Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Astronomy Leadership: Applications, Interviews & Jobs


 I didn’t get the job. That’s how this post was supposed to start, but a strange thing happened as I was contemplating the future of my career in astronomy (but more on that later). This was supposed to be a post about the job application process, the invitation I received at the beginning that made all the difference, the boost I got from an anonymous blogger talking about why women don’t apply for high level jobs, the virtual shove I got from my husband at a crucial moment, the help, advice, and encouragement I got from other senior women. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some of you may know that I was a professor at the University of Memphis with expertise in solar coronal spectroscopy. My department was evolving from physics, where the staff had many different specialties, to materials science. Those of us who worked in other sub disciplines were becoming more and more marginalized. I was unhappy with this trend and was looking to get out. My good friend, Pat Knezek, had just taken the job of deputy director of the NSF Astronomy Division. She asked me if I had ever considered a job as an NSF rotator. I started at NSF in September 2013.

Some of you may also know that I was CSWA chair for many years. It was during that tenure that I met Don Kniffen, a CSWA member. Don was there with me when I (with CSWA’s support) decided to blog about my own experience with sexual harassment. I came out as a victim in February 2011. Through my position at NSF Astronomy, I got back in touch with Don after a hiatus of several years. It was at about the same time that Arecibo Observatory ended up back on my radar. I had spent two years there as a grad student – not happy years, mind you – but I didn’t hear much about Arecibo while I was doing solar physics.

In a very real sense, CSWA provided the means and NSF provided the opportunity for the next step in my career. Because their jobs are temporary by definition, NSF rotators are always thinking, “What’s next?” I was no exception, so I was looking out for possibilities when I attended the AAS meeting in Seattle in January 2015 (OMG – that was this year!). It was there that I ran into  Don. After an exchange of pleasantries, he asked me a question that simply had to be a joke – “You’re not interested in the job at Arecibo, are you?” I laughed. Knowing my unhappy history with Arecibo, I’m sure Don was expecting an answer like, “Not just no, but hell no!” It was a surprise to both of us when I answered, “Wait, are you serious?”

I read the job ad.

Impossible! Ridiculous! I immediately came up with four solid reasons why they would never hire me:

-I hadn’t done radio astronomy since I was a grad student.
-Technically, I had no management experience.
-I’d have to go back to Arecibo, a place where I had been decidedly unhappy.
-Puerto Rico had a machismo culture; would anyone there accept a woman as the deputy director?

At precisely the right moment, an anonymous post was published on the Women in Astronomy blog, Confessions of a Female Faculty Candidate.

I was swamped at the time, just returning from the AAS meeting and preparing for a marathon set of NSF panel reviews. My husband, radio Astronomer Gerrit Verschuur, read this post aloud to me. Here’s the line that made all the difference, “I was quick to exclude myself from any search that I perceived to be too far afield from my own specialties, even as one [reference letter writer] urged me: “let them make that hard decision!”

I applied for the job.

I started to think of things that qualified me to move into a management position.

-I had handled difficult personnel situations including sexual harassment and bullying.
-I had financial experience as the AAS Solar Physics Division treasurer.
-I wrote reports to the AAS for CSWA and to NASA and NSF for my grants.
-I chaired committees and review panels; the careers of tenure candidates had been in my hands.

Since the financial future of Arecibo Observatory is uncertain, I found myself thinking about alternate funding streams -- everything from attracting cruise ship passengers to broadcasting love letters to ET! During this time, a very strange thing happened. The negative energy that I had carried around with me about Arecibo since I was a grad student started to dissipate. That unexpected invitation from Don to apply for a job that I “wasn’t qualified for” had a positive effect on my wellbeing.

I got a job interview.

Now I had to get serious. I had not had a job interview since I was a junior faculty member. This one was going to involve a lot more than just a science talk and probing questions about my research and teaching experience. I did the most logical thing I could think of – I asked a few of my friends for advice, senior women in astronomy or physics that had moved into management positions. Here are some things that worked for me:

-Have a vision that is specific to the job. Don’t just say that you will talk with everyone in the first 100 days (but you should do that too). I already understood the financial concerns surrounding divestment, so I pitched the cruise ship passenger idea. Gerrit and I had been on lots of cruises and went on a lot of adventure-type tours. We had sat at dinner with lots of interesting (mainly retired) passengers who would surely love to take a VIP tour of Arecibo.

-Be prepared to answer management-style questions. These are different from what one might encounter in academia. For example, “Describe a situation where you had to fire someone.” (Hint: “I never had to fire anyone” is not going to score many points.) My years on CSWA gave me a solid basis to answer questions on diversity. My tenure as treasurer gave me something to say about budgets. I fumbled a question about “satisfying the customer,” giving one answer with the funding agency as the customer and another with the telescope users as the customer. Construct a list of these questions and practice your responses.

-There will almost certainly be an opportunity for you to ask questions. Always have one or two prepared. If one occurs to you during the interview itself, jot it down so you will remember it when the time comes. If you draw a blank, ask for details of what the interviewer does for the company.

I got a job offer!

My offer letter was short on details. I took that to mean that they expected me to negotiate. Panic! I had never had to do that before. From my time on CSWA, I also know that when men negotiate, they come across as assertive, a good “leadership” quality, but women come across as aggressive, not the image I was going for in this circumstance. How do women negotiate? Once again, I asked senior women, all of whom gave me invaluable advice.

-There are lots of web sites with advice on how to negotiate as a women; read these and make notes.

-If at all possible, negotiate via email rather than in person or by phone; this gives you time to ponder; talking directly with someone who negotiates for a living immediately puts you at a disadvantage.

-Do your homework, especially regarding salaries for people in similar positions; know the market.

-Here’s the one that makes me the most uncomfortable – always ask for a 5-to-10% higher salary; you should do this even if the offer puts you at the very top of the market. For reasons that are new to me, this seems to be a standard part of the practice.
I started a new job.

I became the deputy director of Arecibo Observatory on June 1. I’m still on the steep end of the learning curve, but I’m confident that sooner or later, I’ll have time to do my own science again. I have always maintained a connection to radio astronomy through my husband, and that connection has strengthened since being back at Arecibo. Those first four reasons for why I wouldn’t be qualified have had minimal impact on my job while the reasons that qualified me to move into a management position have been essential. Even though I’m new, I feel qualified to do my job. We’re adjusting to living back in Puerto Rico, and the staff at the observatory have been overwhelmingly supportive and welcoming.

So I did get the job (contrary to my first sentence), but either way, there are lots of lessons to share from this experience. I can only hope that this information encourages other women to apply for jobs that they are “not qualified” for!