Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Career Profile: Astronomer to Infographics Maker

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 Katie Peek, an astronomer turned data visualizer. After receiving her PhD in astronomy she went to NYU to get a masters in science journalism.  She then interned as a writer and editor at Popular Science magazine, and stayed on to become a designer and then an editor. More recently she has transitioned to an independent career as a information graphics editor.  She describes her path and her working environment.  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—it's a mix of journalism, writing, and graphic design.
What is the job title for your current position?

I'm an independent information graphics editor.

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

I work for myself, though until early February I was the information-graphics person at Popular Science magazine.
What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?

I live in the U.S., in Baltimore, Maryland. I also work there, from a home office.
What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received?

A Ph.D., which I did at U.C. Berkeley.
What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?

I did a small amount of part-time post-doctoral work for my adviser after finishing my degree, but for all intents and purposes I left academia after finishing my dissertation.
What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

After spending years working on the same project for my dissertation, I wanted to explore many wide-ranging projects on scientific subjects beyond astronomy. 

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

I was 29 when I left academia.
What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

My goal at the time was science writing, which is definitely something I could have pursued without a second degree, but I chose to speed the learning process along by getting a master's in science journalism from NYU. That's a three-semester program. It gave me lots of experience researching and writing. It also gave me lots of connections in the journalism field—and lots of great friends.
Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

As an astronomer looking to make the leap, I mainly relied on reading on blogs and whatnot about scientists' experiences making the shift to writing. I also really enjoyed the process of considering my favorite qualities in a job—something that, as a grad student, I had the freedom to assess. Did I prefer 9-to-5 or flexible hours? Self-directed work? Creating? Collaborating? Then I considered career options through that lens. I briefly considered air-traffic control (it seemed similar to the gymnastic Keck runs I did as a planet-hunter) but decided science writing was where I wanted to be. 
What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

To transition to science writing, I did a three-semester master's program in journalism. As part of the program, I spent a summer as an editorial intern at Popular ScienceI am a very visual person and it is a very visual magazine. I did some work on infographics, then stayed on in the fall to be an intern for the art department—as a writer and editor who could also conceive the visuals. 

The art director at the magazine hired me on full-time when I finished my degree, and I spent two years as a member of the art department, laying out pages and commissioning the illustrations that ran throughout the magazine. It was an on-the-job boot camp in graphic design. I also began creating and commissioning ambitious data visualizations, something the magazine hadn't done before. Some I made myself, like this map of temperature records, others I commissioned from design studios, like this map of the universe in 1950 and today. Stories like these require a deftness with stats and data (my astro training) and also an eye for story (my journalism training). Plus the visual element, which came from my time in the art department. 

After two years as a designer, I moved into the role of information graphics editor (a position the editor-in-chief and I made up!), since I was not just creating visuals, but coming up with the story ideas. I spent three years in that role, commissioning a lot of standalone graphics, such as this exploration of how long scientific theories last, or this celebration of NASA's history. I also made a lot of small charts and maps that would scatter throughout the magazine. It was very satisfying work—on some level, I thought of it as my job to keep Popular Science quantified. 

After nearly six years with the magazine I've just made my latest leap: I'm now in a fully independent role. I'm still coming up with ideas for scientific visualizations, but now I have the freedom to do it for many different publications. I'm also trying my hand as an entrepreneur, selling customized star charts for weddings and babies as the shop Asterism Labs. I love these because I get to do design work that's built on a whole lot of ephemeris code. This is all still brand new for me but I'm very excited to see where it leads!

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

Data! It's my own pet theory, but I think astronomers have a particularly holistic view of data that trained my brain well for what I do now. I can skim through a data set and very quickly identify the dominant, interesting variable. And that lets me see what the interesting stories might be. From there, I think through the journalistic and visual angles, but at its core, my job is about data, and it's such a blessing to have stats skills baked in so deep.
Describe a typical day at work.

I work from home, where I have a dedicated office. In the morning I go up there and try to spend the first hour exploring with no particular goal in mind—just trying to find my way to something new. It keeps the ideas flowing. Then I get down to the business of making stuff. I go for a walk at lunchtime, then spend my afternoon again at my computer, finishing out whatever needs to be done. I quit at dinnertime (usually).
What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

Gosh, that's so hard to say. An advanced degree in astronomy is useful for a lot of different fields—I have ex-astronomer friends who do a huge range of stuff—because, I think, training as an astronomer makes you a really good problem-solver. And there are plenty of problems out there that need solving! I've come to believe that there's no sense in which pursuing something outside academia should be perceived as failing. Does that count as advice?

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

My spouse is an active astronomer, so I stay connected through him, and I maintain my grad-school network, too. I also do some occasional work for astronomers who need graphics or editing. I recently made a little graphic novella of an Event Horizon Telescope result that I was proud of. 

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, absolutely. The fear of not being able to go back was huge. I'd spent so long imagining myself in that academic role—for me the dream was to be an astro prof at a small liberal arts college—and diverging was hard. But when I thought rationally about the numbers game of that dream, it was a pretty easy choice. 

I did have to convince myself I wasn't letting down my advisers—and further back, my professors and teachers—by pursuing something else. I'm not sure exactly how I did that, but it might have been by (a) reminding myself of the inherent pyramid structure—some people have to leave academia for the whole thing to work, mathematically, and (b) reminding myself that deep down I'm still in the business of science education. 

And in the first six months, I definitely had regrets! Grad school is hard even the second time around, and I would occasionally look through the AAS job register and ponder going back. But pretty quickly the charms of my new career got hooks into me, and since then I've been totally certain that this is the right gig.

How many hours do you work in a week?

On average, about 40. 

What is your salary?

Amazingly, I don't currently know! This role is too new!
What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Very high.
What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

I love having the freedom to pursue what I think is interesting. That's a nice thing about journalism: if I'm interested in something, I can call up an expert and learn about it. The downside is that you can't always get those ideas published, so there are a lot of dead ends. I spend a lot of time exploring data sets that I'm curious about, but ultimately don't find their way to press—not timely enough, not easy enough to explain, or for some other reason.
What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?

I love that my office is peaceful and quiet. I can really focus here, because it's a space I've made exactly the way I want it to be. The downside of my situation is that without co-workers I can start to forget how to speak in coherent sentences.
What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?

Lots! I chose my own projects every single day.  

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

Very. I take the day off if daycare is closed and go on adventures with my son. And sometimes after he falls asleep I steal a few extra hours to work on projects I'm excited about.  

How family-friendly is your current position?

Highly. Independent work is great because it's so flexible (she says with authority, just a few weeks in).
What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?

I've been very fortunate to have worked in positions where I could take the time I needed. At Popular Science the work was flexible enough that I could usually take time off to be with a sick kid, though of course print deadlines are fairly unforgiving so sometimes I would need to power through work when the timing wasn't great. 
What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

Most of my non-work time time is spent parenting, but when I get the chance I knit pretty seriously. 
Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?

Yes, please do! is probably best for this.