Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Career Profile: Astronomer/Planetary Scientist to R&D Manager/Sr. Scientist

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, planetary scientists, etc. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Dr. Carly Howett, an an R&D Manager and Senior Research Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Her main research interest is in understanding the surfaces of icy worlds in our solar system. She also does a lot of mission work and is a Co-I on Cassini, Lucy, Europa-Clipper and a team member on New Horizons.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. New Career Profiles are posted approximately every month.

What field do you currently work in?
Planetary Science

What is the job title for your current position?
R&D Manager and Senior Research Scientist

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Southwest Research Institute

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Boulder, Colorado, USA (live an work in the same place)

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

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?
Postdoc in Physics dept.

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
Interest from an early age, and an opportunity to pursue it through a funded PhD.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
None, normal route (undergrad Physics, masters in Space Science and then a PhD).

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
Young Planetary Science FB page.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
Postdoc at same institution as PhD (Oxford), postdoc at SwRI. Then I was made a permanent member of staff at SwRI, where I still am.

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
Self reliance, grit (i.e. just keep working on something until its done) and not being afraid to bug others to help you when you need it.

Describe a typical day at work.
Pre-baby I used to work ~8am to 6pm, a mixture of email, mission planning activities (observation planning/calibration work), and data analysis. I typically have 2-5 telecons a week, and 3-5 face to face meetings. Seminar once a week (which I used to help organize). I’m currently working half-time, so now I try and do all of that in 20 hours instead of 40….

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
Yes. Many of my colleagues are still ground-based observers, and I have time on space-based ones this year to observe the Saturn-system

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?

 Yes. It’s one of the reasons I continue to work part-time. I am concerned that if I leave academia I won’t be able to restart a career.

How many hours do you work in a week?
Nominally 20, but usually more

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
Very high, I love it.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
I enjoy the variety of work, I love solving puzzles, travelling to meet with colleagues to discuss research, and exploring the solar system. The worst bit is writing/losing proposals.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
I really like my working environment, I’ve no complaints at all.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
All the time. If there’s a mission your interested in then bug the PI, if there’s some research you want to start up then go talk to people that already do it. In soft money you can’t afford to not take every opportunity given to you.

How satisfied are you with your work-life balance in your current job?
It’s hard. Before I had a baby I was happy (i.e. my husband and I were both workaholics during the week, but worked very little at the weekends/over the holidays). Now I’m struggling, I want to work more but I don’t want to miss out on parenthood either. The travel is a particular challenge, especially when breastfeeding.

How family-friendly is your current position?
Very. SwRI have been amazingly accommodating, I can work from home, work part time, work when I like etc.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
Ask for help when you need it, and don’t be afraid to ask for time off. When asked to travel ask what childcare is available (Princeton offered it to me recently when they asked me to give a seminar). Make sure you have your partner’s complete support to return to work, figure out a plan, it’s impossible to do it without that as it’s bloody hard.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Getting outside: running, cycling, swimming, climbing, camping etc. I also like reading and playing the piano.

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