Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Behind the Scenes

(The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous. I hope you find her experiences encouraging! -Hannah)

I am a female postdoc at a major research university. I'm at the point in my career now where I'm having quite a few 'first' experiences: first review panel, first telescope allocation committee, first job hiring panel. I was excited to be asked, because I welcome the opportunities to learn how things are done behind the scenes, to add my expertise where needed, and to give back to my community. I eagerly read over new science ideas, which often reminded me of postponed or shelved projects I'd love to get back to, or kindled interest in areas I'd thought about previously only in passing. It let me identify pitfalls in my own proposals by comparing them to the quality of those in my hands, and allowed me to see ways to strengthen and improve ones that I hoped I could turn in again. To my delight, some of our fellow astronomers have a great sense of humor and manage to work that into otherwise dry proposals, and some are (perhaps unintentionally) hilariously immodest. Equally interesting was seeing the reactions of my colleagues to the same proposals, where we agreed and where we didn't, and what sorts of things influenced their decisions that I might not have considered. For instance, if a committee member had seen the applicant give a fantastic talk at a meeting, that seemed to play a role in the mood of how the proposal was talked about and how confident the committee was that this person would enthusiastically carry out their science. In a less pleasant surprise, I saw an applicant (female) bumped down for belonging to an institution that focused on undergraduate teaching rather than research, despite the fact that we had little to no information on how much teaching the applicant would be doing in the coming semesters. Tough calls were talked about in long stretches.

I found job applications much more difficult to evaluate and generally more worrisome than the proposals. The search committee was evenly split between men and women, with one minority member, and I was happy to see that women were reasonably well represented in the pool and that the group was very ethnically diverse, with all types of backgrounds and experiences. Recommendation letters were certainly eye-opening. Having read a list put out by AASWomen some time ago, I worried that I might find the recs for female applicants to be laced with adjectives like 'nice' or 'helpful', but I found that not to be the case. Letters were strong on describing talent, intellect, and ambition for both genders. Many of the letters were brutally (cringe-ingly?) honest about the short-comings of the applicants, while others were wonderfully optimistic and full of hope. It was a much more personal window into others' lives than I expected to have and often times I felt inadequate to the task of making the final decisions: who was I, after all, to say who should have a job and who shouldn't? wasn't there someone more qualified? At these points I looked to my more senior colleagues for a clearer interpretation of the letters in the context of having read many of them over their careers. In the end, we made a 'long short list' with which were all comfortable, and then went back to see how the female applicants had done; they were on the 'long short list' in numbers proportionate to the total number of applicants. The chair went back to the CSWA guidelines when writing the letters for those who had not made the cut and contacted those who had.

At all times and on all the committees I was recently on, I was glad to see everyone struggling with remaining fair (even if we didn't all agree on what 'fair' might entail), evaluating carefully, staying aware of gender/minority issues (again, even if not everyone agreed on how that should be handled), and not being afraid to back up and re-discuss something if a thought or idea occurred later on. I hope to continue to learn from and be shaped by these experiences, and wish the best of luck to everyone applying this round.

1 comment:

rocketscientista said...

Great post. As a grad student, it's nice to hear someone's experiences on these types of committees. Also, it's awesome to hear that at least one MRU seems to be handling things in a very encouraging way. To the anonymous writer, thanks for sharing!