Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Tenure Track Faculty at a Community 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 Andria Schwortz, an astronomer turned tenure track faculty at a Community College. 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 (academia)

What is the job title for your current position?
Ph.D. student in Physics & Astronomy at the same time as being an Associate Professor of Integrated Science at Quinsigamond Community College

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Graduate student at the University of Wyoming (Laramie, WY) at the same time as being faculty at Quinsigamond Community College (Worcester, MA)

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

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 at a Community College

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
After completing my Master's in Astronomy, I was hired by Quinsigamond Community College for a tenure track faculty position teaching existing courses in Physics, and developing an additional course now titled "Integrated Science: Earth & Space". As a community college faculty member, my duties included teaching 5 courses every semester (typically 3 unique lecture preps and 2 unique lab preps, different in the Fall and Spring semesters), advising (non-majors and Engineering majors), and college service (serving on committees). Note that there is no research component of community college work. I was also active in my union (representing faculty and professional staff), including serving as chapter president for QCC for which I received one reassigned time.

After teaching at QCC for eight years, I decided to return to graduate school to pursue a Phd with thesis research in the growing field of Astronomy Education Research (AER). I am currently at the University of Wyoming, working on my PhD in Physics and Astronomy, and my research group is on science education research (mostly astronomy and geoscience).

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
My job is not in the traditional academic track. What led me to community college teaching rather than completing the PhD is that I enjoyed teaching much more than I did performing science research. During my NSF GK-12 teaching fellowship, I student taught in underprivileged middle and high schools. I learned that while I could teach K-12, I wanted an audience with more motivation to be in the classroom than a typical middle school or high school student. I also learned of the existence of community colleges, and how they are an excellent option for students with either a weak K12 preparation, or who are looking to save some money. I decided I would enjoy teaching at the college level and that I would be able to make a difference at a community college.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I was 34 when I returned to grad school for my PhD. I had been thinking about it for a few years previous, but it took me a while to set things in order with my union, and then of course to retake the GRE and apply and such.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
The NSF GK-12 teaching fellowship helped me with my teaching skills, as well as familiarizing me with the issues that in- service K-12 teachers face, including state and national education standards, privacy laws, principals, co-teachers, and parents.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
As a community college professor, there are many things you just have to pick up on the fly and through talking to your colleagues. I did receive some training on union organizing, contract interpretation, and Robert's Rules of Order, which helped immensely with my union chapter president role.

Describe a typical day at work.
At the community college, I typically drove 1:15 to get to campus - my partner and I chose our home location so that both of us had equal time commutes, though mine was by driving and his by bus. I would arrive on campus around an hour before my first class (at 10 or 11am) of Astro 101, so I could finish off last minute prep (tweaking slides, making photocopies) or just checking email. After my class finished I would either have lunch then more prep time, or prep time then lunch, and my prep would involve making sure that my lab for the afternoon was photocopied and the equipment was set up and working. My next class would be in the afternoon at 1 or 2pm, calc-based Physics I, and immediately afterwards we'd have lab for the next three hours. After that, I'd gather together all the grading I needed to do that night, and drive home another 1:15 (thankfully after rush hour!). After dinner with my partner, he'd sit down for some relaxing video games, while I'd pull up my laptop to start revising the next day's lecture. When that was done if it wasn't bedtime yet, I'd start grading some HW or lab reports, but typically I'd finish those over the weekend.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
When I first was looking for a community college faculty job, I first tried using the AAS job register and the Chronicle of Higher Education online job search, as well as other non-academic online sources such as (Today I would also use the Inside Higher Ed online job search.) These sources unfortunately did not give me that many community college jobs, though I did apply to a number of university lecturer positions and Education and Public Outreach (EPO, college jobs, museums and visitor's centers) positions, none of which led to even an interview.

I also applied to K-12 jobs which I knew about through my NSF GK-12 contacts, and even sent my resume unsolicited to many K-12 schools.

What finally got me the job though was that with the help of Google I found the webpage of every single community college from Maine to Pennsylvania (excepting New York State, since their system was really confusing - I now know that they're run by the counties, so you have to go through their county webpages to find them all, but I didn't know that then), went through their jobs page, and applied to every remotely relevant posting I saw. This was a very tedious process, and I was terrified of not getting a job, so I told myself at the start of the process that once I'd sent 100 resumes total, I'd apply to work at Walmart. In the end I applied to 50 job postings and sent an additional 50 unsolicited resumes. Most never called me back, and most of the few interviews I went on told me that I didn't have enough experience yet - of course not, it was my first job! It was a Saturday and I told myself that I would apply to Walmart on Monday, when I got my first call with an offer.

What landed me the actual job that I took was a combination of the diligence of applying to so many different places, and luck/good timing coupled with the breadth of my resume. QCC was looking for someone who could not only teach physics, but also had experience with preK-12 pre-service teachers. I happened to be looking for a job at the same time and my NSF GK-12 experience perfectly fit what they were looking for.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
There are many options out there, and a diversity of experiences will help you to know which option is best for you. Even if you take the "normal" route in the end, having experiences outside the norm will help you to stand out from the crowd with skills that are different from most of your peers.

How many hours do you work in a week?
55-60 hours. While at QCC (I am currently on a leave of absence) my paycheck claimed 37.5 hours per week, but I spent a lot of time at night and on weekends with class prep and grading. I might have been able to cut down that time had I worked more efficiently, but I found a routine which worked for me.

What is your salary?
After 8 years at QCC I made approximately $45k as my main salary. I sometimes made a little extra from teaching an additional class, or received travel expenses by applying for internal grants. As a public employee this information is publicly available, including in databases by the Boston Herald, so feel free to list this anywhere.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very Satisfied. If you enjoy teaching, community college is a great place to be. Returning to grad school is also great, because I'm refreshing my content knowledge while also learning about how students learn from my research group.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
Teaching can be very satisfying when you see the lightbulb go off in a student's head, or when a student tells you they were always afraid of science until they had you for a professor. Meetings and grading were probably the least enjoyable aspects - at a community college you do not have any TAs to do the grading for you.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
QCC had an amazingly collegial atmosphere, where your colleagues were always willing to help you understand what was going on in your classroom dynamics, or to help you frame a difficult concept in a way that you could present it clearly to your students. There was always someone you could turn to for help.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Teaching is always creative. There were many opportunities for leadership roles, such as department chair or leading committees. And there were often opportunities to develop new courses.

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

How family-friendly is your current position?
Slightly Family Friendly.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
The balance of work/life will ebb and flow. If you know beforehand that you are coming up on a stressful work time, tell your partner so s/he is not surprised. My partner pleasantly surprised me with how much he was willing to pick up the slack when I was falling behind on things. But in return, be aware when you have extra time to spare or when your partner is in a stressful place at work, and don't stint to take on extra at those times. Trust that your partner is doing as much as s/he can to support the relationship and the family, and in return do as much as you can as well so s/he can trust you in return. If you do find the balance isn't working for you and you think that you're doing more than your fair share, talk about it instead of letting it fester. You may learn something that surprises you. :)

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I have a pet bird named Kappa - she has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. My spare time includes playing with her, knitting, playing casual video games, and reading Sci-Fi audiobooks.

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