Thursday, May 8, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Soft Money Researcher

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 an astronomer turned soft money researcher. S/he is the PI for a major instrument on a 10-m class telescope. S/he is also in a dual astronomy career couple. 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?
Astronomy (soft money)

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

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Research scientist

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
B.S. in Electrical Engineering 
Worked in industry for 2 years 
M.S. in Electro-Optical Engineering 
Worked in defense industry for 8 years 
PhD in Astronomy 
1 postdoc 
Scientist position at same institution as postdoc

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
Left engineering for astronomy at age 35. 

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Applying engineering background to astronomical instrumentation development. Astronomy degree gave scientific background and motivation for new instrument development.

Describe a typical day at work.
I am PI of a major 10-m telescope facility class instrument. 50% of my time is spent on project management and budget issues. 10% is spent working with undergraduate students. The rest is split between various technical and modeling tasks.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
Someone I had met while visiting another campus for a science meeting as a graduate student was hiring a postdoc. I got the job.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Be open minded. Particularly for couples in astronomy, it is much easier to find 2 positions in the same place if they are research scientist positions rather than faculty.

How many hours do you work in a week?
60-65 hours.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Overall, I am satisfied.  I chose this career path so that I would have time for both research and instrument development, which I could not do with the additional teaching time commitment of faculty.  However, a research scientist position comes with a high level of uncertainty.  Living on a continual two year horizon can be quite stressful.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? 
Most enjoyable aspects are seeing results in the lab as the instrument comes together, and helping undergraduates do astronomy research.

What do you like most about your working environment?
Friendly department. Good telescope access. 

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

Lots of opportunities for new instrument development, although finding funding is becoming an increasing problem.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Dissatisfied. Not much of life outside of work. 

How family-friendly is your current position?
Not at all family friendly.

I never had a family because I do not think I would be doing what I am if I had kids to raise. But, that's okay because this is what I wanted to do with my life.

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

Don't do what I did if you want a family.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Theater, film, reading, art. 

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