Thursday, October 31, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Research Scientist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

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 Christine Jones, an astronomer turned research scientist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). She is the Consortium director for the Smithsonian Grand Challenge of Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe. 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?
Astronomy (national lab)

What is the job title for your current position?
Senior astrophysicist and Director of Smithsonian consortium on Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
I live in Arlington Massachusetts, USA and work in Cambridge Massachusetts, USA and Washington DC

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Research Scientist

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
Two post-doctoral fellowships (CfA post-doc, Harvard Junior Fellow) at CfA followed by position as Astrophysicist at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
Since being a post-doc, my jobs have had a proportion of "mission" time in them. From 1990 to 2010 that mission time was leading the calibration group at the Chandra X-ray Center. Since 2010, it has been as the Consortium director for the Smithsonian Grand Challenge of Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
In addition to the technical abilities, the skill of paying attention to what is in the observations and having the drive and patience to get the analysis completed, along with checking everything at least twice are probably the most important skills I learned. I've also worked for many years with our summer intern program, and sometimes just remembering how little I knew and how much I thought I knew as a student is useful in working with the summer interns. (They of course know much more than I did as a student!)

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
I completed no other formal training. Using new missions requires that one learn and develop new analysis software and use new computer technology. So I've never stopped learning.

Describe a typical day at work.
I don't really have a typical day. Usually in the morning I check emails (I often check these late the night before, so there aren't too many new ones in the morning). During each week I have various telecons and meetings with colleagues at SAO and in Washington to discuss research (including planning and writing upcoming observing and funding proposals), planning professional conferences, workshops, other committees (ASP, NASA, etc) that I may be involved with. Most days I do something related to research, often with post-docs or colleagues, using usually Chandra or XMM-Newton observations of galaxies, clusters and AGN, but also planning or setting up new observations or writing or commenting on papers.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I started working with the X-ray group at AS&E when I was an undergraduate and continued to work with these outstanding scientists on X-ray observations and with Bill Liller on optical observations of X-ray sources as a graduate student. I was very lucky that the X-ray missions were successful and grew from Uhuru to Einstein to ROSAT to ASCA to Chandra and XMM-Newton and Suzaku.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
If students want to stay in astronomy, it's important to do great research and to make sure others know about that research through publications, but also through attending professional meetings, particularly those topical meetings in the most relevant research areas where they can meet the individuals who may have funds for fellowships in the future.

For faculty positions, becoming an engaging teacher is important and this takes practice giving talks. Advisors should give students many opportunities to present their research and advise them on how to present it more clearly and for different audiences.

Since about one-third of astronomers work in academic positions, one-third at observatories and national labs and one-third in industry, it is also very important that students broadly consider their future options. While there are currently many post-doctural positions each year, there are generally fewer job openings for more senior positions.

How many hours do you work in a week?
45-50 hours. Typically about 40 hours in the office and about 10 more at home - more when proposals are being written or when work related travel includes weekends.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. I have been fortunate to work with very smart people and to work on exciting science projects. Because my husband and I work in the same area, work permeates our lives, so it is important that we enjoy most parts of our jobs. In addition to work related to research and observing missions, in the last couple of years, I have worked with people in other Smithsonian units to develop pan-institutional projects. It has been very satisfying to see the beginning of a culture change in the institution where people are now more willing to work collaboratively with others and more willing to think about initiating larger projects that require external funding.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is finding something new in the observations, something that no one else has seen before or predicted. This doesn't happen often, but it's great when it does. Another part is bringing together researchers and scholars to work on new projects.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I like that people share the excitement of new ideas and results with each other. I dislike that people who are comparable scientifically are not always treated equally in terms of scientific recognitions or even simple things like office space. It's unfortunate that women are still not well represented in our profession, especially at the higher levels, and this is reflected in my institution.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
My research relies on getting new observations, which requires that one write successful observing proposals. This means that one must be both creative and take the initiative. Bringing people together in new collaborations also requires that one see opportunities where the tools or ideas in one type of scholarly work may be applicable to another area.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Satisfied. There is always more that I want to do than there is time to do. I'd like to write more papers, but since that generally does not have a deadline, it gets pushed off.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly. In general, my supervisor has always been very supportive of taking the time needed to care for family. I realize that many of the work related demands are self driven (e.g. I'm working evenings and weekends to write that proposal because I want to do that science or help get that project started, not because someone else has told me I should do that.)

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Being able to balance work and life is much more possible when one has a supportive spouse (when both partners share responsibilities and appreciate the demands each one has).

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
We enjoy spending time with our now grown children. For many years we have had a subscription to the Boston Symphony and enjoy attending those concerts (and often use the flexibility of exchanging our tickets for different days when conflicts arise).

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes, cjones [at] cfa.harvard.edu

Additional thoughts, comments, resources:
It is important that women be well-represented on the governing boards and committees of our professional organizations (e.g. AAS council, AAS prize committees) as well as on fellowship/hiring panels, observing committees, and NASA and NSF proposal review panels. It is also important that people who work outside of colleges/universities be well-represented on these governing boards and committees of our profession, since people tend to think first about people who are like them when they are choosing individuals (e.g. as plenary speakers, as prize recipients, for jobs, for resource awards, for press releases, or for other recognition).

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