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Career Profile: Astronomer to Tenure Track Faculty and Observatory Project Scientist

Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 11:39

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 an astronomer turned tenure-track faculty and project scientist at an observatory; the subject of this interview has chosen to remain anonymous. For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.

What field do you currently work in?
Astronomy (academia) and astronomy (observatory) as well.

What is the job title for your current position?
Associate Professor and Project Scientist

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

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?

  • After M.S., worked as a community college instructor for one year.
  • After Ph.D., did postdocs at Caltech and JPL.
  • Came to tenure track position six years after Ph.D.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
The management, purchasing, procurement and interacting with the public from my community college and JPL jobs in particular are the most important for my work with the observatory.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
No formal alternate training.

Describe a typical day at work.
Teaching classes, meeting with students, meeting with colleagues for various service components of the job, making decisions related to the observatory with management issues there, answering email and phone queries and occasionally preparing proposals or working on research and publications.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I found my current post in the AAS Job Register. However, I do read technical publications and subscribe to job registers associated with non-academic jobs at mainly aerospace-type industries. I go to technical conferences (SPIE, Vacuum Society, etc.) to present some of my work and make a point of visiting people at the booths and developing relationships with vendors in industry where I might consider pursuing employment some day. I serve on panels for NSF and NASA and meet lots of people there as well.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
I feel strongly that students need to be disabused of the notion that all PhDs become faculty. I encourage my students to explore their interests and take classes not strictly in their "major" as graduate students. I also encourage them to interact with other student colleagues from other departments (via student government, for instance) so they can see a different set of career paths in a non-threatening way.

I tell undergraduate and graduate students that they are every bit as capable as engineers and should not be shy about pursuing more engineering-type roles if that is interesting to them. I try to send students to conferences to interact with other colleagues, and also involve them in web development and outreach for the observatory so that they can get a taste of interacting with the public.

I also tell them quite frankly that a faculty career is not "all roses," so that they are realistic about this and other jobs as they evaluate what to do next.

I give them the "sage advice" my advisor gave me about thinking about the job "after this next one" so that they see the career process as a continuum and not a series of accidental accomplishments.

How many hours do you work in a week?
50-55 hours. About 35-40 hours are in my faculty/observatory offices and the rest are at home at night and on the weekends.

What is your salary?
When I am able to garner full summer support, $80K/annum.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

The job of a faculty member at a public institution is not, as some people would portray it in the press, a low stress, high pay job. I spend the majority of my time rushing from one task, meeting, or deadline to the next and am almost never able to "go home and not think about work." I have 5 graduate students to support in my research program, which means writing proposals for funding (in the currently fairly lousy funding environment) every couple of months. At the university, pay has not been augmented in 5 years, with one exception of a cost-of-living allowance which was fully offset by a rise in the cost of benefits. Because of the recommendations of the 2010 Astrophysics Decadal Survey, I anticipate getting future funding in the areas I choose to do research in to only become harder.

My morale and basic enjoyment of my job are fairly low. I am seriously considering a career path change out of academia, but because of the age of my children and stage in career for my spouse, I feel I probably need to make such a change in the next 2 years, or put it off for several more.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I enjoy: the "aha" moment from students, investigating new ideas in either the research or teaching realm, talking with my colleagues about how to improve my teaching.

I do not enjoy: administrative meetings with little actual work getting done, most of the forms and processes my university has put into place to "get things done" as they are mostly a way to generate paper and fairly inefficient, getting "nickeled and dimed" on my grants from the university administration which has decided to charge for everything from telephones to photocopies, students whining that they did not get the grade they thought they were getting/deserved to get.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I enjoy: being on a campus with all the associated perks nearby (library, coffee house, rec center), my large office with lots of windows and a door that I can close. I do not enjoy: my two-hour commute every day, the university administration that runs the campus like a business rather than an institute of higher learning.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
I am fully able to apply for whatever grants I have the time and energy to put in, as long as matching funds are not required. I have the latitude to occasionally teach new courses.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Dissatisfied. My work, along with a long commute, requires nearly nightly activity on my part to stay on top of. I have two pre-teen children and a spouse, and therefore there is always pressure to decide "who gets disappointed" — me, work, or my family. It is clearly not ideal but I get very little sympathy from my academic colleagues because, except for the ones who don't have children, it's the same for all of us.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Moderately family friendly. The campus has a daycare, but only for children who are potty-trained or older. They do not have a two-body policy, but are discussing developing one. They added a maternity policy for faculty 4 years ago when the number of child-bearing-age women got to a critical mass and it became an ongoing issue. Our department chairs have supported female faculty/graduate students in the past with reduced work loads when they have a child, which is why it's "moderately" family friendly — the campus as a whole is less-so as they have no formal policies everything is treated "individually."

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Graduate students in particular ask when is the "right time" to start a family. I tell them two things: 1) there is no "right time," and 2) I wish I'd started sooner as I had more energy when I was younger. Being efficient with your work time and being clear about your goals helps in achieving a balance. That said, I find I'm rarely able to achieve a satisfactory balance. Having a supportive spouse who is cognizant of the pressures placed upon faculty helps as well.

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. The only piece of advice I have is a cliché. Life is short and it's important to be happy and make the most of it. If your job is making you unhappy, it's probably time for a change. Most people do not work in the same field they get their degree in for their entire life, and so it seems unreasonable to expect that we (astronomers) should somehow be different in that respect.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Play a musical instrument with a small group, garden and read a lot of non-astronomy fiction/non-fiction.

Laura Trouille
Director of Citizen Science
Northwestern University & The Adler Planetarium
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