Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Career Profile: Executive Director

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. Stella Kafka is the Executive Director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). She enjoys enabling scientific research and in addition to her academic positions has worked as the CTIO REU/PIA site director and in the American Institute of Physics publishing group.

What field do you currently work in?

Observational astronomy – variable stars (especially semi-detached binaries – CVs)

What is the job title for your current position?

Executive Director – Chief Executive Officer and Chief Science Officer at the AAVSO

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

American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO; www.aavso.org)

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

Cambridge, MA, USA

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

PhD in Astronomy

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

NASA/NAI fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Dept. of Terrestrial Magnetism

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

Linkedin, AAS job register, anything I could find online, talking to individuals (informational interviews)…

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

Right after I completed my PhD, I was the CTIO REU/PIA site Director. From there, I was a postdoc at the IPAC/Spitzer Science Center (Caltech); from there, I got a NASA/NAI fellowship at Carnegie Institution of Washington, Dept. of Terrestrial Magnetism. From there, I joined the American Institute of Physics publishing group where I worked with scientific journals. Finally, I moved at the AAVSO, where I am the ED since February 2015.

Describe a typical day at work. 

I don’t really have a typical day at work. My duties are overseeing the administration, programs and strategic plan of the organization and acting as a spokesperson for the Association. Part of my duties also include financial planning and management, developing the operations and scientific plan for the AAVSO which incorporates goals and objectives towards the strategic direction of the organization, oversee the planning, implementation and evaluation of the organization's programs and services including its publications, determine staffing requirements for organizational management and program delivery, review and revise organizational policies and procedures, and foster positive community relations. Furthermore, I communicate frequently with members of our community, oversee volunteers and staff who work on various projects (I participate in a couple of projects myself), collaborate with council members and AAVSO committees ensuring that strategic imperatives are well-defined and progress is being made and drive various initiatives.  Also, I visit universities, amateur astronomy clubs and go to conferences as needed to keep our very diverse international community informed of the work of the AAVSO and solicit feedback. I have lots of balls in the air at any time; I am really good at multitasking 😀.

How many hours do you work in a week?

As I don’t have a typical workday, I don’t have a specific time schedule for hours/week. I work about 50 hours/week, or as needed.

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

I really like enabling scientific research and building communities. The AAVSO is special in that it builds international collaborations between professional and amateur astronomers who work side-by-side to understand some of the most dynamic phenomena in the night sky. I like creating connections with the professional community, and bringing new projects to our observers.

Least enjoyable: dealing with building maintenance issues … I really can’t fix anything myself…

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

We are a small non-profit, so we do work a lot with volunteers. I really like the fact that we use expertise from our community to complete project – this provides access to resources that we don’t (and can’t) have. I also learn a lot form this diverse community, which makes my every day a new learning experience. Life is not boring at the AAVSO! Cambridge is a very diverse and multi-cultural city and it is delightful to meet people from all over the world…

Having said that … winters in Massachusetts are really brutal, and I have a hard time adjusting.

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

As any non-profit needs innovation to remain relevant and to grow, I have to always listen to the needs of our community in order to derive future strategic steps of the organization. Being pro-active and creative better utilizes our limited resources…

How family-friendly is your current position?

Somewhat. It requires a lot of travel and a lot of after-hours work.

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

Plan ahead, and be prepared for emergencies…

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

I exercise, read, travel for fun… I also like to volunteer my time in non-profits that empower women and girls in science. Really fun and inspiring activities, for a good cause…

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

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Any position can provide very precious skills, which may be of use later on in your career. Nowadays we are all entrepreneurs, thinking outside the box and trying new things should be part of our repertoire. As Astronomers we are trained to do much more than research – from project and program management, to marketing, to reporting and advocating for a project, to publishing, to community outreach … and many more. Soft skills are also of great value, and need to be cultivated, highlighted and showcased accordingly in professional resumes and in our discussions with potential employers.

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

Yes – please use skafka_at_aavso.org