Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Career Profile: Astronomer and Group Lead: Dr. Van Dixon

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 Van Dixon, an astronomer who recently moved from instrument scientist to manager at STScI.

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?
Astronomy

What is the job title for your current position?
Group Lead

What is the name of your company/organization/institution?
Space Telescope Science Institute

What city, state, and country do you live in? Work in?
Live and work in Baltimore, Maryland, USA

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

What was your last academic position in astronomy/physics?
I never had one!

What were the most important factors that led you to leave astronomy and/or academia?
As a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University, I worked on the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope (HUT), which flew a couple of times on the Space Shuttle.  I helped to schedule observations, write the data-reduction pipeline, and analyze the data.  As a post-doc, I worked on another shuttle mission, doing all of the same tasks.  By that time, I had developed some marketable skills, and have been doing it ever since.

If you have made a career change, what was your age at the time?
I switched to management just last year.  I’m in my early 50’s.  OK, mid 50’s.

What, if any, additional training did you complete in order to meet the qualifications?
To be an instrument scientist, it’s been on-the-job training.  To be a manager, I’ve taken management training here at the institute, but the hard things (listening, compassion, leadership) are all life lessons.

Describe job hunting and networking resources you used and any other advice/resources.
Nothing formal, but every job that I’ve had since graduate school has come though someone whom I’ve known (or impressed) along the way.

What has been your career path since you completed your degree?
·      Post-Doc, U.C. Berkeley (two years)
·      Assistant Research Astronomer, U.C. Berkeley (three years)
·      Associate Research Astronomer, JHU (five years)
·      Research Astronomer, JHU (four years)
·      Scientist, STScI

What have been particularly valuable skills for your current job that you gained through completing your degree?
My thesis advisor, Professor Arthur Davidsen, led the HUT team, which was not much bigger than my team is now.  Something that really impressed me: when called to make an executive decision, he made a point of listening to everyone first.  Since everyone felt that they had been heard, they were comfortable with the outcome.  When tough problems come up now, I try to listen to everyone before making a decision.

Describe a typical day at work. 
E-mail, e-mail, e-mail.  Meetings.  More e-mail.

Do you still interact with people who work (directly) in astronomy and/or are you still involved in astronomy in some way?
My position includes 20% science time.  I try to reserve Fridays for science: no meetings, no phone calls.  It almost works.

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?

The standard model of graduate education is for professors to replicate themselves, and anyone who does not end up in academia is considered a failure.  But a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy is a key that opens all sorts of doors.  If you end up doing work you love, then you are a success.

How many hours do you work in a week?
About 40 to 45, but that number is likely to rise as we get closer to the launch of JWST.

What is your level of satisfaction with your current job?
I am very happy with my current job.  I might be less happy when annual-review season begins.

What are the most enjoyable aspects of your job? Least enjoyable?
An instrument scientist is often presented with the results of an observation that did not turn out as anticipated.  The job is to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent the problem from recurring.  I love solving those sorts of puzzles.  As a manager, my job has changed from understanding instruments to understanding people, who are even more puzzling.  Least enjoyable?  I spend a lot of time in meetings now, but I try not to mind them.  It’s a sort of Zen practice.

What do you like most about your working environment? Dislike most?
The best part of my work environment is the opportunity to interact with my colleagues.  We get together for tea.  We talk about science, or politics, or just gossip.  As the institute has grown, we have moved into additional buildings, making those sorts of interactions more difficult.

What opportunities does your job provide to be creative and/or to take initiative?
Managing people is an on-going work of performance art.  I am constantly challenged to motivate, inspire, console, etc.  Opportunities to take initiative come up whenever someone says, “It would be great if we could do this.”  Making those things happen is really gratifying.

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

How family-friendly is your current position?
STScI goes out of its way to accommodate folks who are juggling work and domestic responsibilities, including children, aging parents, and heath problems.

What advice do you have for achieving work-life balance (including having a family)?
I don’t have children, so am spared the aggravations of childcare, sick kids, and soccer practice.  But I moved back to Baltimore to be with my partner, and we make a point of having dinner together every evening.  Making time to be together is key.

What do you do for fun (e.g., hobbies, pastimes, etc.)?
Cooking, hiking, pretending to garden

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

dixon@stsci.edu