The Road Less Traveled: Organizing Discussions of Non-Academic Career Paths

Johanna Teske is finishing her fourth year as an Astronomy graduate student at the University of Arizona, Steward Observatory. Her science research focuses on observing and modeling exoplanet atmospheres, studying in particular their (compositional) relationship to the atmospheres of their host-star. She also dabbles in education research, studying on how science fits into the worldview of students and how their enculturation of science helps/hinders their learning and understanding of it. She is excited to be posting on AstroBetter and hopes readers will seriously consider holding their own non-academic career forum.

In Fall 2011, I started a series of non-academic career forums for Astronomy graduate students and postdocs, inspired by an idea from the Steward/NOAO Women’s Science Forum group. Given the current job market for traditional astronomy jobs (and jobs in general), such a forum seemed almost necessary for upcoming grads and post-docs, and there was already a large interest in our department among current grads for exploring alternative career paths. A forum like this is something every department can do to help their students and postdocs, and can be organized with relatively little work. With the series, I wanted to address what other careers are possible with an Astronomy/Astrophysics PhD (or just a science PhD), and how one goes about finding and pursuing such opportunities.

Format of the Forum

We chose a lunch forum format to accommodate the time of both the panelists and the attendees, since everyone has to eat, right? It also made the atmosphere feel more casual and open. Most of the people who attended were graduate students in Astronomy, although there were often a few Planetary Science graduate students and sometimes a few post-docs from both departments.

Starting Up the Forum

From October 2011 to March 2012, I organized five forums. I used my own contacts at the university and in the community, as well as suggestions from other graduate students and faculty, to find and invite panelists, not all of whom were local. Setting up the forums required a lot of “cold-emailing”, and there were many cases of people who either never responded or said they were not interested or could not come. But there were certainly enough positive responses (and some pleasant surprises; see speakers below) to go forward with running the forums.

At the forums, each panelist first gave a summary of their background, what path led them to their current position, and their day-to-day work at their current position. Then we opened up the discussion to attendees for questions and comments and let the dialog flow. Topics ranged from how to search for and advertise yourself for a job like the ones held by the speakers, reactions from family/colleagues/the astronomy community to people with non-traditional astronomy careers, how to “make it” through graduate school and simultaneously prepare yourself for a career outside of academic astronomy, whether or not getting a PhD is worth the toil for the actual outcome/job, and how to lead a happy/successful life overall.

Panelists for the Forum

For the first forum in October 2011, I invited local panelists, who I knew personally and were members of the Tucson astronomy community. They were:

  • Dr. Katy Garmany, Associate Scientist; Sr. Science Education Specialist at the National Optical Astronomical Observatories and current Editor of NOAO Newsletter and Co-Diversity Advocate; previous Director of Fiske Planetarium and Sommers-Bausch Observatory at University of Colorado, President of Astronomical Society of the Pacific,
  • Dr. Ed Prather, Executive Director, Center for Astronomy Education; Associate Professor of Astronomy; Education Officer of the American Astronomical Society (2012) and an appointed member of the American Institute of Physics’ National Committee on Physics Education; Research Director and Co-I of the NSF CCLI Phase III Centers grant that funds the Collaboration of Astronomy Teaching Scholars (CATS) Program
  • Dr. Morag Hastie was responsible for leading the Instrumentation Group at the MMT, supporting current and future instrumentation, and supporting astronomers observing at the MMT; M.Phil. in Radio Astronomy from the University of Manchester;

In the following months, our panelists were:

  • Quintina Jones, systems engineer at Raytheon
  • Benjamin Pratt-Ferguson, Principle Multi-Disciplined Engineer at Raytheon
  • Benjamin Ripman, an accelerator systems operator at SLAC National Accelerator Lab (skype)
  • Dr. Nick Siegler, Steward grad who is now a senior engineer at JPL (skype)
  • Tom Beal, senior reporter for Arizona Daily Star (worked there since 1974), current specialty is science reporting; also served as adjunct faculty in 2011 in UA School of Journalism
  • Daniel Stolte, chief science reporter for University or Arizona Communications/UANews; previous Director of Communications and Public Education at the Sarver Heart Center, science writer and editor at the BIO5 Institute, science writer and editor at the German Cancer Research Center, journalist and editor at Deutsche Journalistenschule; obtained Diplom/M.Sc. from University of Frieburg with concentrations in biology, linguistics, zoology, cell biology, and paleontology
  • Damond Benningfield, freelance writer and audio producer in charge of StarDate, a nationally syndicated radio program out of UT Austin’s McDonald Observatory, also maintains StarDate magazine and, obtained Bachelor of Journalism from UT Austin
  • Dr. Amy Nelson, former student of Dr. Zaritsky, currently the Senior Flash Engineer at Disney Online Studios; Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz (skype)
  • Dr. Anna Quider, APS/AAAS Congressional Science Fellow, Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge with (first) a Marshall Scholarship and (second) NSF Fellowship; currently works in the office of a congressman on issues related to higher education, telecommunications, innovation, and all science and technology issues; she is responsible for providing policy analysis and advice for the Congressman, developing legislation, and managing constituent relationships for her portfolio of issues

Organization & Implementation of the Forum

Our graduate program director agreed to use department funds to provide pizza and soda for the forums, and there were no other expenses, since we (originally) planned to only having local speakers. We (the WSF) actually ended up applying for and winning a small grant through the UA’s Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) to enable us to pay the travel expenses of and bring in Damond Benningfield from Texas for our January forum. Other than Mr. Benningfield’s case, any panelist who could not make it in person by their own means was a “Skype” guest. Skype connections were displayed on a large screen with good external speakers to make communication with the remote speakers as seamless as possible.

I advertised each event a week ahead of time via email to all the graduate students and postdocs in the Astronomy Department, in the Planetary Sciences Department, and at NOAO, and sent out a reminder email the day-of making sure to emphasize FREE PIZZA. I tried to, after each event, send out an email asking for feedback about how it went, and reminding people to send me suggestions for careers/panelists.  I also tried to spread the word verbally to people I knew who were not included in the email list above, like undergraduates in Astronomy, and students in a graduate journalism class I was sitting in on during the fall.

I am starting the series up again this fall, this time in conjunction with the Planetary Science graduate students, and will try to make some changes to help the forums run more smoothly. I learned after the first Skype guests that it was better to initiate a talking-order at the beginning of the forum, i.e., have each panelist answer someone’s question in the same order (question asked, panelist 1 answers, panelist 2 answers, panelist 3 answers, etc.). That did not always work, of course, and I also learned to not be too controlling of the discussion, let there be pauses, and, if people were trying to talk over one another, let them decide who would talk first. The Skype audio was never very good, though I am not sure how to make that better for future forums, other than find or purchase better external speakers. As the moderator in the past forums I often had to repeat or summarize questions or responses to questions for people on Skype.

Overall, we had one forum with one panelist, but most had three or more panelists, which seemed like the ideal number (around 3). Any more than about 5 panelists meant that we inevitably spent a lot of time listening to their backgrounds, leaving less time for questions and discussion. That was not necessarily bad, because in some cases it was difficult/awkward getting attendees to ask questions and engage with the panelists, but I think for future forums I will stick to 3-4 panelists. To help facilitate questions and discussion, I will try to have more questions prepared and, in my advertisement emails, I will prompt people to think of questions beforehand. Again, it is more challenging having Skype panelists in any case — whether they are the only Skype panelists or there are multiple Skye panelists or there are Skype and in-person panelists — but it is certainly worth it to be able to interact with people from all over the country. I will continue having Skype panelists, and maybe even try to Skype with panelists from different countries!

Results and Reactions

In general, the forums were well attended (15–20 people). After the first forum, several attendees came up to me and said they were really glad this series was happening, and that few opportunities like it existed at our university (for exploring non-academic science careers). That was encouragement for me to keep the series running for as long as I did, and I continued to get positive feedback after each forum. So, I really encourage *you* to start a forum series like this one, or even just try one event with a few panelists from different and alternative-to-academia careers.

Starting your own Forum

I think a forum like this is best organized by current graduate students or postdocs, because they will have a better idea of the character of other students and know what type of careers would be most interesting for them to learn about. It also makes the whole process more authentic and less formal; it might be awkward if a faculty member organized it, since they obviously chose a traditional career path! I should point out, though, that there was no awkwardness with our graduate program director paying for pizza and soda. It was very generous, and sent a subtle message that she thought it was okay to look into careers besides the one that she chose. All the attendees (and panelists) were appreciative of the free meal, and it helped draw people to the forums. If you do not have department support/funding for food and/or for bringing in panelists from outside your local area, I suggest holding a small fundraiser or applying for small grants through your school’s graduate/professional student council, or even the office of the dean. Also, you should consider involving other departments or student groups to help organize, fund, and participate in a forum or forum series. It certainly isn’t with just astronomy degrees that there are many, many alternate career paths possible.

Here is a list of ideas to get you started identifying panelists

  • Non-Academic Astronomers Network
  • Faculty at your school who teach semi-science-related classes (journalism, policy, engineering, etc.).
  • Faculty in your department who have former students who are no longer in (traditional) astronomy (one of our panelists was a former student of Dennis Zaritsky).
  • Observatories, both local and nonlocal. Telescope operators usually have very interesting career paths, and most observatories have an education/public outreach specialist.
  • Local museums, science centers, chapters of amateur astronomers.
  • Local science- or engineering-related companies (Raytheon has a branch in Tucson).
  • Students from your department who (a) left before graduating and/or (b) graduated but left astronomy and are not in a traditional astronomy career.
  • Your personal network: keep your LinkedIn profile up to date, and remember people who you worked with in the past – one of our panelists was a former NSF REU colleague of mine.

If you are pursuing or have pursued a non-academic / non-traditional careers in science/astronomy and want to be an in-person or Skype panelist for a future forums, please get in touch or leave a comment on this post and we’ll get you added to the Non-Academic Astronomers Network!

What else are people doing at their local institutions to spread the word about all the career options open to us?

8 comments… add one
  • Unita Jorb Aug 9, 2012 @ 15:42
  • John Debes Aug 14, 2012 @ 11:58

    Johanna, thanks for posting this!

    This is important work.

    • Johanna Aug 14, 2012 @ 21:01

      Thanks for reading it, John! 🙂

  • Jane Rigby Aug 15, 2012 @ 11:50

    Johanna, thanks for taking on this important task, and sharing it with the rest of us.

    One question. How can we, as a profession, better share knowledge on this topic? For example, what should a PhD student do who’s at a much smaller institution that Steward, without the extensive alumni network? Can we share via the web, for example by posting summaries or videos to youtube? What about the role of the AAS and annual meetings? Please, brainstorm!

    • Johanna Aug 16, 2012 @ 9:11

      Thank, Jane! There are already some good LinkedIn groups on this very topic — science, and sometimes specifically astronomy, outside of academia. There is also a (new?) FB group, “Jobs for Astronomers.” I think in “this digital age” (I know, cliche!), a student like you describe really has to make us of the vast array of possibilities and connections online, and honestly, it isn’t too hard. I think it is also a cultural thing, in that students in graduate programs are being guided by and looking up to people who took the traditional/academic path, their faculty! So they do not get any different perspectives, or know what else is out there. I think it would help if departments kept a file or list or *something* as a resource for these students, and knew who to contact in the institution’s career office for help.

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