Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Career Profile: Astronomer to High-School STEM Educator

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 Hannah Krug, an astronomer turned high-school STEM educator.   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?
High school education

What is the job title for your current position?
Upper School Mathematics & Physics Teacher; Science Research Coordinator

What is the name of your company/organization/
Holton-Arms School, an all-girls 3-12 independent school

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live in Laurel, MD US, work in Bethesda, MD US

What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?
Ph.D in Astronomy from the University of Maryland, 2013

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

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
I discovered how much I loved teaching while in grad school and thought I had a gift for communicating complex concepts to people with little to no background.  I was frustrated with the leaky pipeline of women in STEM and thought I could have the most impact if I helped inspire young women before they reached college.  Also, I decided that independent research wasn't quite for me.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I was 28 when I completed my Ph.D. and decided to pursue a career in high school education.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
None, though I attended the Klingenstein Summer Institute for early-career independent school teachers (run through the Teachers College of Columbia) this past summer (after 2nd year of teaching) and it was tremendously useful.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
A former graduate student turned teacher, Vanessa Cohen, gave a Career Paths talk in my graduate school department about her experience teaching at an all-girls school.  Her talk helped cement for me that this was what I wanted to do; she connected me with Carney Sandoe & Associates, a consulting firm helping place teachers in independent schools.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
I have been at Holton-Arms since the fall after I defended.  My first two years I taught only math (geometry and precalculus); this year I am teaching physics and precalculus and have taken over as the head of our science research program.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Giving talks was of vital importance to me, perhaps even more than TA-ing.  My time as a lab TA helped me gain some experience in classroom management, but it was giving regular science talks, both to professionals and the public, that helped hone my public speaking, explication, and question-answering skills.  Those experiences have been invaluable to me.  I would encourage anyone that thinks she wants to be an educator to give as many talks as she can!

Describe a typical day at work.
I arrive at 7:15 and get last minute things together for the school day.  We start at 8 with a short assembly or advisory period and then classes start at 8:15 and run until 3:30.  Our schedule is a bit complicated - a tumbling modified block schedule -- and I teach anywhere from 2-4 hours each day.  The rest of my time during the day is spent primarily meeting with students when they have free periods or lesson planning.  I either do more planning after school until 4 or 4:30 or attend various faculty meetings until ~5.  I go home, answer emails, eat dinner, and do more grading/prep work until it's time to sleep.  Teaching is not for the faint of heart!

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
UMD has become much better about this, but I think too many universities don't emphasize enough how many other paths there are for us beyond just academia.  Given the current job climate, it's imperative for advisors to be honest with students about other options.  Our degrees prepare us for so many different career paths but we are often blinded to anything but the standard post doc to professor or research scientist route until it's sometimes too late.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
My wife is still a Ph.D. student in my former department and so I am kept up on astronomy happenings either from her or from my many astronomer friends on Facebook.  I also incorporate astronomy lessons into my classes whenever I can; the girls -- particularly the freshmen -- love it!

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 definitely had some trepidation about telling my advisor about what I wanted to do, as I know how much pressure can be on professors and departments to produce successful students, but to the credit of him and my department chair, everyone was very supportive of me.  I know that my time in grad school wasn't wasted as I never would have gotten my job without my degree.

How many hours do you work in a week?
Counting work I do on the weekends, I would estimate around 60 hours in a typical week, more so at busier times of the school year such as end of quarter grading frenzies.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Incredibly high!  This job takes a lot of me but is by far the most rewarding and enjoyable thing I've ever done.  I can honestly say that this job has been a dream come true for me and I hope to continue at this job for many many years.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
My favorite part of my job is the bond I get to develop with my students.  They have really become like family to me, and I love getting to see them thrive outside of the classroom and not just inside of it.  The independent school ethos is really about mentorship and developing a comfortable and safe space for students to learn.  It's also been very rewarding to get to know the parents of my students; again, my school is about as welcoming and familial a place as I could have hoped for.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
My colleagues and supervisors are incredibly supportive and kind; I actually love my department meetings because of that!  I love that I have a job that I'm excited to go to each morning.
I dislike that I never feel that I have enough time to do everything that I want to in the classroom because there just aren't enough hours in the day.  Summer break is very valuable for that, as it allows time to plan for the school year and come up with creative ideas while still recharging.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
I'm given a lot of leeway in terms of how I run my classroom, activities I have my students do, how I write tests, etc.  I love that independent school teaching is not wedded to standardized tests and that I can, for instance, try different things than the other physics teachers.  The two other physics teachers and I have a great time bouncing ideas off of each other, experimenting with a teaching technique and sharing with each other what worked and what didn't, etc.
I also have had the opportunity to take on major roles in the school, even early on in my career, such as serving on our faculty/staff committee.  I took over the Science Research Program this year, in which I help prepare juniors for internships that we secure for them at local labs the summer after their junior year.  We are given a great deal of support for professional development as well.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
This is the one really tough part of the job, as it can take a lot out of you.  I wouldn't give it up for anything, but there are times that I wish there were more hours in the day, especially since I love going to support my students after school by watching their games/plays/concerts, etc.  It was an incredible adjustment to go from the very flexible schedule of grad school to a quite rigorous one.  Each year I feel as though I learn new strategies to maximize my work time and be as productive as possible so that I can make the most out of my time at home, but the reality is that, if I want to be the best educator I can be, I need to spend some time at home each night and the better part of each Sunday working.  

How family-friendly is your current position?
It comes down to how good you are at the work-life balance; I have no children but many of my colleagues do and the school is very encouraging of that.  There is on-site childcare available for faculty, space-permitting, and faculty/staff members get reduced tuition if they wish to send their daughters to our school and/or sons to our brother school, Landon.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Make sure to be as productive as physically possible during the school day, then make sure to set time aside for family at home, keeping work and home separate.  I, for instance, tell my students that I will be checking my email up to a certain time; if they email me after that, I'll get back to them first thing in the morning.  Also, keep a good calendar that you can share with your spouse/partner/family, as that also helps make sure you make time for family.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
In addition to time with family, I have a dog and a cat that I love to play with.  I exercise as often as I can.  I make sure to take about twenty minutes before I go to sleep each night to read something entirely for pleasure.  I also am obsessed with University of Maryland sports, having grown up in this area, and I spent a lot of time reading the latest news and watching games; I have men's basketball season tickets and that's my biggest spare time indulgence in the winter months.  My students know to root for UMD basketball and the Orioles as they want me to always be in the best possible mood :).  

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Sure!  Hannah.krug at