Dr. Sarah Ballard completed her PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics at Harvard University in 2012 and is now a NASA Carl Sagan fellow at the University of Washington. She’s written articles for the Harvard Crimson and for the Women in Astronomy blog about parental leave, values affirmation, and the intelligence of groups. On her website, she also provides some resources for running your own Impostor Syndrome workshop. Follow her on Twitter at: @hubbahubble

Local scientists discover the technique they don’t want you to know about! (Sarah Rugheimer at left, Sarah Ballard at right)

For every article I’ve written on navigating astronomy, I’ve had probably one hundred small conversations on the same topic with one of my dearest peers in astronomy. When my friend Sarah Rugheimer and I were graduate students in the same department, we met in one another’s offices and bolstered one another at the lowest points. We normalized our impostor thoughts by confessing them and laughing about them. But then I moved, so we’ve had to come up with more creative solutions to support one another. From the necessity of invention, I think we’ve stumbled on something pretty great.

We homebrewed a reward system of checking in with one another, that alleviates at least four needs we find otherwise lacking in academia. It’s simple, it’s easy to implement, it’s amenable to long distance friendships, and it’s free. It’s literally two Google forms, embedded in a website. In one, we honestly record the number of 30 minute increments of work we accomplish (25 minutes of focused attention upon a task, followed by 5 minutes of break). We might make a note about how we feel about the amount, or what we did with that time. Then we submit, and it’s recorded to a spreadsheet we both can see. We accumulate hours. Then we sum: time is an easy unit to count. In the other (entitled simply “Self-care! Do it!”), we check boxes corresponding to things we want to incentivize that improve our well-being. For me, these things are sorted into “easy,” “medium,” and “hard,” and I award points to myself based on their difficulties. Something “easy” is meditating for 5 minutes at my desk: 2 points. Something “medium” is worth 5 points. For example: attending therapy that week, or exercising for an hour. Something “hard” is completing a task I’ve been putting off for >2 weeks: 10 points each. For Sarah R., these checkboxes are sorted into “restorative” and “maintenance.” A checked box in the “restorative” category might mean a visit to Inman Spa in Cambridge. A checked box in the “maintenance” category might be digitizing a set of handwritten notes.

We reward ourselves incrementally, at points we designate beforehand. Examples are a fancy dinner, the new Jolie Holland album (me), or a nice massage (Sarah R).

I tweeted about our set-up, and both Jim and Johanna challenged me to articulate its machinery. Why did we come up with the arrangement we did? Why does it feel good? What does provide us that we’re missing? Below, I explain what we find to be otherwise missing from our jobs, and how our check-in system allays each need.

1. Academia often lacks short-term or middle-term rewards.

A typical unit of academic achievement, e.g. publishing an article, has a timespan of months. The process is predicated on small and incremental progress, which doesn’t itself feel particularly rewarding: tweaking a figure, rewriting a section, dealing with the fact that your spectra has weird sky lines (why?!), incorporating the grammatical edits of coauthors, and so on. Some academic endeavors, such as crafting an incisive and useful referee report, offer no “reward” at all. The effort, while of course worthwhile, is only one small piece of career-long service to the astronomy community, unseen by almost anyone. Long-term rewards are certainly present: finally seeing your paper on the arXiv, getting into graduate school, winning a fellowship, or seeing your doctoral student earn her PhD! But it is very difficult to name short-term or middle-term rewards, on the scale of hours to weeks.

I’ve often heard that studying astronomy is supposed to be its own reward. And sometimes, certainly (breathtakingly!), this is true. But those instances are fleeting, and can’t be expected to comprise sufficient and reliable positive reinforcement on relevant timescales.

Attempted solution: Sarah and I now dole out to ourselves short-term and middle-term rewards. We keep one another honest and insist upon awarding praise. For my tendency to deny myself reward (because I “should have worked harder anyway”), Sarah R. checks me.

2. We are very often disconnected from the reality of what our colleagues are doing.

To support this claim, I offer a finding from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that J. Johnson handily summarized on his blog. When individuals claim to work for more than 75 hours a week, for example, they are overstating the truth by more than 25 hours on average. We often cannot rely on the metric of what we perceive to be true about others to calibrate reasonable expectations for ourselves. I posit too that the Impostor Syndrome speaks to the profound mismatch between our self-perceptions and our perception of our colleagues.

Attempted solution: We literally record the number of hours we worked and the amount of self-care we did to cope that day. We are electing to share this unadulterated data with one another. Trust me when I say: this makes both of us feel better, not worse.

3. Academia feels solitary.

It’s true that the average paper in our field is now authored by a group of seven individuals, on average. We undertake projects in groups. But the requirements of research are often simply hours spent alone, poring over data or code.

Attempted solution: We are processing the day with another human being even with the action of writing a note in the optional field: “Today was frustrating.”

4. Academia doesn’t have reliable self-care incentives.

In fact, the reverse case often holds: there exist incentives to disregard self-care. I gently suggest that we all, frankly, know this to be true. Even though poor mental health is an endemic problem in academia, we are simply expected to secretly keep it together without encouragement or example, and on our own time.

Among academics I’ve known, there’s an expectation to prioritize completion of work over well-being. Can you imagine chatting before colloquium with a colleague, and offering “I went for a long walk outside at sunset last night, rather than writing just one more paragraph. I could feel the burgeoning overwhelm and acknowledged it with a break.“ This is a statement of very basic self-knowledge, very basic recognition of the exhausting cognitive load of science. And yet, I don’t know that I would ever overhear something like it. The instinctual response you might be feeling is that such a statement has no place in coffee hour. And then you certainly wouldn’t expect the next step toward normalizing mental health among academics: you wouldn’t expect the colleague to then respond, “well done.” What I’m describing is only the most basic positive reinforcement of self-care.

Attempted solution: Sarah and I now dole out structured rewards and provide one another with positive reinforcement for self-care.

It goes without saying: one ideally needs a buddy for this activity. Identify at least one another friendly astronomer you trust, someone who has a sense of humor. It’s very helpful to Sarah and I, and if it helps at least one reader (hopefully two!), I’ll be glad I wrote it up. For examples of self-care or for snippets of simple spreadsheet code to weight tasks and award points, please write to me.

What are the short-term or middle-term rewards you dole out to yourself? Do you tend to share your coping strategies with others, or keep them private?

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Jason Steffen is a Lindheimer Fellow and Research Assistant Professor at CIERA at Northwestern University.  He works (now) primarily in the field of exoplanets, but has been known to frequent the fields of experimental cosmology, gravitation, and dark matter.

Most AAS members eventually transition from astronomy to something else. Like professional athletes, most scientific careers are less than a decade long—and only a small handful of professional athletes go on to become life-long coaches. The rest move on to other professions with whatever marketable skills they have. The transition is often not an easy one, and the skills they (the athletes) have developed often have limited marketability. Professional scientists (by which I mean senior graduate students and postdocs – people whose primary responsibility is the execution of scientific research) retire at roughly the same age. However, unlike the typical athlete, they retire with exceptionally marketable skills.

Each year the Astrophysics Jobs Rumor Mill is visited by a gazillion people (or a gazillion times by the same people – right?) to track the real-time career movements of our peers within the academic or scientific environment. Yet, there is little ability to track the real-time career movements of those among us who move into the greener pastures of the private sector. The transition from the academic track to the private sector often comes with considerable trauma (i.e., disappointment) and uncertainty in part because of our collective lack of experience working in the private sector and because of our expectations regarding the roll of the career dice each year during the academic hiring season.

My own experience in the private sector (as an analyst for a telecommunications company and as a software engineer for a defense contractor) showed me many things. Most importantly, I saw that there are challenging problems to solve in the private sector and my skills as an astrophysicist allowed me to make valuable contributions to these efforts. I theorize that, deep down, many of us are actually driven more by the desire to solve difficult problems and to make valuable contributions than we are to a particular field of scientific research. (My own experience in experimental tests of gravity, dark matter detection, and exoplanets tells me that each field is interesting – even the boarding of airplane passengers can be interesting.)

One challenge in the career transition is knowing what field to move into. We all know the default list: Google, Wall Street, or McKinsey and Company. However, these careers aren’t necessarily fulfilling to an individual, and certainly don’t constitute the bulk of the potential careers that are available to us. One thing that would be useful is a collection of recent examples of career moves made by AAS members. A companion to the “astrophysics jobs rumor wiki” that focuses on moves into the private sector (an ”astrophysics non-academic career moves wiki” of some sort) that indicates where our colleagues have landed upon leaving academia could be a useful resource to know both what careers are available to consider and who we might know that works in those fields.

There is a bigger world out there than just astronomy and many companies need people who know how to add, code, touch expensive equipment without breaking it, solve challenging problems, identify new phenomena, and communicate those findings effectively. There are many opportunities to make important, and very meaningful, contributions to humanity and seeing real-time examples of where our colleagues go as they move into the private sector can help us both make decisions regarding our career and make better preparations for those decisions.

Do you think that this new addition to the rumor mill would be useful?  Are there any particular pieces of information that you think would be useful to include? Leave your ideas in the comments!


Latest Career Profile: an astronomer turned Full Professor of Physics. S/he is the only astronomer in her/his department within a small liberal arts college. In the profile below, s/he discusses the enjoyable aspects as well as the challenges of her/his position. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below or on the CSWA site.

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) 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. Check out Career Profiles on the AAS site for the compilation. We plan to post a new career profile every Thursday.


This is a guest post by Dr. Stefano Meschiari, a W. J. McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on planet formation, exoplanet detection, and all-around software development for fun and outreach.

Outreach has become an essential part of our job as astronomers. A considerable portion of astronomy outreach is carried out online, where it can reach a global audience and get students, teachers and the general public excited about our research. Over the past few years, online outreach efforts have grown into full-fledged and engaging apps. These apps let enthusiasts and amateurs understand, and even participate in, the process of scientific discovery. As an added bonus, web apps generally work on smartphones and tablets with only minor tweaks, further expanding their reach.

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Examples of successful citizen science projects abound, most famously the Zooniverse family of web apps (my personal favorite being Planet Hunters). My personal contribution to this movement has been the development of Systemic, an open-source application devoted to the analysis of exoplanetary data. I then worked on converting my scientific code into a web app, Systemic Live; Systemic Live is now used at several universities as a “virtual lab” for students. Most recently, I created a gravity game, Super Planet Crash, a proof-of-concept edutainment app to entice players into learning more about exoplanets and gravity. It has been played more than 9,000,000 times.

Thanks to the recent renaissance of Web technologies, it is now easier than ever for the average astronomer to condense their research and scientific code into small, yet interesting web apps. Various libraries and frameworks can do a lot of the grunt work, papering over some of the idiosyncrasies of web development and accelerating the time it takes to go from idea to finished app. At the same time, much of this technology is still young. In fact, there is arguably a “Cambrian Explosion” of web development tools, with new projects constantly being announced and superseded.

The state of web development tools is not yet at the “Just Add Science” level — some assembly is required. Below, I have collected a list of links to web development tools for the busy astronomer.

The Basic Tools
To create even the most unassuming web application, you will likely need to be reasonably proficient in three languages, which address separate concerns. Roughly, HTML5 defines the structure of each page, CSS defines the appearance of page elements, and JavaScript, which is a full-fledged programming language, is used to control the page content and respond to events. There are copious online resources and tutorials that can help you achieve basic fluency in all three. The Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) and resources therein are great places for getting started.

Once one goes beyond basic mastery, however, things can start to quickly become hairy and slightly arcane due to the long and bloody history of web browsers. To this day, a lot of things are objectively complicated even in modern browsers, such as achieving complex layouts, writing components, smoothing over browser differences, and more. Over the last few years, a few libraries and frameworks have emerged that address a lot of pain points. Bootstrap is a complete framework which helps you quickly define a layout for your app, providing useful components and a clean, professional look; for instance, my AstroTrends web app uses the default look offered by Bootstrap. JQuery takes away a lot of the friction in interacting with the webpage elements from JavaScript. Finally, Underscore.js adds a lot of little niceties that make JavaScript more productive.

Initializr can be used to create the boilerplate to get your project started. You can use the “Bootstrap” configuration and download a .zip archive that will contain a skeleton structure and a few libraries for your project. Other libraries (such as Underscore.js, or the plotting libraries below) can either be downloaded and installed inside the project structure, or linked from your web page using a service that will host the files (e.g. cdnjs).

Editing and Running Your Files
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In most cases, your favorite editor will be sufficient to productively work on writing your first web app. If you used Initializr to create your project, you can start editing two files: “index.html”, which contains the HTML structure of your application, and “js/main.js”, a JavaScript file that will be run by the HTML page.

To see the results of your work, you should open your page in your favorite web browser. Chrome (View->Developer), Firefox (Tools->Web Developer) and Safari (activate the Develop menu under Preferences->Advanced) all offer excellent tools to aid web development. The JavaScript Console can be used to check for debugging messages and to run small fragments of JavaScript code.

You can also run JavaScript from the command line to avoid passing through the browser. Node.js is a JavaScript interpreter (and much more); it can be helpful for rapid testing of your JavaScript files.

There are several incredible libraries for creating cool visualizations and plots inside a web browser. The most famous may be D3.js, which can create really stunning pages, but has a substantial learning curve. For more mundane plotting needs, I found Highcharts to be a great turn-key library for plotting (especially for simple line/scatter/histogram charts). Their demo page  has some helpful example plots.

Animations can offer a more accessible and visual experience than plots to the layperson. For simple animations, Paper.js offers a very simple interface, substantially easier to use than other alternatives. I used Paper.js to animate the orbits in Super Planet Crash.

Running Your Scientific Code on the Browser
If you have developed a substantial amount of scientific code as part of your research, chances are that it is interesting enough that, once simplified, it could make for a cool web application to show off your research and educate the public. Rewriting even a subset of your code in JavaScript can be daunting, however, and may waste time due to the additional testing required.

Thankfully, Emscripten can automate the process. Emscripten converts C or C++ code into highly optimized JavaScript, which can then be integrated as the “computation kernel” of your web application. Fortran code, once digested into C code through F2C, is also a candidate for translation. You can even stack layers and compile the interpreter for your favorite language, so that you could run, say, Python in your web app!

I used Emscripten to convert the Systemic code (part of a regular application) into code that was folded into Systemic Live (a web app). The process can be as easy as adding a new entry in your project’s Makefile.

In this post, I attempted to assemble an opinionated list of links to useful tools that will get you up and running with your first interactive web app. AstroBetter users, are you interested in creating online outreach projects? What tools would you use? What astronomy concept would you like to see explained in a web app?

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Career Profiles: Astronomer to Head of Bioinformatics

by Laura Trouille July 10, 2014

Latest Career Profile: Alicia Oshlack, an astronomer turned Head of Bioinformatics for Murdoch Children’s Research Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital. She is very satisfied with her job and the family friendly environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below or on the CSWA [...]


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Astropy Tutorials: Learn how to do common astro tasks with astropy and Python

by Danny Barringer July 7, 2014

This is a guest post by Adrian Price-Whelan (@adrianprw), an NSF graduate fellow at Columbia University. Adrian works on tidal streams and Galactic dynamics, is an open source enthusiast, Python developer, and plays bass for death ray architect. He is also an instructor in the SciCoder workshops and Python workshops at AAS meetings. Astropy is [...]


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Career Profiles: Astronomer to Data Scientist

by Laura Trouille June 12, 2014

Latest Career Profile: Jessica Kirkpatrick, an astronomer turned data scientist. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below or on the CSWA site. The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting [...]


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Career Profiles: Astronomer to Data Scientist

by Laura Trouille June 12, 2014

Latest Career Profile: Jessica Kirkpatrick, an astronomer turned data scientist. She went directly from graduate school to working as a data scientist for Microsoft/Yammer and recently became the Director of Data Science at the education start-up InstaEDU. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below [...]


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Career Profiles: Astronomer to Tenure Track Faculty at a California Community College

by Laura Trouille June 5, 2014

Latest Career Profile: an astronomer turned tenure track faculty at a California Community College. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below or on the CSWA site. The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews [...]

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Career Profiles: Astronomer to Tenure Track Faculty at a Teaching-Focused Institution

by Laura Trouille May 22, 2014

Latest Career Profile: Agnes Kim, a a tenure track faculty in physics at a teaching-focused institution. She loves her job and writes, “There is freedom in projects I pursue and variety in my daily activities”. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below or on [...]


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