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CS Area Hosts Inaugural Mid-Career Workshop

April 13, 2021

Last month, about 50 mid-career scientists and engineers, each with some 10 to 15 years of experience, participated in the inaugural Berkeley Lab Computing Sciences Mid-Career Development Training workshop. Created to help these research and technical staff transition to more senior roles at the Lab, the workshop sessions were held virtually over three, three-hour sessions last month.

The sessions included panel discussions with senior Berkeley Lab management like Director Mike Witherell, Deputy Chief Operating Officer Ellen Ford, Associate Laboratory Director (ALD) for Computing Sciences Jonathan Carter, as well as ALDs from other areas, plus mentoring and networking opportunities with Computing Sciences Area division directors, department heads, and group leads.

“In any organization, there is generally no playbook on how to progress your career, especially in the mid-career level, but the Lab also has additional unique challenges because everyone’s scientific or engineering career path is so different and it depends on some unpredictable forces,” said Lenny Oliker, one of the workshop organizers and Performance and Algorithms Group lead in Berkeley Lab’s Computational Research Division (CRD). “Having some baseline on how to target oneself depending on career goals and learning from people who have been successful in their careers is extremely valuable.”

Many staff may not realize there are multiple tracks for advancing at the Lab, he added; for example, there are research-oriented roles like Computer Science Engineer 4 or 5 and senior scientist, and organizational management roles such as group lead, department head, division director, and more.

“People may not know that the two professional tracks aren’t necessarily connected. They need to understand what their strengths and passions are to orient themselves toward the right senior path and Department of Energy activities,” said Oliker. “Getting that feedback from successful leaders that have been involved in this field and organization for a long time can help people orient their careers.”

The idea for the mid-career training program, a first-of-its-kind at Berkeley Lab, came from CRD Staff Scientist Lavanya Ramakrishnan, who began her Lab career as a Luis Alvarez Fellow in Computing Sciences. With the encouragement of her mentor Deb Agarwal, who leads the Data Science and Technology Department in CRD, Ramakrishnan has attended, participated, and helped organize mentoring workshops hosted by the Computing Research Association’s Committee on Widening Participation in Computing Research (CRA-WP) throughout her career.

“I attended the CRA-WP workshops as a postdoc, as an early-career and a mid-career scientist, and then as a speaker—I’ve seen the value of those sessions,” said Ramakrishnan, who took a lead role in organizing early-career workshops and the recent mid-career workshop for the Computing Sciences Area. “I think this training is more important than we realize because a lot of us go to school to get technical skills but not necessarily the soft skills that go with the job. So getting that perspective from senior staff members goes a long way.”

Oliker echoed that sentiment: “We’re such highly specialized technical individuals; most of us have no training in management, and then one day we wake up and we’re principal investigators, we’re trying to run our own group, our own project, and it’s these really critical skills that were never taught to us, especially as you go from mid-career to senior level. Your ability to manage and interface with a variety of collaborators and groups is going to make the difference between a successful project or not, so workshops like these are really important to give folks some guidance.”

Creating a mentorship pipeline, which the program seeks to do, is also important for retaining staff and diversifying leadership at the Lab, Ramakrishnan and Oliker emphasized. They credit the current Computing Sciences Area Leadership support for being able to launch the early-career and mid-career training programs and note that this is just the beginning for the mid-career training program. They hope that with feedback and support the program will evolve and mature; and that a larger program can be set up Lab-wide.

“This new mid-career training program complements the training programs we have developed for postdocs and early-career scientists and engineers over the past several years,” said CRD Director David Brown. “It and is part of our strategy in the Computing Sciences Area to make sure that all of our staff have the opportunity to learn about and be mentored in the non-scientific skills they need to succeed at a national lab like Berkeley.”

About Computing Sciences at Berkeley Lab

High performance computing plays a critical role in scientific discovery. Researchers increasingly rely on advances in computer science, mathematics, computational science, data science, and large-scale computing and networking to increase our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and our universe. Berkeley Lab’s Computing Sciences Area researches, develops, and deploys new foundations, tools, and technologies to meet these needs and to advance research across a broad range of scientific disciplines.