Thursday, May 29, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Tenured Faculty

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 Caroline Simpson, an astronomer turned professor. She is a tenured faculty in astronomy at an urban, minority serving, 'Research High Activity' institution. 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 - Academia

What is the job title for your current position?
Associate Professor

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Dept. of Physics, Florida International University. We are a large (50,000 student) public university in an urban setting; we are classified as a Minority Serving Institution (Hispanic). We are classified as Research-High Activity.

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Miami, FL, USA for both

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Tenured Faculty

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
After I obtained my bachelor's degree in Astronomy and Physics, I worked for four years for the Hubble Space Science Institute on compiling the Guide Star Catalog. I then went to graduate school at the University of Florida and obtained my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Astronomy. I was hired immediately into a tenure-track position at FIU, where I have been since. I was granted tenure and promoted to Associate Professor in 2001. I am in the process of applying for promotion to full Professor.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Writing proposals, both funding and observing (both of which I did in graduate school as well). Good academic background in various areas of Astronomy.

Describe a typical day at work.
As faculty, my job is supposed to be about 45% teaching, 45% research, and 10% service. In practice, this varies widely from day to day. A typical day involves teaching duties (prep, teaching, grading), some research (advising graduate students, etc.), and some service (committees, dealing with student issues, reviewing papers and proposals).

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
Job at Space Telescope: a classmate worked there and recommended I apply.
Current job: Gave a seminar at FIU when I was a grad student (I knew one of the FIU faculty).

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Undergraduates: let them know that they get paid to go to grad school. Tell them what faculty DO (more than just teach). Tell them NOT going to grad school is ok too! Scientists can work many places! Decide what they want to do and make sure their coursework/experience provides the required skills. Try out research via an REU-type program.

Graduate students: Think beyond your dissertation. Have data/a project to take away with you to your next position. Publish, go to meetings, and network. Meet people. Work with people. Look at what jobs are available long before you plan to graduate so you can make sure you get skills/experience people are looking to hire. Do some real teaching. Postdocs: Same as graduate students, but make sure you get experience writing grants and get teaching experience.

How many hours do you work in a week?
45-50 hours
I do some work at home most weeks/weekends. I'm not the most organized/efficient person, so things take me longer than some people, I suspect.

What is your salary?
~$75,000 for nine months is my base salary. It is often supplemented by summer teaching or research, and "overload" if I teach extra courses. Since my salary is completely public (there is an app! flsalaries), you may make it public.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
Most enjoyable: Independence - I can mostly set my own schedule. I also really enjoy teaching. Least enjoyable: the amount of things I am expected to do; it's often overwhelming.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
In my research, creativity is required! I am expected to take initiative in that area. There are opportunities to be creative and take initiative in the more day-to-day/administrative/teaching areas too.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Slightly family friendly.
I don't really know as I don't have children. We now have some parental leave (we didn't until recently for faculty), but I think you have a set amount of months you can use over your entire career, so if you have two children, you may not have any months left. I'm not sure. People have flexible schedules, but there is no official recognition of things like 'don't schedule a meeting then because someone has to pick up his kids'. There is little/no recognition of this concept here at all. Just not on the radar.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Time off is important for recharging your batteries; you may need to schedule it in. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep or time off; do what works for you and don't compare yourself to others. Having a supportive partner (whatever 'supportive' means for you) is very helpful. Academic institutions are becoming more aware of the 'two-body problem' and spousal hires are now more common than they used to be. Take advantage of that. Fertility for women starts dropping at age 25. Become educated about the effects of delaying childbearing before you are in your mid-late 30s. If you turn out to have fertility issues anyway, you have little time left to deal with them at that point.

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

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