Monday, March 21, 2016

Career Profiles: Petrologist to Planetary Scientist

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 Harold C. Connolly Jr, a geologist turned planetary scientist. He describes his career as a professor and mission scientist for OSIRIS-REx. 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?

That’s not a question that I can provide a simple answer. I am a meteoritics and cosmochemist who works on scientific problems related to terrestrial-like planet formation and the early dynamics of the protoplanetary disk through the study of meteorites and asteroids. I have collaborated and published with astronomers and astrophysics.  By training I am a geologist, specifically a petrologist, so I tend to approach problem solving using a geological system approach. I am interested in the earliest histories of asteroids when they were geologically active and I am also interested in the dynamical evolution of asteroids from main belt to Near Earth Asteroids. One theme is, however, constant across all of my research: I analyze samples of meteorites and returned materials to constrain hypotheses.

What is the job title for your current position?

Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, full professor.

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

City University of New York is where my tenured professorship is attached. But I am also a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, an adjunct Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona, and formerly of Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan. I am also Co-I and The Mission Sample Scientist for NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

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

My main residence is Manhattan, New York. My main job functions are in Manhattan and Brooklyn, NY, but I travel a lot for mission-related work.

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

I do not have one in astronomy or physics—my degrees are in geology.

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

Traditional pathway to academics—undergraduate degree, graduate degree, post-doc, then assistant-tenure track professorship.

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

The most important resource for me was to network with people I know and respect. It is what ultimately lead me to the position I have now.

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

I was always on a path to become a professor. I wanted and want to teach as well as research. Teaching is very important to me and my research program—it is how I also continue to learn and stay on top of the most recent issues in the field. In my high school year book I wrote that I wanted to become a geologist and teach, which is a goal that I have achieved.

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

The most important is solid communication. To be a good communicator you must have the view that you are not, thus keep working to become better and better at it, regardless of what the major issue is that is being discussed.

Describe a typical day at work.

There is no such thing as a typical day for me. Each day provides new challenges. My day usually starts around 5 AM with answering e-mail over morning coffee. I may have something light to eat and then off to the gym for a morning workout. It is very important in my view to keep the body fit along with the mind. I’m usually at the office between 9-10 AM, although some days sooner. I may work a little more at home after I return from the gym. I have various duties during the day that include teaching, research, meeting with Ph D students, and administrative duties. My day at the office usually ends around 7 PM. I’m usually asleep by 10-11 PM.

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

First and foremost follow your passion and be ambitious. Hard work with a joyful attitude is required to be successful. Address problems from the view that you will solve them and that it is challenging but fun! You must keep the energy moving at all times, whether it is research, teaching, searching for a job—just keep moving and you will find a position. Also, publishing and grant writing are a must. Don’t let any criticism stop you. Don’t let any rejections keep you from your goal. Use all of these experiences as steps forward and turn anything you view as negative into positive fuel for success!

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

Yes, most certainly, both through my own research and through the OSIRIS-REx mission, where I am an upper manager of the science team.

How many hours do you work in a week?

The issue is how does anyone define work. I love what I do and, for the most part, it is a passion. So every week is different and sometimes I will do some form of what can be called work 7 days a week, but not always for long hours. Some weeks I may only stay at the office for short periods of time. I often prefer to write papers at home were it is more quiet. Writing is fun for me and I don’t consider it ‘work’.

What is your salary?

Over 100K.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

High, but I am always looking to improve for many reasons.

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

The most enjoyable is interacting with students. The least enjoyable is interacting with other faculty who think the universe revolves around them.

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

For me, one of the great strengths working (and living) in NYC is the incredibly diverse community that I am cradled in every day. The diversity is in every facet of our lives here—the people, the expertise, the languages spoken, the views of life, etc.

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

It is the goal of any solid academic environment to provide a container for creativity to flourish and, as a faculty member, I help to create such an environment. It is a container for learning and creative expression of information and knowledge.

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

Very satisfied.

How family-friendly is your current position?

I don’t have a family so I have no first-hand experience with the issue.

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

Follow your passion. Don’t wait, just do and just be! A busy person always finds the means to have the life they want. And a busy person is usually a productive one as well.

Is there anything in your personal life that has helped you have a different perspective with your professional career?

Yes, I am openly gay. I think that being thus has provided me with insight into issues relating to how men and women interact in our field. In particular, I feel that being gay has provided me with a sensitivity to the complexity of issues that women face in science and makes me a solid ally for them.

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

Ah, well, there is also where I express my passion. I enjoy going to the Metropolitan Opera, I enjoy classical music, I enjoy surfing, being in Hawaii in general, I enjoy pilates, going to museums spending time with friends and colleagues, drinking wine and eating well, walking through the City (Manhattan) and seeing all there is to see, I enjoy travel, I enjoy Japanese culture and visiting Japan, Science Fiction movies, reading, and the list goes on.

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

Yes, of course! My work e-mail address is, which would be the best address to publish, please. I am also on many different types of social media if you want those usernames, just let me know.

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