What is the highest degree in astronomy/physics you have received? PhD
What is/was your most recent academic position in astronomy/physics? SkyMapper Postdoctoral Fellow at ANU/RSAA
What has been your career path since you completed your degree? After my PhD, I went through a total of three postdocs spanning 11 years of academic work in physics and astronomy. I struggled in my first two postdocs to balance mission-critical software infrastructure work with publishing in a large collaboration, and watched as over the years the competition for jobs grew and grew. I got more opportunities to publish work I was proud of in my third postdoc, but even still I found that I wasn’t able to publish at the rate needed to compete for continuing positions, or even for independent research fellowships. Faced with the prospect of doing yet another postdoc, becoming the software lead for a large astronomical survey, or trying something new, I chose door #3.I took my current position at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Translational Data Science in order to gain broader exposure to applications of data science and machine learning techniques outside astronomy. The Centre is a dynamic and interdisciplinary place, and I’ve had the opportunity to take on analytics projects in molecular biology and social sciences (as well as astronomy), to supervise students and engineers, and to experiment with external consulting opportunities. My next steps will probably take me closer towards analytics-driven consulting, hopefully with an engineering or environmental focus such as renewable energy.
What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia? Competition pressure for continuing positions. To a lesser extent, the dawning impression that those rare continuing positions might not be very enjoyable, given the historical trend of growing competition for scarce funding and increasing time spent on administrative duties.
What is the job title for your current position? Research Engineer in Data Science
What is the name of your company/organization/institution? Centre for Translational Data Science (CTDS), University of Sydney
What city and country do you live in and/or work in? Sydney, Australia
What is your social background? Are there any identifiers that you think are particularly relevant? nan
What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)? Social dancing (blues, lindy), birdwatching
List your favorites. Band (or singer/composer/etc.), recent film, current TV series, food, color, pet. nan
What’s something you greatly miss about grad school? What about something you definitely don’t miss? nan
If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time? 40
What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree? Basic data analysis skills (probability + statistics), high-level mathematics (multivariable calculus + measure theory), creative problem-solving skills, programming (C++), communication (effective writing + speaking)
What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path? To advise their students effectively, advisors need to make their students aware of overall success rates for applications to continuing academic positions, de-stigmatize non-academic career paths, and keep track of trends in the broader job market for recent alumni. Ideally the advisor would also provide some mentorship to help the student reason through their own goals and desires for the future. A robust alumni community can assist.
What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications of your current position? In my post-PhD positions I continually taught myself new skills to meet the demands of the collaborations in which I found myself: parallel computing, programming in Python and SQL, standard machine learning methods including clustering and random forest, and Bayesian inference methods including Monte Carlo Markov chains were all useful for my research and my critical infrastructure contributions. By the time I applied for my current position, I could make the argument that I had already been doing data science with astronomical data, and had many of the skills I would need to be successful.In my current job I’ve had to learn even more new things, some technical (data science tools and libraries) but mostly interpersonal — for example, how to lead a productive discussion about a project in a domain area I know nothing about, how to spot warning signs for poorly defined/supported projects early on, and how to identify cultural or systemic issues that may make projects more or less successful in order to craft an engagement strategy with clients. I find I’m now operating at a much higher leadership level than I was in my PhD or previous postdoctoral positions, and I expect these skills to translate well to industry.
What job hunting or networking resources or other advice/resources did you use to land your current position? An ad in the ResearchCareer newsletter and an enthusiastic reference from my supervisor. Prior to that, the support of a wide group of friends — many of whom work in tech — to help me sort out what I wanted from my new position. I expect personal networks to be my first port of call in hunting for future positions.
Describe a typical day at work. My broader mission is to help make the Centre a success, including low-level work (individual analytics projects in collaboration with other academics) and high-level work (supervising engineers, strategic planning for the Centre). There isn’t really a typical day, but some days are spent mostly working on my own (keeping up with the literature, writing code, planning projects) and some mostly in meetings with others (seminars, project reviews). The broad variety of activity is part of the fun.
How many hours do you work in a week? Not more than 40 on average; however, I select my activities carefully, saying no to many things and delegating what I can. I’ve logged my hours before and I know how hard I can push myself without getting burned out.
What is your salary? nan
What is your level of satisfaction with your current job? I’m pretty happy with my job, but I also know I’ll have to move on soon so I’m trying not to become complacent!
What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable? Most enjoyable: Being part of, and becoming a leader within, a intellectually stimulating, supportive environment with people from a wide variety of backgrounds to learn from; having a broad variety of projects to which I can contribute, not just in astronomy; having 20% time to continue work on astronomy projects; having a more direct impact on the broader world (for good, I hope!) than in previous positions.
Least enjoyable: Still technically being considered a postdoc and being judged by conventional academic yardsticks such as number of papers. This has become less of an issue over time, as I’ve been encouraged to broaden the scope of my activities and write my own job description within the Centre.
What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most? Like: Friendly, supportive supervisors and colleagues from various intellectual backgrounds. Flexible work arrangements.
Dislike: Very gender-skewed even compared to astronomy, as one might expect for an engineering department. We’re working on this but we have a very long way to go.
What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative? This job demands creativity and initiative. I’m struggling to think of a part of my job that doesn’t demand high-level independent thought.
How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job? Very satisfied, in part because I defend that balance carefully.
How family-friendly is your current position? Many of the engineers in the Centre have children, and at least one works part-time in order to balance caring for his kids. I feel reasonably certain that if my partner and I had kids, my colleagues would support our decision and help me figure out how to balance parenthood with the responsibilities of my position.
What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)? First of all, I think I would feel a lot more pressure if I was planning to compete for a continuing academic position. So I removed that pressure in part by actively seeking a less competitive career track, and by defining my role to make the best use of my strengths, talents, and aspirations. I feel lucky that this has worked so far; I think good work-life balance depends critically on having a supportive workplace that allows you to set, and defend, realistic expectations.Based on this foundation, I start from the premise that I can’t do everything, and from there try to decide which things are most important for me to do personally, which can be delegated to others and which can be deferred till a better time. I take into account knowledge of what I want out of the position and of what things I can do that nobody else can. I also try to structure my activities according to how much energy and focus I have — there is no point in staying at work past the point of being useful.
Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way? Absolutely — several data sets I’m working with come from astronomy, and my approach to them hasn’t changed that much from when I was working in astronomy, although the main challenge is now in crafting an elegant and successful model as much as in making new astronomical discoveries. I also raise my hand whenever I can to engage with CAASTRO or ASA alumni activities, since I feel an active and engaged alumni community is critically important to the long-term career outcomes of our junior scientists.
Were there any emotional difficulties or social consequences to your career choices? Do you have any advice for those who are thinking of switching careers, but are wary of the side effects? The biggest obstacle to leaving astronomy, for me, was the enormous claim that academia laid on my identity, and the identity threat posed by changing careers. I was aware intellectually for years that I was unlikely ever to land a continuing position given the increasing competitiveness of the landscape. But it took me some months, upon facing up to it, to convince myself that this was not a judgment about my worth as a person, and that I could be happy elsewhere. This is another area in which I think engaged alumni can make an important contribution to the well-being of junior people — just providing a support network, a normalizing influence, some examples.