Skip to content

Karly Pitman: Being a soft money researcher … I have flexibility

November 10, 2010

Karly PitmanDr. Karly M. Pitman is a planetary scientist and astrophysicist at the Planetary Science Institute.*  She specializes in numerical radiative transfer modeling and laboratory analog studies of mid-UV through far-IR light scattering and extinction by micron-sized particles, dust, and aerosols.  This allows her to work on a wide range of projects; in the past 5 years, she has worked on planetary surfaces and atmospheres (e.g., Mars & Titan), icy satellites (Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Mimas, Enceladus, Europa), asteroids (for Dawn), meteorites, and even interstellar space.  Currently, she manages investigation teams (including one all-female team!) as PI under NASA and NSF, and contracts with JPL’s planetary ices group.

[*PSI headquarters is in Tucson; I am located in CA]

Here are titles for a couple of papers in 2010.

Pitman, Karly M.; Buratti, Bonnie J.; Mosher, Joel A., 2010, Disk-integrated bolometric Bond albedos and rotational light curves of saturnian satellites from Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, Icarus, Volume 206, Issue 2 (Cassini at Saturn special issue), p. 537-560.

Pitman, K. M.; Dijkstra, C.; Hofmeister, A. M.; Speck, A. K., 2010, Infrared laboratory absorbance spectra of olivine: using classical dispersion analysis to extract peak parameters, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 406, Issue 1, pp. 460-481.
1. When did you first become interested in space science?

I pretty much came out of the womb knowing that I was interested in space science, with “interest” being an understatement: it’s either this or insanity.  My parents say that I announced my intent to become a scientist to them in kindergarten, but I had been seriously considering it for a couple of years beforehand, and by age 8, my obsession with stars and rocks was painfully obvious to anyone who met me.  I recall torturing my poor mother with trips to the library to do my “research” and checking out one particular book on Solar System astronomy so many times that the librarians thought I had destroyed it.  Instead of hanging posters of bands or hot guys on my walls, I slept under photos of the saturnian system and lunar maps.  I combed asteroid lists, looking for names for my first-born.  When Voyager 2 reached Neptune, I was freaking out over the reports of pink snow on Triton and wanted nothing less than ground truth.

Actually connecting to the planetary science community took effort.  In college (Vassar), I double majored in astronomy and geology as planned and had about 4 great advisers at any given time but didn’t have a major professor who specialized in planetary science.  During my junior year, I asked my geology professor for a copy of the AGU directory and sent out cold call e-mails to everyone with a planetary science affiliation for advice on grad schools.  Several people were kind enough to respond; Mike Gaffey (then at RPI), Carle Pieters and Jim Head at Brown, and Adrian Brearley and Rhian Jones at the Institute of Meteoritics wrote back several times with good feedback, provided background on asteroids and meteorites, and generously loaned the samples for my senior thesis work.   

Most of my letters of recommendation for grad school were from astronomers, and that, coupled with advice received from the planetary e-mail campaign, landed me in an interstellar dust group within a computational physics department at Louisiana State University.  My adviser, Geoff Clayton, was open to working with me on a dissertation about light scattering in planetary regolith.  He introduced me to his collaborator, Mike Wolff, who was doing atmospheric radiative transfer work for Mars missions (MARCI, CRISM, MER, etc.).  Mike hired me on planetary grants through the Space Science Institute, set me up with tools of the trade, and helped me to network with other planetary scientists when I began presenting at conferences.  Josh Bandfield and the folks at ASU were the first to really give me exposure to working with Mars mission data, lab, and field spectrometers.  Allan Treiman at LPI provided access to planetary science facilities and meteorite projects closer to home.     

2. How did you choose your first postdoc?

I did two postdocs that overlapped, both negotiated in the same year before I defended.  My first postdoc was at the Dept. of Earth & Planetary Sciences at Wash. U. in St. Louis, doing laboratory astrophysics.  I was hired to work between a mineral physicist (Anne Hofmeister) and an astrophysicist (Angela Speck), acquiring infrared laboratory spectra of interstellar dust analogs and correlating them to observational and radiative transfer model spectra of faraway objects like carbon stars, AGB stars, and planetary nebulae.  In my second postdoc (NASA Postdoctoral Program), I was working with Bonnie Buratti’s research group at JPL on radiative transfer modeling, bringing down incoming spacecraft data, and hyperspectral and photometric analyses of Saturn’s moons from Cassini VIMS.  Cassini was the first mission dataset that I got to work with intimately; there were data deliveries every 16 days during the time I was a postdoc, and it was exciting to be on the front lines and see how Cassini science was improving what we know of the saturnian system.  Especially given that the rules of engagement are different for women than men in science, I was fortunate to have strong female PIs as my postdoc advisers to show me different strategies for moving forward in my career.

3. What led you to join the Planetary Science Institute?

The major reason I joined PSI was so that I could submit proposals in my own name as a full PI with support services to help administer grants received.  Pieces of funding are critical for establishing independence as a researcher and finding permanent employment.  Affiliations through soft money institutes are one way to start proposing more independently and learning about the business side of science. 

Another reason that I joined PSI is that I have a high regard for soft money companies.  In grad school, I worked for a soft money company (SSI) and really enjoyed the working atmosphere.  At soft money companies, every scientist’s success with proposals counts strongly toward infrastructure, so there’s an institutional understanding that science research is vitally important.  The admin staff at both of the soft money places I have worked are good at what they do, and soft money companies are generally small enough that the directors and board of trustees are accessible, the bureaucracy is kept to a minimum, and you get to know your fellow scientists pretty well.  Everyone I’ve met who has been soft money at one point in their career has been very supportive of colleagues and helping younger generations of scientists in their careers.

4. How does being a soft money/remote researcher affect your research life?

As a remote researcher, I visit company headquarters about 1-2 times a year and work out of my house right now to drive down costs to my grants. The most obvious pro is that I have flexibility to schedule my workdays around my science/home life rather than when I can find the best parking space.  Most of the pros to being a soft money and/or remote researcher have already been discussed on this blog, so I’ll try to cover the cons here.  The major con is that library resources can be more limited.  I fill all of the behind-the-scenes roles myself now (IT security, shipping and receiving, maintenance, etc.).  I also consciously think about having enough redundancy in the workplace (safeguarding data and insuring equipment if there’s a house fire, burglary, or massive systems failure).  Isolation from colleagues and not having a “fortress of solitude” can be issues, but remote researchers combat these by doing audio/video telecons, traveling to visit colleagues, attending conferences, or working in coffee shops.  Being entirely soft money means that I’m flying without a net in terms of funding, so proposal brainstorming and preparation consumes a lot of my time.

5. What experience or advice can you share on subcontracting and consulting?

I worked under subcontract and did consulting for about a year and a half when transitioning from postdoc to PI.  Subcontracting and consulting are useful strategies for moving into a different area of research or collaboration, doing pilot studies/developing a new technique, or even doing support work for a mission.  They are also useful strategies for getting around hiring freezes, finding little pieces of FTE or handling funding that comes in at the end of a short-term job, working for groups at different companies, working part-time, or continuing research after retirement age.

Here’s what I learned in the trenches and from various mentors:

First you have to decide whether to contract/consult independently or through an institution.  Having done both, it doesn’t make a difference sciencewise.  There’s a clear advantage to going through a middle-man when it comes to getting paychecks on a predictable schedule, making taxes less of a headache, and becoming eligible for standard benefits packages.  As a free agent, you have more control over your pay rates (thus, greater earning potential).

When you subcontract, all terms (duties, expectations, deadlines) are very formally drafted.  It’s harder for someone to back out on you financially.  Modifications and no-cost extensions to the initial subcontract can extend the lifespan of the collaboration.  Computer accounts and even office space can be assigned to you at the PI’s institution.  But the formal drafting procedure can take weeks or months to start up, and you have to read the fine print.  For example, non-compete or non-disclosure agreements may block you from working for another local company.  In consulting, you and the PI can adjust terms on the fly in response to the science being done.  Consulting agreements can be initiated on a much faster timescale than subcontracts.  There are fewer progress reports to submit but tons of invoices.

The uncertainty of subcontracting and consulting jobs means that you need to be mindful of finances.  Before you set up a gig, have 4 pay rates in mind: the bare minimum salary that you can accept, what you made in your last job, what you’re expected to bring in today, and the salary that people in the next seniority bracket up from you are making.  Don’t announce your minimum rate; walk away from any deal that offers you less.  What you made in your last job is probably the amount that people will offer you; avoid flat funding yourself if possible.  Remember that $1/hour less is $2K less per year.  The salary you want to be making should be used in all of your grant proposals (scaled for inflation in future years).  As an independent contractor or consultant, remember to factor in the costs of insurance, retirement accounts (IRA or SEP), and both sides of employer/employee taxes. 

Subcontracting and consulting improves your negotiation skills.  A key phrase that opens doors to negotiating work is “bridging funds.” This makes it clear that you’re not asking to be a permanent mouth to feed; you’re just looking to pick up some work to tide you over until another grant starts. First steer the conversation to discussing the project itself (find common ground, ask questions and show your enthusiasm for the science being done).  Once you have established that you are on the team, and then broach the topic of money.  The person who offers a figure first is the person who will not make out as well in the negotiation.  Do not perform any work unless you have a real commitment (e.g., you have received funds, or you are a named participant on a proposal with that group).

6. Aside from science, what is important to you?

Strength in general, having a sense of purpose + creative freedom + independence to do my own thing, being able to lead something and be my own boss, balancing discipline and ego with a sense of humor and humility, and not taking my health, good fortune, or loved ones for granted are important.  For current hobbies and interests, designing and sewing my own clothing, dessert production/consumption, dreaming about hand-to-hand combat & someday owning a MP5, volunteering for early career and women in science initiatives, and reading comparative literature are all fairly delightful.

Now that’s a diverse set of interests — thank you, Karly!

Dr. Pitman is being featured here as one of 51 Women in Planetary Science, a series of interviews with successful women scientists on career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success. Questions or suggestions for future interviews can be sent to us directly or to our email list, which all women in planetary science can join!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jani permalink
    November 17, 2010 1:00 am

    Awesome advice on negotiating, Karly, thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: