Monday, May 9, 2016

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Philanthropic Program Officer

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 Ashley Zauderer, an astronomer turned program officer for a philanthropic organization.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit New Career Profiles are posted approximately every month.

What field do you currently work in?

I currently work in philanthropy. 

What is the job title for your current position?

Assistant Director, Department of Mathematical and Physical Sciences

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

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

Philadelphia, PA

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


What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

NSF Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard (2014)

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

I haven’t entirely left academia!  My current job requires staying up-to-date with fields of research in the mathematical and physical sciences.  So, in many ways it is similar to my work before, but much more broad in scope.  

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

I was 34 when I transitioned to philanthropy.  

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

I did not complete any training specifically for this new position, but diverse, non-traditional experiences I had certainly helped prepare me for this job.  For example, I had done a science policy fellowship (Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship) at the National Academy of Sciences during graduate school.  I also served as the young career representative on the board of the American Scientific Affiliation  during my first postdoctoral fellowship position.  Since I’ve begun my job at the Foundation, I’ve completed additional training (e.g. attending an excellent program on strategic decision-making at the Aresty Institute of Executive Education at Wharton).     

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

Within astronomy, I have always found the AAS job register to be the best source for traditional academic jobs.  I also have found LinkedIn and Facebook to be helpful to stay in touch with people I have met over the years.  However, overall, I would say the most important advice I could share is to pursue your interests and the things you are passionate about and to build your skills for those interests.  The job hunting process works best when there is an intersection between your abilities and passion and the needs of an organization (be it an academic department, government, a business, or a non-profit).

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

I had considered accepting a job working at ALMA in Chile, but upon graduation my grandmother was sick and I wanted to stay closer in the United States.  Hence, I searched the AAS job register for postings that made me feel excited in locations I would like to live.  I was fortunate to be offered a position in the Berger Time Domain Group at Harvard University, which was my first postdoctoral position.  Then, I received the NSF AAPF fellowship I mentioned earlier.  I had not completed the NSF fellowship when I moved to Philadelphia for my current position. 

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

I think the most valuable skill I gained during my Ph.D. that is useful in my current job is the confidence when approaching a new subject matter to just dive in and start learning.  The process of obtaining a PhD can be disconcerting to students who are used to there always being an answer in school.  When writing a dissertation, you work on problems nobody has yet solved, so there is no step-by-step manual you can use.  It is often one step forward, and two steps backwards.  Some roads are dead ends and you have to backtrack and try a new route.  But, the Ph.D. process instilled an attitude towards approaching new problems that I believe will always serve me well in any job.

Describe a typical day at work.

There is no typical day at work, which is one of the things I like the best!  My job includes administration of a portfolio of grants similar to that of an NSF program officer as we have an open submission process.  Additionally, we develop projects proactively, which requires travel to labs around the world, attending conferences in a broad array of subject areas, and extensive reading.   I also enjoy interacting with colleagues in entirely different subject areas.  I also am still actively involved in a few research projects.  Therefore,  some days I write proposals, analyze data from the Very Large Array, or write.  

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

First and foremost, I personally still think it is important to remember that students primarily attend graduate school for professional training in that particular discipline.  It is helpful if advisors can recognize that not every student will eventually be in a tenure-track position like themselves, and find ways to help the student capitalize on their particular skills.  But, I would also strongly encourage students to recognize that they may need to pursue opportunities or find mentorship outside of their Ph.D. program in some situations.  As stated before, I think the most important advice for students is to pursue what they are most passionate about and to capitalize on their unique strengths and abilities.  

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

Yes, almost daily.  I still attend conferences and maintain an active research portfolio. 

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?

There is certainly the perception that you can’t go back, but it is not true.  In fact, one can always go back to academia, but it might requires a few steps backwards.  For example, if one left academia for 5-10 years, while you may have been competitive for faculty jobs when you left, you most likely would not be after a 5-10 year break.  You might have to start as a postdoctoral fellow or a research assistant in a lab.  It might be more difficult, but certainly not impossible.  

I certainly have felt that I’ve let down certain colleagues or advisors over the years (e.g. when I chose a thesis topic different than they hoped for me, when I turned down a position, etc).  But, I have found in general most people to be very understanding.  

How many hours do you work in a week?

The workload varies by week.  One of the appealing factors in my present position was having a better work-life balance with 40 hours being the nominal schedule.  However, similar to most people in academic positions, I often find myself putting in quite a few more hours when I’m working on an interesting project!

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

I am very satisfied with my current job.  It is an honor to work in philanthropy and be entrusted with a portion of the funds left by Sir John Templeton to make a difference in this world. 

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

I think every job has the mundane tasks that you just have to power through.  In research, some of the least enjoyable tasks were flagging radio frequency interference from datasets or spending an hour re-formatting a figure to show up properly in LaTex.  In my present position, there are administrative details which are important, but equally tedious.  The most enjoyable aspect of my job is meeting new talented and interesting people every week. 

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

I most enjoy the diverse array of colleagues from a variety of disciplines.  I most dislike not having colleagues in physics and astronomy nearby, but I have remedied this by traveling to local astronomy and physics departments to attend seminars and colloquia.  

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

A large fraction of our grantmaking is proactive.  This provides ample opportunity to take initiative to research possibilities and to think creatively. 

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

I am satisfied.  We have core working hours with flexibility in start/stop times.  We are also able to work remotely, so it provides plenty of flexibility to balance work with life.

How family-friendly is your current position?

It is very family friendly.  Several of my colleagues have had children and taken family leave.  I’d say the vast majority of my colleagues have small children at home.  

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

Set firm limits and schedule time on your calendar for the important things in your life (like time with your family, an exercise class, etc.). 

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

I enjoy spending time with friends, exercising, ballet classes, and being outdoors.  I also enjoy traveling and when I am in unique places for work set aside some time to sightsee and explore.  

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?

Sure - bevinashley at gmail dot com.