Thursday, October 24, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Non-Tenure-Track Lecturer

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/astrophysicist turned non-tenure track lecturer at a large research 1 institution. 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 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?
Astronomy/Astrophysics (academia) and author (textbooks)

What is the job title for your current position?
Lecturer - Non-tenure track

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Large academic, Carnegie Classification - Very High Research

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
I work and live in both FL and TN, USA.

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
My current title is Lecturer.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
I entered a non-tenure track Lecturer position immediately upon graduation with my Ph.D. A post-doc was not an option due to being divorced with children and geographically constrained to a three-county area.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
Opportunities and rewards outside academia are greater in number. As a full-time faculty member, I teach and am involved in research as well as service like the tenure track. The number of citations to my work in 2012-2013 is 237, a number equivalent or greater than a number of those in the tenure-track. In addition to full-time, I teach online as an adjunct at a large urban college. Opportunities for growth within academia are few and thus the department, college, and university stall my career although my productivity and successes are not stalled. For example, as part of my creative activities, I am co-author on an undergraduate textbook. This creative activity outside of academia reflects the contributions I have made to my field and is more rewarding.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I made a career change from engineering to academia when I was 27. Now I include engineering with physics in my research. I have been working on various textbooks for the last five years or so.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
After completing my masters' degree, I was then able to teach college. My college teaching experience post MS Physics degree led to my current position. A Ph.D degree was a necessary requirement for my current non-tenure track position.

Describe a typical day at work.
I usually teach three classes per semester to large and small audiences, online and face-to-face. I am also part of an on-campus observatory committee in which I have handle generous donations from the community to the observatory such as domes and telescopes. In any given day, I could be teaching, authoring textbooks, advising students in research, authoring or co-authoring research papers, editing a newsletter, chairing or participating in a NASA or NSF panel on science proposals, refereeing a research paper for various astronomy/astrophysics journals, writing proposals or reports, chairing a sabbatical committee, etc.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
While finishing my Ph.D, my department chair pointed me to the job opening and suggested I apply, to which I did. Nowadays, I mentor those seeking an academic position to obtain an advocate, someone who is senior and who will actively promote that person and their work. You can seek an advocate through networking. You can network online or in person such as at a conference.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Advice should include recognizing that most women with Physics PhD's enter into the non-tenure track and most men with Physics PhD's enter into the tenure-track. Understand that non-tenure lecturer track may be a dead-end career path in the USA, which has likely no job advancement and likely no job recognition. Understand that no matter how successful you are or how many citations you have in a given year, you are likely to be viewed as a non-research scientist. Understand that many doors are closed to you both inside and outside your university. Understand that your university expects you to stay current with your career but will not likely provide any means to help you get there. Understand that you are expected to obtain 3-months salary on your own but the university will not likely provide you any help to achieve that goal. In other words, the benefits, awards, honors, and recognition seem to be mostly dedicated to the tenure-track, which are mostly male physicists. Lastly, recognize your career advancement will take a lot longer than your male colleague and you will likely be one or one of a few women in your department. Seek career satisfaction outside academia even if your career path is in academia. Seek a support group of women in your position. Seek mentoring. Seek an advocate.

How many hours do you work in a week?
60-70 hours is realistic.   Time management is crucial and thus the applicant to the job should negotiate the same two or three days of the week each semester, every semester for teaching. Usually, I am only 'in the office' on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the rest of the time, I'm working from home. Note, get job negotiations in writing. If not, the person that sets the teaching schedule may not care about your negotiations or why you negotiated them and may give your schedule to another non-tenure track that may be on his/her grant payroll.

What is your salary?
For two semesters of teaching (i.e., spring and fall), a non-tenure-track can expect ~2/3 the salary of the tenure track assistant professor in his/her geographic area. Note that salary advancements are usually not as generous or as plentiful as those in the tenure track regardless of productivity. What this means is that with most women physicists currently in the non-tenure track and most men physicists currently in the tenure-track, the discrepancies in salaries become greater with each promotion.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Satisfied and dissatisfied at the same time. My satisfaction comes mostly from outside academia where growth, opportunities, and recognition are more plentiful. Within academia, I really enjoy teaching and satisfaction comes from students who enjoy learning and who share their enjoyment with me.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The most enjoyable aspect is the fact that you may not have to go to as many faculty meetings, which is a blessing when these meetings occur on non-teaching days. Time management is much easier to achieve. The least enjoyable is the lack of opportunities for growth and recognition within the non-tenure track.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
The most I like about my working environment is that I have my own office. The least I like about my working environment is that the environment is like being on an island -- no one to talk to, no one to collaborate with, no one to commiserate with in my position. I'm the only female faculty in my group and my contributions are often ignored or belittled.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
The department allows for creative or initiative work. However, you have to provide your own incentive, initiative, means, etc.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. I have children and, like most people, I have to manage my personal life and my career. In blogs, articles, etc., we often hear about the two-body problem but nobody seems to discuss the divorced parent with children in academia. For some reason, this subject of divorce and career is taboo and avoided at the national, regional, and local levels yet most marriages end in divorce. The divorced parent usually has to make the money of two parents and do the work of two parents all in the time the one parent of the two-body problem has. Take the problems of the two-body problem with children in academia and multiply by four and you have the divorced, single parent's problem in academia.

How family-friendly is your current position?
The only women in our department that successfully went through the entire tenure track process are single and childless, which says it all. The department has made progress in this area in recent years. However, as already mentioned about my own personal experiences, those that set the teaching schedule may not care what negotiations were made when accepting the position even if these negotiations included family reasons and have been honored for nearly a decade already.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Make sure you choose your partner carefully. The astronomy field is becoming more visibly aware of the two-body problem but neglect the fact that most marriages end in divorce. Staying in astronomy, especially academia, is nearly impossible if a divorce and children are involved. Many women I know drop out of academia in astronomy when a divorce occurs involving children and their job is not permanent as the person who leaves the greater geographical area may lose their shared parental rights. My advise is to plan on an alternate career while married with children in academia and act on that alternate plan if need be should a divorce occur.

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. Astronomy is most unkind to those who do not enter into astronomy graduate school upon graduation at a young age with a bachelor's degree. The longer you wait to enter into the field and into academia, the harder your path is in academia. Some national grants still have age restrictions. Having children while in graduate school also limits your choices after graduation. A divorce while in graduate school that involves children is also a likely major career killer in academia as a post-doc is likely no longer an option and often a necessary requirement for a tenure-track position. Leaving and then returning to academia also restricts your abilities to be successful although some attempts to alleviate this concern seem to be occurring at the national level. Female physicists should be very worried about an astronomy tenure-track career path in academia.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I teach step, abs, spin, floor aerobics, and muscle toning weekly at a local gym as a stress reliever. I also hike 8-13 miles, 1000-2000 ft net elevation gain, on a couple Saturday's per month as a stress reliever. In season, I ski with my children as a fun, family outing. You may also find me sailing or kayaking on weekends with friends when opportunities arise. My current favorite TV shows are Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones. I am a big fan of Clive Cussler novels and I own all the hardback versions. I love country music as well as coffee shops.

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