Susan Niebur & Niebur Consulting
The Opposite of Mentoring

1. Introduction Trained as an astrophysicist, Susan Niebur had expected to follow in her father's footsteps and become a professor, perhaps a dean at a university.  But her experiences during graduate school were not anything like her father's.  Where his graduate experience was focused on the work at hand, she faced obstacle after obstacle completely unrelated to her ability to do the work.  Instead of having regular meetings with an advisor, she had to request each individually, justifying the need to the group secretary, and meetings were frequently cancelled with no explanation.  Instead of having a mentor to help her learn to use the specialized mass spectrometers, she was put off by postdoc after postdoc, who had better things to do.  Instead of being provided time to use the equipment, she was scheduled only for the middle of the night, when there was no technical support available in case of leaks.  Instead of being asked what her career plans were after graduation, she was repeatedly asked, "When are you going to get married/have children and quit?"  

Trying to ignore this bias, Susan compensated by working even harder.  She arrived early in the morning to learn from technicians and stayed late with the postdocs, but the constant struggle just to be taken seriously led her to a life outside academia, and a life spent trying to connect or mentor other women who might be suffering unconscious bias impeding their personal or professional development.  It was not an easy choice of career; there was no guidebook on how to turn physics training into the career of a well-paid mentor, but an early job at NASA Headquarters was the opportunity she needed to learn both the ins and outs of a successful career in space science and the difference that a good mentor can make in professional life.  While she took the job hoping that finally she had found a place where her gender would not limit her, she found instead opportunities to succeed on her own terms.

2. Background  As a child, Susan loved coming up with new ideas and figuring out how to put them into action.  She designed and built wood projects in her father's shop, and she used graph paper, thread, and scraps of fabric at the kitchen table to create other little things she loved for her wooden dollhouse.  There was always something new to make, and her mother and grandmother sat with her for hours as she figured out how to design a four-inch sleeping bag, a new bedroom for the attic, and tiny flowers to scale.  The only rule was that any creations would start with a plan.  Once the flowers, the blankets, or the wood project was designed on graph paper, only then could the design be taken out to the shop, or the scrap basket brought out, and Susan encouraged to take whatever she needed and make beautiful and useful things. 

There was a certain thrill in making something out of nothing, and Susan was hooked.  Throughout her youth, Susan applied this time and time again, looking at the way things were and figuring out just how she could make things a little better.  She learned to make a project plan at Leadership Camp at the University of Southern Mississippi one summer, and this process of laying out sequential tasks appealed to her so much that she would make project plans on her own, on graph paper, well into college.  She loved the simplicity, the planning, the way that pieces would fall into place once she identified the problem and worked toward the solution, planning when, where, and who would complete each task.  It appealed to her mathematical mind even more than the algebra she loved, and it would take her even farther than the differential equations that she tackled and mastered with ease.

Her own plan proceeded just as she laid it out that summer at Leadership Camp.  High school, college, honor societies, graduate school, marriage, Ph.D.  She met the boy a little early, and they became college sweethearts instead of graduate school colleagues, but the boy was worth it, and together they dreamed big dreams of working for NASA.  Each adjusted their career plans, brushing off dusty goals from childhood, and they set off for graduate school with big dreams, firm plans, and a certainty that they would succeed.

It came as a bit of a shock when Susan's graduate career did not go according to plan.  When she realized that she would not be supported and mentored as her male colleagues were, she was shaken.  She reached out to her community, as she had in the past, eventually serving as president of Graduate Student Senate, the Graduate-Professional Council, and the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.  While serving others, she realized that she could write a new plan, and that she could use these leadership skills and the science that she loved to forge a career in science policy.  After graduation, she went to work at NASA Headquarters, where she could help others understand government requirements and opportunities, and encourage those who still had the dream of exploring the stars themselves.

3. Professional issue Nearly five years after she arrived at NASA Headquarters, Susan was leading a program of $350M spaceflight missions to study comets, asteroids, and the inner planets.  She met frequently with scientists, engineers, and managers working on missions as varied as blasting a hole in a comet, capturing micron-sized pieces of the solar wind, surveying hot Mercury, and bringing stardust back to Earth.   It was her dream job, and her husband had recently arrived at NASA as well, working to bring about the next mission to Jupiter.  She loved her work, and she loved collaborating with her husband and other colleagues.  Her favorite role was that of Discovery Program Scientist, and as she wrote the text soliciting new mission proposals, she was able to simplify the requirements, helping scientists and engineers focus as they created their own plans for the next missions to space. 

All was perfect, until her division director, a true mentor, was promoted and replaced.  The new boss seemed less interested in laying groundwork for the future than in holding press conferences and promoting his own image.  He prioritized "face time" in the office over quality of work produced, and it was widely known that he played favorites.  Susan saw what was happening, but her demanding job kept her busy running several independent competitions, interacting with scientists nationwide, and establishing a fellowship to encourage early career scientists.  Confrontation became unavoidable, however, when their ethics clashed.  Her input was no longer sought nor incorporated into the decision process.  As a civil servant, her job was secure, but inexplicable changes were made to her assignments and telecommuting agreement.  She had had enough. 

4. Personal issue Susan was stressed at the office, with unnecessary animosity overruling the joy that she found in her professional work.  But she was also stressed at home, as she and her husband were raising their first child with the help of visiting grandparents and flexible hours, and they hoped to have a second child soon.  The pressure of new motherhood, of the extra laundry and cleaning demands, and of constantly hosting visiting grandparents was stressful, and both Susan and her husband realized that their time with their first child was limited more than they had anticipated.  Since she would no longer be allowed to work from home, the two hours spent commuting each day would further limit their time with their son to early morning, dinnertime, bath and bedtime.  Susan had always planned to work full-time while raising children, but two factors made this decision harder and harder to keep: 1) the office had become unpleasant, and her work was neither used nor valued, and 2) she had fallen in love with her baby. 

5. Wrap Up  Susan and her husband struggled with the situation.  Both of them had worked extremely hard in school, from early childhood to their Ph.D.s, in order to one day work for the nation's space program.  They had landed their dream jobs, and their work was both fulfilling and financially rewarding.   But the change in management had made a stimulating, exciting place to work a place that they had both begun to dread, and the cost of being away from their child was no longer outweighed by the excitement of fulfilling work. 

What could they do?  How could Susan both spend her days with their young toddler and keep her ties to the community of planetary science, contributing to the field and their financial bottom line?