Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Career Profile: Astronomer to Assistant Professor/Head, Astronomy Lab/Curator, Meteorites

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, planetary scientists, etc. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Rachel L. Smith, an astronomer who is Head of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab, and Curator of Meteorites at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Appalachian State University.

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? 


What is the job title for your current position? 

I am jointly appointed as Head of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab, and Curator of Meteorites, at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Appalachian State University. As of January 1, 2017, I am also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and Appalachian State University (adjunct at UNC-Chapel Hill).

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

Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

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


What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics? 

Before I was hired in my joint appointment at the end of 2011, I had just started my postdoc in planetary science at Caltech.

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

I am still a working astronomer in academia, though my job also has a significant outreach component as well.

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

I made my first and only real career change after graduating from veterinary school at age 25. Shortly into working as a vet, I was positive this wasn’t the career for me and I found myself following a museum-related path, which connected to my lifelong passion for museums. I was hired as a museum educator, and then worked in exhibit development at two different design firms in the Boston area. I did museum work for a total of about five years before moving to Los Angeles, working as a freelance exhibit evaluator for a year, then entering the PhD program at UCLA. I was fortunate to work on very exciting new astronomical data for my thesis, and am now in a job that is a great combination of astrophysics research, museum exhibition and public outreach, and undergraduate teaching.

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

The only additional qualifier that I needed before starting my PhD was to take the GRE.

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

I graduated with my PhD in 2011, and had just started my postdoc at Caltech when a friend in the museum field, who was already living in North Carolina, told me about the vacancy for my current position, related to the opening of a new wing of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. When I got to the point of the interview (first via Skype, then in person), I sought the advice of my postdoc supervisor, several professors in my home department at UCLA, and professionals I already knew in the museum field. Everyone was extremely helpful with advice on a range of aspects and negotiating terms for my best interests as a potential new junior faculty member and museum professional. Without their invaluable advice, I would not have had as clear a sense of what to expect or what to ask for in the negotiating phase. I strongly encourage anyone seeking positions or at the point of interviews or job offers to tap into their existing professional network of faculty and any other senior colleagues to help navigate the important early stages of finding and securing a rewarding job.

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

I did about 6 months of a postdoc prior to starting my joint position in North Carolina, in which I am now starting my fifth year.

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

In my opinion, successfully completing any PhD most likely sets one up for being detail-oriented and studious, and able to multitask and succeed in a faculty-/academic-type of job, if that is their interest. Specifically, in my research I continue to use and strengthen the coding skills I developed during my PhD, during which time I also found as many opportunities as possible to give talks at scientific meetings. These presentations helped me tremendously in preparing me for presenting my research in a clear manner, which is beneficial not only for speaking with science colleagues, but also in conveying our work and the excitement of being a scientist to the public.

Describe a typical day at work. 

Like many academic positions, workdays vary widely depending on the many activities that comprise my position, which can include teaching, meetings, presenting in one of our theaters at the museum, going offsite for a science or public talk, preparing for or presenting at a conference, hosting guests at one of our events, and/or observing at telescopes (lately, Hawaii or California). When not offsite, I usually go to my office at the museum, located behind my lab, and do any number of computer-related tasks like emails, class-prep, paperwork, etc. Since I walk through my lab to get to my office, I first make sure all visualizations for visitors to see are up and running in the lab. I usually also work on class-prep, research, or managing grant-funded projects, and during the summers I supervise student interns in my lab. I sometimes finish up emails and other small tasks after I get home. On some quieter days, I’ll work from home on my laptop, to break up the week.

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

I am still an active researcher in the field, and I continue to collaborate with many of the same scientists I began working with during my PhD and postdoc.

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, and colleagues. Have you felt this way? 

While I have a unique type of job in that it is a strong combination of outreach as well as science, I do still work in astronomy and academia. However, my students ask me for career advice on a regular basis, and they often worry about “changing their minds” or not knowing what they eventually want to do after graduation. My advice to them is that they should not “feel bad” or second-guess a well thought-out career decision that may involve a new path, and they should take classes that interest them even if it strays a bit from their major. This can be more challenging for those who have external pressures from, most often, parents, and, sometimes, professors. But they seem to be inspired when I tell them that I started out as a biology major and then a veterinarian, followed by a museum professional, before pursuing my PhD, and I tell them that, in my opinion, any education and experience is never a waste; in fact, a range of experiences can even make one a more well-rounded professional, no matter the chosen field. Whether a student or current professional in the field, I think that as long as a person likes and is passionate about what they are doing, they will contribute positively to society while themselves feeling fulfilled. If they don’t like what they’re doing, they will eventually feel unfulfilled and, in my opinion, it’s not worth staying in a field you aren’t happy in, even if that was your formal education.

How many hours do you work in a week?

I don’t count the hours, but I think it is a balance in that some weeks are well over 40, while others are less, depending on deadlines and other work. And while I also feel like I’m often thinking about something related to my work even when I’m not technically “working,” I also think this goes with being a scientist! I like my work, so the hours don’t usually pile up in a negative sense.

What is your salary? 

My salary is competitive with others in academia in my field.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

I generally extremely satisfied with my job!

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

Some of the most enjoyable aspects of my job are: working in a unique place with a great mix of scientists, museum professionals and artists, where I can do both research and outreach on a regular basis. Specifics include outfitting my lab (which is visible through glass walls to museum visitors) with new screens and equipment where possible, and selecting the visuals; sharing the excitement of research, discovery and science with my students, both in the formal class setting and in my lab at the museum; being an active observer at the world’s most amazing telescopes, working with my awesome collaborators, and analyzing the cool new data I collected; and trying to come up with new and improved ways to convey astronomical research and data to the public through visualizations in my lab, and through talks at the museum. I often tap into the many resources and knowledge at the museum to try to improve my outreach work, which also helps improve my formal teaching. The regular combination of art and science is exciting and fulfilling, as I have always been interested in exhibits and science.

Finally, my job comes with a lot of freedom to choose how to balance the many responsibilities that come with it, with relatively free scheduling ability. However, a joint position such as this one can also become overwhelming at times, and this can be a lot less enjoyable when there is a seemingly endless sea of emails, deadlines, meetings, and any combination of these that need attention.

What do you like most about your working environment?

I have a great office with large windows and a nice view, which I really appreciate and enjoy. The lab space is spacious (but not too spacious), and overall the spaces were well designed to achieve LEED Platinum status. This included excellent and ergonomic office and lab chairs, which make a big difference when sitting for long periods of time. The museum itself is a great place to work, with beautiful exhibits right outside my door, and even live animals I can visit only a minute’s walk away.

Dislike most?

An occasional downside to working at a museum where there are only two scientists in my field (and the other astronomer does completely different research, and my home university department also being three hours from the museum, is there not being a hallway of people I can easily see or visit during the day to discuss projects or similar research. The lack of close proximity to colleagues doing similar work can sometimes make it seem like I’m working in a vacuum.

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

My position provides numerous opportunities for creativity and initiative. Being head of a lab that is both research and on-exhibit, I oversee all the visuals that come out of this space, and have essentially been able to design the themes and visual storylines. As I’ve always been interested in museum exhibition work, this is a particularly rewarding and exciting part of my job. This last year I provided visuals to our media team for a new program with NC Symphony, and it is unique opportunities that like this one that make me feel very fortunate to be a scientist in a museum. Further, I attend at least one museum-related national conference per year, and have an active project with other museum educators, astronomers, and visual artists, specifically related to creating new outreach content related to astrophysics. On the academic side, I was able to create my own courses (Astrobiology and Star Formation) for my teaching requirements at Appalachian State University, and so I feel especially proud of and excited to teach those to my undergrads.

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

While there are aspects that could be improved, I am generally very satisfied.

How family-friendly is your current position? 

Very family-friendly, for myself and from what I can tell for others who have young children.

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

I think the right balance for each individual is unique for that person, and a person should try to make any reasonable effort they can to achieve the balance that they honestly want for themselves, weighing carefully if they can or should accept any potential sacrifices along the way. It can be very hard for some people to pursue their goals when there is external negativity from family, friends, and/or professional acquaintances, and in turn a satisfying balance can be hard to achieve depending on any number of other personal circumstances. However, my advice to anyone who asks is simply to try to pursue their own personal balance as best they can, be honest with themselves throughout, and know that personal/professional balance can be achieved.

As for having a family, I can’t speak for wanting/having human children and a career (though it seems definitely possible for many of my colleagues who split responsibilities with their partners), but, for me, I am 100% satisfied with our 13 non-human family members, and being able to give them a great home while having my career as well. I have always wanted a small farm of pets, and am very happy that they balance my work life. My boyfriend of 6 years and I both wanted and split the care of our creatures so we each can also get our work done, and have quality time with everyone.

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

For fun I spend time at home playing with and working on training our young horses and miniature donkeys, who are all adorable and love lots of attention! We also have chickens, bunnies, and geckos (who sort of like attention)… When not with the animals, I like to go for runs in the country or swim at the local pool, and in the evenings after work my boyfriend and I make food and watch a variety of shows (of varying quality) on HBO and Netflix, and sometimes go out to see live performances and films in the theater. We like to travel as well, when we can.

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

Absolutely, smithrl2@appstate.edu