Thursday, April 24, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Education and Public Outreach Officer

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 Education and Public Outreach Officer. 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 (museum). Education and Public Outreach.

What is the job title for your current position?
Education and Public Outreach Officer [yes, that is a very broad title]. I mainly produce exhibits for visitors to an Observatory; I don't do much PO in person.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
I work for a large observatory.

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?

  • First postdoc --> 
  • Complete career change and became an exhibit developer [in charge of content research] with the exhibits team for a museum with ties to aerospace industry --> 
  • Second job researching and producing [including design of] exhibits, in other words, I am the team.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
Lack of local jobs was a strong reason, as I really wanted to stay where I used to live for at least a few more years (I loved that place). Another very strong reason was that I was simply bored of coding and debugging after so many years and needed more art and different projects in my life. I never wanted to leave astronomy entirely, though, and teaching was certainly not for me, so that was too out of the question.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I was 30-31 when I made my career change.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Knowledge of science and astronomy, of course. But frankly most of the skills needed for my current position I have acquired on my own.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
I have learned to design, render, and illustrate, as well as edit video, research history, etc. on my own. I have taken tutorials online on software and learned from my former teammates about their particular areas of expertise, but never had formal training in any of my skills.

Describe a typical day at work.
I spend a lot of time designing exhibit posters and panels because there is still much trial and error when it comes to design for me [as mentioned before, I am not formally trained in design]. Research and text writing/editing comes a lot easier for me because I did that exclusively at my former job, where I had a team to do everything else. I also spend a lot of time communicating with people in my institution and vendors (contractors) to carry the projects forward.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
In 2006, one could still send out resumes and search through institutions' websites for jobs. At the time, I simply applied for the position and I was lucky that they decided to interview me. I only spent 3 months unemployed. Before my current job, which I got in 2012, I spent 2 years unemployed because sending resumes and applying for jobs online was little more than useless in the new economy. In this tough market is all about networking, but unfortunately for me I knew no one in my new city [had to move because husband got a new position]. I finally found a job in the same institution as my husband when we finally got to know enough people to tell them what I did for a living.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Faculty should definitely encourage their students to have a very broad set of skills. This cannot be emphasized enough. Even if they stay in academia, knowing research/computer/people skills is invaluable (and by computer skills I mean more than Powerpoint and coding IDL, and by research I mean more than reading Astroph). Also teamwork is extremely important, which is something we are rarely exposed to in academia. Elsewhere, good teamwork can do wonders.

How many hours do you work in a week?
35-40 hours I try not to do any work at home other than answer occasional emails. I like to have free time.

What is your salary?
In my former non-profit institution (2006-2010) I only made 36K--a slight pay cut from my postdoc salary. Now (2012-2013) I am making 50K, but I think this is remarkable.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. I love my job but it is hard being an army of one. I just wish I had my former team with me :)

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I like the type of job and certainly like the benefits. I also like the people in my current institution. Again, a team is the only thing I am missing.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
Well, I don't really have access to a design shop as I used to (with materials and equipment), but I get by alright.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
All of them :) I only need blessing from my supervisor at the very end [in particular when it comes to spending money], but my job is to *be* creative.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very satisfied.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Moderately family friendly.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes, I work in an astronomy department and an observatory.

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 Absolutely. I was always terrified that there was no going back once I took the step, and I think it is mostly true. I still get the occasional email from people [not my thesis advisor, he and most others are still cool with me] that sound disappointed because I "used" to have a brilliant career and now I don't. But I am happy, and to me that is what counts. I like to be happy at my job because I spend 50% of my time working (if one doesn't count time spent asleep). Seems to me that having a non-satisfactory job can ruin the other 50% of one's life. And at that point, really what's the point.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I make art, watch lots of movies, and I'm learning French. I also hike and travel when I can. My historical research has many times become a bit of a hobby, in which I get so absorbed I investigate more just for fun.

Additional thoughts, comments, resources:
Sadly, seems to me that having a Ph.D. was not good for job searching. I resorted to deleting it from my resume as I got more desperate. There are articles online on this issue, I believe, but I don't have any data on how effective that was in my job search. At my current position they of course know I have it.