Hiring PhDs: Interview with the Director of Human Resources at CNA Corporation

BA: Today we’re speaking with Laura DePasquale, the Director of Human Resources at the CNA Corporation. She’s here to tell us more about CNA, as well as how their hiring process works.

BA: How did CNA get started?

Laura: CNA was started as a non-profit to help the Navy in the early 1940s. At that ti
me, the U.S. had entered World War II, and one of the focus areas for the Navy was to counter the German U-Boat threat. The head of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Unit asked a group of civilian MIT scientists to help with this effort. The scientists formed an operations research team called the Antisubmarine Warfare Operations Rcna-logoesearch Group (ASWORG). They were assigned directly to military commands where they were able to develop immediate practical answers to tactical and force allocation questions important to their commands. By the end of the war, they were not only studying antisubmarine warfare, but also almost all forms of naval warfare. This group of scientists pioneered the field of operations research.

BA: What does the organization look like today?

Laura: For one thing, it’s much larger – we grew from 80 scientists in our early days to about 625 full- and part-time employees, and two major research business units. One is the Center for Naval Analyses, which is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) with multiple divisions supporting the Department of Navy and other defense agencies. The other business unit is the Institute for Public Research (IPR), which also has multiple divisions supporting government agencies, but the focus is on domestic policy issues. While the business units operate a little differently, staff members from both units offer the ability to use scientific methodologies to conduct high-level research and analysis to help clients understand their problems and find solutions. Today, our researchers continue to take real-world approaches to solving problems, just as the original researchers in ASWORG did in the 1940’s.

BA: Tell us a bit more about the divisions in the Center for Naval Analyses. Are there particular academic fields that each of them hire?

Laura: Each of the divisions within the Center look for different specializations, although much of our hiring is focused on PhDs in physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, mathematics, economics, and operations research. There are however, divisions that look for entirely different backgrounds, such as public policy or international relations, or those with language skills or expertise in particular geographic regions such as Asia or the Middle East.

Then there is the Operations Evaluation Group, which is really unique to our organization. The people in that division are drawn from the other divisions within CNA and are deployed to operational commands around the world. While they’re in the field, they work on things like operational and system testing, readiness and training, and combat effectiveness. At any given time, there are about 45 analysts out in the field, in places ranging from Norfolk and Hawaii in the U.S., to other countries such as Italy, Japan and Bahrain.

BA: What about the divisions in the Institute for Public Research?

Laura: The focus in IPR is to conduct research and analysis on domestic policy issues for a variety of federal, state, and local government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Justice, FEMA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Education to name a few. They use their technical and analytical expertise to help clients with work ranging from crisis operations, like Hurricane Sandy, to supporting law enforcement agencies in implementing and evaluating innovative policing practices, to designing custom simulations, and addressing issues such as improving operational efficiency, evaluating K-12 educational program effectiveness, and analyzing energy, water and climate linkages.

Due to the diversity in the type of work being conducted, there is also quite a variety of academic backgrounds that IPR looks at. They recruit for Master’s and Ph.D. level folks with quantitative and qualitative skills in fields such as criminal justice, psychology, chemistry, systems engineering, political science, physics, mathematics, sociology, economics, operations research, education research and policy, statistics and more.

BA: What is the best way for applicants to differentiate themselves/stand out?

LauraPasqualeLaura: We hire people from a mix of academia, government, non-profit, and for-profit settings. We need to make sure we have qualified applicants who will thrive in CNA’s environment. We base our initial assessment on four things, so it’s useful to have these things ready: academic transcripts, resume, writing samples, and letters of recommendation.

Strong analytical skills and expertise are an obvious “must have” to work on the research staff at CNA, so we look for good grades on the academic transcripts (at least 3.5 GPA) in the classes/fields needed for the job. However, having strong writing and communication skills is imperative as well, so both the resume and writing samples must portray the essential points in a concise, easy to understand manner. This is an area that is sometimes weak in otherwise great applicants. Finally, strong letters of recommendation go a long way to helping us understand how an applicant approaches problems and what their research abilities are, how they compared to others in their class, what their interpersonal skills are like, whether they have experience leading projects, etc. – we’re really looking for any information that will give us an idea about how they tackled and solved unstructured problems, and communicated the results.

All of these things put together are a great predictor of skills and future success at CNA. So if the applicant package (i.e. transcripts, resume, writing samples and letters of recommendation) is strong, it will likely lead to an invitation from one of our division VP’s for an in person interview at our headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

BA: What should candidates expect when they interview for a research position at CNA?

Laura: If the candidates are not already in the Northern Virginia/Washington D.C. area, we fly them in for an all-day, in-person interview. We want to ensure enough time for the applicant to highlight their skills and experiences and to learn more about CNA. The agenda includes a briefing on CNA’s organizational structure, a discussion with the management staff of our field program, and an overview of our benefits. Candidates then give an hour-long seminar on their research, typically on their dissertation or recent research project. It is key for candidates to demonstrate strong presentation skills during the seminar. We will be assessing their technical skills, and ability to conduct research and translate a complex problem into something that can be understood by a broad audience of researchers. In the afternoon, candidates meet with various research leaders and interview with the VP of the interested research division.

BA: That’s quite a process! So how do you decide who to hire after all that?

Laura: It is pretty intense, but this hiring process allows both us and the candidate to get to know each other better so that we can ensure a mutually beneficial fit. After the interview day, the VP reviews the candidate file and evaluations from CNAers who interacted with the candidate. If they recommend a hire, the business unit leader then makes a final hiring decision. Those who are hired are provided with relocation support to this area.

BA: Are there common qualities or skills that those successful in transitioning out of academia into CNA share?

Laura: There definitely are, and they are all things that can be learned. People who succeed at CNA are able to collaborate, actively listen, and value relationships. They make an effort to develop, maintain and strengthen working relationships with their colleagues. They also demonstrate adaptability and flexibility. We hire chemists and physicists for their analytical mindset, but they may end up doing a job completely different from what they have studied. We’re looking for smart people who can translate their skills into good analytical work.

In terms of skills, you need to be able to work logically and systematically and then be able to present your results in a clear, organized manner. You also need to be creative and able to know how to use your resources – develop a plan for working within a framework. And if you’re interested in going to the field, bring your sense of adventure!

BA: What would a career trajectory at CNA look like?

Laura: Well, certainly going to the field provides up close and personal experience that is valuable no matter what research level you’re in. But, providing research and analytical support from headquarters is also very interesting and critical to our mission to support government leaders in choosing the best courses of action.

The entry level research positions at CNA are Research Specialists and they typically require a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree with little to no experience. We also have five levels of research staff: Associate Research Analyst, Research Analyst, Research Scientist, Senior Research Scientist, and Principal Research Scientist. They all require at least a Master’s degree with a thesis or Ph.D. As you progress through the levels, you begin to work on more complex research problems, lead more projects, have more direct interaction with clients, and become responsible for obtaining funding as you develop more expertise and stronger networks and relationships.

The appealing thing about the levels is that we don’t necessarily have a strict hierarchy in terms of getting the work done. For example, higher level staff may work under lower level project leaders when their expertise is needed. There are often times when staff from different divisions and even different business units work together as well to ensure our clients benefit from the variety of skill sets and experiences CNA as a whole has to offer.

BA: Where can people find more information about CNA and available jobs?

Laura: Visit our website at www.cna.org. In the “News and Information” section, there are short video vignettes about different employees’ experiences at CNA – those are a good starting point. I can also put people in touch with our staff by phone or email. Our folks are friendly, passionate about their work, and eager to discuss their research.

Because of the nature of our work, our staff needs to have the ability obtain and maintain a security clearance, which requires U.S. citizenship. If anyone meets the requirements I’ve described and has an interest in doing the kind of work we do, please feel free to visit our website to see our current openings or contact our HR department for more information.

BA: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us!