Thursday, April 17, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Staff 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 an astronomer turned staff scientist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). 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 (now retired)

What is the job title for your current position?
SAO astrophysicist (now retired)

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

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Chandra staff scientist

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
  • post doc => 
  • sabbatical replacement => 
  • staff scientist IUE satellite => 
  • scientist ISTS, York Univ. => 
  • staff scientist Chandra X-ray Satellite
If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
job changes largely determined by inability for family to relocate

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
data analysis

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
Every position has necessitated learning specific skills: satellite operations, teaching; also computer/ software skills (IDL), government program management

Describe a typical day at work.
-- After retirement:
research: writing proposals, data analysis, writing papers

-- Before retirement:
Chandra user support: organizing review panels,
Fellowship coordinator: organizing competition, symposium, implementing grant awards

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
look for continual change--in subject matter, skills, techniques

How many hours do you work in a week?
50-55 hours

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
Before retirement:
high points: the next insight
low point: there was never really much time for research

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
collegiality--when it works

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
retirement: it is what you make it

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

How family-friendly is your current position?
Moderately family friendly. The situation today is better than when my children were young--though not perfect

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
I worked several years part time which allowed time with children but opportunity for really doing serious career work (as a post-doc)

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?
N/A. Going back must be difficult (though sessional teaching is always a possibility). There are many people with non-academic jobs who have fully challenging and interesting jobs.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
When children were young, family + work took up pretty much all the time