Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Career Profile: Astronomer to STEM Program Evaluator

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 Dr. Ann Martin, an astronomer who left astronomy to become a STEM program evaluator working with NASA.  While a PhD student at Cornell, she recognized her interest in outreach and education and developed her experience in these areas with the support of her PhD advisor, Professor Martha Haynes and Ricardo Giovanelli.  After receiving her PhD, Dr. Martin became the first NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) Fellow funded through the NASA Office of Education at Langley Research Center. She now works for a mid-sized government contractor as an evaluator supporting NASA-funded Earth science education programs, working with STEM educators who bring NASA data into classrooms, and encouraging students to think like scientists.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. New Career Profiles are posted approximately every month.

What field do you currently work in?

Evaluation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education programs. Evaluators look at the merit of programs, to assess whether they are reaching their goals and having an impact on participants. I work closely with a team of STEM educators who plan and implement Earth science education programs for NASA. My colleagues work on programs that encourage students to act as scientists in their environments and communities, and design educational resources that help teachers bring real NASA data into their classrooms. We connect with museums, libraries, and other partner agencies to tell NASA’s story and highlight the relevance of current Earth science. My role as an evaluator is to look at our processes, at what our audiences need and are interested in, at ways we can improve, and at what we’re able to achieve.

What is the job title for your current position?

My company calls me a Senior Research Scientist, but a better description is Program Evaluator.

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

Science Systems and Applications, Inc.

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

Hampton, VA, United States

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


What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

My graduate research assistantship at Cornell was my last position in astronomy, but I did a postdoc in my new field.

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

I came to astronomy because I grew up benefiting from amazing science communication and public outreach. I studied the human spaceflight program, went to science museums on family vacations, read and watched everything about astronomy I could get my hands on, and even went to Space Camp. During my PhD, I realized that I loved astronomy and loved working with astronomers, but conducting original research wasn’t working for me. I found myself spending a lot of time working on education and outreach projects like the ones I loved as a kid, and thinking that was why I ended up here in the first place. I was fortunate to be in a program, and a wonderful research group with two very supportive advisors, so that I could start to build experience in education and outreach while I was still in grad school.

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

I was in my late 20s, right at the end of a 6-year PhD.

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

I took some courses in science education and sought out some training workshops in grad school, but like many people who have moved from academic astronomy to other fields, I’ve learned a lot on the job and through the literature in my new field. I also joined the American Evaluation Association, the major professional organization for evaluators, and made sure to take advantage of everything they offer: interest groups, annual conferences, publications, a listserv, in-person and virtual professional development training.

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

Now that I’m in this field, I would say that the best resources are always connections with collaborators, and second best are the listservs or communication tools that other organizations tend to use when they’re looking to hire – for evaluators, that’s EVALTALK (https://listserv.ua.edu/archives/evaltalk.html) or the AEA website (http://eval.org/). Of course, when you’re just starting out or exploring a possible change, that’s easier said than done, so you start with the small steps first. I made sure to attend education and outreach sessions at conferences like AAS, and also went to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s education-focused annual meeting. There, you can make connections with individuals, but also pay attention to any mentions of program listservs, newsletters, upcoming events – any place where you could expect professionals in that field to be interacting. Think about what you’re specifically interested in and find that professional community. For instance, these days I’m on a discussion list for citizen science projects (http://citizenscience.org/elist/) for work reasons, and I see a lot of job opportunities posted there. This approach has the double benefit of getting you up to speed on what professionals are talking about.

Other resources:
ASTC (Association of Science/Technology Centers) Job Bank http://www.astc.org/job-bank/
When I was looking at jobs in the last year of grad school, I also made sure to look at some of the more traditional job listings for astronomers/physicists, because that’s where astronomers think to advertise. I used the AAS Job Register, PER Jobs (http://perjobs.blogspot.com/). Take a look at postdoc programs that might be applicable to education – I ended up taking a NASA Postdoctoral Program (now at http://orise.orau.gov/nasa/) position for three years. I never would have seen that opportunity if I’d ruled out looking in the usual places. I didn’t take this path, but policy fellowships are great too.

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

I spent three years as a postdoc at NASA Langley Research Center (2011-2014). I worked on a project that involved both the Office of Education and the Science Directorate. At the end of my postdoc, I was able to join the Science Directorate’s team, and was hired through their contract with SSAI, my current employer. I’ve been in this position for the last 2 years.
What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?

I chose my PhD program for many reasons, but a big part was the involvement of grad students in education and outreach projects. That turned out to be very useful when I was looking to build up a foundation of experience. More generally, research skills and knowing how to approach a problem are valuable. It’s useful as an evaluator to be comfortable with statistics (and explaining them), making figures to visualize data, library research and literature reviews. I present, report, and write constantly. During my degree I also learned how to drive my own project forward independently while balancing the fact that other people and their projects were depending on me, too.

Describe a typical day at work.

I’m always balancing a few different things, so my days vary. I might be planning an evaluation study to help us understand the outcomes of an education program, or drafting the formal application to the Institutional Review Board to move that forward. I write surveys and interview protocols, review them with the program leaders, and then collect the data (along with poking people to respond!). I’ll interpret incoming data on an ongoing basis, and prepare formal reports and presentations (for conferences but also internal audiences). I also need to know about the education programs I support and what they’re working on, so I attend a lot of meetings and participate in strategy discussions. I don’t think I ever said the word “telecon” until I left grad school, and now it’s probably a defining part of my work life.

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

I wish everyone got the advice that my advisor, Martha Haynes, gave me (paraphrased!): if you’re going to go into X field, use your time in graduate school preparing to be the best possible X-er you can be. It can certainly be difficult to balance what you’re there for – your actual astronomy degree – against building a foundation in another field. But you might never again be at a university, surrounded by courses and professors and professional development workshops and these boundless opportunities to learn.

And, of course, the second meaning of Martha’s advice to me was powerful too: that it was OK to not become a research astronomer and that I was going to be OK too.

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

I originally thought that I would work on education and outreach related to astronomy, but since I graduated I’ve been working with Earth and atmospheric scientists. So I do work directly with many scientists and researchers, but not astronomers. I keep in touch with my astronomy friends, 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?

Professionally, I don’t think it would be easy for someone on my current career track to “go back.” But I was also really confident that I wouldn’t want to go back – or, rather, that I was moving forward with purpose. It’s absolutely true, though, that I gave up on a dream I’d carried with me for my whole life, and that many people and organizations had made a significant investment (financially and otherwise) in supporting me and my education. I try to make sure that even in a different field, I’m making the most of the investment that was spent on my degree.

How many hours do you work in a week?

40, and in weeks where I need to work longer (like when we have a big public event to support), I bank the extra as comp time to take later.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

My job is great. I work with smart, engaged people who want to make a difference for the education community by connecting them to science. I make a comfortable salary and get to learn and try new things. I get to play to my strengths.

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

I get to work with NASA! Everyone I work with is passionate about science and on board with trying to get some very cool things done – from scientists to teachers to other evaluators. Collaboration is also key here, and I loved that about astronomy too.

On the trickier side: Galaxies are difficult, but people are even more difficult – it takes a lot of effort to try to measure program impacts or participant experiences, and additional effort to do so in a way that is ethical, respectful, and responsive. We also have a lot of resource constraints: there’s not enough time in the day, people on staff, or room in the budget to pursue every amazing idea. For this blog it’s probably also useful to mention that I’m on a grant-funded/soft money position, so there’s stress around that. Most of the evaluators I know are in a similar boat.

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

I’m the only person on my team or in my organization working on program evaluation, so I get to really stretch and design a lot of the projects I work on. (Many evaluators, though, work at firms or in units within other institutions where they are part of an evaluation team). Creativity is important in evaluation, since it can be really difficult to measure program impacts. The first idea I have is often impractical or literally impossible. Then the fun challenge is to figure out ways over the hurdles.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job? How family-friendly is your current position?

I have a lot of balance, and from what I’ve observed with my colleagues we have supportive official policies and a culture that’s family-friendly. My job is usually fairly 9-to-5, and when we have travel or events, my teammates work together to come up with a plan that accounts for family obligations.

One thing I didn’t love about the idea of continuing in astronomy was being restricted geographically by my job. I don’t think I’ve solved that one: I’m further away from home and family than I’d like to be. But my company and organization does a lot to encourage balance.

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

Reading, cooking, spending time with my family & dog – and, of course, my interest in astronomy is now a hobby rather than my day-to-day work.

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

I’d be happy to - amartin10 at gmail.com