Thursday, September 18, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office at the US Naval 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 Sethanne Howard, an astronomer turned Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office at the US Naval Observatory. 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 Thursday.

What field do you currently work in?


What is the job title for your current position?

Astronomer and Former Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office. 

Now retired. 

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

US Naval Observatory (USNO)

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

Columbia, MD

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


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

Research Scientist. 

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
  • 1965 BS in physics UCD
  • 1965/6 Lick Observatory astronomical assistant learning the skills of observational astronomy
  • 1972 MS from RPI in nuclear physics plus work at SAO in fundamental astronomy
  • 7 years research assistant at KPNO working in planetary
  • 4 years Gov. service in meteorology and oceanography
  • at age 43 returned to grad school to complete a PhD astrophysics (galactic dynamics) in 1989 at GSU
  • 2 yrs post-doc at LANL (gamma rays)
  • NASA contractor NASA/Huntsville NASA/Maryland, NASA HQ/DC (managing operating astronomical satellites)
  • 3 yrs NSF Program Director (Extragalactic and Cosmology)
  • 2000 - 2003 Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office at USNO
  • retired from there. 
What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

The jobs for astronomers is academia are very limited.  Most astronomers are not in tenure track academic positions.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?

  • 38 from astronomy to meteorology and oceanography in DoD
  • 42 from meteorology and oceanography to grad school in astrophysics

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

  • Organizational skills. 
  • Advanced computer programming beyond the usual graduate level. 
  • Management and financial planning, 
  • Fundamental astronomy - astrometry.
What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

  • Computer courses in mainframe computing; for Cray level computing. 
  • Computer documentation and management. 
  • Specialized training in Solar System dynamics.
Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

I was recommended through a personal contact for my last job.  Networking was crucial. I attended AAS meetings and DDA meetings, paying my own way sometimes. Scatter gun job application letters did not work for me. 

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

  • Remember that most jobs in astronomy are outside academia. 
  • Push the concept that an academic job is not the final definition of success in astronomy. 
  • Networking aided by faculty advisor. 
  • An academic job is driven by the ability to write excellent proposals.
How many hours do you work in a week?

45-50 hours. 

What is your salary?

US Government salaries are fixed by law . GS 14's make 60K - 100K. However the entry level for PhD's can be a GS 12, and one works upwards. The exception here is NASA which pays above the usual Government salary ranges.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

When working, neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.

Happy in retirement. I am able to continue collaborating with colleagues without pressure. and seek fulfillment through other scientific work - such as serving on boards of scientific academies.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

When working -- Least enjoyable: Having to work for abusive supervisors. 

In retirement -- Retirement means the pressure to compete is almost zero. The least enjoyable is the lack of contact with the wider astronomical community.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?

When a civil servant, there are limited opportunities for creative work, unless one happens to be at a NASA center.  NASA tends to operate outside the normal civil service venue. I know this because I spent time both at NASA Headquarters and at a NASA center.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?

This is a problem scientists have had and conquered for generations. There is little new here. Each situation is unique and each person must find his/her solution. Be leery of general solutions.  They may not work for you. However, one particular thing I can say is that if married, each must support the other in all areas.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?

Yes, I maintain professional connections with colleagues.

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?

No. I never went the normal route, I took non astronomical work breaks, before returning to astronomy. One can go back. There is no betrayal in leaving academia. Academic jobs are in the minority.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

I write books, edit journal articles, paint.

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

Yes, sethanneh [at]

Additional thoughts and comments.

I ought to note that although I was not a tenure track professor at any one school I did teach physics and astronomy at several universities and colleges throughout my career.  As a Shapley Lecturer I visited even more colleges.  I even served on the AAS Employment Committee.  I also note that the change from field to field during my career kept my mind active and learning.  I did not settle into one field and stay there throughout my career.  The disadvantage to a diverse background is that often people who  hire know only one field and cannot judge the value of diversity.

With respect to USNO ---
There are few civil servant jobs in the Government with the title "astronomer", and even fewer that include a research component.  This is true even at NASA where most of the research staff are soft money contractors (who are paid private company salaries).  However NASA tends to have higher pay grades than most of the rest of the Gov. USNO is more comparable in pay grades to the rest of the Gov.  For example, an incoming PhD would typically enter as a GS11/12 unless as a supervisor which would be a GS13.  Pay is standard across pay grades and the amount is publicly available.  As a civil servant it is difficult to obtain outside funding, although it is possible.  NASA is always the exception.

I was very happy to go to USNO after serving at NSF because my father had been a career Naval officer and I was glad to support what he had done - he was a ship driver and was taught celestial navigation during WWII.  I first learned about astronomy as a young child reading his copy of Bowditch - which contains a large section on celestial navigation.  So as Chief of the Nautical Almanac office I published the Nautical Almanac as well as the Astronomical Almanac and the Air Almanac.  I was the first female to hold that office which was established in the 1840s.  Celestial navigation is not quite moribund, although GPS has taken its place.  My position was a supervisory one with no research opportunity.  I learned an incredible amount of dynamical astronomy.  Fortunately my advisor had brought me into the AAS/DDA where I had learned even more.  The amount of effort put into producing books that are international standards is impressive.  One would think the Air Almanac would be stopped but it turns out that near the North Pole the GPS coverage is not good enough for the small search and rescue planes who still use celestial navigation.

USNO has a long and grand history.  Even Maria Mitchell did work for them. Simon Newcomb (1900) (also Chief of the Nautical Almanac Office) brought international respect to American astronomy which had been considered second rate by the Europeans.  USNO has a world class astronomy library.  Research is possible for some positions at USNO.  Several astronomers there are active in various fields of research.

I gained an appreciation for the importance of good star catalogs.  Of course the standard for time is at USNO.  NIST defines how long the second is, USNO defines 'when' that second occurs.  And one thing I learned from my time in the Gov. is that there are people working at various Gov. facilities who are more than just knowledgeable they are truly world experts.

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