Thursday, May 1, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Faculty and Entrepreneur

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 Douglas Arion, an astronomer turned faculty and entrepreneur. He has worked both in academia and business and has been very satisfied with his work and work-life balance. 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 Thursday.

What field do you currently work in?
I have three jobs, actually -- in physics/astronomy, entrepreneurship, and I run the Galileoscope program.

What is the job title for your current position?
Professor of Physics and Astronomy.
Professor of Entrepreneurship
Director for the Carthage Institute of Astronomy
President for Galileoscope, LLC

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Carthage College
Galileoscope, LLC

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Work - Kenosha, WI
Live - Whitefield, NH

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Tenure track faculty

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
Recruited to Science Applications International Corp. Served as Senior Scientist, then Division Head and Assistant Vice President.

Left SAIC to join faculty at Carthage College to start the country's first undergraduate technical
entrepreneurship program; also teaching physics and astronomy, setting up a research lab, etc.

Went into 'semi retirement' (hah!) a year ago to devote most of my time to public education and outreach in astronomy (and continuing to run Galileoscope LLC).

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
Initially, I joined SAIC because (a) the position was interesting (b) the pay was much higher than academia and (c) I was not at the risk of the 'tenure system'. I figured I could teach at night if I really needed to.

I was only able to make the transition back into academia because Carthage wanted an industrial background for the entrepreneurship position.

Otherwise, the industry to academic transition is difficult or impossible to make.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
Left SAIC to go to Carthage at 38.
Changed status at Carthage at 54.
Began Galileoscope LLC at 51.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Having a very broad background in physics - breadth not depth - is the most important quality (obtained from schooling) to apply to industrial positions. You need not be an expert in anything - but you darn well better know ALL of your physics, because real world problems are not narrow and well defined - they are broad and involve a wide range of phenomena simultaneously.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
Frankly, academic preparation covered physics and astrophysics fine. It did absolutely NOTHING to prepare me for a career - any career. Doing physics and being a physicist are unrelated. To learn to be in a professional position, either academic or industrial, required immense on-the-job training. I was very lucky to have understanding superiors at SAIC, from whom I learned how to do everything that I needed to actually succeed in a professional position. I brought that knowledge to Carthage, where it has been absolutely invaluable.

Describe a typical day at work.
I am constantly busy with programmatic work - planning, scheduling, handling finances, etc. In between, meeting with partners, creating opportunities for more funding, and mentoring students and interns. Writing proposals for money and observing time.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I was lucky to be recruited to SAIC out of graduate school...but that happened only because there was a gentleman who was a post doc at NASA, sharing an office with an individual with whom I was conducting my dissertation research, who ended up being hired at SAIC. Knowing me, he contacted me to join the company. The proper adage is: It's not what you know, it's WHO KNOWS YOU!

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Most important: 1. You are very skilled and can do ANYTHING that's interesting to you, which may not actually be directly related to 'astronomy', per se. Think about all the things in life that are fun - there will be physics in them, and you can work in those fields. 2. You are not likely to be a faculty member - as there are very few of them, and, frankly, there are lots of other things out there that are as or, more likely, more interesting than teaching and academic research!

How many hours do you work in a week?
45-50 hours.

What is your salary?
At SAIC, I started at $35K (in 1983), and left at a salary upwards of $100K. Took a 50% pay cut to go into academia (yes, really....).... Over the last nearly 20 years I've recouped most of my old salary rate, reaching nearly $100K when I left full-time employment. At the moment I'm living on a small stipend, some grant funds, and savings, which is my choice.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very satisfied.

I love doing public outreach, and working with students. Being able to do so in a
free-form manner is terrific. Being part of an academic organization lets me continue doing some pure research, and maintains my credibility in applying for observing time and grant funds. Working with other organizations and the public is an opportunity to really contribute -- but it's a field where there is little financial support. Galileoscope LLC, which takes a lot of my time, is a volunteer effort to bring high quality, low cost telescopes to people around the world. We are very proud to have delivered over 200,000 of them to over 100 countries. Being known in the community for what we do, and seeing the impact we have on the lay public, is very satisfying.

What are the least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Dealing with the IRS and the equivalent state agencies. Financial management is necessary in running a company, but having to deal with governments is very time consuming and rarely enjoyable.

What do you like most about your working environment? 
I have great people to work with - in all my ventures. The Carthage faculty, my business partner at Galileoscope, and the staff at the Appalachian Mtn. Club (with whom I'm running the astro. outreach program). That's what makes projects fun to do - good folks who are supportive and excited. Of course, spending time in the White Mountains doing public astronomy is a pretty good gig....

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
I manage all of my activities - I have complete independence and control. I'm an entrepreneur, so that kind of situation fits my character perfectly.

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

Being semi-retired is great. Of course, having had a very successful industrial career is the reason I have the resources to be in this position at my age. A traditional academic track would not have permitted this.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Hopefully, what you like to do for fun and what you like to do for work overlap. It's not easy to keep things balanced if there isn't a common element to share.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. I'm actively involved in observational work at Kitt Peak and Steward, and work with many astronomers on instrumentation projects and public education and outreach.

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. Don't worry about it. If you're doing good work, that you like, that contributes to the world in some way, don't worry about what your previous associates think. Some time in the future, they'll envy your chosen path.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Outdoors stuff -- hiking, biking, xc skiing. Building telescopes (including making the mirrors). Designing my own home (under construction...). Opera and other music.

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

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