Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Career Profile: Planetary Scientist: Dr. Kelsi Singer

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.

Photo credit: Rayna Tedford
Below is our interview with Dr. Kelsi Singer, a planetary scientist who is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Southwest Research Institute.

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?
Research in Planetary Science

What is the job title for your current position?
Postoctoral Researcher

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Southwest Research Institute

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

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

Photo credit: Rayna Tedford
What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?
Graduate school was my last academic position. 

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
This was a natural transition for me from finishing my graduate degree to getting a postdoc position working for the New Horizons mission at Southwest Research Institute.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
They say it is about who you know, and I have also found that to be true :).  Networking with people at conferences is a great way to alert people to your work.  That way if someone you know sees an open position that fits with what you do, they may let you know or recommend you to the person looking to fill a position. 

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
Step 1: I completed a one year postdoc working on data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) directly out of graduate school.  This was a very valuable experience for me and luckily I was able to stay at my graduate institution to do this (otherwise moving just for one year would have not been fun!).  

Step 2: Fortunately also at that time NASA’s New Horizons mission was looking for postdocs, and I joined one year before the flyby with the Pluto-System.  I was asked to be a Co-I on the extended mission, and we are currently busy planning for our next encounter with the small Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69 on January 1st of 2019. 

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
GIS skills, general research and problem solving skills, knowledge of how to write a scientific paper (would even recommend getting a book on the topic for your first paper), programming (I mostly use Mathematica but also some fortran and python).   My graduate institution also had a great dissertation support group that was basically about the psychology of writing.  If there is anything similar to that in your area I highly recommend that.  (There are also books and online resources on this – such as the book “How to write a lot”).

Describe a typical day at work. 
My current job is a mix of science investigations and mission planning.  For the science, I map and measure geologic surface features and compare those to models of how the features form (yes that means a lot of sitting at my computer).  On the mission side I help with planning the observations for our upcoming flyby, and also communicating information between the engineering and science teams (yes that means a lot of telecons).  For the Pluto flyby I was responsible for making a “Playbook” of the observations with relevant info and pictures that could be easily accessed by the science team.

How many hours do you work in a week?
A lot :).  The hours are variable depending on deadlines, but usually more than 40.

What is your salary?
Postdocs and other early career research scientists at SwRI in Boulder typically make somewhere between 60-75k depending on the level of experience and achievement.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Love it.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I enjoy most aspects of my job, but I would say the most stressful part is that the total amount of work is quite high.  Sometimes the work load is more manageable than others, but the field is very competitive and as an early career scientists you often feel like you need to take advantage of every possible opportunity because you don’t know what will work out in the end.  Also, when working on a spacecraft on the way to its target, you have very strict deadlines (we couldn’t slow New Horizons down if we wanted to!).  It is both exciting and stressful to only get one chance to have a successful flyby. 

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
I feel like my job is all about being creative and taking initiative.  You need to be creative to come up with new ideas that are compelling and will move the field forward.  This doesn’t mean every idea you try out has to be brilliant, but usually trying out different avenues and putting pieces together leads to something interesting.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
As others have mentioned, planetary science is a pretty demanding/competitive field.  But there are lots of people in it who also value other aspects of life.  I would say my work-life satisfaction varies, sometimes there are just deadlines that need to be met and everything else has to yield to that, but other times are more flexible.

Photo credit: Rayna Tedford
How family-friendly is your current position?
I haven’t experienced this directly, but my company does have some family friendly policies.  For example, you can work part-time for maternity or paternity leave and still receive benefits.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Although I don’t implement these strategies as often as I should, I like the ideas of waiting 24 hours before accepting a big “extra-curricular” assignment or request, and speaking up if you feel like there is too much on your plate (say for spacecraft mission work).  I also like the idea of asking if there was some specific reason you were requested to do a job if it doesn’t quite seem right for you, and/or asking what other things already on your plate are less important and can be put aside if you are asked to put more onto an already overfull to-do list.