Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Career Profiles: Astrophysicist/Planetary Scientist to Program Officer: Dr. Melissa Morris

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 Melissa Morris, an astronomer and planetary scientist who is currently a NASA program officer contracted through Artic Slope Technical Services.

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?

Astrophysics/astronomy/planetary science/management

What is the job title for your current position?

Program Officer/Senior Support Scientist

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

NASA/Artic Slope Technical Services

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

Tempe, AZ and Washington, D.C.

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


What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

Associate Professor of Physics, practicing as a theoretical astrophysicist and planetary scientist.

What were the most important factors that led you to (consider) leaving astronomy and/or academia?

Lack of institutional support for women and low pay.

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

Made career change at 35 (returned to school) from accounting to astronomy.  Employment as grad student began at age 42.

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

B.S. in Physics, M.S. in Physics, Ph.D. in astrophysics.

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

AAS job register, higheredjobs, meetings and conferences (networking).

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


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

Technical writing was particularly valuable.

Describe a typical day at work. 

So far in my new position, I spend a typical day communicating with members of the research community and my NASA colleagues planning peer-review of proposals submitted to NASA solicitations.  I also participate in meetings within NASA’s Planetary Science Division during which matters of importance to the division (including current and planned missions) are discussed. 

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


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?

How many hours do you work in a week?


What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?


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

Most:  The ability to participate in a process that advances and enables the science of astronomy/planetary science.

Least:  As with any job, some tasks can be somewhat tedious.

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

Most:  Supportive and collegial colleagues, flexible hours, travel, and the ability to work remotely.

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

Many opportunities.  Even though new at this position, I am treated respectfully and feel that my opinion is valued.

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

Satisfied.  At certain (expected) times the job requires sacrifice, with little time left for “life”.  However, the flexibility of working hours allows this time to be recouped when “crunch time” is over.

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very.  My employer has been extremely understanding of personal demands.

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

Recognize that at times extra hours must be invested in your work, but ensure that you do take time when you can to achieve balance.

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

Hike, bike, read, video games, paint, music.

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

Sure: melissa.a.morris@nasa.gov