Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Career Profile: Associate Teaching Professor

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy is compiling interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Dr. Julia Kregenow is an Associate Teaching Professor at Penn State University. She worked in science policy before moving to teaching. She has also published three children's books about astronomy.

What field do you currently work in?

Astronomy and Astrophysics

What is the job title for your current position?

Associate teaching professor

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

Penn State University

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

State College, PA,  USA

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

PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics from the University of California at Berkeley

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

Before my current position in Astronomy & Astrophysics at Penn State, I was an adjunct instructor/lecturer in both Physics and Astronomy at Cornell University, and an education research postdoc at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY.

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

When I was nearing the end of my PhD program, I met with a career counselor at my graduate institution that specialized in advising students with advanced degrees. They suggested doing informational interviews with people in areas that interested me. They also advised me to call up folks and say “I’m not asking you for a job” to remove that awkwardness from the conversation. They recommended saying “How did you get your job?”, and “What do you like about your job?” All of these pieces of advice proved very useful.

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

After finishing my PhD, I did a 3-month science policy fellowship in Washington, DC called the Mirzayan fellowship (http://sites.nationalacademies.org/pga/policyfellows/). It was very interesting, and I strongly considered pursuing science policy after that. I applied to two more longer-term science policy positions, in addition to teaching positions. The teaching positions (short-term) came through first, and provided a nice solution to my two-body problem (my partner also works in Astronomy) so that’s what I ended up pursuing. That teaching experience helped me get a longer-term teaching position at Penn State, which I have held for the last 9 years.

Describe a typical day at work. 

I answer a lot of emails! Email is often (or at least it seems like it is) more than half of my day. During the semester, I exchange many emails with students; that is how I communicate with most of my students. And with >300 students per semester, that’s a lot of emails. I spend a couple of hours each day preparing materials for my next lecture — updating notes and slides from last time, finding new visualizations, revising practice questions and homework questions. Most days I have at least one meeting of some kind: committee meeting, advising meeting with a student, teaching meeting with graduate TAs (teaching assistants) or undergraduate LAs (learning assistants), teaching seminar or workshop (either attending or hosting), outreach event, administrative meeting, mentoring junior faculty members, etc. And of course I spend 3-6 hours per week teaching my lecture class, running review sessions (in person or online), and proctoring exams. I also hold at least two regular scheduled office hours per week, where students can drop in for help. I also usually teach a web class, so I spend several hours per week updating and revising my course webpage.

How many hours do you work in a week?

It varies. Usually between 30-50. More during the semester, and fewer during the summer.

What is your salary?

$67,700 (I started at just over half that, 9 years ago)

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

I like helping grad students and other faculty members become better teachers. I like sharing and swapping teaching ideas with other teachers. I hate dealing with cheating. I don’t like going to boring meetings about administrative things.

Also, I’ve discovered in recent years that I LOVE writing books. I have written four books so far: A college level text (Students Guide to the Mathematics of Astronomy), and three children’s books (ABCs of Space, Astrophysics for Babies, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star I Know Exactly What You Are). I hope to write more.

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

I love my colleagues, both at Penn State and in Astronomy (and STEM) education at other institutions. Folks are so congenial and helpful.

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

I get to be creative in my teaching adopting new methods and changing the teaching methods I use whenever I learn about something that might be more effective. I have tried out many teaching strategies over the years, and I keep making adjustments every year as I read more books, attend teaching workshops, talk to folks, and get new ideas. I also do a lot of writing: authoring my own course materials, creating curriculum, and even sometimes books. Writing is a very creative endeavor. The more I do it, the more I like it.

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very. I have two young kids in school and daycare, plus an aging parent nearby in a nursing home. When my kids were infants, my employer helped me arrange a teaching schedule with more web classes and fewer in-person classes to increase my flexibility to work from home when needed. I can set my own hours each day, which allows me to schedule early morning doctor appointments for myself or my mom or my kids when needed. I can schedule or re-schedule many of the meetings I attend, or even attend many of them online via video chat from home or travel if needed. My department chair, who sets the teaching schedule, helps coordinate my teaching schedule with my husband’s teaching schedule, so we don’t teach classes at the same time on the same days. This helps us arrange childcare when one of our kids gets sick, so one of us can stay home and the other can go to campus. If needed, we can swap at midday. Penn State has lactation rooms all around campus, and I could also use my private office for that purpose, which was very helpful when I was breastfeeding and pumping. Penn State has two excellent daycares right on campus, and both of my kids go (went) there. This simplifies our morning commute —we all travel together in the morning and evening. We live close to campus so it is easy to commute via bus, bike, or car. We do a combination of all three. In the summertime, there are lots of summer camps for school-age kids right on campus. This is very helpful so that my husband and I can continue to go to our offices each day throughout the summer, and not have to stay home or hire an at-home babysitter for the older kid when school is out.

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

I like to have a separate email account for work and personal. I try (but don’t always succeed) to check work email at work, and home email at home. I try not to take work home with me unless I absolutely must for some upcoming deadline. Also, when I’m with the family, I try not to look at my devices. (Or vices, hah!) I don’t want my kids to have to share my attention with my damned phone. It’s challenging for me to carve out dedicated time for exercise, so I try to build it in to stuff I need to do anyway: bicycle commuting to work when the weather is nice (we have kid bike seats attached so this is also how we get the kids to daycare / summer camp), exercising at the Y when my kids are having their weekly swimming lesson, and exercising in my living room while watching netflix (if I ever get time for that!) Lastly, dinner together as a family every night. Not negotiable.

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

Bicycle commuting, gardening, cooking. I used to knit and play the piano back when I had more time. Hopefully I will get back to those some day.

What else would you like us (or someone planning a career like yours) to know?

Faculty don’t (generally) get summers off. Even if you’re not teaching, there is often plenty of work to do: committees, proposals, advising, writing letters of recommendation, updating my course materials, plan teaching workshops, and all the other work that piles up during the semester. Lots of people don’t get this. My mom still asks me when my summer break starts. I’m like “Mom, I haven’t had summers off since I got a waitressing job in 10th grade.” Sigh. So be prepared to explain that every year forever. But I still love summers. My schedule is more flexible, campus is quiet, and I get to work on my books, whittle down my email inbox, and just generally get more caught up on my to-do list.

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

Sure. julia_at_psu.edu