Thursday, April 3, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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 Neil Gehrels, an astronomer turned Chief of NASA Goddard's Astroparticle Physics Laboratory. He loves his job, is very satisfied with his work-life balance, and finds his work environment to be very family friendly. 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 (national lab)

What is the job title for your current position?
Chief, Astroparticle Physics Laboratory

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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

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?
Post-doc at Goddard followed by Astrophysicist at Goddard followed by Lab Chief at Goddard

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
laboratory skills; data analysis skills; communication skills; broad interest in science

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

management training at Godddard

Describe a typical day at work.
every day is different: data analysis; writing papers; developing new hardware; proposing instruments and missions; give presentations; travel; meet with people; e-mail

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
grapevine through colleagues and help from mentors

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

  • physics education is important; 
  • give talks whenever possible; 
  • ask colleagues and professors for advice; 
  • relax and have fun with it
How many hours do you work in a week?
60-65 hours. 48 hours at office; 14 hours at home

What is your salary?
about $165k

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. I love my job. Each day is different and interesting.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The most exciting part is obtaining new data / knowledge from space instruments that we have built. The least enjoyable part is the paperwork and barrage of tasks to do that take time away from research.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
The people at work come from many countries and are fun to work with.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
There are continuous opportunities at work to get involved in new collaborations and start new hardware projects.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very satisfied. My wife and children are all in technical field and we enjoy talking every day about work. We all enjoy hiking, climbing and sailing. Every week has some outdoor activity. Musics is also a hobby shared by the family.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly. We socialize outside of work. Family is often included in work-related activities.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
having a family)? For me, it worked well to marry a fellow scientist. We both have the same pressures and desires to spend time with family. We also have similar interests at work and outside. Work-life balance can certainly also work well when a spouse has a very different field.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
My family and I like outdoor activities, music and travel. We have adopted the European tradition of taking a significant amount of time off in August for traveling and outdoor adventures.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes, neil.gehrels[at]

Additional thoughts, comments, resources:
It is a great idea to collect this kind of information and make it available to young scientists.