Thursday, October 2, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Data Visualization Specialist and Adjunct Associate Professor

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 Doug Roberts, an astronomer turned Data Visualization Specialist for Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope and Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University. He spends 75% of his time on research and content creation for WorldWide Telescope and 25% of his time on his astronomy research. 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?

Data Visualization

Astronomy (academia)

What is the job title for your current position?

WorldWide Telescope Team Member

Adjunct Associate Professor

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

Microsoft Research
Northwestern University

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

I live in Chicago and work in Evanston, although I spend much of my time traveling.

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


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

Non-tenure Track Faculty

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

  • Degree
  • Postdoc
  • Research Scientist
  • Astronomer/Visualization Specialist (50/50)
  • Astronomer/Chief Technologies Officer (20/80)
  • Astronomer/WorldWide Telescope Team Member (25/75)
What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

75% of my time is working with the WorldWide Telescope Team at Microsoft Research (MSR).  I have started working with MSR because of my scientific visualization interest and the academic setting at MSR.  Even though MSR is a part of a large, for-profit company, it feels much like a university.  So the move is not really out of academia as it is redefining what academia means.

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

My most recent was joining the WorldWide Telescope team after leaving the Adler Planetarium June 2013.

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

Experience making interactive visualization experiences for professional researchers and public outreach.

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

Much professional development on visualization and planetarium meetings.

Describe a typical day at work.

I work on research and content creation for WorldWide Telescope. I spend much of my time
working on specifying changes and improvements to WorldWide Telescope and then testing them
out. I also spend about 20% of my time traveling. When I travel, I'm usually evangelizing WWT and working with partners on integrating it into their research and outreach.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

Be open to collaboration with educators and informal education professionals (like planetarium
directors). Even if it is volunteering. Having an understanding of various learning environments
(business pressures, short attentions of visitors, etc.) helps to craft a better program. Also, think about how to find new places to meet people to help them learn.

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

Faculty should suggest that students visit schools, museums, clubs, etc. and have some idea of what partnerships are available to make effective outreach programs.

How many hours do you work in a week?

45-50 hours.

What is your salary?


What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Satisfied. I love my job but it requires me to do very different tasks. Sometimes this can be hard if they have overlapping deadlines.

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

I enjoy working with the public and educators on best practices for public communication. In my role with WorldWide Telescope, I work with an amazing team of developers and bring my research and educational experience to the project.

I don't like when deadlines from various aspects of my projects overlap. I can't prioritize one project too low without creating problems coordinating with other team members.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?

I like being at a university, working with smart and dedicated students. I also like traveling and meeting new and old colleagues.

I dislike having to travel to the university during bad weather and sometimes traveling so much that I get wiped out.

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

I have many opportunities to create my own direction, especially with the WorldWide Telescope project. This is one of the best things about it.

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

Dissatisfied. I work much more than I am paid for. This is due do the fact that the research side at Northwestern and my WorldWide Telescope job aren't coordinated and when I travel for WWT, I come back being behind with research. Doing both squeezes out my personal life.

How family-friendly is your current position?

Slightly family friendly. The large amount of travel makes it hard on a personal life. Especially when the meetings are over the weekend. I often lose those days to do personal things.

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

Make it clear that you need personal time and that if you are single you should not be thought of as the go-to person for all events that aren't 9-5 workdays.

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

N/A. My job is astronomy-related.

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. Betrayed isn't the word. But it takes time to get up to speed with the state-of-the-art of even a small aspect of astronomy research. That is a time-consuming process that is very difficult with a full time job not in research.

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

I'm a science fiction geek. I like building computers and playing video games on them. I also love cooking and traveling. I travel for much of my time, but really love it even through it does take me away from friends and family.

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

Yes, doug-roberts[at]