Thursday, March 20, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Senior Staff Scientist in Industry

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 James Marshall, an astronomer turned Senior Staff Scientist in industry, doing government contracting to provide science, engineering, and IT support. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

What field do you currently work in?
I'm in industry, doing government contracting to provide science, engineering, and IT support

What is the job title for your current position?
Senior Staff Scientist

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

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

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Graduate Student Research Assistant

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
I went to industry directly out of my Ph.D. During my job search, I was contacted by INNOVIM about a software engineering position they had at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. They wanted to bring in someone with a science background, and shortly after my interview, I received and accepted their employment offer.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
The main reason I moved out of the traditional academic path was because I was not successful in getting the usual post-doc or fellowship positions required for that path. I also tried to find teaching or tutoring positions, but they didn't work out either. When I was offered a job in industry that was a good opportunity even though it wasn't my original field, I took it. The fact that I was unemployed, and had been since graduation, also played a role -- I needed a job, and was willing to compromise (e.g., move out of my original field of astronomy) to get one.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I was about 30 when I finished my PhD and took a job in industry, and I'm still in that same general area now.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Planning and organizing work that needs to be done, critical thinking and problem solving skills, communication skills, knowing how to learn, an ability to stick with work until it's completed, an ability to be flexible and adapt to changes.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
I don't think my position required specific additional training to qualify for, although NASA does have some required annual training that I had to take in order to work there. As the tasks I worked on evolved or new ones were added, I would take appropriate training courses to improve my background in the required areas.

Describe a typical day at work.
My current primary task involves documenting the scientific algorithms that area used by instruments on board some Earth-observing satellites to produce science data products. The general process involves looking at existing documentation and examining the computer source code for the algorithms to identify, describe, and document the key scientific calculations that are made. I work together with people like the project scientists or their representatives and the code developers or maintainers on this task. A portion of my time is spent in training activities, such as attending colloquia and seminars to learn about the latest research going on in various fields, and there are times when I help my company with work they have, outside of my usual billable contract work.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I wasn't aware of the position I accepted for my first job until the company contacted me about it. I think they found my resume on Monster and thought I would be a good fit, so they contacted me. I hadn't seen it advertised in the places I was looking. I don't remember the specific resources and such that I was using during that job search. Sites like LinkedIn are probably good resources to use though.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Knowing that there are not many academic tenure-track jobs available and they're highly competitive because there are more Ph.D.s than openings, faculty advisors should be aware of non-academic career paths, the kinds of jobs that are available there, and the kinds of skills their programs offer students that transfer outside of academia. They should be prepared to help their students move off the traditional academic path and onto a different one.

How many hours do you work in a week?
40-45 hours. I typically spend one day a week teleworking.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Since my company does contract work for the government (e.g., NASA and NOAA), how creative you can be or how much initiative you can take in a job here generally depends on what contracts the company gets and what tasks they put you on. I think there is generally some room for both when it comes to company-specific matters and work though.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. I do try to keep in touch with people who work in astronomy, but it tends to be minimal. Without working directly in astronomy right now, it can be a little hard to keep up my astronomy connections.

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?
No I've never thought that leaving academia was betraying anyone. I was told from my undergrad days that getting into academic tenure-track positions was tough and only about 10% of Ph.D. graduates get those positions. While the specific statistic may have changed, generally it's still a small percentage. I think that most people in academia are aware of that, and shouldn't consider it a betrayal if you leave the field, for that or any other reason. You have to do what's best for you, and people should be willing to accept that.

I have thought that trying to move back into academia would be difficult, if not impossible, though. Knowing the traditional path generally requires post-docs and fellowships to gain more research experience, it doesn't make much sense for me to leave my full-time position in industry in an attempt to get temporary positions like post-docs that still don't guarantee me getting into a tenure-track faculty position. And I've been out for a while now. If I were closer to graduation and still wanted a faculty position, it may be worth an attempt to move back to academia. Moving back into astronomy though should always be possible -- if people are willing to give you a chance at working in a field outside your real expertise, you should still have a chance to get back into work in your area of expertise. I realize that it may not be as easy as if you had stayed in astronomy work all along, but I do think there should be ways you can pursue moving back into astronomy work if you've left.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes, astrophd [at]

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