Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Astronomer to Defense R&D Technical Staff

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 Lisa Wei, an astronomer turned defense industry R&D Technical Staff.   She likes the challenges of exciting new projects, the work environment, and the ability to leave work behind evenings and weekends.  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?

Defense R&D

What is the job title for your current position?

Technical Staff

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

MIT Lincoln Laboratory

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

I work in Lexington, MA, and live in the next town over.

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Smithsonian Millimeter Array (SMA) postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA)

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
I was not interested in moving every 2-3 years for a new postdoc position, and the permanent job market in academia looked bleak.

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

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
None. I learn new things as I go along. 

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I have to admit that I didn't do very much hunting/networking, and that's not typical. For my first job someone passed my resume around AER (it's a pretty a small company) and they called me for an interview. For the current job I just applied online. It is easier to get past HR if you know someone who can pass your resume around or recommend you, though, so definitely reach out to former friends/colleagues/classmates in places you're interested in.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
SMA postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Staff scientist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research
Technical staff at MIT Lincoln Labs

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Presentation and communication skills are key skills. There are tons of smart people everywhere, but being able to communicate your work clearly and effectively is a real skill that is really valued at the Lab. In fact, a part of the interview process here is to give a seminar on your research, even if it has nothing to do with the job you're applying for. Additionally, being able to step back from a problem to see the big picture and understand what are the key analysis questions to a problem is extremely important, so you don't go down the rabbit hole chasing tiny details that do not matter. Finally, the ability to teach yourself new concepts/methods/tools/whatever else quickly as new problems come up is necessary in such a fast-pace environment. 

Describe a typical day at work.
A typical day includes team meetings to discuss everyone's progress, coding algorithms, reading papers/textbooks, supervising students, working on or giving a presentation, and perhaps attending a seminar.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
That there are many really interesting, non-academic jobs out there, whether it's teaching, R&D, data science, or something else. It's very important to be aware of all the options out there, and that you don't have to follow the traditional academic route to have a fulfilling and happy career.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Some people at the Lab do work on astronomy-related projects, such as building CCDs or designing new instruments, but I do not. I do keep in touch with some of my friends that are still in the field, though.

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?
Yes. I felt really guilty about leaving when I made the transition, especially when I was telling my advisors and mentors. But now that I see many of my grad school and postdoc peers all transitioning out of academia as well, I realize that *not* staying in academia is the norm, and not the rare occurrence. I still feel that it'd be hard to "go back" since there's a large publication gap, but I have not tried so I don't know if that's really the case.

How many hours do you work in a week?
40-60, depending on deadlines.

What is your salary?
You can search MITLL tech staff salaries on for the range.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied. I enjoy my work a lot - I'm always learning new things and solving new problems with teams of very smart people. There's a good work-life balance so I'm not working or thinking about work on nights or weekends.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
Most enjoyable aspect is the work itself, it's really interesting and I never get bored, and there are tons of really cool problems to work on. My least favorite aspect of the job is that I can't talk about it with people outside of work, especially my husband.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I really like the work environment here - it's a good mix of academic (lots of seminars, technical education courses, and we get summer interns) and industry (projects with deadlines and product deliveries). The people here are very smart and always happy to answer questions and help you out. The atmosphere is very friendly and collegial, I really like my colleagues and have become good friends with some of them. I can't think of anything I dislike except the lack of parking spaces!

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
There are tons of opportunities for both at the Lab, they really encourage people to think and work outside the box. I'm usually given a problem, then free rein to approach and solve it however I want. Project leaders are usually happy to let you work independently and provide guidance and feedback as you progress.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very. I usually don't check my work email in the evenings or weekends, and I don't feel guilty about it.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Fairly. A lot of the group leaders have children, and are very understanding when it comes to things like kids being sick or leaving to drop off/pick up from school.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Work hard and effectively, then choose not to feel guilty when you're not working! Enjoy being with friends and loved ones, no one ever said they wish they spent more time at the office on their deathbed.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Gardening, biking, and baking.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Sure. lisa [dot] wei [at]