Thursday, September 25, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Defense 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 researcher in defense. S/he notes that the job is quite similar to the type of work one would do in a theory postdoc. With a 40 hour work week and a flexible schedule, s/he finds personal life pretty well balanced with work life. 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?


What is the job title for your current position?

Research Staff

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

Federally funded research and development center.

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

DC area

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


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

Postdoc (2nd)

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

Two postdocs in astrophysics, followed by a research position at a federally funded research and development center.

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

Work/life balance, geographic stability, variety of work, pay, proximity to a major city.

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


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

Critical thinking, writing, public speaking, technical ability.

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


Describe a typical day at work.

The work is similar to the type of work one would do in a theory postdoc, just with more meetings and bureaucracy. A typical day might consist of reading reports, journal articles, or books in a technical field.  Or it might consist of performing technical analysis (this could be analytical or numerical).  Or it might consist of writing up your results in a report or in a briefing.

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

I learned about my current employer, and even this line of work, from a friend.  My advice is to spend as much time networking as you spend preparing a resume

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

Two things:    
1) The statistics are that the majority of physics PhDs will not go on to get faculty positions.    
2) There are many worthwhile careers outside of academics.  I encourage you to earnestly explore other career options, even if you think you're certain you want to follow the academic path.

How many hours do you work in a week?

40-45 hours. I try to work from home one day a week, as feasible. The other weekdays are typical 8 hour days.

What is your salary?

A salary of $100k to $150k is typical for this type of position in the DC area.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Satisfied. I do sometimes miss the luxury of being able to spend large amounts of time thinking deeply about a subject, as is sometimes possible in academia.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? 

The most enjoyable aspects of this job are that there is a lot of variety in the subject matter and that it is often very technical, I get to work with really smart people, and I get to work on matters of national importance.

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

I like that the working environment is fairly academic, and that the work schedule is pretty flexible.  I dislike the bureaucracy, and the fact that there are times when I can't go as deeply into the material as I'd like.

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

There are many opportunities to be creative in my work -- creativity is part of the problem-solving process. We also have an internal research program that affords research staff the opportunity to explore new and interesting topics that they may not be able to pursue in the course of their usual work.

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

Very satisfied. With a 40 hour work week and a flexible schedule, my personal life is pretty well balanced with my work life. 

How family-friendly is your current position?

Moderately family friendly. 

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

Once you decide that your family is as important as your career the rest will follow.

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

Yes. I am still in contact with several collaborators from my astro days. My astro input is usually in the form of reviewing manuscripts, but I wish I had time to do more.

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?

No. I have only met one person who left academia and wanted strongly to go back.  He was able to do so. 

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

Run, bike, swim, lift weights, play guitar.

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