began a dialogue with Vinylogous about mental health and graduate studies in chemistry in 2013.  It started with this blog post as Part 1, containing reflections of Chemjobber’s own experience and thoughts on general issues on this subject.
  2. In Part 2 of their dialogue, Vinylogous responds to Chemjobber with a very detailed post on his conjectures of why graduate studies in chemistry is so hard on a student’s mental health.
  3. In Part 3 of their dialogue, Chemjobber responds to some of Vinylogous’ main points and addresses possible solutions to mental health challenges for chemistry graduate students.  He/She also begins to answer the question “Is a graduate degree in chemistry worth the sacrifice?”.
  4. In Part 4 of their dialogue, Vinylogous examines some alternative issues in this subject, including possible benefits of chemistry graduate studies for mental health, how some research supervisors aggravate mental health problems, and differences between sub-fields of chemistry.
  5. Finally, in Part 5, Chemjobber concludes this discussion by trying to answer some of the key questions that this dialogue generated and summarizes some of the key points that they learned.
  6. I am surprised that I never learned about this sad story during my studies as a chemistry student: Jason Altom was an accomplished and well-liked doctoral student in chemistry at Harvard University, yet he committed suicide at age 26, citing excessive pressure from abusive research advisers, including his supervisor, Nobel Laureate Elias Corey.  Notably, his suicide notes contained policy recommendations on how academic departments can better protect their students.

The dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous was very productive, with many other chemistry bloggers adding valuable perspectives in their own blog posts.  I highly encourage you to read those articles, too.

I also highly recommend you to read the comments in all 5 blog posts – they add great diversity to the perspectives and experiences about this complicated topic.

Here are some key quotations that I gathered from these articles:

Chemjobber – in Part 1 of the dialogue with Vinylogous.

After weeks and weeks of long hours and frustration in the lab in either my 2nd or 3rd year of graduate school, I remember walking into my apartment bathroom, smashing the mirror with my fist and sitting on the edge of the bathtub. I seem to recall yelling at the top of my lungs “What am I going to do!?!?” about whatever reaction sequence of my total synthesis that simply was not going anywhere.

I can easily say that was one of the darkest periods of my time in graduate school. I am not sure if I was depressed — I’m a synthetic chemist, not a clinical psychologist. Close to ten years later, it’s mostly an unpleasant memory, with little recall of the details that set me off. But I can remember sitting on that bathtub edge, the deep despair of a project that wasn’t going well and the feeling that my entire life was an utter failure. Now, of course, I don’t feel that way at all. I can leave my work at work (mostly, anyway), and my self-worth is not entirely reliant on the yield of my last reaction. But there was a lot of pain in between then and now.

Vinylogous – in Part 2 of the dialogue with Chemjobber.

At one point during my previous degree, when I was doing research, taking classes, and teaching, my advisor told me frankly that my productivity needed to increase. It needed to double. At that point I already felt that I was at my absolutely limit in what I could accomplish in a week. At that point, I had nowhere near enough data for a paper and barely enough for a mediocre conference poster. Weekends had been given up, as had hobbies. When I mentioned to my advisor the many demands on my time, his response was short: “Sometimes you need to prioritize what’s important to you.” (The subtext: stop caring about class and teaching and hobbies). It was an existential moment. I managed somehow to increase my productivity and my efficiency, and within a year or so I had three first-author manuscripts. I defended my M.S. and graduated, moving to another (higher tier) school for a Ph.D. But I left with a pre-conditioned bitterness towards graduate work.

Career Seminar at Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science, Simon Fraser University: 1:30 – 2:20 pm, Friday, February 20, 2015

I am very pleased to be invited to speak to the faculty and students in the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Simon Fraser University on this upcoming Friday.  I look forward to sharing my career advice and answering questions from the students about how to succeed in a career in statistics.  If you will attend this seminar, please feel free to come and say “Hello”!

Eric Cai - Official Head Shot

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Interview with SFU Office of Graduate Studies & Postdoctoral Fellows: Using Social Media to Advance Your Career

Jackie Amsden, the Coordinator of Postdoctoral Fellows & Professional Development Programs in the Office of Graduate Studies & Postdoctoral Fellows at Simon Fraser University (SFU), recently asked me to share my experience in using blogging and social media to advance my career.  I am pleased to have shared my advice with Jackie in an interview, and she summarized our conversation in a blog post.  I am especially delighted to hear that my advice generated valuable discussion about professional development for a new group of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows during their orientation at SFU.

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Jackie and other members of her team have written a series of blog posts on professional development for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows – check it out!  You can follow Jackie on Twitter @jackiecamsden.

It is always a pleasure to give back to my alma mater and help university students to develop their careers!  Thanks, Jackie!