Thursday, July 17, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Associate Professor of Physics at a Small Liberal Arts College

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 Associate Professor of Physics. S/he is the only astronomer in her/his department within a small liberal arts college. In the profile below, s/he discusses the enjoyable aspects as well as the challenges of her/his position. 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 of Physics

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


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

Tenure track faculty 

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
  • Nov. 2001: PhD  
  • Jan - Sept. 2002: short-term post-doc  
  • Nov. 2002- Nov. 2004: research post-doc at a national laboratory
  • Nov. 2004-June 2005: Faculty Scholar at a national laboratory
  • Fall 2004- Spring 2005: Adjunct Lecturer
  • Spring 2005: Adjunct Lecturer
  • 2005-2010: Assistant Professor of Physics
  • 2010-present: Associate Professor of Physics
What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
  • Having a TA position while a graduate student.
  • Learning how to grade quickly.
  • Time management.
  • Collaborating with advisors on thesis work. Going to conferences.
Describe a typical day at work.
  • Prepping and teaching classes.
  • Grading.
  • Administrative issues, including meeting with students.
  • Research (data analysis, writing).
What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?

Be flexible!  Really.  When I was a grad student, "they" kept telling us that there would be very few faculty positions, and I think that's even more true now. Sometimes I wish I had explored other options, such as an MBA or financial engineering... Academia, especially at a small school, is exhausting, and it's a lot of work. However, you also need to stay true to yourself and follow through on your career goals at that moment in time.     

How many hours do you work in a week?

60-65 hours. 50 hours in the office.

What is your salary?

Assistant professor (liberal arts college): $50k - $60k  
Associate professor (liberal arts college): $55k - $65k

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. 

At a small college, faculty are involved in almost every aspect of the college, from teaching to administration to recruiting to alumni engagement. Depending on the number of active faculty, duties (aside from teaching) can fall on just a few members of the faculty (or so it seems). I've learned about assessment, accreditation, tracking alumni, annual giving, and student retention rates, among other things for which larger institutions have whole departments and teams of employees. Who knew this was all part of the job of being a professor?

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?

Most enjoyable: working collaboratively with colleagues, engaging with motivated students.    

Least enjoyable: campus politics, teaching unmotivated students.

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

Like most: the campus is beautiful and the college has a rich history.

Dislike most: effect of the economy on the finances of the college, which stresses other aspects of working here.  Also, I'm the only astro person here, so I work by myself; it's difficult to communicate with my collaborators, so I feel very isolated.

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

I can design my own classes and teach them anyway I want to. I can have a research program, which resulted in a great collaboration with someone from another department. Faculty know each other, even across divisions, so conversations can lead to really interesting multi-disciplinary projects.

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

Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. I feel like I work all the time - little things that get put aside at the office pile up at home.  Research is required for advancement, but there's little time to do it at the office, so that, too, gets done at home (sometimes).

How family-friendly is your current position?

Moderately family friendly. Having a baby or adopting allows women to have 2 course releases and men to have 1 course release in the first year they have the child. If you plan it right, you can have a whole semester (+ summer and/ or + winter break) to be with the child. Many faculty bring their kids to the office.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?

While this question is more specifically for people who leave the field of astronomy, since I am the only astro person at my college, interacting with my collaborators (or other astro people) is hard.

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

Dance, travel, photography. 

No comments :