Monday, February 1, 2016

Career Profiles: Spectroscopist to Technology Solutions Scientist to Astronomy 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 Jessica Sunshine, a spectroscopist turned industry scientist turned astronomy professor. After receiving her PhD in geological sciences, she chose to enter industry in the technology solutions sector and later returned to academia as a professor.  She describes some of the differences between in working environment between the technology and academic sectors.  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?

Planetary Science

What is the job title for your current position?

Professor, and Small Bodies Group Director

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

Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland

What city, state, and country do you work in?

College Park, MD USA

What is the highest degree you have received?

PhD in Geological Sciences

What was your last position in industry?

Chief Scientist, Advanced Technology Applications Division, SAIC

What company did you work for?

What were the most important factors that led you to leave academia?

I was very interested in working on more practical problems that could be solved on shorter time scales. As a spectroscopist, I wanted to pursue work that could provide inputs to as wide a range of issues as possible. I wished to work directly with people who wanted to make use of spectroscopic data to achieve their goals. For me working in a business setting where the value of what you do is front and center in all decisions was also something that was very appealing to me. Finally, I didn’t think that, even if I were to be successful on the traditional academic path, I would be a very good teacher or advisor if I never left the “ivory tower”. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate academia (I came back willingly), I just felt I wanted to live outside of it, in a wider part of society. Then, if I was able, I might come back with a broader perspective. 

What was your age at the time?

I started in industry right after defending my PhD.

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

Just a willingness to work in new and different environments.

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

I had job two offers, which came from very different paths. The first I identified the old fashioned way; in those days that would be the Yellow Pages (I’d suggest Google or LinkedIn now). I knew geographically where I wanted to work, so I looked up Spectroscopy and Remote Sensing and sent out letters/resumes with phone call follow-ups (using the group phone in the hall at the University!). I got lots of "no’s" and one "maybe interested". I needed to talk to one guy, who never called me back. Over dinner my husband’s boss asked me how it was going and I found out he knew the CEO. Suddenly I got a call and eventually a job offer. But that is not the one I took (although I eventually ended up doing a fair amount of business with that company a few years later). 

My first job came by asking around within the Planetary Science community. Eventually I found out about a small remote sensing company founded by a well known Prof. There I was actually able to stay working in Planetary Science part-time (as a part-time Post Doc working with the Galileo spectral team) while doing many many new things.

What were particularly valuable skills for your non-academic job that you gained through completing your degree?

There are so many marketable skills involved in completing a PhD. Most importantly knowing how to work independently and communicating in both writing and orally. In addition, through TA-ing and outreach talks I learned how to explain the importance of relatively complicated work to people who didn’t have any real background in what I was doing. Most importantly for me, I did a lot of different projects in grad school and learned how to juggle them. In addition, with my work with the Galileo imaging team I also learned to be a valuable member of groups in many cases with people distributed around the globe.

Describe a typical day at work in your non-academic job.

I don’t think there was a typical day. Some days I was doing data analysis or preparing results but often I was talking about new ideas or responding to new opportunities with little notice. We wrote lots of small proposals, often in groups, with very little notice. I certainly had more meetings in industry. The more people the less useful. In addition, I did a lot of supervision of technical work. Like everything else in industry the time-scales were compressed so we all interacted with others frequently.

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. Did you feel this way?
My PhD advisor told me something that was both very supportive and freeing. “Jess, you could disappear from Planetary Science for two years and not be forgotten.” With her understanding, it made things much easier for me. (She was of course thrilled when I did come back.) Since I was able to keep a hand in Planetary, I never felt too separated. But to a certain extent, my sub-field is also unique. Spectroscopy has always crossed from Planetary to Earth Sciences and from civil to defense for both instrumentation and analysis so I was neither a trail blazer nor completely anomalous.

What were the most enjoyable aspects of that job? Least enjoyable?

I loved the chaos of pursuing multiple projects and customers for a very diverse set of issues. The work tended to be focused on shorter time scales which meant producing results faster but also having to look for new opportunities more frequently. The upside was it lead to a huge variety of activities. I also worked very closely with others to get things done. In particular, we had a number of software projects were we would team with programmers. In several cases these were automated analyses of one form or another designed to stream line tasks for users who didn’t have the background or experience. So the programmers and scientists worked very closely in an iterative process. One project led to a patent.

Personnel issues are always the worst part of any job even in academia. People not getting along, employees not pulling their weight, or someone higher up redirecting things without understanding. I find in industry you have to deal with these problems sooner and more head on, which is actually better than in academia.

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

One of the best things about industry is everyone is working to increase business. Thus establishing a strong business case was the method to improving whatever you needed. This straightforward approach could be used to hire more people, buy more computers, or seek support for a new idea. On the negative side, the dress code was much more onerous (although that has gotten better). And VERY often, with the exception of my own group, I found myself in a room full of white men; particularly with upper management. Academia has its issues on this, but not to that degree.

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

Where I worked being creative and taking the initiative was expected of someone with a PhD. The job was either entrepreneurial or in some cases where I was directly supporting the government I was really an advisor. In the advisory role of that job was not very creative, but facilitating progress is also rewarding (if slower paced).

How satisfied were you with your work-life balance in industry?

There is significantly less time flexibility when you have a non-academic job. I compensated for this after a few years by dropping back to 4 days a week, which worked very well for me.

When and why did you come back to academia?

I always wanted to come back later in my career and circumstances were right in 2006. I had been working on the NASA Deep Impact comet mission from its inception and we had just successfully completed our prime mission. As such, I was working mostly Planetary at that moment, with several Planetary projects ahead of me. I’d also been working at UMD multiple days a week on Deep Impact. So it was a very natural transition.  

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

First and foremost students need to excel at their current job, doing excellent research. But it’s very important to realize everyone has different strengths and desires and find ways to support them. It’s very helpful to make it clear that you are open and supportive of other options and to talk about people you know who didn’t stay directly in academia or at research institutions. 

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

It’s up to you to set priorities. No one and no job is going to tell you to do less work. I’ve found getting away from work actually makes me more productive. But you can’t be the only one who wants the balance. Other people in your life (friends, family, significant others) have to be on the same page. But most importantly you have to actively choose a work environment where people’s life outside of work is valued. When you are evaluating a potential job or school look around and ask questions of lower level folks.

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

My big hobby is my viola. I’ve been playing since 2nd Grade (with a gap to finish my PhD, which was dumb!). For the last 15 years I’ve been playing with a wonderful orchestra: The Symphony of the Potomac. We perform four times a year. Rehearsals are great: the music, the people, and the distraction. You can’t think about anything else when you’re playing. (That’s me between the tuba and the bass drum!)