Thursday, November 7, 2013

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Research Analyst in the Defense Industry

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 Eileen Chollet, an astronomer turned Research Analyst in the defense industry. 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?

What is the job title for your current position?
Research Analyst.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live in Fairfax, VA, USA. Work in Alexandria, VA, USA.

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Postdoc (1st)

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
After I got my PhD, I took a first postdoc at Caltech with a group I had been collaborating with during my dissertation work. While at Caltech, I attended a career fair that CNA participated in, and they recruited me to work for them.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
My job is outside both astronomy and academia. I decided to leave academia because of my family. Given the terrible job market, I was likely to have to take at least one more postdoc before finding a permanent position. I was already 28 years old and experiencing fertility issues, so we needed to start seriously focusing on having children. Additionally, my husband wanted to stay home with the kids, and I couldn't afford that on a postdoc salary. I did look for permanent jobs in astronomy, but my branch of astronomy (solar radiation physics) was a natural fit for the defense industry, so I began looking there in addition to the astronomy community. Ultimately, I received a good offer from my current employer, where the work is not astronomy related.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I left my postdoc and took my defense job at age 28.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Public speaking and social skills were the most valuable skills I got with my degree. All the math and analytical skills are a necessary prerequisite for my job, but most of what I do all day is speak and write. The math skills I do use are statistics and not calculus - astronomers should learn as much statistics as they can! Though not required by degree, I did teach and do public outreach as a graduate student, and being able to explain scientific reasoning to a broader audience has proved valuable as week.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
A PhD in a physical science was a prerequisite for my job. CNA trains its employees in-house in operations research.

Describe a typical day at work.
I have two typical days, really. When I'm at headquarters, I'm reading documents and writing up analysis to answer questions that my project sponsor has. When I'm in the field, I'm taking observations of war games in order to analyze how the naval exercise is going and how tactics, techniques and procedures can be improved.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I learned about it at a career fair, but Caltech is unique in having lots of jobs for PhD scientists at a career fair. Having a LinkedIn profile is necessary so people can look you up, but not really a good way to find jobs. Your best bet is to talk to people who took jobs outside academia/astronomy and see if they know of any open positions. Most companies offer incentives for referrals, so they're usually happy to talk to you.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
They need to tell students that the chance of getting a faculty position is basically zero, and they need to be doing it before the student goes to graduate school. Then the student can decide if he or she really wants to pursue the equivalent of a draft into the NFL.

How many hours do you work in a week?
40-45 hours

What is your salary?
About 100K

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. The hours are good, the pay is good, and the work is interesting an important. I can't really ask for anything better than that.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The best part of my job is that I'm really making a difference. I'm doing valuable work for important people, and they appreciate my work. You don't get that too often in astronomy and academia, but let me tell you, it's a great feeling. The only thing I don't like about my job is having to live in the Washington D.C. area. It's expensive and the traffic is a nightmare!

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I like working with members of the U.S. military. They are intelligent and articulate, and I'm always learning new things from them. I dislike having to fly on military aircraft though - I get terribly airsick.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
My employer encourages all employees to develop their own analytical projects. I've been looking at historical trends in military decorations for valor, and I'm working on a journal article. I came up with the project all on my own.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very satisfied. I just had a baby and took 6 weeks paid maternity leave. My employer is very generous about work-life balance.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly. I just had a baby and took 6 weeks paid maternity leave. My employer has generous benefits and family-oriented work events, along with pretty much infinite flexibility in one's schedule.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
It sounds crass, but money solves lots of work-life balance issues. We can afford to have my husband stay home with the baby, which he loves. In turn, him being home lets me be more valuable to my employer by traveling, often on short notice.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes, Many of my local friends are still in astronomy.

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?
No. I've heard of this, but all my advisors were completely supportive of my choice. I do feel that I couldn't get back on the academic track if I wanted to, but I don't miss it.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Given that I have a newborn... sleep is all my fun! I also like video games, and I get in exercise when I can, though I wouldn't call exercise "fun".

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?

Additional thoughts, comments, resources:
My company is always accepting resumes for new analysts with PhDs in physical sciences.

These opinions are solely those of the author and do not represent those of CNA, its sponsors or the Department of the Navy.

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