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Committee on Employment

Monday, November 19, 2012 - 11:39

Working Outside the Box

I graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor of Science degree in astronomy in 2005, then three years later graduated from The Catholic University of America with a Master of Science degree in physics.  So it has been a few years since I left graduate school. Since then, I have been through the job search process twice—once right after commencement, and once when my wife and I moved to Cambridge, MA.  These experiences have given me an idea as to what the post-grad school opportunities can be like for someone with a physics and astronomy background.

My early work experience was somewhat a continuation of my work as a graduate student—writing software and doing data analysis for the Heliophysics Science Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  While I am sure that those in the astronomy world know about the fellowship and post-doc opportunities at Goddard, I would be remiss if I were to suggest that those are the only opportunities available.  After obtaining my master’s, I was recruited by a contracting company (AdNet Systems, Inc.) where the “degree demographic” was pretty diverse. There were plenty of scientists with master’s degrees and many that earned PhDs but did not follow the conventional astronomy job path, which is usually described as a couple of post-docs followed by (hopefully) a tenure track position.

The move to Cambridge was out of necessity for my wife, who accepted a fellowship at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  The problem was that we relocated without anything being offered to me.  The job search was tough—the economy was bad and the unemployment rate was close to 9%.  What I did learn is that even in a recession (or recovery from a deep recession), the skill set that physical scientists have—critical thinking/problem solving skills, computer programming abilities, etc.—is still in high demand in multiple industries.  I just needed to know where to look.

The first places that often come to mind are defense contractors.  Big ones like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman were a given in my job search, and eventually I looked at other companies like L-3, SSAI, Booz Allen Hamilton, and BAE.  Many of these places utilize astronomers’ knowledge of orbital dynamics and instrumentation pertinent to the design of space systems.  Some companies need data analysts.  At the very least, there are programming jobs to which astronomers can contribute.
Shortly after moving, I ended up at a small company called Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER). Much of their research would be appealing to atmospheric scientists, but I was hired as part of the Space Weather and Effects Division, coincidentally working with the same satellite as I did when I was at Goddard!  It was a pretty smooth transition for me, and I continue to do the data analysis and software engineering that I love doing. Opportunities are there for me to contribute to proposal writing, to write papers, and present my own science as well and I do feel like my job is secure as long as I keep on doing what I am doing.

Probably the most important thing to stress to any new jobseeker is to expand one’s network when it comes to careers.  Looking back, almost all of my interviews and offers have come about because I knew someone at a particular company.  I may not be at AER today if my new boss did not know my advisor at Goddard. That made the interview really easy!

I cannot speak for other astronomers or physicists, particularly since I did not go to grad school with the same goals as the majority of them.  Namely, I did not want a PhD, a post-doc or a professorship.  I just did not think that I fit that mold.  What I can say is that AER and companies like it have become quite attractive to astronomers as the academic job market and traditional career path seem to be getting more and more bleak.  Earning a PhD or master’s degree was not easy, and along the line all of us who have been through it learned some really useful stuff. Perhaps you feel you have invested too much time on your career path to give up on it, or perhaps you are ready to leave academia but do not know how to approach industry jobs.  The silver lining is that the skills you have learned can definitely be applied in the “real world” if that is what you want to do.

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 (www.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!

Rick Pernak
Goddard Space Flight Center