Thursday, March 27, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Tenure Track Faculty at a Small Liberal Arts College

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 turned tenure track faculty at a small liberal arts college. She went directly from graduate school into her current position and loves her job. 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/Physics academia (small liberal arts college professor, tenure track)

What is the job title for your current position?
Assistant Professor of Physics. I am in a tenure-track position. My annual teaching duties include 12 cr of introductory physics, 6 cr of upper division undergraduate physics, and 3 cr of introductory astronomy.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Small, liberal arts college that teaches primarily undergraduates. We have a student body of ~1100.

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

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
I went straight from graduate school to my current position.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
My decision to skip post-doctoral research and go straight to a tenure-track job at a small school was heavily influenced by wanting to settle down in a stable job as soon as possible. My desire for a stable job was because my husband did not want to constantly uproot, move, and find a new job.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
I use my physics/astronomy background extensively in my course preparation and research duties at my job. My experience as a TA and in the University of Wisconsin's DELTA program prepared me for teaching.

Describe a typical day at work.
School in session:

  • 8:00-9:00 office hours, 
  • 9:00-10:00 class preparation/grading, 
  • 10:00-11:30 teaching, 
  • 11:30-1:00 class preparation/grading, 
  • 1:00-2:00 teaching, 
  • 2:00-4:00 meetings/school service commitments, 
  • 4:00-5:00 research (unless students come by for help, which is often the case). 

Week-long breaks during school year:

  • Grading, reflection, organizing (25%), 
  • class preparation for upcoming semesters (30%), 
  • service-- updating course descriptions, writing letters of recommendation, etc (30%), 
  • research (15%) 

Summer: Research with students (75%), service/teaching preparation (25%)

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I heard about my current position through the Inside Higher Ed website. I also used Chronicle of Higher Education and American Astronomical Society job bulletins.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Honestly, I struggle with this with my own students. I doubt my own ability to judge whether a student is a "good fit" for a position, even when I do not think s/he is heading in a direction consistent with my perception of his/her strengths and weaknesses. So I urge them to inform themselves about their career paths, and identify people in their dream jobs so the student can see what steps are necessary to get where they want to be. With specific role models in mind, I try to encourage students determine whether or not their abilities and interests are consistent with their chosen career path. I also try to be very honest with students about what I can write in their letters of recommendation, so students can get my outside perspective on "fit" for what they want to do.

How many hours do you work in a week?
50-55 hours At office: 45 At home: 5-10.

Also, from May 15th-Aug 15th these numbers change to 40 hrs/wk, ~20 at home, ~20 at office.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Satisfied. I love my job. I wish my college had more resources for faculty salary-- my only complaint is that I feel under-compensated, and the salary ceiling after promotion is low compared to other institutions in my area. If I do eventually change career paths, it will probably be for financial reasons.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
From research to teaching to service, my entire job revolves around being creative and taking initiative. These skills are part of almost everything that I do.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Moderately family friendly. Many faculty members at my college have children, and most are in marriages/partnerships. The college expects reasonable working hours and is accommodating of day-care schedules. That said, we have no maternity policy aside from "take your disability leave for 6 weeks." All of my pre-tenure colleagues with young children are men, who missed only a few days for the birth of their children, and whose wives took maternity leave to be with the kids. The lack of a clear policy is frustrating for someone whose classes are hard to cover. Who can just step in to teach Quantum Physics for 6 weeks, when the only other physics professor at the college is already teaching a full load? I don't think the college has any sort of plan, so I'll have to just figure it out as I go and hope I don't risk my promotion to tenure by having a baby. My other big gripe is that we do not have any sort of campus childcare support. We're too small. I envy my friends at bigger universities who are eligible for very affordable, excellent child care on campus.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
I don't have kids yet-- I feel like I could use some advice there. I'm just going to go for it and see what happens. As for maintaining my marriage, I have to be in charge of drawing the line on work. I leave my laptop at the office most weeknights to avoid the temptation of doing "a little bit more" when I get home. I make intentional decisions to be done for the day at 5 pm. I think choosing a job where I could make these work-live balance decisions and still be deemed "a good employee" was critical to my happiness.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. After focusing on teaching for three years, I'm trying to re-kindle some research connections in astronomy to provide projects for my students to work on.

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?

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I spend a lot of time outdoors: hiking, biking, running, climbing, skiing. I also enjoy gardening and reading novels.

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