Career Profiles: Astronomer to Math Teacher

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy 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.

Below is our interview with Andy Cantrell, an astronomer turned math teacher. After his first postdoc, he worked with a recruiting agency for private schools to find his new position. He describes his working environment as ‘warm and supportive, and extremely family friendly’. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every first and third Thursday of the month.

What field do you currently work in?

What is the job title for your current position?
Mathematics teacher.

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
The Blake School

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

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
1st postdoc.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
2009-10: Postdoc with C. Bailyn at Yale.
2010-11: Lived in Japan, where my wife was doing dissertation research.
2011- present: Mathematics teacher at The Blake School.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
The most important factor was simply that I loved teaching and wanted that to be my primary job. I also wanted a career path which would allow me to settle down earlier and give me more time at home with my family.

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

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
The depth and breadth of my experience with math and its applications has allowed me take students places that most calculus classes never go; for example we end the class with an exploration of the heat equation and its connections to analysis. My teaching experience as a graduate student, and the admirable mentoring I got from Charles Bailyn, was also invaluable in setting me up for a career teaching.

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

Describe a typical day at work.
I teach four classes a day, with the rest of the day spent either preparing materials for class or meeting with students or my colleagues. My classes are generally fairly freeform; I let myself follow up on ideas suggested by students, while also making sure we get through the core material of the class. The students I teach are smart, lively and fun; I often find myself disbelieving that anyone would actually pay me to spend the day talking about math with such a lively and interested bunch of people.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
I found the job through Carney, Sandoe & Associates, a major recruitment agency for private schools. They were extremely helpful and patient in working with me to find a job which was a good fit for my skills and background.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
I wish more advisors had real respect for positions outside academia. Even if they don’t feel comfortable recommending or discussing positions outside their field, they should do whatever they can to mitigate the stigma often attached with leaving academia. I was incredibly lucky to have Charles Bailyn as an advisor, and he was completely supportive of my transition to teaching. I wish more of my peers had the same support that I did in making this transition.

How many hours do you work in a week?
40-45 hours

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very Satisfied.

I get to teach fabulous, fun, smart students; I have lively colleagues and excellent support from administrators; I get to teach math (and its applications) in the way I want, with full freedom both to shape my syllabus and to plan individual classes. Coming to work is a pleasure, and having full evenings with my family is also a pleasure.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The most enjoyable aspect of my job is simply the interactions I have with my students: my enthusiasm rubs off on them and it is just a joy every day to see them getting fired up about math. They are also wonderfully good humored, and always make me laugh. Faculty meetings are among my most and my least favorite parts of the job: they are often inspiring discussions of how we as a community can best serve our students, but they also can drag on if the issues under discussion don’t really grab the community of teachers. We have some paperwork to be done every year, documenting our progress on various fronts. This is probably my least favorite part of the job, but it is a small part of the job and not too objectionable.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
The working environment is warm and supportive, and extremely family friendly. I enjoy being part of a community which cares so much about looking after the students in its care.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
When I started my current job, I was given the opportunity to completely restructure the calculus curriculum to implement some ideas I had about how the class could be better structured to present calculus as a coherent body of knowledge. I was given completely free rein and had a wonderful year developing materials and watching kids (who mostly started out the year nervous about math) really light up with excitement as it all started to make sense.

In my second year of teaching, I was given the chance to apply the same methods to teach the AP class, and it has been a delight to fit all the AP topics within the structure of my curriculum. I’ve really enjoyed developing my own approach to calculus and am very pleased with how the students have responded to it.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very Satisfied.
I have a four month old right now, and there are certainly days when I’d like to just stay home with her all day. That said, I could hardly me happier with being able to do meaningful work and still have many hours a day to spend with her.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very family friendly.

Everyone involved with schools understands the importance and the challenge of raising children, and they have been extremely supportive of me after the birth of our first child.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Surround yourself by with people who believe in you and support what you want to do. The rest takes care of itself.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. I have been working with one of my high school students on a small research project which we plan to submit to the ApJ after the end of this school year. I have also sustained some collaborations with people working on projects I had been involved with before. Its been good to see these papers come out and I’ve been glad to have my name on a couple papers since leaving the field.

There is a worry among those considering careers outside of astronomy or academia that you can’t “go back” and/or that you feel that you betrayed advisors, friends, colleagues. Have you felt this way?
No. While my advisor was extremely supportive of my transition, some of my other collaborators were bewildered by my decision to leave the field. Some have treated me as an outcast, but others have been happy to have my input and work with me if and when I have time. I chose my advisor based partly on his interest in teaching, and I feel very grateful that I had his support as I made this transition.

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

Cooking, birding, ceramic art, recreational mathematics

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?
Yes. enneper [dot] surface [at] gmail

2 comments… add one
  • Korey May 23, 2013 @ 11:03

    I’m a current astronomy grad student, and I’m very interested in a career in outreach or education. Part of what appeals to me about outreach is that I get to show people things they don’t typically learn in the classroom, and I’m not tied to teaching the same basic curriculum year after year. I tried shadowing a local AP physics teacher, and it just felt boring, honestly, compared to what I can get into at the museum. But your description of your classes sounds fantastic. Would you say the Blake school is unusual, in letting you have so much freedom in your curriculum? Also, you said you didn’t require any additional training beyond your PhD. Was Minnesota special in allowing you to teach without a license, or was that also part of the Blake school in particular?

    Thanks for putting your profile out there. I’m lucky to have a supportive adviser who knows research isn’t my end goal, but the community at large does seem to frown on on alternative careers, so it’s always nice to hear from someone who’s made the switch and is happy with it.

    • Andy Cantrell May 24, 2013 @ 9:06

      In terms of licensure, it is only required by public schools. If you go into the market for independent schools, they can hire anyone they want–and most of them don’t think licensure is as important as enthusiasm and commitment to the content. The way to do that is to set up a profile with Carney, Sandoe & Associates. They’ll ask you for a resume, letters, etc. and give you a survey about what type of school you’d want to work at. Then they just keep their eyes out and refer you whenever they see a potential match. They refer to hundreds of private schools around the country and the schools pay them, so it’s free to you.

      As far as Blake giving me a lot of freedom, they are a bit unusual in the degree to which they’ve let me reinvent the curriculum. However, it’s built on itself pretty fast: they gave me some leeway from the start, then gave more more when they liked what they saw, then gave me more and more. I would say the key here is to find a school which is (a) open to innovative curricula and (b) has administrators who understand and appreciate your vision for how physics should be taught. The former is something you can explicitly ask Carney to look for; the latter will become abundantly clear if you do an interview (even just a phone interview).

      One final comment: The AP syllabi are incredibly annoying. If you teach AP classes you will very likely find yourself covering some content which you don’t think has much value, as well as spending some time on pure test prep (e.g. reminding students how many decimal places they need for full credit on AP’s, helping them understand the format, etc.). HOWEVER, if you find a school that will let you, it is possible to cover the AP material in a way which gives students a really meaningful experience, then just reserve a few weeks at the end to do the test prep.

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