So what do I want this blog to be in 2014?

In my last blog post I wrote that I wanted to get back to the saddle of blogging, that I always had fun writing my thoughts down. While I may not have some earth shattering insights, it really helped my order my feelings on what was happening in astronomy. But up until now, it has been sort of random ramblings. I had been pondering if maybe there should be some more structure to this blog, if it should have a theme. There are several things I have been thinking sort of formalizing this blog.

a) I’ve always wanted a more thorough look-in on some paper that was on astro-ph. Of course, I would be mostly selfish and it would be on some AGN related science most of the time. But sometimes, I find other things in astronomy really fascinating (you can’t help but be awed by the pace exoplanet science has evolved in the last 10 years, for example). So the thought was to really go in depth into one paper on astro-ph per week, maybe contact the author, make an informal interview and provide a summary of the paper – sort of like astrobites. However, this is too much work, there are only so many hours in the day. I can hardly keep up with astro-ph at all, although I really did in December and really liked it.

b) I want to become better at programming. Not because I think I am a bad programmer, but because I think I have the wrong approach. Often I program inefficiently. My mindset is often: “It works, so what if it takes 3 times as long, it is a matter of 30 seconds versus 10 seconds, I’ve got the time”. This is clearly the wrong approach and it is a detriment of the ultra-fast computers we have nowadays that we don’t learn to program memory saving and efficiently. So while vowing to delve more deeply into python, I wanted to put myself out there and just put my code out there and my thinking behind it. Maybe somebody can use the code, but mostly I would be looking for feedback on the code. I obviously would be doing some things wrong, but if I don’t put them out there, I would be doing them wrong forever, all in the name of “it works!”. However, even though I do quite a bit of coding, it could be difficult to put it in sort of blog post and I couldn’t do it quite as often.

c) I’ve been reading some astronomy and general physics books lately. I wanted to review them. Most of them aren’t in the too technical “Binney and Tremaine” formalism, but are more towards popular science. Still, I think some are quite interesting even to professional astronomers. A book review is work, often books are long and it is impossible to read one per week, sometimes even per month.

d) I enjoyed writing about the conferences I attended very much, providing some sort of summary and the take home message of the conference. Maybe highlight the motivation for organizing this conference. Or the friendships and collaborations made. Or the interesting venue. However, with the new baby, there will hardly be any travel. It is hard with breasfeeding, even with pumping milk.

e) Maybe that’s what I should write about – just the trials and tribulations now with the new baby. I wish, I had written down stuff, when my daughter was born, perhaps I am painting a rosy picture of what it was back then, maybe I am not. Just right now, I had to get up about 5 times because the little one was crying in his crib. There is this facebook group called “AWM: Astronomer, Woman, Mom” and the group is so different from other mom’s groups I have joined (either on FB or in real life). We do seem to be some weird species these astronomer moms.

So – main take-home point: I’ll just keep writing random stuff. I definitely want to write some of all of the above. But it won’t be a formalized approach or anything. Just what is passing through my head. Let’s see how it goes!

Back in the saddle

2013 was a big year for me. It may not seem that way from the amount I have posted in this blog. But having your second child – a beautiful baby boy – will do that to you. Suddenly mundane astro stuff loses importance and time is too precious to get all worked up on the philosophy of science in general.

I love the way a child can give you focus in your life. You enjoy your free time much more intensely, because it is so scarce. You bunker down during those few hours you can spare for work. I was on maternity leave during the last 4 months of 2013, but yet proposals had to be written, telecons attended, posters given. On top of that MUSE was accepted in Lyon and shipped to the VLT in September and assembled in November/December. It is now fully operational and we will see commision and first light in the beginning of February. Anyway, my point is, that the astronomy world didn’t keep from spinning and I tried to jump on it every now and then and keep up with its breakneck speed and also with an intensity, because of the value of the time.

The baby also gives you focus in that you have something to work for. I remember the drive I had to finish my PhD when my daughter was a baby and now with baby Benjamin I get a sense of new motivation. I know the next few months will be very productive for me.

So today was Benjamin’s first day at daycare. The way it works in Germany is that they have about 3-4 weeks of “easing in”. You don’t just leave the kids at daycare one day, it is gradual. Today was just me talking to the carer with Benjamin in my arms for an hour. Tomorrow, she will have him, but I will be there the whole time. On Wednesday I get to leave for 20 minutes. On Thursday it will be at the daycare for a few hours and I will get to leave maybe 45 minutes… and so on. Of course, you take it slow if there is resistance at any time. As much as I yearn to be at work, I guess this transitional phase is good, too.

And then is the guilt, of course. Always the guilt. There’s no switch to turn it off and society here in Germany is a bit more closed than it was in the US about women returning to work, while having infants (under a year). I am happy to be in the former East, where it was normal, I am sure I would have a much harder time in the West. So it’s a constant back and forth between me wanting to be at work and me wanting to be with the baby and the two of them don’t mix 😦

I sit here tonight, trying to get back into the saddle. Slowly, but surely becoming an astronomer. Part of it was blogging and wanting to get back into the saddle of that, also. Reading this post aloud, I am realizing that I am either really tired or need to practice this writing thing some more. I do miss the times where I churned out the weekly posts. I want to do that again in 2014. In fact, it was my one and only New Year’s resolution: to blog once a week again in 2014! In fact, next post, I will want to brainstorm a bit, what I want to do with this blog, perhaps focus it a bit more on something specific. Or maybe I will keep the personal touch, I don’t know yet. Anyway, 2013 was awesome, here is to an equally awesome 2014!

Escaping the “always busy” – happily on vacation

As I am writing this, I am sitting on the porch of a friends’ house staring out into a garden of sun-bathed flowers and listening to a concert of birds. Very far out in the background you can hear a leaf-blower, but this is pure bliss vacation feeling for me. The last 10 days I have been on vacation, first with my best friend in Colorado, now in California (see picture above of the Santa Monica pier), also visiting friends and enjoying the warm weather. My daughter is at her old daycare, happy to see her old buddies and engaging in Spring Break activities.

So vacation… yay! I have not done much in terms of work in these last two weeks, except to talk to some colleagues about it and look over some proposals, but no data reduction, no programming, no writing! I quickly went over the Planck results last week and I was sad to hear about NASA possibly suspending outreach programs due to the sequestration, but it all seems so far away right now.

My husband is sitting besides me, also on the computer, but our work on it today has been limited to finding good restaurants, managing dinner invitations and reviewing rental car agreements (and me writing this blog). It has been good to turn off the mind for a while. In a world where we are ever growing busy (or are we?), some days of rest do the body good. The opportunity to catch up with friends, to sit down for long meals and reminisce of old times or to have new meaningful conversations is priceless.

And it’s sad that so many people in astronomy don’t take proper vacations. The lecture-free time at Universities often coincides with conference season and people get their travel there, but it’s not a shutoff of work. I have been guilty of the same phenomenon. I have worked on my vacation days on purpose. One time, after attending a public event during the night at our institute, we got an extra day of vacation and I only half-jokingly complained that I didn’t have time for vacation.

And it’s hard, you know. Research is never-ending. Except for those days where you submit a paper and feel like you’ve conquered the world, there’s always “something to do”. When I was a student, I worked as a waitress for half a year on the weekends. When those days were over, you were tired, but it was good, you got home and felt like you accomplished something. You were tired and just wanted to veg out in front of the TV. But it’s not like the thoughts were lingering in your head “oh, I still need to wash that wineglass at work” like they do when I come home from astronomy work. I like the thoughts that linger in my head at night, I wouldn’t be a scientist otherwise, but it’s good to shut them off once in a while.

So this post should serve me as a reminder to shut it off sometimes, to get bored and “unbusy”, to let go. It’s good for my health, especially mental health. See you guys on April 8th! 🙂

Two pet peeves in astronomy

I am going to be a complainer today. Yes, it’s not all sunshine and roses in our profession (is it anywhere?). But I am in a grumpy mood today and just needed to vent about it. Blog post about Ringberg AGN meeting will have to wait. With that I give you my current two pet peeves about astronomers:

a) Potential employers don’t write rejection letters

In a typical application year of a postdoc, I have heard of people applying to 20-30 job positions (perhaps less if there are constraints like 2-body problems, etc.). A few of those will result in job interviews and I hope the candidate is good and lucky enough to get that position. But what I find really sad is that from half or more of these positions advertised out there, the candidate will hear nothing. That’s right, I don’t mean no feedback or anything like that, NOTHING. Sometimes, one can find out via the rumor mill, but not all positions are advertised there and it’s not up to date with all positions.

This is endemic and embarrassing to our field and frankly I don’t think there is ANY valid excuse to not do this. How difficult is it to write a form letter with the bottom 90% candidates in the bcc: field. “Dear Applicant: we are sorry to inform you that your application was unsuccessful. Thank you for your interest.” !??! Boom, that’s it. You don’t need a special secretary, you don’t need an explanation, but your candidate will be thankful (well, at least acknowledge) that he/she can cross that one off and move their hopes to the next application. It is really unprofessional to leave job-seekers waiting in the dark, when they are willing to move their whole life for your job.

On a related note, it is not necessary, but it would be great if there could be an acknowledge-letter that the application was received. I applied to a position where it was not entirely clear if one could apply via e-mail, I wrote 3 e-mails (one to the official address and two to the person designed to be in charge) and never received an answer. Only a few weeks later came a cryptic message that interviews were in the process of being scheduled for December – well, that leaves me guessing that they did get my application. I never received anything from them again – well, that leaves me guessing I am not on the shortlist. It’s a guessing game – this is a job where I would have to move my whole family to attend and it gets treated like some contest to win some knives over the internet.

b) Astronomers complaining about traveling too much

Successful astronomers travel. It can be for observing, conferences, invited seminars, scientific collaborations, etc. If you are really successful it might be to offer an opinion at a large panel or to coordinate administrative duties on a large project. In any case, even in the days of good telecon software, skype and remote observing, travel is often a necessity. What I don’t understand is how people know this, yet they complain about it. You know what you signed up for, it’s quite often in the job description, many people actually become astronomers because of it. Why are you complaining?

Is it to brag? Oh, look how many seminars I got invited to? That’s cool and I am actually happy for everybody’s success, but why wrap it within disdain. Is it too much for you? What would happen if you just declined invitations? If you got invited to 12 conferences in a year that’s great and all, but you don’t have to attend all of them and if you do, then I feel like you don’t have the right to complain about it. Strangely, I have found that the most successful or senior scientists that travel quite frequently don’t complain as much.

On that note, I would urge you to ask yourself if you really need to take that trip. I was on a white paper on the decadal survey on “Low Energy
Astrophysics“, trying to become greener astronomers. One of the main steps is trying to reduce your carbon footprint by traveling less to remote locations. Driving a Prius, changing your light-bulbs and having a water efficient shower-head at home is all great, but it’s a bit moot as soon as you start traveling overseas regularly. There’s a wiki for this initiative, which unfortunately has not gotten much updates lately.

Family-friendly as an institutional culture

I was recently reading an article on the Women In Astronomy blog how the culture in your department has a big impact on how you perceive your work and your role in the organization. (Does Organizational Culture Matter? ). Naturally you start comparing departments and their cultures and what they emphasized. For example, in my time at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab an enormous amount of time was devoted to health and safety, while perhaps a bit of the start-up entrepreneurship was lost. There are always pros and cons on how an institutional culture affects you.

While, for example, the institution’s stance on, outreach or teaching could be an important point worthy of a blog post, this time around, I would like to focus more on family-friendly culture. It was only fitting that a few weeks ago this interesting video by Bryan Gaensler was released on Youtube. Bryan is the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) at Sydney. His talk deals with family-friendly initiatives at CAASTRO and since it is an astronomy institute I thought it was quite relevant to watch it!

Here are the main points I got from the talk he held:

When advertising a position try to make part-time employment an option. It will leave you money to do something else and even perhaps hire somebody else. The part-time employee will be very dedicated. Don’t exclude a big fraction of very qualified candidates, be flexible in your timelines.
This resonated with me a lot. When I came to Berlin, I was not sure how free I would be with everything. It was not clear how everything would work out with Anna at her new school. My grandmother is not in the best of health. So when the head of my department offered me the half-time option when offering me the position, I was very thankful. I didn’t take it in the end, but I’m sure I would have been *way* more productive than the 20 hours he would’ve been paying me for, it would’ve taken off the guilt we feel that we aren’t working enough and it would’ve left me time for hobbies or other things. Great point and I love that Bryan put it first!

All core meetings should take place between 10-2. Be aware of school holidays. Don’t schedule some important meeting, workshop or similar into those holidays.
This! So much! Look, I can understand that some telecons need to deal with time differences and that some people will be undoubtedly unhappy with set times in large international corporations. But when you would schedule a work event (seminar, team meeting, etc.) at 4pm or later you are basically implying that you do not care about daycare times and are effectively signaling to people with children that those concerns are not valid in your mind.
The same goes for vacations. Here at work we have annual scientific evaluations end of October, which are “strongly recommended” (i.e. mandatory) to attend. For a long time this used to be during school holidays about two months before and it was very hard for people who had school age kids to attend. Don’t assume that conference attendees can just shuffle their kids with them during school holidays. At least be aware!

Welcome the child in the workplace!
I totally get where he’s coming from. He’s not talking about setting up a daycare at work or having toys lying around the office or the workplace suddenly becoming a screaming place. No, it’s that security, that if there’s an emergency, I can let my child come to work with me for some hours, let her play on the iPad a bit or let her draw some things and not feel guilty with other colleagues. It makes it so much easier. When I moved workplaces from the Livermore Lab to IPAC suddenly a world of opportunities opened in that sense, too. It just became a whole lot easier. It’s not about setting up your work to do the babysitting, it’s that even if I just took advantage of it once a year or so, the peace of mind that it is possible is great! Here at work, we are actually in the process of setting up a child-parent room to handle such emergencies, so I am very happy with that.

Discourage working from home, because working from home lets the barrier between work and home fall.
I’m afraid he’s too late with that one with me, heh! But then my computer is a mess of work and personal stuff, too. I am one of those people who does personal stuff in the workplace, too.
Anyway, but I do understand where he’s coming from! As an employer I would definitely not want my employees to be there 24/7 – always available. So there are exceptions when to work from home, e.g. waiting for a repairman, but don’t encourage it! Science is about collaboration and sometimes just walking down the hall to talk to somebody about that crazy idea you just had or that one line of shell script that just isn’t working. You don’t get that at home and many of the interactions (telecons, e-mails, etc.) might seem forced.

Ask yourself if mentioning the parental status of the person is really necessary (this affects women mostly).
I am very happy this doesn’t happen at my institute very much, but I have seen this so often at other places, when a speaker is giving a seminar or so
A friend of mine was thinking of leaving astronomy after having her 2nd child. The relationship with the supervisor was a bit strained because of that – he didn’t want her to leave the job, but he was angry all the time that she left work so early in the afternoon. Ah, but as soon as somebody from outside came to visit the institute, she was the token WOMAN that “yes, it is possible to be a researcher and have two kids”. ugh!
People have children, but it shouldn’t define your professional status! It’s an unconscious stereotype that is easily broken.

Yeah, sure, great science can happen when having a few beers with colleagues. But most of us don’t have that option. Don’t make it a requirement to be part of those social groups to succeed. No after hour social event with work branding!
I really feel for this. When I was a postdoc at Caltech one of the parts that I missed were the social outings that a lot of the other postdocs had. And it was mostly just beer and fun. But I had a family to go home to and wasn’t free in that sense. But that is fine and great and you want to actively encourage socialization outside of the workplace, as long as it doesn’t have an institutional label and it is clear that being part of these social groups is not necessary to be successful at work! Exception: a Christmas party or similar.

Don’t be the boss that is the last to leave! Try to say goodbye to people who work with you.
It sends a signal that it is ok to leave at 5, it makes people feel less guilty about leaving work (early). As a leader don’t feel like you need to hide that you need to leave work for personal reasons. If you don’t have guilt leaving for personal reasons it will make the others feel less guilt, too.

A few things about parking, carer’s leave and flexible culture which I won’t go into deeper, but which lead into an immensely important point.

Talk to people about impostor syndrome, let them know you have it, too.
Oh boy, this is a big one. I think the majority of us suffer from it. Even though *I know* that I am an efficient programmer, I still sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that my current position was gained through a combination of hard work and luck, but not out of inherent skill. Somebody surely will find out soon that I don’t really belong here.
Please, please read JohnJohn’s thoughts on this matter.

Being a family-friendly institution is a choice of culture, but I am definitely happy that I am working at an institution that embraces that choice!