20 June 2013

Career Profile: Astronomer to Research Scientist in Genetics

Laura Trouille Adler Planetarium, Zooniverse, Northwestern Univ.

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 Stephanie Gogarten, an astronomer turned research scientist in statistical genetics. She works in the Biostatistics department in the same university where she got her degree, and is very satisfied with both her work-life balance and the family friendly environment. 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 http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. 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?
Biology, specifically statistical genetics.

What is the job title for your current position?
Research Scientist

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Department of Biostatistics, University of Washington.

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Seattle, WA

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

What is/was your ultimate/final academic position in astronomy/physics?
Postdoc (1st)

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
After I completed my degree, for 9 months I had a part-time postdoc working for my thesis adviser, continuing work I had been doing in graduate school. (Part-time because I had just had a baby.) I left that postdoc to start at my current job, which was part-time (my choice) for the first 6 months and full-time after that. I am a research scientist in the Biostatistics Department in the same university where I got my degree. I am still in academia, but in a completely different field.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
During graduate school, I discovered two things about myself: 1) my favorite part of doing science was programming, and 2) most of the daily activities of a faculty member (writing grants, managing students and postdocs, serving on committees, teaching classes, coming up with a fountain of research ideas) were really not appealing to me. In addition, I was just starting a family, I loved the city I was living in, and I was ready to settle down. I did not want to move every few years, with very limited (and potentially undesirable) location choice, and be constantly worried about applying for my next job.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I was 28 when I switched from astronomy to genetics.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Programming skills are essential, especially the ability to handle large data sets. It turns out that working with huge data sets of stars and huge data sets of genes require essentially the same skills. Some knowledge of statistics was helpful, as I now work in a biostatistics department. Being able to analyze a problem, follow up on results that seem suspicious, effectively communicate results to others, and work independently are all skills that science Ph.D. students acquire and can be translated to any discipline.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
None before I started the job, but I made an effort to attend seminars and research relevant topics in biology so I could learn on the job.

Describe a typical day at work.
My group receives data sets from other investigators for quality control, so I usually have one of these projects that I am responsible for at any given time. I have weekly or biweekly conference calls with the investigators in which I present and discuss results. I am the primary person responsible for writing and maintaining the software we use for analysis, so I spent a lot of time writing code (which I love) and chasing down bugs. I have to attend more meetings than when I was a graduate student, but in general my time is flexible as long as I get the job done.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.

  • I asked people in my department for the names of graduates who had gone into alternative careers, and I contacted one former student who worked in biology in the same city. He met with me and gave me some advice about how he made the transition, along with some useful feedback on my resume.
  • I attended several presentations offered by my university's career center on how to make the transition from academia to industry, how to network, and how a resume is different from a CV.
  • I went to networking events hosted by various graduate student groups.
  • I went to the university's science/engineering career fair.
  • I met with a career counselor at the university (who was not very helpful as they mostly see college students, but friends reported that other counselors were better).
  • I talked to my friends about my job search, which turned out to be how I got my job. A friend in another department said that her thesis adviser was looking to hire someone with a programming background, and she sent them my resume.

What advice do you think advisors should be giving students regarding their career path?
Faculty advisers should encourage their students to consider a wide variety of career options, and be honest about the pros and cons of academia. They should be wholeheartedly supportive of students who choose to pursue different paths, educate themselves on the career resources at their institutions so they can refer their students, and offer to put current students in touch with former students who might be able to give them advice.

How many hours do you work in a week?
I work 40 hours a week, sometimes less if I have to take a break for appointments, sometimes more if there is a deadline coming up. I have the option to work from home and frequently do so one day a week. I rarely work in the evenings or weekends, though I do try to check my email in case anything urgent comes up.

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

I like that I am still in academia and can still call myself a scientist, without the stress of a postdoc or a tenure-track job. I get to spend a fair amount of time doing something I love (programming), and I enjoy learning about a new field of science.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
The most enjoyable aspects of my job are writing code and thinking about new and creative ways to deal with data. The least enjoyable aspects are writing reports and having to repeat analyses multiple times because of tiny details.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
I developed a software package that organized all the code we use in a typical analysis, and I expect to develop more packages in the future as our data evolves. I saw the need for a software pipeline to create reusable code and streamline the analysis process, so I took the initiative to create one and it has been very well received.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
Very satisfied.

Productivity is much more important than the number of hours spent working, so I try to work efficiently in order to maximize the time I spend with my family. I reserve evenings and weekends as family time except in unusual circumstances. I have a long commute, but I use the time to read, eat breakfast, and keep up with news and email. I also build exercise into my commute, which involves quite a bit of walking and taking the stairs up to my 15th-floor office.

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

I have a very flexible schedule, so I can work from home and take time off for family commitments as long as I get the job done (for example, I could take the morning off to bring my kid to the doctor and then work in the evening instead). I do have a limited number of vacation and sick days (3 weeks vacation and 12 sicks days per year), and paid parental leave has to come out of my accrued time off. Being able to work from home makes it easier to accumulate time off for when I really need it.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Remember that if you are happy, well-rested, and able to spend plenty of time doing and thinking about things that are not work, you will be better able to focus and work efficiently when you are at work. I learned that if I try to work long hours when I am exhausted and stressed, I spend a lot of time staring at my computer without getting anything done. I can get the same amount of work done in a shorter amount of time if I am taking care of myself, and I am a lot happier.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?

I am still on the mailing list for a collaboration I was involved in as a grad student/postdoc, so I keep up to date on what the group is doing and occasionally answer questions. I have many friends who still work in astronomy. I am still on the distribution lists for several astronomy journals, so I periodically skim through the paper titles and look at papers that I find particularly interesting.

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?

I was fortunate to have a supportive advisor and a department that placed high value on students' happiness and was not judgmental about alternative career choices. If your advisors or colleagues are acting betrayed, their priorities are misplaced and the problem is with them, not you.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
I read a lot of novels while commuting; my favorite genre is science fiction. Most of my free time is spent with my wife and two young children.

Can we include your email address for people who may want to contact you directly about your specific career route?

Yes, stephaniegogarten [at] gmail.com.