Thursday, March 6, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Director for the Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics

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 Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer turned Professor of Physics & Astronomy and Director for the Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics. 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 Thursday.

What field do you currently work in?
Astronomy (academia)

What is the job title for your current position?

Professor of Physics; Australian Laureate Fellow; Director, Centre of Excellence for All-sky Physics

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
The University of Sydney

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live and work in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Tenure track faculty.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

  • 1998-2001 Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
  • 2001-2002 Clay Postdoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory 
  • 2002-2006 Assistant Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University 
  • 2006 Associate Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University 
  • 2006- Professor of Physics, The University of Sydney 
  • 2006-2011 Australian Research Council Federation Fellow, The University of Sydney 
  • 2011- Australian Laureate Fellow, The University of Sydney 
  • 2011- Director, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Skills/knowledge in signal processing, computer programming, plasma physics, high-energy physics

Describe a typical day at work.
I manage a research centre with a $4M annual budget and approximately 130 members distributed over six universities.

A typical day might include: - sending and answering emails relating to reports, budgets, hiring, deadlines - meeting with students and postdocs and discussing the papers they are writing - participating in teleconferences/videoconferences/meetings relating to committees within my university, within my Centre, and within broader Australian astronomy - 30 minutes handling manuscripts and referee reports in my role as editor of an astronomy journal - maybe 30-60 minutes of data reduction and calculations relating to my own research

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
See answers to Q15 above, plus all the other sessions from that workshop, as listed at .

How many hours do you work in a week?
50-55 hours. 40 hours in the office, 5-15 hours at home in the evenings.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. I get to come up with ideas and then see 100s of people all over Australia pursue them!

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
Most enjoyable: working with students; seeing postdocs and students land good jobs after working with me. Least enjoyable: writing reports; sitting in long teleconferences and meetings that aren't really about science.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
Like: Working with smart people, brainstorming ideas; Dislike: Too much travel and time away from home.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Writing grant proposals is the ultimate in creativity: propose for something that is new and not incremental and is perhaps out of your comfort zone, but have to convince the reader that you're the only one who can pull it off. My job as Director provides (and requires) enormous initiatives. I have to solve problems, whether they be astrophysical, financial or personnel-related, in creative ways on a fixed budget.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Satisfied. I have to work hard but I like my job!

How family-friendly is your current position?
Moderately family friendly. There is a lot of flexibility to allow me to be there for my family when needed (school vacation, school pick-ups in the afternoon, taking child to doctor, etc.). I have instituted many family-friendly policies within my Centre.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Learn to work efficiently rather than working long hours to get the job done. If you plan on having a family, it will help greatly if you have a supportive spouse and if one or both of you have flexibility in your jobs.

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?

I tell my students that they should do a PhD in astronomy because they are interested in studying astronomy for a few years, not because they expect to have a career in the field. The unemployment rate for PhD astronomers is essentially zero, and all such graduates are working on interesting things in a whole range of areas. I am just as pleased when my students land something exciting outside astronomy as when they get a postdoc in astronomy.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I am a parent, which gives me limited time to indulge myself! However, my interests when I do have time are rugby league, cricket, science-fiction and constitutional law.

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

1 comment :

  1. This is an extremely clear and well-argued piece, Joan. Nice job!