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 Monica Young, an astronomer turned Web Editor for Sky & Telescope. 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?
Science Communication / Writing
What is the job title for your current position?
As Web Editor for Sky & Telescope I manage online content, writing and editing news stories,
commissioning blog authors, and scouring press releases and astro-ph for news topics. I also manage app development, and I'm working on a long-term overhaul of the website. In my copious spare time, I answer customer questions about our website, apps, digital issue, and why the Moon is sometimes red.
What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Sky & Telescope.
As a print magazine, we provide astronomy news, observing guides and charts, and feature articles on
topics ranging from amateur astronomer participation in research to the latest knowledge of how Saturn's rings formed.
What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?
What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
During my final years of graduate school and during my year as a postdoc, I wrote on a volunteer basis for a variety of venues, including AWIS magazine and Penn State's media relations. In fact, I took my postdoc at Penn State in part because of the prospect of working with Penn State's media relations department - my experience there helped me decide to pursue writing full-time.
During these years, I also started a blog about the "the moving universe," I guestblogged
for Science in My Fiction, and I wrote a book review for a local newspaper that I ended up reading for a local
A few months into my postdoc, I decided that I would never feel fulfilled pursuing research as a career and decided to pursue science-writing instead. I left my postdoc after a year and took some time off to be at home with my newborn son before applying for jobs.
Ultimately, luck played a huge role in my current position - when I applied for an internship at Sky & Telescope, they happened to be accepting applicants for a job there at the same time. The internship
essentially served as a trial run and they ended up hiring me full-time after two weeks as an intern.
What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
This is really a complicated question. There were a lot of factors that played *some* role - for example, I hated the prospect of moving from city to city every couple of years. I also didn't like the many-hour workweeks, although I'm now in a position where I do appreciate the flexibility that even those long weeks offered me. However, I think I would have ultimately have dealt with those downsides if I had the passion for research that others around me had.
At the end of every day, I never really felt complete unless I wrote in my blog or edited an article. So in other words, there were many days I felt incomplete. Research was fun at times, but it never produced that same feeling of fulfillment.
If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I left my postdoc at age 30.
What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
I am probably one of few where my Ph.D. experience is directly relevant to my current non-academic career. I use my background daily while reading astro-ph and press releases, examining new publications for newsworthiness. Even when I'm not familiar with a topic, I'm generally able to assess whether a result is valid and interesting before I email an expert for their opinion.
What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
No additional training, aside from what I learned on my own by writing/editing in my free time.
Describe a typical day at work.
I typically catch up on email for the first hour of my day. This means reading through press releases, answering reader
questions, and organizing news content for the week. After that, each day is different. Some days I'm pursuing a news
story, which involves lots of reading (I always read the original article at the bare minimum) and interviews. Other days,
I'm analyzing our website's information architecture and making wireframes, thinking of how we can optimize the site's
organization during the overhaul. I might spend all day editing an article for the magazine, which also involves finding
illustrations to accompany the text and writing captions. And occasionally, I'll be managing app development, which
means coordinating between our designer, who puts together the basic interfaces, and our app developer, who does the
Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I conducted informational interviews, which led to my internship, and that led directly to my current job.
What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Mention non-academic career options and enable networking outside of academia. For example, Neil Brandt at Penn State helped me connect with Penn State's media relations department.
How many hours do you work in a week?
Because of daycare and owning only one car, I typically work 35 hours in the office, and another 5 at home.
What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
My job allows me to read about science and write about science. I'm always at the
forefront of every field. There's nothing better.
What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Too many to count. Every article I write or edit, every caption I write, every decision I help make is an opportunity to be
creative. Opportunities to take initiative have largely come with answering readers' questions. As readers make me
aware of certain issues, I can take initiative (assuming it's within the budget) to make changes.
What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
My only advice is that balance is a wobbly thing - sometimes you'll be working more, sometimes you'll be with family
more. And that's ok.
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?
Nope, no advice. I've never heard of anyone leaving academia and finding their way back.
What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Most of my fun time is spent playing with my 15-month-old son, Liam. I also enjoy cooking, yoga, reading, and watching
Downton Abbey. And occasionally making my way to an Irish pub to listen some music.
Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes. monica.c.young [at] gmail.com
Additional thoughts, comments, resources:
Anybody interested in science writing should join the National Association of Science Writers (NASW).