PI Interview: Dr. Sierra Petersen

Dr. Sierra Petersen is a tenure-track assistant professor and geochemist/paleoclimatologist in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, and she has served as AWIS UM’s faculty advisor for several years. This semester, I sat down with her for an hour and a half to talk about her career trajectory and personal life as a successful female PI at an R1 university. Here, I’ll share some highlights from our conversation.

si2Sierra got her undergraduate degree from Caltech, which she described as “notoriously difficult” and had her working in a competitive, intense atmosphere. After that experience, she made a conscious effort to keep graduate school (at Harvard) more sane, keeping the perspective that it is, after all, just a job. Although she had never been dead set on pursuing a career in academia, she found that taking stock of her situation at major junctures was a helpful approach to deciding what to do next. As an undergraduate, she thought of going to graduate school as a possibility; it wasn’t until she began doing research with professors and getting a better sense of what grad school and academia entailed that it became a solidified plan. Then, around her fourth year, thoughts of post-docs began. “‘Do I apply to a post-doc or not?’ ‘…okay, yeah.’ At each point I still enjoyed what I was doing, and was successful at it, so I could keep moving upwards and forwards. But there was never a time where I knew for sure that it was my set path.”

Like many grad students facing a post-doc, there was the question of, ‘How much should I change tracks?’ She wanted to continue researching paleoclimate and decided to work in a new geologic time period and with different fossils but used some similar methods and techniques. “If you have something interesting that you like working on, you shouldn’t abandon that and move over to something completely different. But you should change one thing – technique, topic, something. Otherwise, it won’t show your breadth or give you an opportunity to learn new things. …When people think about what to do for a post doc, it’s always suggested that you do something totally different. But that’s pretty daunting, and it’s also kind of unlikely that you have an interest that’s completely different.”

And, she mentioned, it’s important to apply to positions outside of academia if you’re unsure that you want to continue; take other interviews, weigh your options, and see what the best fit is for you.

After Harvard, Sierra joined the Earth department as a post-doc, then applied to stay on as a tenure-track faculty member during a search (in addition to applications at several other institutions).  Here are a few of her tips for faculty interviews and negotiations:

  • “Bring a water bottle for the interviews! You talk all day and it’s exhausting.”
  • “People will ask you for your five-year plan, so you should have two or three topics or science questions in mind that you’re hoping to work on. Not in great detail, but just that you’re hoping to do this next, or branch out into this, or a plan to collaborate on this other thing…”
  • “The question I fumbled the most on early interviews is, ‘What is the big question in your field?” Not necessarily what are you working on, but more broadly in your field, what’s the big thing that the community is trying to learn about or fix right now? Obviously, there’s no one right answer, it’s just an opinion; no one person is going to solve it, it’s just showing your awareness of what’s going on in your field.”
  • “Show some knowledge of how the funding system works… it’s even better if you can show that you’ve been involved in something related to funding, like applying to fellowships or been involved in writing a grant with your advisor.”
  • On negotiations: “Come in very prepared, knowing what you want. What kind of lab or personnel or lab or research support, whatever that equipment is – what will you need to be successful?”
    “[After they’ve made an offer,] there’s a separate conversation where they ask you to prepare a list of your needs, and that’s when you should make your real, detailed list – make it as detailed as possible. Justify different things, tell them why it’s vital for your research. Say what’s a ‘must have,’ and if they’re smaller things, justify them too. In these negotiations, your department chair is often your ally, because they want to hire you, so making these lists gives your ally ammunition to get you what you need.”
  • On the two-body problem: “You can’t be that picky about where to apply… try to constrain yourself as little as possible, even if one person has a job already and is happy, you need to be keeping the doors as open as possible. Both people should apply to other places, you’ll need leverage.”

After the “extreme uncertainty and hustling” to land her Michigan faculty position, Sierra focused on her next task: getting her lab set up and recruiting students. Beyond the logistics of getting instrumentation up and running, she has been settling into her role as advisor. “It’s a lot of pressure!” she said. “It’s like they’re your science children and you’re responsible for teaching them how to be a good scientist. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s exciting – I really like working with students, and it’s good to teach because often, it reminds you of the basics in your field… it’s good to keep you on your toes.” The trick, she says, is that one mentoring style does not fit all; every student is different and responds differently to mentoring styles.

“You have to feel that out and find out what works. You can think about it like someone working with a trainer at a gym – some people respond well to getting yelled at, like, ‘You can do more! You’re so weak, show me how strong you are! Prove me wrong!’ And others need positive encouragement, like, ‘You’re doing so great, keep it up!’ Just like that, people respond differently in academic mentoring.”

Especially, I noted, in grad school, which can be incredibly competitive and stressful, and students are often suffering a lot of self-doubt.

“Yes!” she said. “And it’s often not related at all to their actual performance, it’s just what they respond more effectively to. Figuring out how people like to communicate is important too – do you need to meet in person a lot, or email, or talk on the phone? I text a lot with my students for little quick things, but some people would never text their students. (And I only know one side of it – hopefully they don’t mind it!) It’s about keeping yourself flexible and realizing that every student is different. No student you ever have will be exactly like you, so whatever works for you or how you’d like to be treated, you can’t just repeat your graduate experience to your students. You’re not your advisor, and you’re not your students.”

Having covered much of the professional realm, we switched gears to discuss that ephemeral promise, work-life balance. As a relatively new mom, she has become a queen of efficiency at work and adheres to a strict ‘work at work, home life at home’ rule – just as she established during her time in graduate school. “It’s taken a conscious effort. Definitely, becoming a mom and having my time be so precious and limited has made me a lot more efficient. At work, I don’t mess around; I have a to do list and I move through it. If I’m here and I’m working, I’m really working.”

Even with her busy schedule, Sierra prioritizes self-care to keep herself happy and productive. “The [thing that keeps me sane] is exercise,” she said. “Starting in grad school, I’ve always prioritized exercise. I feel better, work better, and sleep better when I have time for exercise. Even if it takes an hour of working time away, it’s worth it for what I get back out of it. There are times when life gets so crazy and something has to fall to the side, but most of the time you can carve out time for something.”

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Having spent an hour and a half talking with Sierra, I left with two major takeaways. The first: Sierra is a badass. She’s running a new lab, starting a new family, guiding AWIS, and staying at the top of her game.

The second: I need to talk to more professors one-on-one. Often, people in our departments get underutilized just because they’re not our primary academic advisor, or not on our committee. If they have an open-door policy, pop in! Get to know your local academics better. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by how willing many folks are just to chat about their paths in academia – or even what their most recent Netflix binge is (for Sierra: The Great British Baking Show).

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