Thursday, June 19, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Science Communicator

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 Rick Fienberg, an astronomer turned AAS Press Officer and Director of Communications. After his first postdoc, he worked at Sky & Telescope for over 20 years before taking on his role at the AAS in 2009. 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?

Science Communication / Writing. I also work a bit in education programs & public outreach.

What is the job title for your current position?

Press Officer and Director of Communications

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

American Astronomical Society

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

I telecommute from home in Watertown, MA, USA; AAS is headquartered in Washington, DC, USA. 

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


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

Postdoc (1st)

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?

After a 1-year postdoc at the same institution where I finished my PhD, I managed to get hired as an assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. Over the next few years I was promoted to associate editor and then technical editor. When the president of our parent company, Sky Publishing, retired in 1991, I was elected to succeed him. When the editor in chief of S&T retired in 2000, I appointed myself as his successor and relinquished my role as president.

After 22 years at S&T, I left in 2008, spending 1 year as a visiting scientist at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA.

When longtime AAS press officer Steve Maran retired in 2009 and the AAS created a new joint position of press officer and education & outreach coordinator, I applied for the job and, happily, got it. In 2013 I was promoted to director of communications, and most of my EPO duties were transferred to someone else.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?

I discovered while I was in grad school that I enjoyed teaching (I supported myself with a teaching fellowship for 2 years) and writing more than I enjoyed doing research. I also thought I was better at teaching and writing than I was at doing research. So, after I finished my PhD, I looked for opportunities to get into teaching or writing full time. I became aware of an opportunity to join the staff of Sky & Telescope magazine, pursued it successfully, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?

I switched from research to science writing at age 30.

I left S&T at age 52; I started thinking about leaving S&T on my 20th anniversary, which coincided approximately with my 50th birthday and when the last of my three kids left home for college. It seemed like a good time to give my career a "second wind" before I got too old to be attractive to another employer.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?

Not a skill, but making contacts in the astronomical community while in grad school (and even while still in college) made a big difference.

Ironically, learning how to do research -- to identify problems and figure out how to go about finding their solutions -- helped a lot with my science writing, which is arguably just another form of research and reporting.

Presentation skills.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?

No formal training -- lots of on-the-job training! For example, I covered AAS meetings for S&T for many years, and now I'm the one putting on the press conferences that journalists attend as their main way of covering AAS meetings. While still in grad school, I served on an advisory committee for Project STAR, one of the first projects that brought research-validated teaching methodology to astronomy. 

Describe a typical day at work.

I spend a good fraction of most days receiving press releases from astronomy-related institutions, formatting them for distribution via the AAS press list, and posting them to the list by email. I also tweet headlines and links via @AAS_Press and add headlines and links to the AAS homepage's "Astronomy in the News" section. I also field phone calls and emails from journalists looking for additional information and independent experts to comment on new discoveries.

In the run-up to each semiannual AAS meeting, I spend a lot of time going through abstracts, identifying newsworthy stories, and lining up speakers for press conferences.

I also spend some time each day working on the AAS website — helping my colleagues and outside contributors publish articles, working on the “back end” in collaboration with our IT staff to fix bugs or add features — and helping to write and/or edit various member communications, principally in support of our membership and meetings operations.

A lengthier description of some of my responsibilities is included in the AAS Membership Directory, in the Media Relations section.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

I learned about the job opportunity at Sky & Telescope from someone who I'd met when we were both undergraduate interns with NASA's Viking missions to Mars.

I learned about the opportunity at Phillips Academy from the AAS Job Register, which I was looking at each month once I decided that I didn't want to stay at S&T forever.

I learned about the opportunity at the AAS from the person who was leaving the position; he thought I might be interested in applying to succeed him -- and he was right!

I strongly recommend using informational interviews to learn more about career options. Talking with people in jobs like the ones you're interested in can get your name out there and lead to additional contacts and opportunities.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

Learn as many skills as you can, and meet as many people as you can, so that you have maximum flexibility once you finish school. Don't get locked in to a single idea of what your career might look like. Careers are rarely linear any more, and the best opportunities often come out of nowhere, so keep your eyes open. 

How many hours do you work in a week?

45-50 hours. I work from home (telecommute), so 100% of my work time is spent in my home office. 

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?

Like most: working from home, which saves me tons of commuting time and enables me to do my share of household duties.

Like least: working from home, which isolates me from my colleagues. I overcome this by making frequent trips to the office in DC.

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

I am given wide latitude to do my job as I think it should be done. When I take initiative, which usually means proposing to do something new or to do something differently than it's been done before, I'm usually praised for it, and my proposal is usually accepted. I define "creative" quite broadly; coming up with new ideas is creative, and writing something that's fun to read is creative -- I get to do these things regularly, so I feel I get to be creative in my work.

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very family friendly.

I work from home, so I have a lot of flexibility in terms of the family and household. But all my kids are out of the house, and my wife works outside the home, so in fact I don't have any family responsibilities (as distinct from household responsibilities) to fit in around my work — except that I count our dog as a member of the family, and she demands some attention throughout the day.

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

The only way we were able to maintain our sanity and avoid going broke from child-care expenses when our three kids were growing up was for one of us to work part time. We never had to argue about which of us would work part time; my wife agreed to do it from the outset, since she was working in human services and didn't have as much salary potential as I did. The only advice I can think to offer in the area of work-life balance is to think about it in advance and, if you're in a relationship, discuss it with your partner so you don't end up facing difficult decisions without having anticipated them and imagined how you'd deal with them. 

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?

To quote Richard Feynman, "What do you care what other people think?!" Longer answer: As our
community comes to recognize that a PhD isn't a one-way ticket to an academic career (mostly because there aren't enough jobs in academia to accommodate all the PhD's), I think it'll be less and less common for anyone to suggest that leaving academia, or even astronomy, is some sort of betrayal. I was lucky, I guess, since I left academia to work at S&T, which the astronomy community knows and respects, so I never got any guff about my decision.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?

For me, astronomy is both a career and a hobby. I often don't know where the job ends and the hobby begins, or vice versa. I built my own roll-off-roof observatory at a dark site about two hours from home, and my wife and I spend as many weekends there as possible from late spring through late fall; we have a cabin there too, and we do lots of relaxing and kayaking. We also love to travel, but even much of that is done in an astronomical context -- our most exotic trips are solar-eclipse tours, which I lead for a travel company that I've been working with since my days at S&T. We read a lot. My wife likes to garden, but I haven't gotten into it much -- though I do help with clean-up!

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


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