Thursday, May 22, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Tenure Track Faculty at a Teaching-Focused Institution

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 Agnes Kim, a a tenure track faculty in physics at a teaching-focused institution. She loves her job and writes, "There is freedom in projects I pursue and variety in my daily activities". 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?
Astronomy - Academia

What is the job title for your current position?
Assistant Professor of Physics

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Georgia College & State University (until August 2013)
Penn State Worthington Scranton (starting August 2013)

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Milledgeville, GA. Live and work there.

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?
My career path was fairly straightforward. I was a postdoc for one year, and then accepted a tenure-track faculty position. I was an assistant professor for 5 years at my current institution. I just got tenured, but I accepted a position at Penn State Worthington Scranton so I will be back to assistant professor before I go back up for tenure, on an accelerated clock.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
The ability to acquire and synthesize information quickly. Analytical and critical thinking skills. Technical writing skills. To a lesser extent, computer skills.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
I acquired as much teaching experience as I could while in graduate school and as a postdoc. That was sometimes challenging, as opportunities were not always available within my department (being a grader does nothing to raise a teacher). I sought outside teaching gigs, such as summer science camps and adjunct positions at area colleges.

Describe a typical day at work.
My days are shared between being in classrooms, meeting students, and going to meetings. In between, I find some time to prepare for classes or manage the course work. I also spend some time responding to email. I have about one afternoon a week where it's quieter and I try to work on formal research then. Lately, that has been roughly one afternoon a month.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I got my current position from an informal interview at a AAS meeting. The position was advertised rather late in the AAS register. I saw it advertised at the career center at a AAS meeting and signed up for an informal interview. Things went well from there. My next position, I found in the Chronicles of Higher Education. It's a good place to find faculty positions at undergraduate institutions, not just in Astronomy but also in Physics. There are more of the latter and luckily, astronomers qualify for many of the physics positions.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Have a goal, but don't pursue it too narrowly and don't get disappointed if instead of your goal, you achieve something else. Following your "likes" is a good way to go. Also focus on expending your technical and your soft skills and your network. The latter can be done by getting involved in any projects that fit your interest, and also in activities outside of school. For skills, seize opportunities to learn new things, even if you don't see how that fits into the picture you have of your future. You never know what will turn out to be useful. Life is like navigating a turbulent stream. Generically, you want to go downstream (it's too hard otherwise), but it's not a straight shot and it can be scary at times.

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

What is your salary?

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I love my job. There is freedom in projects I pursue and variety in my daily activities. Very few of my activities are routine (with the exception of grading, my least favorite part of the job). I like the personal interactions I have everyday with colleagues and students. I never was one who enjoyed being locked away with my computer as unique companion, coding day in and day out. Teaching is a good outlet for my creativity and a good match for my passion for learning. On the other hand, sometimes I could use a bit more quiet time to focus. I save my "hard" research for summers. During summers, I try to get away from my institution and visit collaborators to breathe new energy in my research.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I like having my own office. I love my colleagues. Physicists are a lot of fun. There is nothing I really dislike about my working environment. Sometimes, I have regrets that our building is so drab, compared to where the English or the Art departments reside. They have periwinkle walls and wood accents, when we have to settle for the standard science building off-yellow or army green. On the other hand, we have heat, when they don't.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Lots of opportunities. Teaching provides plenty of opportunities to be creative, as does research. I am at a smaller institution, where we get to decide on a lot of things and are encouraged to start our own projects. Our work has a high impact on the institution and on the community at large.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Satisfied. I think I do a pretty good job at working and living at the same time.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very Family Friendly. Our department chair is pro-active in making arrangements for young and growing families. Everyone pitches in to enable these arrangements, such as take over sections or agree to reorganize their teaching schedules. We are close among colleagues and also with our students. It's not rare to see babies of faculty members with students. We have no shortages of baby-sitters. We help each other out among colleagues too. While parents of young children try hard not to have to bring them to meetings, sometimes it happens and it is not frowned upon.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
For work-life balance, it is best to leave the work at the office. When I go home, I devote my attention to my family. When I am at work, I work hard. While hard to do, try to have a notion of how much you can handle and don't take on more than that. Pick projects and activities that matter and that you enjoy.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes, I continue to do research in astronomy and collaborate with a number of fellow astronomers on projects.

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?
Yes. There is a bit of that in choosing a career in undergraduate education. It's hard to go back to the research career track after one has made that choice. Ask yourself: "Is a research career track all there is for me?". The answer is likely "no". What matters is to pursue a career that you enjoy. If you run into people who openly look down on you because you are not a professor at MIT (they are actually rare), just stay away from them. Favor the company of people who are passionate about the same things you are passionate about. Define success in terms of how much you are enjoying your life. Don't allow other people to decide on whether you are successful or not.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I like knitting while watching Japanese anime or Korean movies. I am looking forward to rejoining a social ballroom dance club when I move to Pennsylvania. There isn't one where I live now. I blog on random things.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes. axk55[at]

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