siaa_logo_blue Debra S. Shepherd

National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)

Socorro, NM , USA
Job Title: Tenured astronomer at the NRAO


She is an Astronomer: How long is it since you got your maximum academic degree?

Debra S Shepherd: Around 13 years.

I now do 50% research and 50% management and observatory support (North American Deputy of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) Computing division). 


SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?  

DSS: No, it was not more difficult in comparison with male astronomers. The amount of time it took me to get tenure and the tenure process was exactly the same for men and women.  Since I am now on the tenure review committee, I can rest assured that this process remains equal for all.  

In my opinion, my early career experience (in the early 1980's getting degrees and jobs in industry for 10 years) was significantly more difficult than what most men had to go through because I was usually the only woman in my undergraduate classes and I was often the only woman engineer or manager in the companies I worked for. That said, companies were looking for women in the 1980's and 1990's so it was easy to get a job and my promotions were on par with the men. Its just that the work environment was a bit more difficult for me since I didn't have a support network and some (relatively small) fraction of the men did not think I belonged.  

When I went back to graduate school to get a degree in astronomy, I found that the field had become significantly more diverse and accommodating to women compared to what I had experienced.   Competing for jobs after graduate school seemed to be on the same level as males - however, my early experience in industry made it so I was more competitive in some respects than women who came straight through graduate school.  So my experience may not be representative for women in general.  


SIAA: Are women under-represented in your institution?

DSS: Yes, I am the only tenured woman astronomer at NRAO (there is one more who is tenure-track) and there are three women in mid- to upper-level management. Thus, less than a few percent of the upper-level staff at NRAO are women. This situation is being remedied though. There are more women staff astronomers and even more when you get to the post-doc level. Despite the relatively few women at upper levels, NRAO was selected by Diversity/Careers magazine as one of the top 100 companies that have the best diversity practices. 


SIAA: What is your family status? 

DSS: I have a husband and a dog, no children.  My parents live in other states and I have other siblings who are more active in helping them on a day-to-day basis. 


SIAA: Have you had career breaks? 

DSS: Yes. My husband and I got equal positions in industry following us graduating with BS degrees in physics. However, the second position we took involved him getting the position first and me following him. The job I found (manager in a software firm that did chemical defense) was not one that I was pleased with but it was the only job I could find. I also ended up taking off work completely for 6 months for health reasons. Once my health improved, I found the next job as a contractor for NASA. My husband then followed me and also found a NASA contractor job. My husband has been following me in my career for the past 18 years as I went to graduate school in Wisconsin, post-doc at Caltech, and staff astronomer at NRAO. In summary, while I've had 2 career breaks (following my husband once and taking off 6 months), my husband has had 4 career breaks. So he has graciously been willing to compromise his career more for me. Something I appreciate immensely.  


SIAA: How difficult did you find the return to your work?  

DSS: I returned to my career path while I was still in industry.  So it was just a matter of getting a new position. I found it relatively easy to find a job that was more aligned with astronomy (I had decided by this time that I wanted to get back into astronomy so I started as a contractor for NASA before going back to school to get a PhD).


SIAA: How many hours per day to you normally dedicate to work?  

DSS: At the present time I dedicate only 8-9 hours per day to work (unless I'm traveling or I have a pressing deadline and then it can be significantly more). In past years as a post-doc and my early times as a staff astronomer at NRAO, I expect I worked on average 10 hours/day plus at least 6-12 hours on the weekend. Within the past few years, I have found that I needed to back off on the hours worked for health reasons and I'm much happier for it. 


SIAA: What would most help you advance your career?  

DSS: Learning to trust my own capabilities and strengths more and be more willing to take risks when it comes to the unknown. For many men and some women, this appears to be easy. For me, I must constantly tell myself to take risks and accept opportunities that I don't know I can achieve easily. 


SIAA: What recommendations would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?  

DSS: My recommendations are for both men and women: Go with your heart.  If you love astronomy and you love discovery then become an astronomer and don't let anyone divert you from that path.