Monday, July 8, 2019

Easing into life at NOAA

By Kathryn Frens

Hello, blog readers. I’m a 2019 Executive Knauss Fellow, currently placed in NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries. In this post, I want to give you an idea of what it’s been like to walk in my (flat, but professional) shoes for the first two months of my fellowship. I’m not going to cover Placement Week: Lisa did a very good job of that last year, and I bet a smart reader like you can find her post. Instead, I’m going to talk about starting my fellowship and a few things I’ve learned already. You ready for this? Let’s go.

The longest government shutdown in history ended less than a week before I was supposed to start work at NOAA. Because my supervisor was furloughed, she couldn’t come into the office and had no way to plan for my arrival. Nobody was processing security clearances or access cards or finances, initially. So I started a week late, and everyone was still recovering from the furlough when I got into the office. And because everybody asks, that’s the only way that national politics has affected my fellowship. I thought working in DC would involve more politics, but it turns out that my office is very apolitical. NOAA’s leadership is appointed by the president, but my office mostly works with laws and regulations that change more slowly than administrations. Some days, it doesn’t feel like we’re inside the Beltway at all.

My first month of work was slow. I scheduled one-on-one meetings with everyone in my office to learn about what they do (they do a wide variety of things and have a ton of expertise about those things), and I did a lot of background reading. While I knew what areas of fisheries management interested me, I did not know how to translate those areas of interest into actual concrete projects. In addition, my supervisor was in her position temporarily, and my permanent boss came back about a month after I started. Things didn’t really start to pick up until about six weeks in.

I’m telling you this because some of you reading might be future fellows, and it’s important to know that every fellow’s experience is different. My slow start stressed me out, especially when I was hearing from other fellows about how busy they were and what groups they were already leading. It was only in talking with past fellows that I found out how common my experience is, especially in an office (like mine) that didn’t have a fellow last year. Here are some other important things to know:
  • NOAA loves it some Knauss fellows. Lots of people here were fellows previously and they’re happy to help you out or give you advice. Just ask!
  • You will never find shoes that are both comfortable enough to commute in and professional enough to wear in the office. Keep your nice shoes at work and walk to the Metro in your hiking sandals; you won’t regret it. 
  • This fellowship feels like a weird combination of work and learning. I tend to be very focused on how I can contribute and what I can accomplish. This fellowship involves contributing and accomplishing, but my office expects me to also spend time on my own education, which is not always comfortable when everybody else is working so hard! I attended the Mid-Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission meeting just to see how the management process works, and I’m going on a shark survey cruise this summer—both things I don’t think I would have been able to do if I wasn’t a fellow. 
  • The best things about DC are the museums and the food. And the museums are free, which helps you afford the food. 
I’d love to hear from whoever is reading this blog about what you want to know. I’m happy to answer questions or expound further on what you’re curious about. I don’t have any cool travel pictures yet, but here’s one of me in my new office space. I took this picture for an elementary school career day presentation about what scientists do—another really fun experience!
Kathryn is hard at work in the NOAA office. Photo: Kathryn Frens

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