Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I think it’s so funny. People who receive the updates consistently ask me questions about these job interviews showing me they haven’t read it which is ok except it takes a long time to explain it all. I won’t re-explain the previous stuff, and it’s probably ok if you don’t understand the organizations or the processes. I will start from where I left off.

So this week, we all arrived in D.C. for “Placement Week” to hopefully find a placement and funding. There are four program areas:
Health, Education, and Human Services (HEHS)
Energy, Environment, Agriculture, and Natural Resources (EEANR)
National Defense and Global Security (NDGS)

And remember that NDGS (defense, my area) is the only area with less placements than actual finalists since the FBI is not offering this year (remember CIA and NSA don’t offer defense science advisorships).

Well, the number of NDGS finalists increased from 13 to 15 because 2 current fellows are re-entering Placement Week to find a new post for their renewal year. There are still 6 dual finalists they may choose their other area. I don’t know.
Two NDGS finalists asked the associate director and director if they would allow Defense fellows who did not find a match to take a post with the State Department (the State Department has more than enough positions/placements for the Diplomacy finalists). They both said no because we would be bypassing the diplomacy selection process and were not selected by the Diplomacy selection committee to be a finalist.

The process this week is like this: we have already been pre-selected by some potential employers to interview. Then, usually, you can spend the week calling the remainder of the list of potential offices/employers in your area. In my area, NDGS, you can actual interview with all 10 because it’s so small. But with other areas like Diplomacy or EEANR you can have 40+ people and even more possible placements. So offices pre-select to ensure they are able to definitely interview the people with whom they feel there is a match. But in my area, you have enough time to schedule 10 interviews within a week. Still 2 offices never responded to my e-mails or calls. And another 2 offices said they were too busy with other interviews to interview me. So I saw a total of 6 offices.

By Thursday next week, all the finalists must rank their top 2 choices (you may rank more or all). The placement offices in different government agencies must also rank all the candidates they interviewed. Then AAAS matches them, either 1-1, 1-2, or 2-2 typically. They usually do not have to go further down the ranking order than that. But this year is full of surprises, so we’ll see.

To make a long story short, no position really jumped out at me. That’s a bit scary. They want you to choose the best one based on interviews and talking to former fellows, but the truth is you won’t know what the placement/position is like until you are actually there. Moreover, many potential employers didn’t even know what the fellow would do in his/her office once the fellow arrived in September. Some potential employers weren’t sure they would offer the position. Some offices were still waiting on political appointments that would change the nature of the job or the priorities on the job. So it was a mess.

Not only is it hard to tell if you will like a position, but the positions truly represented a full range, none of which I thought these “science advisor” positions would be. In other words, I had a false image of what we would do based upon our homework assignment and presentation as semi-finalists in the Round 3 interview in March in D.C. The Defense fellows were asked to writing a briefing memo about a policy from the previous administration associated with defense that they recommend for change listing the technical aspects, policy aspects, pros, cons, and bottom line in their policy suggestion. The EEANR semi-finalists had to write a briefing memo to the president outlining the top 3 EEANR issues facing the country today. Diplomacy and HEHS semi-finalists had similar “high-level” policy-recommending briefing memos to write.

Well, most of these positions are not recommending policy. At most it is communicating or coordinating or analyzing policy. In a sense all jobs are implementing policy. So this week has been learning about a broader definition of policy. AAAS holds just such a broad definition. So if you are doing program management (most of these jobs are such) it is, in some ways policy, because policy dictates which programs are important, which are kept, how a program is managed, etc. And they also told me having a budget is policy work because you appropriate the budget to various needs. Money is policy, they’ve told me while laughing. It’s true in some sense. So the jobs were in the range between program management to somewhat policy to very scientific. I’ll go through the Defense offerings.

I will say I was actually excited (still not completely sure) by the last interview.**

Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Policy Development This was the most policy-orientated position. The Office of Policy Development is a sub-office of the Office of Policy which is under the DHS. What the job would entail is not quite clear as its mission may be a bit different in September. But it was the most enjoyable interview, and we talked easily for an hour (he is also a natural introvert who can function as an extrovert like me). But again this is not policy advising or policy recommending. This is intra-agency (DHS) policy coordination (that’s what is meant by development) and inter-agency policy coordination. For instance if there is a disease outbreak in Mexico and Canada, Health and Human Services might have protocols about what to be done but they don’t have people who run the borders. Customs and Immigration are offices of Homeland Security so DHS would have to help in the coordination of such a task. In fact DHS is a hodge-podge of many different groups and elements.

Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, Chem Bio Division (didn’t see these people)

**Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, Chem Bio Division
This was my last interview, and it was possibly one of the top 2 most exciting ones. He said he could tailor the job in any direction I wanted. He could make it more technical where I work on a segment of a chemical-biological detection product, or I could manage a program (like running solicitations for research proposals, reviewing them, choosing the best and making sure the winner does the research we need throughout the year), or I could do a tiny-bit of policy but more like analysis. He loves his job and after retiring around 45, he decided to come to government and do civil service. A very interesting guy, and he can talk forever, but working for him might be quite exciting. He also didn’t scare me with saying 80 hours of work. We’ll see. One of the former fellows in his office is the one who is offering the scary job in the Pentagon that could have weeks of 80 hours.

Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Acquisitions, Technology & Logistics,
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense and Chemical Demilitarization Programs (didn’t see these people)
Department of Defense Office of the Secretary of Defense, Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, Cooperative Threat Reduction Policy (didn’t see these people)
Department of Defense, Pentagon Force Protection Agency, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE) Directorate
This one seemed very technical. The fellow would work on air flow modeling to see how biological and chemical bugs that enter the air flow outside the building or inside the building travel throughout and how we can stop that flow and force that air out of the building. Another third of the job is testing and validation of these detection devices and the entire Pentagon Shield (autonomous system used to detect and eradicate chemical biological bugs entering the building). And then final third is program management working with performers (researchers whose proposals we have accepted to do research to develop products for us). It did seem somewhat cool. But due to the testing, the job requires weekend work. And she said that some weeks would be as high as 80 hours a week with an average of 50 hours a week. Honestly, this is where she lost me. To work such long hours you have to be passionate about the job, and at this point, I am not passionate as this week has been a reversal of my framework for these fellowships as I understand these are not technically policy advisor positions. So that scared me, really. I want to have a balanced life, and such work doesn’t define me. So I don’t know. But the D.C. culture is like that. The work seemed cool, but that’s a large negative.
Department of Defense, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Office of the Chief Scientist
I would work with the Chief Scientist and the Deputy Chief Scientist. They like me because of my Air Force research, and this position would mostly be about figuring out if the Air Force is investing the right amount of money in the correct areas for basic research that would eventually benefit the Air Force (for instance, they are not interested in funding basic research to find a cure for cancer). So it doesn’t have to be applied research but it must be in going past answering known unknowns and finding what the unknown unknowns are that might benefit Air Force Scientific goals in the future. The second part of the job is if the money is properly appropriated and budgeted in to the right areas in the right amounts, justifying this to the government. So it’s a lot of literature surveys and reading. They expect you to be very independent. And there is some travel.
Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research, Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department
This is the Human Social Cultural Behavioral (HSCB) Modeling Program which is 1 year old. Here you would help with the program in terms of sending out solicitations (calls for proposals) and getting scientists to propose needed research projects and fund them and manage the funding and manage the project. They are looking for products that help in determining the human factor for the military: what is offensive in this new culture, what are the values, what will aggravate them against our country, what will not, etc. It’s a new area and so there is much to do. The Director of the program, Ivy, is a young person who is in her first year after her 2nd year of the fellowship program. She expects a lot, expects you to work very hard, and does prefer having someone who is a social scientist which makes me feel that she would not rate me highly. But the fact is they don’t have enough social scientists who are excited about it, and they don’t have enough social scientists period/full-stop. But since they try to do 1st and 2nd choice matches, I think it would be bad to choose her since she wouldn’t choose me. She scares me and makes me feel like I would have to work too much. And for me, work doesn’t define my life. She said because she is junior, then when cool opportunities come up (like travel or testifying to the Senate or House) she would probably take those because she is still trying to make a name for herself.***
Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research, Code 341, Warfighter Performance (Deals with cognitive science—didn’t see these people)

Department of Defense, Director, Defense Research and Engineering (DDRE) , Office of Deputy Under Secretary of Laboratories and Basic Sciences, Office of Basic Research & Office of Laboratories

The Director of Basic Research and the Director of Laboratories are both new. The former has been in the position for 9 months or so; the latter, 1 month. So they are not exactly sure what I would do. Not to mention, the Deputy Under Secretary for Laboratories and Basic Sciences hasn’t been appointed; neither has the DDRE head been appointed by the new administration. So those appointments would direct the priorities of the AAAS fellow working in the office. His most important question that he wants the fellow to help answer is should the DoD be investing in basic research at all or should they leave that to NSF. If so, what constitutes basic research and how do you determine if DoD research dollars are being used for “basic research” versus applied research since grant receivers and program managers disagree. It’s not really well defined, and they’ve never had a AAAS person before, but they would like one. The most enjoyable conversation in the office was with the executive assistant. She was quite wonderful and gave me advice on living places in the D.C. area.

Department of Defense, Office of Naval Research, Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) (didn’t see these people)

*** And that’s the awkward thing. I’m not really into making a name for myself. I think that motivation is misguided. I think it’s more about service, civil service, service for the people. I don’t like the culture she is a part. In fact, the entire D.C. government machine has a certain culture, and I’m not sure it’s my culture. There are some countercultural people here, but they are few. It’s a bit funny. I don’t mind wearing suits; I like to dress up. But I like doing it because I want to. To be required to wear both a jacket and a tie is different and new for me. But beyond that superficial thing, you actually have a lot of people in, for example, the State Department who are not passionate at all about their work. It’s simply a job. So they are removed from the politics of it and also removed from the issues. So if you are in the State Dept (remember I am not a diplomacy fellow so I was not eligible for any of these posts) and you were interested in working on international water issues, you may work with people who are just there working on it to make a big name, not necessarily because they care about getting access to clean water for everyone in the country and the world.

The hardest part about the entire process is that I was a bit misinformed, in some sense. Or let’s say I misunderstood. Because I imagined the actual positions to be actual science policy advisor positions doing the type of work we had to do for the Round 3 interview assignment (policy recommendation briefing memo if you read those updates), I mistakenly thought we would do the same thing. Since it’s not the same thing, one of the two reasons for doing this job is now gone. I wanted to do the job because, unlike other friends who work in government especially State Dept and Foreign Service, instead of having to represent the government and communicate, implement, or promote US policy even when you personally disagree, you are a separate entity. As a science policy advisor you are asked your own personal and scientific opinion about what path (policy) is best to take in a given situation. You are acting at the point before policy is made, helping to actual carve, shape, write it. That’s redemptive work, that’s integral and integrity-filled work (or can be). But we actually won’t be in that position, funny enough. We might be in that position for intra-office policy (like maybe we should write more specific words in our research solicitations or “calls for proposals” – ha ha). So we’ll see.

But it’s still a blessing. A AAAS fellowship is a huge honor, and it’s a good opportunity to get in there and see what happens. I think they should better advertise the positions and be more true to what you would actually do. The website doesn’t properly frame the opportunities to be understood for what they actually are.

You also make connections and can “climb the government” ladder as people who want to make a name do. The most interesting thing is that all these career civil servants are supervised by temporary political appointments which, many times, come from outside. So to be at the highest level of some of these offices—a secretary, a deputy secretary, and under secretary, or an assistant secretary – you are usually appointed as opposed to rising up from the bottom.

It’s been an interesting week!

1 comment:

Jen said...

it amazes me how articulate you are in your posts. i am thankful for that because i really can get a sense of what is going on. it seems as if you process well. it also seems as if the government system with their department this and department that will always be confusing. i'm not sure the government has the capability of being simple. although, i think we all wish it would. but people aren't simple and policy isnt simple, therefore how in the world can they be simple? i think i just answered myself. when will this all play out?