How I Survived in Astronomy

The Astrobetter site has some very good posts and sane advice on getting jobs and building a career.  This week, with the job season upon us, I decided to write about how I managed to stay in astronomy. I hope that on the way I can offer some advice and encouragement to those of you in the job market.

I got my Ph D from Caltech in 1983,  specializing in cataclysmic variable stars. I hoped that after a postdoc in Cambridge, England, I would be able to get a faculty job at a respected school and settle down to a career in academia. I enjoyed my time at Cambridge, but there were no faculty jobs in my native Britain (and I mean none), and so I returned to the U.S.  to do a second postdoc at Steward Observatory. I worked with Gary Schmidt, an exceptionally competent astronomer and an expert in polarimetry.

I learned one of my greatest lessons from Gary: that my interest in CV’s was too narrow to make me attractive to many astronomy departments. So with his encouragement,  I used polarimetry to expand my interests into the world of Seyfert galaxies and quasars, and my interest in CVs led directly to an interest in spectroscopy of red dwarfs (my first project in that area was with Neill Reid; it was an early effort to try to identify brown dwarfs. We didn’t find any).

The expansion of my interests was good for the brain – I found all of my new projects interesting and challenging – and helped me gain broader exposure in astronomy. It wasn’t enough to get me a faculty position though, and I did allow myself to be discouraged by what I saw as a failure, even though there were very few faculty jobs available then.

Instead, I accepted a Support Scientist job at Goddard working on COBE, which was about to launch, and I was to analyze the near-IR polarimetry data from the DIRBE instrument. The important thing was to be in astronomy.  Nevertheless, I went to COBE with mixed feelings, as an employee of a government contractor, but once I opened my eyes to the opportunities it presented, it did wonders for me. I was able to work on an important mission with some outstanding scientists and software engineers. Aside from the polarimetry, I became involved in data validation, and in generating data products such as weekly sky maps, and I started to learn about project management and working with closely with developers. Eventually,  I was given responsibility for managing a software product. And then I surprised myself: I was really starting to enjoy software management, and it turned out  (please excuse the immodesty) I was good at it.

After COBE ended, I worked for four years managing calibration software projects on Earth Sciences/Remote Sensing Missions at Goddard. It was there that I really learned about industry-standard software development and what it takes to manage a whole mission. I realized I was actually better at management than at science research, and the desire to be faculty member steadily waned in importance.  I moved up the ladder, eventually becoming a Branch Head in my company.  And the new field offered some fascinating new problems to keep my brain engaged.

But I did miss my astronomy, and in 2000 I accepted a position at IPAC  managing the Infrared Science Archive. IRSA was then a struggling new archive with only two missions in it.  The grounding I got in software management at Goddard turned out to be the perfect preparation to run IRSA.  I have since assumed two new roles, managing the NASA Star and Exoplanet Database, and managing the new Virtual Astronomical Observatory.   My research these days is actually in the field of IT research. For the past seven years, I have worked with colleagues at USC on investigating the applicablity of new technologies, such as cloud computing, to astronomy. I enjoy this every bit as much as I enjoy astronomy.

So what advice can I give people?  Well, you can have a fulfilling career in astronomy outside the traditional faculty path.  There are many ways to make a difference in astronomy outside pure research positions. Re-invent yourself every few years – it prevents burn out, and helps you develop broader skills. Look for opportunities rather than waiting for them. Try things out  – you may surprise yourself in discovering new interests and talents.

This entry was posted in Astronomy, careers, education, jobs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How I Survived in Astronomy

  1. Arif Solmaz says:

    Great website, great articles, great carrier. Thanks for posting. Have a nice day!
    Arif (an astronomer on the path of his future choice) – Turkey.

  2. astrocompute says:

    Thank you! Please let me know if there are topics you wish me to cover.

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