Monday, February 20, 2012

How to Succeed

Imposter syndrome can manifest itself in many different ways. My particular brand is that whenever I achieve something or win something or what-have-you, I immediately think, "if they're giving this to me, they must be giving them out like candy." Or I see ways to denigrate my accomplishment, like this must be a mistake, or they've lowered their standards, or this particular job/fellowship/award must not be so prestigious after all.
Which is why although I've finally scored a permanent position despite a bad job market, and done so while raising two young children, I feel like it's all been a colossal fluke. And yet, I know if a younger version of myself saw me now, I would be desperate for any and all advice on how I managed to be so successful.
With that in mind, I offer the following advice for those of you on the job market these days on the secrets of my success.
0) Are you sure you want a faculty position?
This may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but you should really seriously consider other career options. Given the realities of today's job market, chances are you may end up leaving academia in the end. So think about what you might do if you were to leave the academic track. Maybe even go so far as to apply for a few jobs. Who knows, maybe you'll realize you'll be far happier doing something other than astronomy. If not, at least you'll realize what other options are open to you, and you'll approach the job search with more confidence and less desperation.
1) Persistence, persistence, persistence.
I can't stress this one enough. Keep applying for jobs. I know that the ever-growing pile of rejection letters can be disheartening, but at some level you need to develop a bit of a thick skin. The job market is so tough that any place with an open faculty position has to turn away many extremely qualified candidates. Just because you got turned down doesn't necessarily mean you're not good enough. Sometimes I think that the only reason there are fewer women in the field is because men don't mind banging their heads against the wall as much as women do.
2) Work hard

Rocky: You see, flying takes three things: Hard work, perseverance and... hard work.
Fowler: You said "hard work" twice.
Rocky: That's because it takes twice as much work as perseverance.
I won't lie: it's not going to be easy. It's going to take a lot of hard work. Do the best research you can, publish often, go to conferences, write proposals, etc. And yes, it can be extremely hard to be motivated to work while that pile of rejection letters keeps growing, but without an excellent record of research, no one will want to hire you.
3) Work your network
I always used to think that I hated networking. To me, networking sounded like a cynically working a room to meet all the most prestigious contacts and schmooze your way to the top. I always much preferred hanging with friends at conferences, sometimes to talk about science, but more often to enjoy a meal together or carry on lively conversation. But as it turned out, we were all moving up the academic ladder together, perhaps at different rates, but upwardly anyway. One day I realized that I actually did have friends in high places, and they were those friends that I had socialized with over the years. And because they were friends and collaborators, they wanted to see me succeed, too. So don't burn any bridges, because when it comes down to hiring someone, the person of whom you have fond memories of hanging out at conferences is going to win over the person who was a jerk to you during their talk.
4) Marry well
By this, I don't mean marry someone who is independently wealthy, although that would be nice. What I mean is having a supportive spouse. My husband takes a fully equal share in parenting our children, does most of the housework, and was willing to pick up and move across the country not once, but twice. Without his continual support on the home front, not to mention the huge amount of moral support he's provided me over the years, I definitely would not have gotten where I am today.
5) Any time is a good a time as any other to start a family.
There will never be a perfect time to start having kids if you pursue an academic career. So, you could either say, "all times are equally bad," or "all times are equally good." Why not look at the bright side? I had my kids in grad school, but very few of us are ready to have them at that point, either because we haven't found the right partner yet, or aren't ready financially, or both. But if you wait until after you have tenure, you might no longer have the energy or fertility to have kids, or you might never get that far and have ended up waiting in vain. In recognition that having children can be a significant barrier to the advancement of women in astronomy, there's a growing list of parental leave policies at various institutions and a petition for postdoc family leave policies.