Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Career Profiles: Astronomer to STEM Education Policy Executive

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 Anita Krishnamurthi, an astronomer turned STEM education after-school executive and advocate.   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

What field do you currently work in?
Science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) education, policy

What is the job title for your current position?
Vice President, STEM Policy         

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

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

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

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

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia? 
Didn’t feel the joy in doing it anymore and started thinking about a different approach to my career.  I became very interested in science education and realized I cared deeply enough about the issue that I could work on it professionally.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
·     I was about 30 when I made the switch from academic research, but have made lots of job moves since then.  My most recent sector/career switch was about 5 years ago.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
I did not need to complete courses to access the jobs I’ve held and learned on the job.  But moving from science education into policy was a harder move than from research into science education as I had little background in policy.  I applied for policy fellowships and also started taking some courses thinking I would need to get a Masters in policy.  But then I landed a policy fellowship with the AAS, and stopped taking the courses.  I took a pay cut to do the fellowship but felt confident it would lead to more opportunities and I was right - it led to my being recruited into my current role.  As I became more senior, I felt I could learn more about being a better leader.  I recently completed a year-long leadership development program, called the Noyce Leadership Institute, which was a great experience and taught me a lot.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I talked to people I knew both in and out of astronomy, looked at various job posting services to see what people were doing and what appealed.  I also cold-called lots of people when I was looking to move into the non-profit sector and found that most people were extraordinarily generous about giving me some time and talking about their organization and their work there.  That helped tremendously to build connections in a brand new sector (non-profits) for me.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
The degree itself has been very useful in opening doors and providing credibility when I talk about science or science education issues.  And the things I learned through my graduate school experience continue to serve me well – being fearless about asking questions and taking on hard projects, how to identify the most important problems that need to be tackled and structuring projects that can do that, synthesizing material and writing about it, how to talk to people articulately about my work, how to manage my time to meet deadlines and get things done, how to think at both a big-picture level and the strategic moves needed to implement the vision. 

Describe a typical day at work. 
I work on a blend of federal and state policy and advocacy, research, and capacity building initiatives for the afterschool field.  So my days are usually a blur of meetings and phone calls, writing (papers, reports, blogs, proposals), presentations, working with colleagues (internal and external) on specific projects, supervising my team, being part of the senior management team at the organization and issues associated with that, etc.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
There are many ways to be fulfilled in your professional life.  I meet so many smart people doing so many incredible and interesting things that are often not connected to their degree at all.  You do what interests you in the moment and see where that takes you next.  What you study and the degree you get are tools and should never become a millstone around your neck that you feel compelled to carry around for the rest of your life.  You bring your past experiences and expertise into any jobs you take, so nothing you do is ever wasted effort. 

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
I am married to an astronomer and have lots of friends who are professional astronomers.  I still enjoy reading about astronomy and thinking and talking about it, and I will always think of myself as an astronomer. But I don’t feel a need to grasp at straws to stay deeply involved - my world has expanded. Ironically, that has led me to my working with NASA again, they value my expertise on the "outside" and ask me to serve on various committees.   And I was just invited to the White House Astronomy Night, mostly on the basis of my STEM education work.  So as I said before, various parts of our life start to come together in cool and interesting ways.

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?
I think it is true that it is hard to go back into research after you have been out of it for a while.  But it can be done with some effort and strategy, I’ve seen colleagues do it.   My biggest hurdle was myself – I had wanted to be a professional astronomer since a young age and it was hard to discover that I didn’t actually want to pursue it further.  Everyone around me was very supportive even if they didn’t quite know how to help me out; I had to figure things out by myself.  Some people were a bit negative - the main question I used to get was people wondering why I bothered to do something that I no longer “use.”  But as I said before, life is a journey and you do what gives you joy in that moment.  I loved being a research astronomer for 10 years and then I changed my mind.  When you no longer feel fulfilled, you move on – the point of getting an education and advanced degrees is precisely to give yourself options and not feel trapped.

How many hours do you work in a week?
Between 40 and 50 hours a week depending on what is going on.

What is your salary?
High enough that I don’t worry too much about money.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very high – I love my job, my colleagues, and the field I am in.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I love my job.  But you have to understand that there are stresses and less enjoyable things in every job.  In a non-profit, you are continuously fund-raising – but I have come to enjoy that and treat it as a challenge to build relationships with funders and convince them that my work deserves to be funded.  There is also always more work to be done than I can fit into a day, mostly because I have all these ideas for things I can do – but we keep plugging away and do what we can.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I am going to repeat myself – but I love everything about my job.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
I came into a new position and created it from scratch.  I get to decide what I work on for the most part, so my job requires me to be creative and take the initiative to see what the field needs and how I can serve them best.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?Very satisfied.  Our organization was recently included as one of the “50 best places to work in Washington” and a big reason for that was how happy the employees are about the work culture.  We all work very hard, but we emphasize work-life balance and set an example for it from the boss on down.

How family-friendly is your current position?
It is very family-friendly.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family?
Look at organizational culture when you are looking for jobs. A high-profile job in a high-profile institution might sound great and look good on your resume, but it is pointless if you are not happy there.  Manage your time well and be efficient and disciplined at work.  Make your hobbies and family activities a priority.  That way, all the things that are important to you are on your calendar and you are giving them the time they deserve.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
As hobbies I actually schedule - I do pottery, rock-climb, and take violin lessons.  I also like to hike a fair bit and garden and cook.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Sure, people can reach me at akrishnamurthi [at]