Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Communications and Stewardship Staff Writer

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.

Below is our interview with Dr. JoEllen McBride, an astronomer who left astronomy to become a science writer. While a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she recognized her interest in outreach and education and developed her experience in these areas. After receiving her PhD, Dr. McBride was awarded an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship to be a science journalist at Voice of America. By day she is a Communications and Stewardship Staff Writer for Penn Medicine Development and Alumni Relations. The rest of her time is split between being with her family of two daughters, Carina and Alessa; two kitties, Thelma and Louise; and her partner, Ed, who is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Math at Thomas Jefferson University East Falls. She also still gives public talks about astronomy and teaches 4th-grade girls about astronomy ten Saturdays out of the year. You can follow her on Twitter at @astrophyspunkin or on Instagram at @astropunkin.

To access our previous Career Profiles, please go to http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.com/search/label/career%20profiles

What field do you currently work in?


What is the job title for your current position?

Communications and Stewardship Staff Writer

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

Penn Medicine Development and Alumni Relations/University of Pennsylvania

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

Live: Downingtown, PA, USA

Work: Philadelphia, PA, USA

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


What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?

Adjunct Faculty in Physics at West Chester University

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

There were two factors that were equally important. The first, after I earned my PhD I had very little support for finding academic work or publishing my results. My original thesis project ended up not working out as expected, so I had to redesign and finish up in a little under 3 years. Then I got pregnant shortly after and there didn't seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for me to continue on in astronomy (from myself for senior members of the community). The second, my adjunct position was only part-time so it was difficult to afford daycare for my children.

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


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

While in graduate school, I did as much science communication training as possible: AAS Astronomy Ambassadors, The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Engaging the Public Workshop, ComSciCon Triangle attendee, and the biggest one, I was awarded a AAAS Mass Media Fellowship after I earned my doctorate. I spent 10 weeks at Voice of America in Washington, DC as a science journalist.

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

I adjuncted at West Chester for a year and a half. Then I was hired as an Associate Editor for Outpatient Surgery Magazine. I had to leave that job after 5 months due to a hostile work environment that was not conducive to writing. After that, I did some contracting work as a Subject Matter Expert making WebAssign tutorials and a Search Engine Optimization writer for New Way Air Bearings. About a year ago, I was hired by Penn Medicine Development and Alumni Relations.

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

To get my adjuncting position, I actually reached out to my Master's thesis adviser. He put me in touch with his graduate school roommate who was an astronomy faculty at Drexel. His roommate knew a faculty member at West Chester who I then reached out to. I met with the chair and they offered me a part-time teaching position.
To get my writing jobs, I applied to any and all science-related writing jobs I could find. I had many clips from my time at Voice of America and I continued writing for blogs like Scizzle and the Pipettepen to add to my portfolio. Even though the job at Outpatient Surgery Magazine didn’t end well, the experience writing for health care, and my PhD, got me my current job.

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

Being able to research things and quickly vet sources. Communicating with faculty and administrators. Making connections that others may not see since I have experience on the research side of academia.

Describe a typical day at work.

I write … a lot. Mainly remarks for Penn Medicine leadership, stories for development publications, and collateral for donors (one-pagers or a prospectus on giving opportunities). I have to do a lot of background research since my expertise is not in medicine, but I have been highly trained to Google stuff and vet source material. I also meet with faculty to discuss their research and work pretty closely with the Chief Scientific Officer since I am tasked with writing all his development materials. My PhD and experience in academia make interacting with faculty very easy.

How many hours do you work in a week?


What is your salary?


What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?

Pretty satisfied. I don’t have to take it home with me.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job?

I work with some pretty awesome people in my department. I can also work from home when necessary. I think one of the most enjoyable things though is that my bosses actually have my back and stand up for me. I didn’t get that much in graduate school. I was mostly left to figure stuff out on my own and got just enough help to squeak by. I am learning a ton about the world of development also. The things I’m learning I can bring back to the other organizations I volunteer with. I’m seeing so many connections between the advocacy work I do and my real work. It’s so much fun learning new things!

What do you like most about your working environment?

My officemates like to bring donuts in … a lot. It’s awesome. I also feel like a valued part of a team. You’d be surprised how quickly some positive reinforcement shuts up that imposter’s voice in your head.

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

Since I have a PhD I have been able to interface with faculty way more than anyone else in my position ever did. This has opened up opportunities for my colleagues to meet with them as well. It’s also kind of fun coming up with some catchy or unique copy and seeing it show up in other things we produce. Even though I’m a staff writer, I am usually the point person for multiple projects. It’s been great project management experience.

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

Let me say it again. I do not have to bring my work home. Unless I am working from home. No one expects me to work before 9 or after 5. It. Is. Glorious. I am also able to do advocacy work like serving on the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, my local 500 Women Scientists Pod, and serving on the Board of Directors for the American Helicopter Museum.

How family-friendly is your current position?

Very family-friendly. In that I can work from home when needed, I get lots of PTO and sick days, and my department hosts events that my family can attend. I don’t think I’d bring my kids to work. They’d probably be really bored.

JoEllen with her two daughters, Carina (5) and Alessa (2).

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

Keep everything in a calendar. Everything. Even your To-Do lists.

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

STEM Outreach. I still do this. I can’t get enough of it. I am currently an Educational Mentor for the Girls in Science and Technology program at the Helicopter Museum. I run and put together the Astronomy session for 4th-grade girls. And of course, hanging out with my daughters and showing them something new.

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

Yes! joellen.mcbride_at_gmail.com

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