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Career Profile: Astronomer to Physics Department Head

Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 00:00

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 Edmund Bertschinger, an astronomer turned tenure track faculty and chair of the Physics Department at MIT. 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 Thursday.

What field do you currently work in?
Astronomy (academia)

What is the job title for your current position?
Physics Department Head

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
MIT

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Newton, MA, and Cambridge, MA

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?
Grant-funded postdoc at the University of Virginia, followed by a Miller Fellowship at UC Berkeley. After one year in Berkeley I joined the faculty of MIT, where I have been since 1986.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
The ability to identify and solve interesting problems. Persistence. Numerical methods.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
I got some teaching experience during summers in graduate school and as a postdoc.

Describe a typical day at work.
As a department head, I have lots of meetings! I meet with staff to help conduct the business of the department, with faculty to facilitate their success, and with students as mentees and researchers. In addition to running a department, I also am deeply involved in campus-wide promotion of diversity and inclusion through service on several committees. Finally, I spend a portion of my time on fund-raising and engaging alumni as well as colleagues on national committees.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I had applied for several faculty positions when my first postdoc was ending. Just as I was accepting a second postdoc, I got a call from faculty at MIT saying they were interested in me and encouraging me to apply. I'm not sure I would have applied without that call.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Learn professional skills that will be assets in any career: speaking and writing, project management, leadership. Also, consider several career choices. Before I got my first postdoc, I applied for an industrial position in an aerospace firm. It would have been a great choice had I not gotten that postdoc.

How many hours do you work in a week?
55-60 hours. My workday starts at 8:30 am and goes until 5:30 pm or 6:00 pm in the office, with up to an hour more at home and several hours during weekends.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. I love learning, teaching and helping others thrive. Academia is a great place to do just this, provided that one is flexible and adaptable to change. I've had to learn much more than physics and astronomy; learning to lead an organization brings its own challenges and pleasures.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I love working with postdocs and students to pursue basic research, as we strive to uncover nature's secrets. I love mentoring — of students, staff and faculty — for the pleasure of seeing others thrive. I love working to make a good department even better. I dislike being overwhelmed by email, and sometimes not having enough time for research and quiet reflection.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I like best the access to brilliant and dedicated people in many fields. I like very much the "roll up our sleeves and get things done" culture. Good ideas are encouraged and supported in an entrepreneurial system that cuts across the university. I dislike most the underrepresentation of women and minorities among graduate students and faculty, which motivates me to devote effort to change.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Endless! MIT is a fabulous place for fostering creativity and initiative. The university has seed funding for new research programs, and innovation is MIT's core principle and practice. As one small example, I wanted my department to advance online education using Massive Open Online Courses. Initially the faculty were skeptical about edX and concerned that it would increase their workload without any benefit to on-campus education. I set up a departmental advisory committee, obtained funding for some initial projects, brought back a retired faculty member to play a leading role, and began communicating a vision for educational innovation on-campus. Our first course, freshman electromagnetism with famed lecturer Walter Lewin, begins on February 18 on edX. We are starting to prepare our next online courses and are using some of the materials in our own classrooms. We will conduct small-scale experiments in "flipped classrooms" and grow our education research efforts. Our department is leading the university in these efforts.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Satisfied. The workload is heavy, but it is manageable and probably no worse than I would have as an aerospace executive, had I followed that career path. I do not let work prevent me from spending lots of time with family and some with exercise and relaxation.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Moderately family friendly. Faculty members receive one-semester parental leaves during which they have no teaching. Some on-campus childcare is available, and it will increase in 2013. The university and department culture, if not all faculty members, respect the need for appropriate work-hours for parents with young or school-age children. We're less successful in helping postdocs as parents, a topic of concern to me.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
You can do it! The postdoc years are good for child-bearing, provided that you have adequate resources (salary for child care, or help by parents or partner), as you generally have great flexibility in your time (unless you are required to spend long hours in a lab, as sometimes happens in life sciences). Make sure you ask about this before accepting any job — but you don't have to raise it before the job offer. A good employer will inform you about support for work-life balance without waiting for you to ask

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Most importantly I enjoy spending time with my loved ones. I also enjoy travel, reading, cooking, drinking and learning about wines, and bird-watching. I'm a runner, having accomplished several half and full marathons over the last couple of years.

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