Monday, March 9, 2009

The Post Postdoc Phase

After reading the blog post on “Squeezing the Pipeline” from Hannah_at_Women in Astronomy Blog, Feb 14, 2009 as well as the comments about the downside of moving every three years, I began to wonder how widespread this feeling is. I work with many postdocs in my current position as a visiting astronomer at CfA. Discussions at morning coffee are just as likely to be about future jobs as about the latest science. 

Were times this tough when I was a postdoc looking for a permanent job? Well, maybe. There were no federal positions available at NASA because all those guys hired after Sputnik had not yet retired. The old Soviet Union was collapsing so all the open faculty positions in the US had hundreds (literally) of applications. There was also a recession, but admittedly not as bad as the one we’re experiencing now. 

I took a job in the physics department of a 4th tier university in a flyover state. This was certainly not my first choice. If fact, such a position would not have been in the top 100 when I was a postdoc. My choice, however, was to take this job or leave astronomy. I decided to give it a try. 

First the bad news: I was the only astronomer in a physics department. Other than my students and my (retired) husband, I was the only astronomer in town. When it comes to research, this is a lonely existence. Also, there was no physics PhD program. How can you do research without PhD students? 

Now the good news: the university has been very good to me. It provided the most level playing field I have ever experienced. I had all sorts of energy to do science because I wasn’t wasting it ‘running uphill.’ I’ve won research awards and received additional funding from endowed professorships. I was promoted early and am now a full professor. Tenure is a marvelous thing.

About students: since there was no physics PhD program, I spent a lot of time adapting my research so undergrads and MS students could make meaningful contributions. This has been surprisingly rewarding. Many of my students go on to good careers both in astronomy and out. I admit that there is the occasional disappointment, but this is the exception.

About teaching: the normal teaching load for research faculty is two classes per semester. I’ve been lucky enough to buy myself out of one of those classes with grant money. Of course I still have the normal department and university committee obligations, but one class per semester and an open summer leave a lot of time for research.

About research: I publish papers in ApJ with undergrad coauthors. I bring in grant money to the university. I’m a paid Co-Investigator on a NASA instrument and a regular visitor at CfA. My research has spawned controversy and helped inspire a series of specialized astronomical workshops. 

About finances: The cost of living in our city is a lot lower than many on the east and west coasts.  We live in a house on a lake, our mortgage was paid off early, and we have the luxury of disposable income. We take vacations, upgrade to business class, and even contemplate buying a condo on the beach somewhere as a second home, mostly on my university salary. 

About work-life balance: My job does not require an 80-hour week. I did work weekends in the beginning – preparing classes took a lot of time. Now, however, a regular work schedule is sufficient and life outside of astronomy is full and rewarding. 

An Invitation: Should I consider myself an astronomical failure because I don’t work at a top tier university? I used to, but I don’t anymore. I’m not saying this is right for everyone, but it worked for me. Are there other examples out there? What worked for you? Would you be willing to share your post-postdoc experience with the readers of AASWOMEN and the Women in Astronomy blog who might find themselves veering off the traditional career path?


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience! It's nice to hear someone that found joy in a position that was not their top choice, and have been able to find a work-life balance.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Joan! Your story gives me hope.

    In regards to whether or not you're a failure, I'd say definitely not. It's simply that we've all be brainwashed to think of only one career path as defining success, when the truth is that success is what we define it to be.

  3. Great post Joan. I remember the CfA coffee postdoc job talk with "fondness".

    I wonder if the difference now though is that jobs like the one you got are increasingly hard to get too. Coming from a research intensive background you have to "prove" you're really interested in a job at a small university where teaching would be the focus. I actually think that kind of job would suit me very well and I do have evidence of a aptitude for an love of teaching in my CV. But I've applied for several of these, usually with no response at all and certainly no helpful feedback as to why my application wasn't taken seriously....