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Career Profile: Astronomer to Tenure-Track Faculty

Thursday, June 20, 2013 - 12:05

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 Meredith Hughes, an astronomer turned professor. She is a first-year, tenure-track faculty at Wesleyan University, an undergraduate focused institution with a master's program in astronomy. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

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

What field do you currently work in?
Astronomy - Academia

What is the job title for your current position?
Assistant Professor of Astronomy

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Wesleyan University

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live/work in Middletown, CT, USA

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?
Ph.D.

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Tenure Track Faculty

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

  • 2010 — PhD in astronomy at Harvard
  • 2010-2012 — Miller Fellow (postdoc) at UC Berkeley
  • 2013-present — Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Wesleyan

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Research, programming, data analysis, planning observations — typical graduate school stuff.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
For my current job, it helps that I opted into pedagogy courses at the graduate level, had lots of outreach experience interacting with members of the public at all levels, and have tried to keep my skills sharp and information up to date through teaching workshops (e.g., CAE workshops offered at AAS).

Describe a typical day at work.
I teach 3 courses per year (usually one course one semester, two the other), and also maintain an active research program. On a typical day I might (1) prepare lecture notes, problem sets, tests, lab instructions, solutions, etc. (2) grade assignments, (3) meet with students about their research projects, (4) work on writing an observing proposal, grant proposal, and/or paper, (5) reduce data or write an observing script, (6) communicate with collaborators at other institutions about projects, etc.

My responsibilities are fairly typical for an academic position, with a few notable differences: I am at a primarily undergraduate institution, and the highest astronomy degree offered is a masters degree. Therefore I don't have PhD students, which means I stay more directly involved with the research and spend proportionally much more time training students in research skills. I also have a slightly (although not much) higher teaching load than most faculty at top research institutions. Wesleyan occupies a unique niche on the research-teaching spectrum, and is more research-oriented than many other primarily undergraduate institutions.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I learned about my current position through the AAS job register, and didn't need to take advantage of any particular job hunting resources. For many jobs at primarily undergraduate institutions, it is helpful to be able to demonstrate that you are a capable teacher (preferably that you've taught your own course in the past). If you're a postdoc or advanced grad student thinking about a job at a PUI, you may want to ask around for opportunities to teach a course (for example, summer courses pack the intensity of teaching into a short amount of time, and universities often open these positions to grad/postdoc instructors). That said, I actually didn't have any previous experience as the primary instructor of a course, but luckily they hired me anyway!

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
I think that advisors should keep themselves up to date on the state of the academic job market and be very honest with their students about their job prospects if they continue in academia. I think that advisors should encourage students to learn non-traditional grad school skills like delving deeply into programming (in languages other than IDL) or teaching/pedagogy, and to take advantage of the resources offered by university career centers.

How many hours do you work in a week?
55-60 hours.

These questions are hard to answer, and it is worth pointing out that I am currently in my first semester as a faculty member and don't have kids, so it is possible that my habits will stabilize to something quite different with time. At the moment I am on campus ~8 am to 6 pm every weekday, generally with a 0.5- to 1-hour break for lunch. I often respond to emails, read proposals, or grade at home in the evenings (this varies a lot).

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

Maybe I'm still in the honeymoon period, but at the moment I love my job. I am working harder than I was as a postdoc, but it doesn't feel as much like work because I'm enjoying it more. I love the increased cross section of interaction with students, and have been enjoying thinking about how to present material in lectures and how to get the students to engage with the material. I also appreciate that the teaching load is low enough that I can stay involved in research at a high level, and I love the variety of the work I do: last week I was putting together a new collaboration for an observing proposal while writing lectures and trying to figure out how to build a radio telescope for our campus. These things are all a huge amount of fun for me.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The students are wonderful. A lot of my motivation to work as hard as I do comes from wanting to do well by them: to share with them my enthusiasm for the subjects I teach and to give them a good foundation for their future lives/careers. I also, of course, love the freedom to work on any subject that I'm interested in, and the thrill of discovering new information about how the universe works. And I couldn't have gotten luckier with my colleagues. Academia is demanding, though, and it is very hard to balance teaching and advising with research and travel — sometimes it seems impossible to do everything you're expected to do. At a PUI, it also seems that you have to work a little harder to stay involved in mainstream research, and occasionally even to get people to take you seriously as a researcher.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Academia is inherently very creative and initiative-driven. I feel much more limited by my own finite available time and energy than by any constraints imposed by my job.

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

My department is very family-friendly — several of my colleagues are participatory parents/caregivers and regularly talk about their responsibilities and ask for accommodations (like not scheduling meetings after 5 pm), so it's an open topic of conversation. The university policies are pretty good. There are universities with more generous/equitable policies, but it's also much better than FMLA. In general, academia allows you to have a great deal of control over your schedule, although the travel required for professional astronomers is a big issue. (I highly recommend radio astronomy, which seems to be better than some other fields at incorporating remote observing.)

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
I have two main work-life balance strategies.

(1) I work well on a regular schedule, and so I do my best to work efficiently during my regular working hours and compartmentalize work and home life as much as possible. For the most part, I try to work when I'm at work and immerse myself in home life when I'm home. It doesn't always work perfectly, of course, but so far it has worked well enough for me.

(2) At each stage of my career, I've tried very hard to strike a work-life balance that I'm comfortable with and stick to it, despite the pressures that an astronomy career places to always work longer and harder. If I can't get to the next level with a work-life balance that's comfortable for me, then I probably don't want to be there. That's been my attitude in grad school and as a postdoc, and it's how I'm now thinking about the tenure process. So far it's worked out fine... ask me again in about seven years!

I also don't have children yet (although I do have a family — and I do occasionally take issue with equating "having a family" to "having children"), so I suspect I may have to readjust my approach to work-life balance in the future, and will be happy to read other people's advice about this topic.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I try to stay physically active (I've done a couple of sprint triathlons and some martial arts training), and my fiance and I are adventurous cooks (and good ones, we think!). I've also been involved in community choruses since graduating from college, and I read a lot.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes, amhughes@wesleyan.edu.

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