Identity Crisis – how to get over not being an expert

I noticed something interesting looking at the analytics for this blog.  (Sue me, I’m a data junkie).  It appears that my posts that ramble on about how I got to this position, or my existential struggles along the way get more hits.  I was initially a little surprised by this since I figured you, my lovely audience, were drawn here for useful tips but I see it’s just to witness my inner turmoil and angst.  Well I guess I should give the people what they want, after all I am an artiste, I mean a scientist, I mean a manager, shoot…what am I?

This is a question I ask myself fairly regularly, and one that several people have asked me in one way or another recently (usually under the guise of asking how I made the switch from a technical role into a managerial role and how I feel about it).  Am I still a scientist?  And if not, does that matter and how do I define myself now?

For so long, through my first job out of undergrad, through all my subsequent schooling and jobs, I’ve always considered myself a scientist.  Getting my first publication was a verification of that identity and it felt SO good.   I had worked so hard to get to that point, the point where I was a published scientist, one with a paper where I was the first author (trust me, this is a big deal).  It felt so validating.  It felt like the fulfillment of the dreams I’d had as a little girl playing with test tubes in the kitchen trying to make invisible ink.

There is also something that resonates with people when you tell them you’re a scientist, a respect that you can see reflected back in their face, and the instant recognition of what you do, or at least what they think you do.  There are many ill-conceived notions of what it means to be a scientist but its still way easier to explain that being a program manager or something of that kind.

Looking back, it was probably too big a part of my identity.  Science became all-encompassing nin an eat, sleep, dream about it kind of way that threatened to drown out other interests that I’ve picked up along the way in life.  However, I’m assured from grad school colleagues that this is quite normal..

Given that I never planned on continuing as a lab researcher when I was done with my PhD, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this question has come up. I don’t think I was surprised that the question arose but more surprised about how I felt about the answer. I suppose I always thought I would be allowed to keep the scientist label, or least allowed to think of myself that way, as I progressed in my career.  I’m noticing now that it is not really going to be that way.  Having stepped away from the lab without doing a post-doc (or 3), becoming a professor and publishing even more papers and switching fields to boot, means that I even though I have those 3 letters after my name, I will not be viewed as a scientist by the scientific community.  The question now becomes not so much, how do I feel about stepping away from the technical work but how do I feel about other people’s perception of my scientific identity?  Do I need to be a technical expert to succeed?  I’ve given quite a bit of thought and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Despite the recent shift in thinking that technical expertise is essential for good management (cite HBR article), I now know I can be a good manager without that.  I’m actually a better manager than I ever would have been a lab scientist (see article about why I decided to leave the lab). I also know that individuals with deep technical experience can be great managers. So in thinking of success in terms of my ability to be a good manager, being a scientist doesn’t have any bearing.

The second aspect is my relationships with others in the workplace, especially with external partners.  I have to say that there is some impact here.  This one is harder to tease out though.  Since I switched areas of research some of my inexperience is due to new subject matter. I have come across some resistance to my presence in my position because I’m not a statistician or not an HIV scientist but that has not been the norm and since my last position was in an area I didn’t know well either, I’m used to doing the extra research and asking the right questions to get the information I need.  So I would call this one a draw.

Finally, there’s my own perception of my identity.  Why is it so important to me to say that I’m a scientist?  Is it because it was a dream of mine for so long and I can’t let that go?  Is it because it’s easier to explain to immigration officials in other countries?  Trust me, trying to explain what a program officer does or a senior manager does just results in more time going through the line, especially when you just got off a long flight (“no, I just give away money for other people do the science”, “no it’s a team of statisticians, you know, number crunchers”).  Having done some self-examination for a while, and in my more honest moments, I know this one comes down to ego.  I like the prestige of being a scientist.  I like the response I get from people when I tell them that’s what I do. And it’s time to let that go.  I didn’t get into science to feel good when I told random strangers my profession.  Years of living in Washington DC, where your value is tied to who you work for, have be de-programmed from my brain but I think I’m making progress on that one.

Now, when I’m asked, my response is that I made a conscious decision to step away from the technical lab work.  I did it because it best reflected both where I wanted my career to go and what my strengths are.  Yes, I still miss it sometimes, and I still get to be immersed in science for my job, I still get to interact with brilliant people and talk about the details of antibody binding (insert happy dance).  Also, I’ve done my research, I have contributed to the scientific annuls.  No one can take that away from me.  I will always be proud of that.  However, I also get to have a new kind of pride, the pride of managing a team of driven, dedicated and smart individuals all working to a common goal and that shared pride in a shared goal is even better.

My conclusion is that I may not be technically a scientist anymore and that is OK. So much has changed for me in the past few years and I’ve taken on a number of new identities that have nothing to do with my career (wife and mother, for example) so I think I can let one go.

I’d be really interested to hear what you think.  Do you still consider yourself a scientist?  Do you wrestle with a new identity?  Am I just over-thinking this whole thing? (A distinct possibility)  Will I ever write a post that doesn’t contain too many parentheses?

Razzle Dazzle Them

Wow – it’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I guess my “I’m going to post at least once every two weeks” goal is out the window.  But, in the spirit of self-compassion, I’m going to move on and get to this week’s post.

I’ve been promising this post and I think this is a good time to get to the topic of interviews, not just because it fits where we are in the narrative of my hiring, but also because I’m currently hiring a few positions and so my thoughts on the subject are pretty fresh.

The first interview for my current position was with the senior management team, which consisted of three other people at the time, all men who are well established in their careers.  It was daunting to say the least, however, not as scary as it could have been and if you’ll permit a small (read: large) tangent, I will tell you why.

If you’ll remember WAY back to my first post where I wrote so beautifully and eloquently about how I came upon this job that you were moved to tears, or at least kept reading, you’ll recall that I interviewed for another position in the organization and was directed to this one.  The individual that interviewed me then and thought of me for my current job just happened to be on the senior management team.  I didn’t know that at the time.  What I did know was that he was relatively high up in the organization and that we had some things in common in terms of management styles (e.g. Agile – look it up if you want to geek out on IT management).  I wanted to keep him in my network regardless of how it worked out with the position because I identified in him a kindred spirit in terms of how we thought about organizational strategy, process improvement, etc, and because I found him easy to talk to and a good person with which to brainstorm.  So, I arranged to have coffee with him a few times to pick his brain about a project I was doing in my then and also to ask about this new position.

Now, I know what the more cynical among you might say; “This sounds like you were using this person to get what you wanted”.  And you would be correct.  He was also using me to get what he wanted, a certain type of person in the organization that thinks the way he does and that he thought would be good for the organization.   This mutual and beneficial exchange is how networking often works and I can’t emphasize this enough: DO NOT BE AFRAID TO DO THIS.  DO NOT BE AFRAID TO NETWORK, TO USE CONNECTIONS, TO ASK PEOPLE FOR A FAVOR. It can feel sneaky, it can feel machiavellian, and it also doesn’t have to be bad.  In this particular instance we both got what we wanted and so far it is working out just fine.  I think women in particular have trouble with this.  We feel that the merit of our work alone should mean we advance or get the job, the trouble is that if no one notices that merit, it’s not going to happen.  So, you have to make people notice so get out there and do it.

And that my friends is how you turn a post about interviewing into a post about networking.  Tada!

Back to interviewing:  making that connection with one of the senior management team I was interviewing with and having already had discussions with him about what the organization was looking for, made the interview so much easier.  I knew I already had one person in the room who was in my cheering section, so to speak.

From my perspective, being ready with good interview questions is another important step for high-level interviews (or any interview really).  Now what do I mean by “good” interview questions.  These are questions that show that you’ve done research into the organization and that you are interested in knowing more.  Some of my favorites include:

  1. Where do you see the organization (or team/department/unit) in 5 years? (I like to know what a leader’s vision is because I need to believe in the vision to work for a person).  This was also a good question in my case because others in the room were curious about the answer as well.
  2. What is the biggest challenge facing the organization?
  3. what is the biggest opportunity the organization and what would keep you from grabbing it?
  4. What does success look like in this position?

There are also many good examples of questions online and, as always, asking friends and colleagues is a great way to collect questions.

Fundamentally though, if it comes down to you and another qualified candidate, it’s about impressions. Here are some things to consider when creating an impression:

  1. I personally am a firm believer in being overdressed is better than being under-dressed.  However, doing some research on the company in this regard is a good idea.  You don’t want to necessarily show up in a suit if the company prides itself in it’s “T-shirt and jeans culture” as you might be seen as someone who wouldn’t fit in.
  2. Try and keep your answers to-the-point and succinct.  It’s better for the interviewers to ask follow-on questions than for you to ramble around an answer.  As you can tell, I’m a huge rambler so this is a particular challenge for me.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification to a question as a way to pause while you formulate an answer, or simply say, “let me think about that for a second”.
  4. Again we come back to the motif of being clear on what you offer to the organization, especially in terms of perceived gaps in the organization. I’m going to keep talking about this because I think its critical.

For me, the number 1 thing to remember is that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  Just keeping this one fact in mind goes along way to help the perceived power differential in the room.

Next time in this space – interviewing people you are going to be managing.



To Do:


I live by my To Do lists.  During the craziest times in my Ph.D. I had my To Do list broken down not only by day but also by time of day.  It sounds a little, or a lot, hyper-Type A, but it kept me calm in the swirl that was getting my dissertation research done.  I’ve always relied on actual written lists.  A recent article in the New York Times ( highlighted the advantage of writing over typing in terms of retention in our memories.  To me, there’s something about the tactile pleasure of checking an item off my To Do list (always with a different color) that is motivating.

Recently though, my tried and true strategy has been failing me.  I think that there are two reasons for this.  One is that I haven’t had time in the past few weeks to update my To Do list which means I definitely haven’t had time to get through the list.  Secondly, which is a consequence of the first problem, is that I constantly feel as though I’m just fighting fires instead of having time to sit and think about the larger items that need to get done or review my notes from meetings or piece together various bits of information I’ve gotten throughout the day.  Compounding this issue is that I’m still trying to learn both what the organization does and how to be a manager.  I know, I know, waa, waa, waa, complain, complain, complain.

We’re all super busy.  Every manager has days that are packed with meetings and less and less time for reflection and to gather thoughts. Everyone feels underwater as they adjust to a new job.  None of this is front page news.  I have felt some of this before in the many transitions I’ve made over the years.  I feel that the magnitude of this transition is what is overwhelming for me.  Currently, there are two main pain points for me in the transition, learning and time management.

I’ll tackle the learning component first.  I’ve heard the first six months to a year at an organization described as “drinking from a fire house” and it can definitely feel that way.  My current struggle is trying to find the line between how much I need to learn about the technical details of what my team is doing and how much I need to learn general management skills.  Now, I know the answer to this question.  I need to focus way more on learning general management skills.  I have a team of middle management that are very skilled technically that I can rely on and others in the organization that I can go to with questions.  It is much more important that I learn how to manage and lead. While I know that is true, every single scientific bone in my body is saying “you have to be a technical expert.  That is the only way people will respect you”.  That message was driven into me so many times throughout my career so far that it’s a hard one to silence now. It is a message that I still get.  Even though I have a PhD, the fact that I don’t know all the ins and outs of this particular field still results in some skepticism that I can feel and that sometimes is voiced.  The result is me feeling pushed and pulled in different directions and spinning my wheels instead of focusing my energy into the activities that will most likely result in my success. Aside from talking to mentors, my boss, etc to get feedback on what I should be focusing on (something I do regularly), one item that has helped as been “The First 90 Days”.  I really can’t say enough about this book and since this is a new blog, you can rest assured that I’m not getting paid to promote it.  Even if you have been in your current job forever, you should read this book.  It is a super practical guide to how to set yourself up for success coming into a management position, what to focus on, how to go about learning, etc.  I read the whole thing through and now I’m going back through to implement certain parts……if only I had the time.  It does advocate for learning only what you absolutely need to know to effectively manage your team, and contribute to the organization.  This has been and will continue to be a difficult lesson for me as a battle my inner scientist screaming to be the smartest person in the room.  Swallowing the ego would be so much easier if it wasn’t quite so big.

Which brings me to the second struggle, time management.  I used to watch the managers and leaders I worked for flit from meeting to meeting, the better ones always being on top of what the meeting was for, always having germane and insightful input, and never seeming to have time to do anything else. And, I still wonder about that only now I’m locked in that cycle too. My days are packed with meetings.  I filled my office with things I like to make it a nice work space and I’m rarely there.  There are several solutions to this such as blocking out time on my calendar, answering emails before bed, etc that are fairly easy.  I think what I’m struggling with more is how to time manage my brain.  How to be able to shift gears relatively quickly.  How do I go from meetings, to down time, to meetings again and retain everything, synthesize everything, pull it all back up together into an overall vision for my team?  These are skills and strategies that good leaders learn along the way and I’m at a loss for how to learn them. I’ve been toying with the idea of hiring an executive coach for some time now and I’m thinking more and more that that is the way to go.  I will of course continue reading books and articles (Harvard Business Review is a fav) and attending courses at work but I think I need individual coaching from someone outside my organization, someone who has worked with other professionals before and can provide an objective opinion.  I will of course continue to use my tried and true strategy of To Do lists but I know now that, as with much of what I carried into this job with me, they are not enough.  That is one of the chief lessons of “The First 90 Days”, the skills and qualities that got you to this new management position are not enough to allow you to succeed in it.  It’s more than a bit sobering and I’m hoping it will also be motivational for me soon too.

So no snappy things I’ve learned bullet points to end this post.  Just a plea for help/suggestions.  If you have any tried and true organization/time management/how to restructure your brain tips you use, I would love to hear them.


You want what?!?

We left our heroine (not the drug) on the phone in a state of disbelief at what she was hearing.  Based on an interview for a less senior position, someone thought she would be a good candidate for a senior management spot.  I think my jaw is still on the floor somewhere.  Throughout my job hunting experience this time around, I took the rather undignified stance of complaining about the process.  I wanted the fairy tale job experience where someone sees me from across a crowded networking event and says “You, you are the right person to lead my team!” Then the clock strikes midnight and I have to run for a Lyft, and I leave my beautiful, sequined Louboutin shoe behind as the only clue that I was there.  Hmmm…I might be conflating day dreams.  My feet are far too big to fit into Louboutins. Regardless, I thought that I was at the point in my career where I could reasonably expect to be recruited. I had grown so weary of feeling like I was begging for a job, all the resume tailoring, all the cover letter writing, all the interviewing.  It really takes a hit on your self-esteem.

Little did I realize that like all good fairy tales, the myth of a the perfect job just dropping into your lap is untrue.  You can indeed have a job find you, but it takes work and sometimes it takes some time before the work pays off.  I alluded to that work at the end of my last post.  Being clear about what you want, and don’t want, and about what you can bring to an organization.  I found it also helps to be deliberate about your career and to try and position yourself in the best way possible for future success. I’ll elaborate on how my seemingly erratic career path was actually deliberate in another post.

Back to our story.  That phone call resulted in several rounds of interviews with other senior members of the organization, the individuals who would become my direct reports, and key partners to the organization.  It was a fairly lengthy process and I can discuss interview techniques elsewhere to avoid making this post roughly the size of a Dostoevsky novel.  Then came the moment….the offer, or should I say the negotiation of the offer.  I was beyond nervous about this part of the process.  I had read “Lean In” and all the articles about how women (and everyone) needs to negotiate, I was committed to the process, and I was petrified.  What if my salary demands were too high, what if my other requests were unreasonable, what if they withdrew their interest?  Fortunately, I a great resource on-hand, “Five Minutes to a Higher Salary”.  This slim book has useful tips and actual scripts for all sorts of scenarios for negotiations.  Using tips from this book and the qualifying language expected of women (“Do you think it would be possible?”, etc), I emailed the recruiter my response to their salary offer and some additional requests.  Something to keep in mind is that salary is not the sum total of compensation.  Things like vacation time, flexible schedule, professional development, and others can all be negotiated.

Much to my surprise, much of what I asked for was not a problem.  We came to a good agreement and I had a new job!  I set my starting date to make sure I had a few weeks off in between, something I always do.  Then, the panic set in.  What in the world was I doing?  I was going to manage a team of 50?!?!  A team of 50 statisticians when I have no deep technical knowledge in this area?!?  What was I thinking?  I’ll talk about my still on-going adjustment in the next post.  For now, here’s some thoughts to leave you with:

  1. You can set yourself up to be recruited, even without the sparkly Louboutins, by:
    1. being confident and relaxed in your interactions
    2. going after opportunities that you might not initially see as “good”
    3. speaking about the value you bring to an organization and backing it up with concrete examples
  2. Have a little faith, in yourself and other people.
  3. NEGOTIATE!!!  It’s beyond uncomfortable for most people but it’s so worth it.  Don’t forget to include things like a work laptop/cell phone, flexible schedule, the ability to renegotiate salary/title at six months pending a performance review, other benefits.
  4. Be yourself.  I was my slightly over-the-top, expressive and outgoing self at most of the interviews and I still am for the most part at my job and I think it’s working out for me.

Round and round she goes, where she stops, nobody knows.

Long Post Ahead:  Towards the end of my fellowship at the Gates Foundation, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was going to end up.  I had had a series of unhelpful conversations with people in various organizations and internally.  I had interviewed places and not gotten any offers.  It was really disheartening.  In the round about way that these things often happen, a conversation with a colleague led to a lead.  I ended up transferring to a temporary assignment on another team that I thought would be good to buy more time to find something more permanent.

This new assignment had me coordinating a new model of working for data scientists and content experts such as nutritionists and pediatricians.  It was very interesting and very rewarding work.  The model took off quickly and soon the requests were pouring in for data scientist time using this new way of working.  I probably could have stayed on that team and expanded and refined the process and really built something great.  It would have allowed me to stay at an organization that I believed in and in a group that was supportive.  I wouldn’t have to navigate new relationships and a new work place and all the newness that comes with big career changes.  I could be comfortable and stable and all those good things.  And yet…..I knew deep down that I needed something different and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it at the organization I was in.

My long-term career goal is to hit the C suite.  I’m still waffling on CEO vs COO but I definitely want to be up there.  At this point in my career that means I NEED management experience.  I don’t have any management experience, at least not in the direct report sense, so I gotta start climbing that ladder.  For me, I didn’t see that path where I was so while I was happy, and supported, and all those goods things, I also knew I wasn’t going to move up, at least not with any sort of speed.

While I was still applying for jobs I came across one on a job website.  It was for a project and portfolio manager for the Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Prevention (SCHARP).  I went back and forth on this one.  The job seemed interesting, however, I wasn’t sure that I was fully qualified, never having had any formal project management training.  I eventually applied after the post had been up for awhile.  To make a long story even longer, by the time I got called in for an interview I had switched teams at the foundation and so was not in immediate need of a job and they had already identified a candidate.  The result was the most honest interview I have ever had.  At the end, the interviewer said there was an open position that I might be good for.  Of course, I thought that was just a line.

Much to my surprise, I got an email shortly after asking to introduce me to the director of SCHARP.  And thus began a series of interviews that would culminate with me in my current position, one that I would have never envisioned for myself, yet one that I think is very well-suited for this stage of my career.   I have to admit, when the director said he wanted to talk with me about interviewing for the head of a team of statisticians, I thought he was out of his mind.  From the beginning, I was very honest about the fact that I had did not have any “traditional” management experience and that I was not a statistician myself.  I know that is not what we’re taught about interviews.  We’re supposed to highlight our strengths and turn conversations about our weaknesses into conversations about our strengths and all that good stuff.  At this point, I was just so tired of all the conversations, all the informational interviews, the actual interviews, the get-to-know you interviews that I just wanted to be really candid about what I wanted in my next position and what I could offer.  The feeling of being that open was refreshing and, much to my surprise, it worked!

Since this post is already verging on way too long, I’ll save the details of the interview process and negotiations for further posts.  What I took away from the spinning top that was my job search was:

  1. The more you can define where you want to go and what you do and do not want to do, the better off you are and the more people can help.
  2. Know your value – what can you contribute to an organization.  Make sure you can communicate that and provide concrete examples.
  3. Don’t get too comfortable.  If you have a big dream, make sure you don’t get stuck somewhere because it feels nice and cozy and comfy.

New Year, New Me?


One of my good friends is excellent at setting yearly goals.  She just kills it.  Me, I’m more of a long-term goal person.  I can see where I want to be in 3-5 years and roughly how to get there but breaking it down into yearly goals is definitely not my strong suit.  In that same vein, I’ve never made New Year’s resolutions because I know they would evaporate about a month, if sooner.  This year though, I really want it to be different.  So I crowd-sourced one goal for 2018 and created one of my own.   The crowd-sourced goal is to get back to dancing (check out my Instagram to see if I meet that goal) and my own goal is to get FINALLY get this blog thing going.  I don’t want to completely psychoanalyze my reasons for not keeping up with the blog (just a little bit of fear of exposing myself), nor do I want to go down the path of blaming being a busy mom, etc, etc.  What I do want to do is acknowledge that I do have something to say as a women in data science and as a PhD working outside the “traditional” career path and that there are, hopefully, people who want to hear it.  So, here we go.

I think the best place to start is with an update on where I am now and a little bit of how I got to this new job.  I can then go into looking further back into my career if that is of interest.

Update: I am currently working at SCHARP, the Statistical Center for HIV/AIDS Research and Prevention.  I lead a crack team of statisticians and programmers that support clinical trials for HIV/AIDS prevention and vaccine trials.  It truly is an amazing organization to work with.  I talk about it more later if people want to know how it’s structured, what exactly we do, etc.  But for now the key points are:

  1. I went from never having a direct report in my entire career to managing a team of 50 people (eek!)
  2. I switched fields yet again to clinical trials and HIV and more importantly, statistics. Which means that yet again, I am not an expert in anything I have to do for my job. This explains the header image of this post.
  3. I am even further removed from the ground work that to defined my image of what global health work involves and this is something that I am still struggling with.
  4. This may actually be the most important and impactful work of my career.

I think I’ll leave it there for now.  Next time I’ll start the story of how I got this position because it’s definitely an interesting one.