Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Job Interview Advice

Posted by L. Trouille

With the job application season coming to a head, we thought it would be useful to share potential questions astronomers and physicists may be asked during a phone interview for a tenure track university faculty position. This is the first in a series of posts with job application resources for academic and non-academic positions.

Potential Questions:


-What are your teaching interests? Which courses would you be interested in teaching?

-How would you handle X teaching situation? (relevant to intro courses through advanced courses)

-Some variation on – what is your teaching philosophy?

-If you were allowed to develop any course you like, what would it be?


-Variations on questions about your research – ‘Describe your research and its significance in two minutes or less’ to ‘How would you describe your research to someone outside your field?’ to ‘What is your most important contribution to your research field so far?’ to ‘Where do you see your research leading in five years?’ to ‘How will your research program complement the work already underway in the department?’

-What is your general approach to mentoring?

-What are specific projects you are working on that lend themselves to mentoring undergraduate researchers? Masters students? PhD candidates?


-If the department has access to a local telescope, how would you use it for outreach and teaching?

-If the department has access to specific research telescopes, how would you use them in your research?


-Have good, thoughtful questions to ask them at the end of the interview. Show that you’ve done your homework (see next item).

-Do your homework! Know as much as you can about the department, the courses offered, the research teams, and how you fit in. It makes the interviewers feel that you are really interested and may already belong.

-In case there’s a lull in conversation, have prepared questions about your interviewer’s research. Scientists love to talk about their work.

-Focus on the positive. Especially in a first-round phone interview, the reality is that they’re looking to see who to cut from the list.

-Think outside the box. If the committee is looking for someone with particular experience in X, think about academic and non-academic experiences you have that put you in a good position to fulfill whatever X may be.

-Stay relaxed! If you’re doing a phone interview, consider setting up a mirror to watch your face and relax if you see yourself getting tense. That tenseness will translate into your voice and your answers.

-If salary comes up before you’ve had an offer, consider responding with, “At this stage, I’d like to show that we’re a great fit. I’m extremely hopeful that I’ll receive an offer and we can then negotiate at that stage.” Or some other version that you’re most comfortable with.

Also, check out these online sites for additional questions and advice:,64844.0.html

We plan to compile this and other information we gather as an additional ‘job application’ resource page on the website. Please take a moment and send us a comment with additional questions or useful advice you’ve received for this stage of the process or helpful websites.


Laura Trouille & the CSWA

Friday, February 24, 2012

Pumping at 23, The extended mission through the Milky Way

I couldn’t resist choosing the blog title “pumping at 23”. Since this is a blog about maintaining an astrophysics career and nursing a child, one might logically think it refers to a 23-year-old mother pumping milk. In my case, since it will be ten years next month since I defended my PhD thesis, I must admit the 23 refers to my daughter’s age in months. Since I work at NASA, I can’t help but refer to the pending 24 month transition as the extended mission; soon I will have met my personal goals for the prime mission!

A prospective postdoc stopped by on Friday to chat and the first half of the conversation ended up being about pumping milk when traveling. Here is an anonymous thank you for the inspiration for a pumping-and-astrophysics blog.
So, first let’s have a reminder. Breastmilk is wonderful for babies and toddlers, and the connection between the nursing mom and her child is also beneficial to employers. Breastfed babies have fewer ear infections and illnesses, and illness tends to be less severe. More difficult to quantify is the wonderful re-connection that a working astrophysicist feels with her child after a long day at work. I like to think of it as concentrated mothering. Now, not everyone wants to breastfeed, and sometimes it honestly doesn’t work out (but please see previous blogs, I have never said this was the easy path!). If a mother wants to continue to give her baby breast milk, it is a good idea to support that.

And then we come to the “dreaded pump.” Although I personally have had an overall positive pumping experience, many astrophysicist-mothers I have spoken with talk about the pumping in a rather negative way. Practically speaking, pumping serves two purposes: (1) maintaining your milk supply when you spend time away from the child and (2) preventing discomfort and more serious problems that may arise when failing to empty a full breast. If you aren’t going to be around the kid and you want your milk supply to be maintained, you have to pump. Travel is when this becomes essential. For a fun illustration of what this looks like in practice, here is a short list of some places/situations where I have pumped:
• the lactation room at NASA GSFC (shared hospital-grade pump, AWESOME)
• the restroom on an 11-hour international flight en route to an X-ray binaries/supermassive black hole conference (battery pack is the only option!)
• the restroom on a long-delayed Amtrak train back from Boston from the summer AAS meeting (ewww! Battery pack and wipes needed, bathroom was disgusting!)
• the office of the public policy fellow at the American Astronomical Society headquarters (electricity and access to a refrigerator, yes!)
• the Potbelly Sandwich shop near the White House Office of Management and Budget (electric plug and sink in the same room)
• my office (convenient but people still open the door)

At some point though, all mothers face a moment when it is time to stop pumping. Your child is old enough (and that is a decision for each mother to make based on her situation, although I will mention here that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until two years of age, the American Pediatric Association recommends breastfeeding until at least a year of age). So for many people, somewhere around a year or later (for me it was about 16-17 months), the daily pumping routine will no longer seem necessary. At this point, I haven’t pumped since early January when I attended the AAS meeting in Austin. I will also say that, at 23 months, I am very grateful that I did all that pumping.

While at home, I nurse my daughter approximately 3 times every work day, once in the morning, once before bed, and once in the middle of the night. She now asks and politely says “all done”. And at 23 months, I will say that I treasure this wonderful connection with my daughter as much as ever. I just started a demanding new position at NASA and I frankly think that these cuddling/nursing sessions with my daughter are one part of what is helping me deal with all the pressures of motherhood and career right now.

I’m also glad to have made it through the peak of the snarky comments period. According to Baumgartner’s “Mothering Your Nursing Toddler” the peak period for rude comments (which prompted some of this blog) is from 12-24 months. The young woman who visited me certainly had some snarky comments to share.

So, this is just a reminder that those who pump milk and do astrophysics are not alone.

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.

AASWOMEN for February 17th, 2012

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of February 17, 2012
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson, and Michele Montgomery

This week's issues:

1. Remembering Susan Niebur

2. National STEM Video Game Challenge

3. IUPAP Women in Physics is on Google+ and Facebook

4. APS March Meeting on Sexual and Gender Diversity Issues

5. Workshop: Moving FORWARD In Space

6. How to Submit to the AASWOMEN newsletter

7. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWOMEN newsletter

8. Access to Past Issues

Monday, February 13, 2012

Susan Niebur

Last week, on February 6, 2012, Dr. Susan Niebur, founder of the Women in Planetary Science Blog, passed away after battling inflammatory breast cancer. Dr. Niebur was a powerful advocate for women in planetary sciences and brought an amazing amount of energy and enthusiasm to the cause. Last year, she won NASA's Planetary Science Division’s Public Service Award for her outreach efforts. You can read about some of her many accomplishments here.

By the time I met Susan, she had already been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had two young boys just a bit younger than mine. And yet, she maintained a level of energy that put me to shame. There have been many times that I wished I could blog as well as or as prolifically as Susan did. I will miss Susan's voice in the blogosphere very much. My poor words cannot do her justice.

Rest in peace, Susan.

AASWOMEN for February 10th, 2012

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of February 12, 2012
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson, and Michele Montgomery

This week's issues:

1. When Women Stay Home, It's Not Child Care; When Men Do, It Is

2. Women In Physics: A Tale Of Limits

3. Affirmative Action Policies Promote Women And Do Not Harm Efficiency In the Lab

4. Climate dream: Inclusion of diverse backgrounds and interests

5. Diversity of Women Postdocs

6. Student Virtual Forum In Anchorage

7. Career and Diversity Events at the APS March Meeting

8. Job Opportunities

9. How to Submit to the AASWomen Newsletter

10. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWomen Newsletter

11. Access to Past Issues of the AASWomen Newsletter

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Climate dream: Inclusion of diverse backgrounds and interests

Recently I've heard female student speakers courageously describe their struggles to find support and encouragement for being different from their peers in interest or culture, not only gender. At my university's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration breakfast today, an undergraduate told how she felt looked down upon at a technical university for majoring in economics. Questions from her peers like "Why aren't you an engineer or scientist?" and "Why would anyone come here to do that?" reinforced her own self-doubt in the classic multiplier of stereotype threat. The impact is largest when there are no peers or role models to provide a positive image of choices like those made by this young woman.

Two weeks ago, at a university-wide diversity summit, an international female graduate student told a similar struggle of fitting in as a double minority - a female engineer with an accent and different cultural background than her peers. She had learned to give and take with the guys, but it was clear that the callouses accompanying a thickened skin increase the academic drag coefficient.

Ideally, each of these students and all others from underrepresented groups could find mentors who provide encouragement and help in dealing with criticism. Unfortunately, we are as far from that ideal as we are from a perfect meritocracy. Meanwhile, individual acts of courage - by students telling their stories, and by staff and faculty offering support to students - may help to stem the losses that otherwise accompany a bad climate dream.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

New on the CSWA website

Just a note on a couple of items that are new on the CSWA website. January was a busy month for the CSWA!

  • First, there was the Special Session on Diversity at the AAS Meeting in Austin. The slides from the four talks are now available at the CSWA website here.

  • We also wrote a response to the NSF Career-Balance Initiative. We submitted it to officials at NSF, and also sent a version of it to the NSF Astrophysics Portfolio Review. The document is available here.

The CSWA website is continually being updated, so keep checking back to see what's new!