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One of the key features of our new website and communication system is the ability to customize the delivery of electronic content from the Society according to your personal preferences.

In the old system, we’d collect certain material into the bimonthly AAS Newsletter and notify members when it was ready to download as a PDF. Between newsletters we’d distribute other content to members via a monthly email exploder, and we’d send occasional meeting updates and public-policy alerts via email as needed. Some of this content was also published on our website, and some wasn’t.

In the new system, all content gets published to our website, and you can decide how much of it gets delivered to you by email, and on what schedule (e.g., as soon as it’s published, or weekly, or monthly).

We thought the customization of email delivery was fully functional when we “soft launched” the new system in February, but member feedback tells us it isn’t — you’re getting emails you don’t expect, you’re concerned that you might be missing emails you need to see, and you’re daunted by the complexity of the email-customization interface.

We are now working to fix these problems. In the meantime, for the next month or two, we’ll use our old email system to send information of general interest to all members. Meeting and policy alerts will go out as needed. Other content, including items that used to appear in the AAS Newsletter (e.g., the AAS president’s column and news from committees) will be compiled as it comes in and then emailed every other week via this AAS News Digest.

All such postings will include links to the original content on the AAS website at http://aas.org, which we encourage all members to visit regularly so as to remain fully informed about Society business.

Richard Tresch Fienberg
Press Officer & Director of Communications
American Astronomical Society

One of the key features of our new website and communication system is the ability to customize the delivery of electronic content from the Society according to your personal preferences.

In the old system, we’d collect certain material into the bimonthly AAS Newsletter and notify members when it was ready to download as a PDF. Between newsletters we’d distribute other content to members via a monthly email exploder, and we’d send occasional meeting updates and public-policy alerts via email as needed. Some of this content was also published on our website, and some wasn’t.

In the new system, all content gets published to our website, and you can decide how much of it gets delivered to you by email, and on what schedule (e.g., as soon as it’s published, or weekly, or monthly).

We thought the customization of email delivery was fully functional when we “soft launched” the new system in February, but member feedback tells us it isn’t — you’re getting emails you don’t expect, you’re concerned that you might be missing emails you need to see, and you’re daunted by the complexity of the email-customization interface.

We are now working to fix these problems. In the meantime, for the next month or two, we’ll use our old email system to send information of general interest to all members. Meeting and policy alerts will go out as needed. Other content, including items that used to appear in the AAS Newsletter (e.g., the AAS president’s column and news from committees) will be compiled as it comes in and then emailed every other week via this AAS News Digest.

To keep the digest from getting too long, we're including only titles, authors, and brief summaries. Full text is available online at http://aas.org/content/aas-news-digest. We encourage all members to visit the AAS website regularly to remain fully informed about Society business.

Lisa Idem
Meetings Manager
American Astronomical Society

Abstracts are due at 9 p.m. ET on May 1st for the three inaugural meetings in the new AAS Topical Conference Series (AASTCS):

  • AASTCS1: Probes of Dark Matter on Galaxy Scales, 14-19 July 2013
  • AASTCS2: Exascale Radio Astronomy, 21-26 July 2013
  • AASTCS3: Giants of Eclipse, 28 July - 2 August 2013

All three meetings will be held at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa in California, a comfortable mountain setting with ample opportunity for recreation outside of the set meeting times. Hotel reservations are due June 22nd, and regular registration is open through July 1st.

AASTCS1: Probes of Dark Matter on Galaxy Scales will bring together people who are working on probes of dark matter on galactic scales — on dynamical studies (utilizing new simulations as well as new observational data), gravitational lensing, kinematical studies of dwarf galaxies in the Local Group and beyond, and indirect probes of dark matter.

AASTCS2: Exascale Radio Astronomy has two primary goals: (i) to address the “big data” challenge in radio astronomy, and (ii) to deliver a white paper to encourage funding agencies to support exascale radio astronomy research in such areas as cosmology, galaxy evolution, dark energy and dark matter, and pulsars.

AASTCS3: Giants of Eclipse will provide a forum to discuss the physics of cool giant stars, examine new data, and compare the latest theories. Studies of giants in eclipsing binaries such as Epsilon Aurigae have advanced cool-star physics, and the role of these systems as astrophysical calibrators is central to the meeting.

Submit your abstract(s) and register for the AAS Topical Conference Series today!

Lisa Idem
Meetings Manager
American Astronomical Society

Propose for a Special Session, Town Hall, Workshop, or Splinter Meeting for the 223rd Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC, 5-9 January 2014.

The AAS seeks session proposals on both broad and narrow topics that will appeal to large and small groups. The High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) and Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) will hold sessions as well, making for quite a rich schedule. The DC 2014 meeting will be a standout conference, hosting astronomers from all over the world — now is your chance to help plan the science program!

To determine which type of session best suits your needs, please visit Content of AAS Meetings.

Special Session Proposal
Due 15 May

Town Hall Proposal
Due 15 May

Workshop Proposal
Due 1 August

Splinter Meeting Proposal
Due 15 November

Please contact Lisa Idem at lisa.idem@aas.org with questions.

Richard C. Altrock
Astrophysicist
Air Force Research Lab.

The current deadline for submitting observing proposals to the National Solar Observatory is 15 May 2013 for the third quarter of 2013. Information is available from the NSO Telescope Allocation Committee at P.O. Box 62, Sunspot, NM 88349 for Sacramento Peak facilities (sp@nso.edu) or P.O. Box 26732, Tucson, AZ 85726 for Kitt Peak facilities (kptac@nso.edu).  Instructions may be found at http://www.nso.edu/observe/.  A web-based observing-request form is at http://www.nso.edu/obsreq.  Users' Manuals are available at http://nsosp.nso.edu/dst/ for the SP facilities and http://nsokp.nso.edu/mp for the KP facilities.  An observing-run evaluation form for the SP facilities can be obtained at ftp://ftp.nso.edu/observing_templates/evaluation.form.txt.

Proposers are reminded that each quarter is typically oversubscribed, and it is to the proposer's advantage to provide all information requested to the greatest possible extent no later than the official deadline.  Observing time at National Observatories is provided as support to the astronomical community by the National Science Foundation.

David J. Helfand
Quest University Canada

For most astronomers, astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and solar physicists, the AAS is, at best, a peripheral part of their lives. Given the ever-accelerating pace of modern life, peripheral things get neglected -- non-urgent emails get deleted, deadlines get skipped, dues renewals get forgotten, and calls for support get ignored. Political parties overcome this problem by having a hierarchy of unpaid, partially paid, and fully paid volunteers and staffers, and a party's effectiveness on election day comes not from the leadership but from the precinct captains. I have proposed the AAS adopt the precinct-captain model and, at the January Council meeting, we agreed to proceed.

Every institution (college or university, research center, or company) with more than half a dozen astronomy staff or students (the limit is flexible) will designate an AAS Agent; groups of smaller institutions might designate one representative. This person will have a limited set of responsibilities that would include:

  • recruiting new members. While membership numbers in the AAS are quite steady, a large number of practicing astronomers do not belong to the AAS. The Society works for all astronomers -- managing journals, organizing meetings, providing career and educational resources, and advocating for our discipline in Washington -- all services essential to the success of our field and the individuals who work in it. Everyone who is involved in our efforts to enhance and share humanity's scientific understanding of the universe should support the Society's work.
  • in the case of universities with PhD programs, developing a systematic approach to graduate student membership. Currently, the AAS provides a two-years-for-one-year's-dues offer for new graduate students. A new model would be for a department to enroll each new student by supporting his or her dues for two years; in such cases, the Society will match this commitment. Thus, for one departmental payment of twice the annual junior-member dues, every student would have free membership for four years, two years with departmental support and two years from the AAS. This would be a concrete symbol of welcoming new students to the profession while establishing membership as an important (and routine) part of being an astronomer.
  • holding a once-a-year or semi-annual meeting about AAS issues. Most departments and observatories have a regular tea, wine and cheese, pizza lunch, etc. A portion of one of these events which gathers a large fraction of the local population could be dedicated to providing information about the AAS and fielding questions. I am frequently surprised to learn that many astronomers do not realize that the Society owns and manages the highest impact astronomy journals in the world, that it provides state-of-the-art conference organizing services for topical meetings, that it hosts a variety of resources and runs programs for public education, and that it serves as a highly effective voice in Washington for advancing our field and in supporting federal investment in research and education. There are many opportunities for astronomers at all levels to become involved through AAS divisions, committees, working groups, and programs such as Astronomy Ambassadors and Communicating with Washington. A more knowledgable and involved membership makes for a stronger and more effective Society.
  • providing suggestions to the AAS for improved/new/outdated services. The Society exists to serve its members. The Council, a number of committees, and the Executive Office constantly evaluate the Society's programs and think about ways to improve what we offer. However, we are far from the sole repository of good ideas and broader consultation can only be helpful.
  • acting as the point person in getting people to respond to action alerts when crucial policy issues require citizen participation. These typically don't even happen once a year, but when a decision is about to be made, letters, calls, and visits to Congress by astronomers in each state and district can produce large effects. Having local agents who can walk into a colleague's office instead of hoping he or she responds to a mass email would substantially boost our effectiveness.

In return for being an AAS Agent, we can't offer tickets to the Inaugural Ball. But we do want to recognize this important service. First, there will be a reception at each winter AAS meeting for the Agents at which we will exchange information, collect feedback, and thank you for your efforts. Secondly, we will make available to each Agent one junior meeting registration waiver to be used at his or her discretion.

Over the next few months, members of the Council and I will be contacting each department, observatory, research institute, planetarium, and company to solicit volunteers and nominations for AAS Agents. We hope to have the network in place by September when membership solicitations and renewals will go out with an exciting new initiative to make membership even more attractive.

I welcome feedback on how we can make this program effective, efficient, and valuable to astronomers and to the Society; with even greater enthusiasm, I will welcome anyone who wishes to volunteer to play this new role at his or her institution.

Debra M. Elmegreen
Vassar College

The American Institute of Physics, the umbrella organization for 10 professional societies (including the AAS) and 24 affiliate societies, hosted its annual Assembly of Society Officers on 4 April to discuss important issues of common concern to our members. This year’s foci included underrepresentation of minorities in the physical sciences, efforts and strategies to increase diversity, open access in publications and data, and science policy issues from the perspective of AIP and AAAS Science and Technology Fellows (along with a celebratory reception in honor of 25 years and 40 years of these fellowships, respectively). Minutes of the meeting and PowerPoint presentations are available online at http://www.aip.org/aip/assembly/2013/. Here I will summarize the minority issues, an area of longtime concern to the AAS. 

Roman Czujko, Director of the Statistical Research Center at AIP, noted that over the past 10 years the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in all fields has increased by 38% and the number of African Americans receiving these degrees has increased by 51%. Yet the number of African Americans receiving physics degrees is about the same as a decade ago, even though the number of physics degrees awarded has increased by 55%. Of astronomy degrees, 1.4% are earned by African Americans and 5.7% by Hispanic Americans (the numbers are 3.3 and 4.6 for physics degrees). Little progress has been made in increasing the percentage of minorities, despite a variety of focused efforts at the departmental and national levels. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) produce a disproportionate share of African American physics majors, but that production has decreased from 50% of the total a decade ago to about 40% of the total now. Factors such as economic recession and Hurricane Katrina have conspired to have a negative impact on the numbers of HBCU physics majors at a few key schools. 

Physics professors Ramon Lopez of the University of Texas at Arlington and Willie Rockward of Morehouse College shared insights regarding their African American and Hispanic students. Lopez remarked that the biggest leak in the physics pipeline is not K-12 but the first two years of college. He noted that his students frequently matriculate with poor math skills, needing to take college algebra. This puts them behind from the start if all physics courses are calculus-based; consequently, colleges that offer a non-calculus physics course can help get these students involved sooner. Undergraduate-to-graduate bridge programs were also cited as very successful efforts to improve retention of underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences. 

Rockward noted that many students have part-time jobs, which take time away from studies. Making student jobs available within physics (or astronomy) departments is an opportunity to engage these students early on. Many minority students come from close-knit families and tend to stay near home. Many families are unaware of the usefulness of graduate school and urge their children to declare a major that makes them employable immediately after college. The perception is often that engineering is a better choice than physics (or astronomy). 

As a consequence, some schools are making concerted efforts to offer a broader selection of courses for a physics major than only those leading directly to graduate school; they retain the core intermediate-level mathematical physics, classical, E&M, quantum mechanics, and thermophysics/statistical mechanics courses but allow more options for the remaining major credits (multiple degree tracks), including, for example, biophysics, engineering, education, and biomedical courses (depending on what a particular college or university is able to offer). This is a particularly important strategy in states forcing closures of under-enrolled physics departments. These speakers encouraged other schools to consider a more flexible major to accommodate a broader range of post-college options, so that physics would be seen as a more attractive major. An interesting international study on the relevance of science education is presented in "The Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) Project in England: A Summary of Findings."

Claudia Rankins from the NSF Directorates for Education and Human Resources and Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Dot Harris from the DOE Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, and Marlene Kaplan from NOAA’s Education Office and Education and Partnership Program discussed some federal agency programmatic efforts to improve diversity. Rankins emphasized the need to provide research opportunities to students. For small departments, this might be facilitated through collaborations with other small departments. She noted the need to provide better mentoring so students understand what possibilities there are with a physics major. She noted that the freshman physics curriculum is often stale and unexciting and recommended reading the recent study by a subcommittee of the National Academy of Sciences Board of Physics and Astronomy which examined the state of the undergraduate physics curriculum; the report "Adapting to a Changing World – Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education," recently released in draft form. Many of its salient points, supported by education research-based studies demonstrating better engagement in the class and improved understanding of retention of material through interactive learning methods, are applicable to astronomy education as well. 

Harris noted that the physics pipeline starts around 6th grade. By 2018 the majority of Americans under age 18 will be "minorities," mostly multi-racial. DOE hires among the most physicists anywhere and has a large diversity department. She made the important point that "if you don’t purposefully include, you exclude" and cited numerous DOE and government-wide diversity and inclusion efforts. She urged new education strategies to improve diversity. She and Kaplan noted opportunities for students and professors to work in DOE and NOAA labs; NOAA also funds cooperative science centers at Minority Serving Institutions along with scholarship, internship, and mentoring opportunities.

Roundtable discussions by the society officers about what our societies might do to help promote better diversity will be considered in the AAS Council meeting (one recent AAS effort, for example, is the newly revamped Shapley Lectureship which hopes to target HBCUs, colleges, and community colleges without astronomy programs). Meanwhile all departments and institutions can continue to reflect on these issues and brainstorm about what can be done at the local level. Increasing our diversity by making concerted efforts to reach out to more students in new ways is an area that many AAS members have tackled for a long time, but we have a long way to go to reach equity.

Kevin B. Marvel
Executive Officer
American Astronomical Society

The AAS honored Tom Gergely, who is retiring from the National Science Foundation after 27 years of service to the astronomical community and other disciplines that utilize radio spectrum to perform their research. At a special lunch for him hosted at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC on March 28 with NSF colleagues past and present and his family, AAS Executive Officer Kevin Marvel read a congratulatory letter from AAS President David Helfand and presented him a certificate of recognition that reads:

"The American Astronomical Society recognizes Dr. Tomas Gergely for his long-term contributions to the US astronomy community. In 27 years at NSF, including many years as head of the Electromagnetic Spectrum Management Unit, Dr. Gergely has worked tirelessly on behalf of the astronomy community in defense of the ability to use the radio spectrum for forefront astronomical research. On behalf of the community, the AAS offers its thanks, and its congratulations to Dr. Gergely on the occasion of his retirement."

Tom is succeeded in his duties managing the scientific uses of the radio spectrum by Andrew Clegg, who says he's looking forward to filling Tom's shoes and holding up his strong tradition of representing scientific interests in the political and commercial world of radio spectrum application.

Jessica Kirkpatrick
Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

In this column from the Committee on Employment, Jessica Kirkpatrick elaborates on the differences between academia and a career in data science.

I outline below a few of the major differences between these career paths. Obviously, there is a lot of variety in individual companies, institutions, and experiences -- so please understand that what follows is simply my (somewhat biased) perspective.

Salary
According to a study by the American Institute of Physics, the median starting salary for astronomy PhDs at academic institutions is $50,000 (although it isn't clear if this is based on 9 or 12 month contracts). Post-docs tend to make between $45,000 and $65,000. Astronomers (at all levels) report an average annual salary of $87,000. At top research institutions, this is of course higher -- for instance Berkeley assistant professors make an average of $110,000. Many institutions offer additional benefits like pensions, summer stipends, and regular sabbaticals. My faculty offer (at a teaching institution) was $50k/$60k for a 9/12 month contract.

Starting salaries for PhD data scientists according to Insight Data Science Fellowship are between $90,000 and $130,000 base salary, plus an average of 10% annual cash bonus, and additional annual stocks/equity bonuses (mine is ~10% of my base salary). Many tech companies also have perks like free food, transportation, gym memberships etc.

Hours
I work 45-50 hours a week, I am not expected to work evenings or weekends. Hours tend to be longer at smaller companies, start-ups, or companies that are pre-acquisition/IPO. I get 15 vacation days and 12 holidays a year (increasing to 20 vacation days after 4 years). It is pretty easy for me to work remotely or at home, but this obviously varies from company to company. 

I honestly don't know how many hours post-docs and faculty work. I've heard 60-70 hours per week mentioned. I work fewer hours per week at my current job than I did in graduate school. However, academics get huge amounts of vacation, and many people (especially at less research-driven institutions) take these summer/winter breaks. I typically took more than three weeks annual vacation when I was in graduate school. Also, because there tends to be less required "face time" for academics, there is a lot of flexibility in when and where you work these hours. This can be especially helpful for women juggling careers and children or other family responsibilities.

Job Availability
As of my writing this post, there are 335 jobs posted on the astronomy rumor mill for next academic year. There are approximately 200 astronomy/astrophysics PhDs awarded annually.  According to this AIP study, 75% of recent astronomy PhD grads are able to find postdoctoral positions. However, there are ~4X more postdoctoral positions than there are tenure track faculty positions.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that in the next five years the United States alone will have a talent shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 jobs for analytics/data-science positions, as well as the need for approximately 1.5 million managers in these departments. This means that there will be that many positions that need filling, without people to fill them. My team has been constantly hiring/searching for over a year now.

There are several orders of magnitude more jobs in the tech industry than in astronomy. This has many consequences for the job seeker. You have much more flexibility in the location and specifics of the tech jobs you pursue. A major appeal for me in making the transition to tech was the ability to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Most recent PhDs pursuing academic jobs need to be willing to relocate for 5-10 years for various term/post-doc appointments. This can cause major problems for couples or people who aren't able/willing to relocate or live wherever they get a job offer. I feel confident that even if I do not stay at my current position, I will be able to find future tech jobs without having to relocate. Women specifically find the timeline of post-docs problematic because these are prime child-bearing years, yet also a time when their job tenure and location is the most unstable (and they get paid less if they are post-docs).

Job Security
At a tech company you will most likely be an "at-will" employee. This means that you basically have no job security. While it would be bad practice for a company to fire people for no reason and tech employees tend to fare well in times of recession, ultimately you can be let go anytime for any reason. People who aren't performing up to expectations are regularly asked to leave my company.

Tenured professors are one of the most secure jobs in existence. I've never heard of a post-doc that has been removed from their position before their 3/5 year contract is up. Even "soft-money" scientists at national labs tend to stay in their positions for many years. If you are able to get a job in research/academia, you will probably not get fired unless you break the law or are grossly negligent.

However, as mentioned above in academia there is much less flexibility in the location of where you will find a position, and post-doc jobs are short in tenure and usually require frequent relocation. Also most post-docs will not be able to secure tenure-track faculty positions, so there is not long-term job security for most post-doctoral scholars.

Project Length
Academic projects tend to last for months to years, allowing the researcher to dig incredibly deep into the subject matter and really explore something as thoroughly as possible.

Tech projects tend to be much shorter in tenure. Because projects need to contribute to the value of the business, it is rare to be able to work on anything without quickly producing results that have business impact. My projects tend to be on the order of days, not weeks. This means that the complexity of the problems I work on is not the same as academic research. Note: this is different in research divisions of companies (like Microsoft/Google/IBM research).

Project Direction
In academia, researchers get to explore projects which interest them. They get to "be their own boss," and pursue their own paths and directions with their work. Of course there are grant committees and collaborators which influence work, but for the most part the researcher has a lot of flexibility in what they spend their time researching.

In tech there is much less flexibility. For the most part, projects are not pursued unless they will improve the company's business value or the customer experience. This means that as a data scientist the direction of my work is determined not by what interests me most, but by what will help the company most. There are opportunities to be creative (like hack days, or 20% projects) but these are not my primary duties.

State of the Field
Data science is a fairly new discipline. This means that there are many problems that have been unsolved and many "low-hanging fruit" projects that are simple, but can have real impact on the tech community and world as a whole. A new data scientist has the potential to perhaps have more impact in this discipline, than a new astronomer where many of the easier/simpler problems have already been solved. That being said, with the projected potential growth of the data science field in the next five to ten years this may not be true for very long.

Subject Matter
One of the hardest things about leaving astrophysics is that I no longer get to study astrophysics. While many of my day-to-day tasks are the same -- data analysis, programming, statistics, presenting results, designing experiments -- the subject matter is not quasars and galaxies, but customer behavior. This creates a new set of interesting challenges: it turns out people don't behave as predictably as galaxies. I enjoy that the work I do is directly applicable to helping people and that I see the fruits of my labor almost immediately impact the company. I also miss studying the universe.

The AAS Committee on Employment is pleased to highlight useful resources for astronomers, and welcomes your comments and responses to this and previous columns. Check out our website (aas.org/career/) for additional resources and contact information for the committee members. We are always looking for guest columnists in non-academic careers. If you are willing to contribute, or have an idea for a future column, please contact the Employment Column Editor, Liam McDaid (mcdaidl@scc.losrios.edu). The AAS committee on employment exists to help our members with their careers. Your ideas are important, so let’s hear them!

Laura Trouille
CIERA Postdoctoral Fellow & Astronomer
Northwestern University & The Adler Planetarium

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Amy Nelson, an astronomer turned software engineer. She writes software for Disney’s online virtual worlds, manages a small team, and is very satisfied with her work-life balance within a family-friendly environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment on the same post at http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit  http://aas.org/jobs/career-profilesWe plan to post a new career profile every first and third Thursday of the month.

What field do you currently work in?

Software

What is the job title for your current position?
Staff Software Engineer Architect. I implement core software components for our online virtual worlds. Manage a small team of software engineers.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Disney Interactive Worlds

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live - Los Angeles, CA. work - Glendale, CA.

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?
PhD

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Lecturer

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

  • Instructor at University of California - Santa Cruz (2001)
  • Earned a certificate from UCLA Extension in C/C++ (2002)
  • Employed at Mass Media Inc/THQ as Associate Software Engineer (2002 - 2008)
  • Employed at Disney: Flash Engineer (2008)
  • Senior Flash Engineer (2009-2010)
  • Senior Software Engineer (2011)
  • Staff Software Engineer (2012 - present)

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
I left the field of astronomy primarily because I found, after doing it for a few years, that I didn't enjoy research enough to want to make a career of it. I also wasn't thrilled about reading and writing peer-reviewed journal articles, writing grant proposals, and other administrative tasks.

Secondary, yet still important factors, were:

  • amount of hours you're expected to work (especially for postdocs and young faculty)
  • amount of research you're expected to produce (especially for postdocs and young faculty)
  • little to no say in where you live
  • low pay
  • having to put your life on hold until you have a secure, tenure-track faculty position.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I made a career change from astronomy to video game programming at age 29.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Problem-solving! ** Learning and working independently - how to find answers yourself, knowing when to ask questions and to whom to ask them, not being afraid to tackle problems with which you have little to no experience.

Computer programming - In grad school I used Fortran, which wasn't a directly transferable skill whatsoever. But understanding programming and scripting fundamentals helped me pick up an object-oriented language (C/C++) quickly.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
Earned a certificate in C/C++ programming from UCLA Extension. (5 - 6 extension classes, I think.)

Describe a typical day at work.

  • Daily morning scrum (Agile development) meetings -- 15-30 min.
  • Various meetings throughout the day to discuss: planning and allocation of resources, feasibility and architecture of game systems, assorted managerial meetings -- 1 - 2 hrs
  • Coding -- 4 hr.
  • Mentoring, answering questions, code reviews -- 1 - 2 hrs

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I got into the video game industry because my girlfriend's father was the game designer at the first company I worked for and he and I talked about video games and the work he did. A PhD in astronomy, without any other experience, simultaneously over-qualifies you for some jobs and under-qualifies you for the rest, thus making it virtually impossible to get past the automated sorting/filtering of job applications. Therefore, my experience was that it was very difficult to get a foot in the door in any other industry besides academic astronomy, unless you know someone.

Once in the door, however, I found that while I had a very steep learning curve because I had almost no direct knowledge of how to make games, I picked things up quite quickly and wasn't afraid to just dive right in. My advice is to stick with the program and finish your degree! You'll feel good about yourself, continue to learn indirect, but valuable skills, and demonstrate to future employers that you finish what you start.

See if you can take advantage of your university enrollment and take a class here or there that will help prepare you for your new career. Spend whatever time you can spare gaining new skills or be prepared that you might need some time after you finish to do that. However, don't let either of these things steal your focus of finishing your degree.

From what I've seen, most fields have trade organizations, shows, meetings, online communities, etc, so get active in them and start meeting people! Remember that university extension classes are usually taught by people who actively have jobs in that industry and therefore are great places to learn new skills and network.

Out in the 'real world' PhDs in astronomy have quite a 'wow' factor. People like knowing a 'rocket scientist' and companies like to brag about having one on their staff.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
They should be:

  • honest about the positives and negatives of an academic research position.
  • approachable, so that students feel they can talk to them without fear of reprisal, disinterest, or disdain.
  • knowledgeable and willing to discuss alternative careers path.
  • willing to introduce their students to professors in other fields.
  • able to help their students get in contact with former students who have alternative careers.

How many hours do you work in a week?
40-45 hours. All hours are at work, although my company is flexible and I can work from home as needed and/or desired.

What is your salary?
$100k - 150k.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very Satisfied.

My job is a wonderful combination of coming up with ideas to solve technical problems and executing on those ideas. I work in a creative, social, interactive, and collaborative environment, which I enjoy. I also get to mentor less-experienced engineers which satisfies my desire to teach and work with others.

My company takes very seriously the issue of a healthy work/life balance. We do work extra hours at 'crunch time,' but that is infrequent, particularly for the games industry.

I am quite satisfied with my pay, benefits, and perks. I really like my coworkers and look forward to seeing them at work, as well as in our spare time.

My job is pretty low stress, but engaging. I rarely find myself 'taking my job home with me,' unless I happen to be working on something particularly interesting and then I'm too excited to stop thinking about it after work!

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I love working in a creative, collaborative field with smart, talented people who are passionate about games. I really enjoy problem-solving with my co-workers and listening to their ideas. The least enjoyable aspects of my job are attending too many meetings (this has gotten much better, though, after we complained), not having full control of my projects (executives make the ultimate decisions), and working for a business which means market forces and profits are the guiding forces (less R&D or risk-taking).

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I like that it has structure, but is still fairly flexible. I dislike the lack of job security - people in corporate America seem to get hired, laid off, hired by a different company, etc. Luckily, this hasn't happened to me yet, but you have to be ok with that cycle.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Engineers are given the opportunity to design and implement their own technical solutions and are also free to contribute game ideas in brainstorming sessions. Employees are encouraged to take initiative and ownership of their work and are actively rewarded for it (promotions, awards, shout-outs, etc).

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very Satisfied.

My company places an emphasis on work-life balance, which is really important to me. We do work extra-hours sometimes during 'crunch time,' but that happens infrequently and they try to keep the additional hours to a minimum.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly.

We have flex-time, where you can (with supervisor approval): - telecommute (work from home) - shift your schedule early or late, as long as you're here during the 'core hours,' so that you can drop kids off or pick them up, etc. Paid maternity and paternity leave. A company-owned and operated daycare across the street (although it is very full and has a long waiting list, but I believe they are building another on). Good benefits and a company-sponsored Flexible Spending Account. Family-friendly work functions/parties.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Make having a healthy work-life balance a priority when choosing your position and ask the company/institution direct questions about their policies towards it. Once you start working, set boundaries and stick to them. No matter where you work, if you're seen as the person who will always pick up other people's slack, stay late, and work extra hours, that will become expected of you and you're setting yourself up for failure. You do not have to be a workaholic to be successful!

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. My best friend is an astronomical lecturer at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. He also still does some research with colleagues at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can't "go back" and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?
Yes. I do believe that it would be difficult to re-enter the field of astronomy after leaving the rather strictly prescribed academic career track. Also, the field moves at a very rapid pace, so it's easy to get left behind. While I was in grad school and grappling with my decision, I worried that I would disappoint my professors and colleagues by leaving the field, especially since I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do instead. In the end, though, it's your life (and hopefully a long one!) so you need to put yourself first and do whatever you think is best for you.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I love to walk my dogs, read, garden, and play - video games, music, nerdy board games, pinball. I also enjoy volunteering and have been a crisis counselor on LA's suicide hotline for the past ten years. Having time to do all these things was a major factor in deciding not to stay in astronomy.

May we include your email address for people who might want to contact you directly about your career route?
Yes, public@sugarego.com.