Interview with an ‘Astro/Geophysicist’

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Stuart Robbins gets JobShadowed about his career as an Astro/Geophysicist.  You can find Stuart at www.about.sjrdesign.net/ and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.

What do you do for a living?

I study craters.  I refer to myself somewhat tongue-in-cheek as an “astro/geophysicist” because my training is almost exclusively through astronomy and astrophysics.  It was only in my later years of graduate school that I focused exclusively on the surfaces or near surfaces of planets in studying craters, which falls more in the realm of geophysics.

At dinner parties, I don’t use the title at all because neither really gives people a good feel for what I do.  The one-liner is, “I study craters on other planets.”  The second-liner is, “I use them to learn about planetary surfaces and things like ages or how the surface has changed over time.”

More practically speaking, to introduce this interview, I am a postdoctoral researcher at a university.  This means that I spent time getting a B.S. in college and got an M.S. and Ph.D. in graduate school.  A “postdoc” (for short) is what people generally do between graduate school and a faculty job.  It’s usually a temporary position for one or two years where you focus almost entirely upon research while you search for a faculty job or something else more permanent.  So, I have a Ph.D., I’m a “doctor,” but I don’t teach at all.

How would you describe what you do?

I draw circles.

At least, that’s what I did for my Ph.D. thesis work:  I created the largest global crater database for Mars, identifying, by hand, nearly 750,000 craters on the planet’s surface.  I’m now working to analyze that database to, as the second-liner says above, learn about planetary surfaces and things like ages or how the surface has changed over time.

That’s what I do on a practical basis; in terms of what my “job description” may be, I do research exclusively as a postdoc, with no teaching responsibilities.  That doesn’t mean I sit in a lab all day …

What does your work entail?

… I work almost entirely from my apartment.  Nearly everything I do research-wise is computer-based, and with a 30″ monitor in my apartment versus a 21″ at work, I found that it’s much faster to work from home because a lot of my work involves staring at very, very large images and analyzing them.

Besides this basic research, I also do a lot of other things that are necessary but would be considered more minor.  I have to write a lot in order to communicate my work.  I collaborate with lots of other people at other institutions in other states and even in other countries (I’m science co-lead on a project with a woman from Toronto, Canada, while I’m in Colorado, USA).  I have in-person meetings with an undergraduate who’s working for me, and I have meetings occasionally with my boss.  I also go to conferences to present my work and see what other people are doing.

In the end, the popular idea that all a researcher does is sit in a lab wearing a lab coat and “doing science” is a fairly big misconception.  I only wore a lab coat once (other than for Halloween), and that was when I had a temporary summer job as a computer tech during college and I was cold and they had lab coats hanging around.

What’s a typical work week like?

There isn’t any for me.  Most people will generally be at work for a normal work day, 9-5 or some such thing.  As a postdoc without any teaching responsibilities who works mostly from his apartment, I can arrange my day however I want.  I may end up working 10AM until 2AM Saturday to Sunday morning if I’m working on a project and going really strong, and then not work at all Tuesday through Thursday.  The next week I may do a more normal 9-5, or 10-6.  It really varies a lot, though I do try to keep somewhat “standard” hours just for ease of communicating with other people.

How did you get started?

As with many people, astronomy was an early interest for me.  I went through Middle and High school thinking that I would do electrical engineering ’cause they all made a lot of money.  Then at the end of my senior year of high school, I decided that electrical engineering was hard and I would do astronomy.

I went through college still wanting to do “astronomy” and not really knowing what specifically I wanted to focus on.  I did know that I wanted to do something “in the solar system,” whether that be solar physics or planetary science in some way, shape, or form, I did not know.

It was with a project my first year of graduate school with craters on Mercury that I chose a project the next semester for a class on Mars about craters on Mars.  I also found out that if I wanted to do solar physics I would need to take plasma physics and graduate E&M (electricity and magnetism) and E&M and I have an understanding that we stay 50 feet away from each other at all times.  After that, I did some research on Saturn’s rings, but then I wrote a fellowship that I ended up winning that paid for me to study craters on Mars some more.  And so that’s what I did.

What do you like about what you do?

I like discovering new things, being the first person in the world to know something, and then other people using my work to continue the ladder of human progress.

What do you dislike?

Monotony.  A lot of the scientific process is gathering data.  For Ph.D. thesis work, you will be gathering data for somewhere around four years.  For my thesis work, I “drew circles” for four years – I created the largest, most complete catalog of craters on the planet Mars.  I then used that to do lots of interesting science, and I’m still using that now, and other people are using it, too.  But, getting to that point is, admittedly, very boring.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

The salary at my institution for an intro-level postdoc is about $60,000 per year (before taxes and everything else).  As a graduate student from the department I graduated (also at this institution), it was about $30,000 per year.  This, however, is somewhat high because we live in an expensive housing market.  While the intro-level faculty salary here is around $90,000-100,000 per year, the intro salary in a similar department at the same level in a different state is around $60,000.

How much money do astrophysicists/geophysicist make?

This really varies a lot by position, institution, public/private, school/government/commercial, etc.  The answer to the previous question is really the most specific I can be, other than to add that a fully tenured faculty member can make probably around $250,000 per year at a strong public school in a non-cheap state.  If you’re a geophysicist and go to work for the oil industry, $250k/yr would be considered tiny.

How much money did/do you make starting out as an astrophysicist/geophysicist?

This is again a difficult question to answer and I’ll refer you to two questions ago.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Generally speaking these days, to do research in this field at a university or private institution requires a Ph.D. in a related field (such as geology, astrophysics, geophysics, physics, chemistry).  This usually requires 10 years of post-high school work, with a four-year undergraduate degree (B.S. in astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, math) and then generally 5-7 years after that towards your Ph.D. work.  Most programs will award a M.S. degree en route to the Ph.D. after 2-3 years.

It is possible to work in this field with “just” a Masters degree, though job opportunities are more limited and the skillset is more specialized.  For example, in my work I collaborate with people who create geologic maps of other planets, and most of them have M.S. degrees and not Ph.D.s.

There are related jobs that don’t require a Ph.D.  For example, telescope operators usually have “just” a B.S. in astronomy.  If you want to work in a museum or planetarium, a B.S. or M.S. would be sufficient.

What is most challenging about what you do?

There are several challenging aspects to this, and picking a single one is difficult, so I won’t – I’ll choose three.

Knowing what to research:  This is something that I asked my dad about when I was in college (he is a cardiovascular molecular biologist – a Ph.D. medical researcher):  “How do you know what you don’t know to try to find out what you want to know?”

Put another way, as a research scientist, the idea is that you are going to be figuring things out that no one ever knew before.  How do you know what questions to ask, or even then, how to go about answer them?

His response was not encouraging – it takes a lot of work, and some people fail at it.  In the end, though, it really gets back to what interested you in the field in the first place:  You saw something and you wanted to know more about it.  In research institutions, there are often weekly seminars or colloquia where outside researchers are brought in to talk about their work.  Going to those can help spark questions because they may flat-out say during their talk, “This is an assumption, we really don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m using this assumption in my model.”  Right there, you have an avenue of research.

Similarly, many times during the year, there are conferences that are specific or general to your field.  I study craters on other planets.  These days, there are three yearly conferences that I don’t miss:  The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which is a general planetary science conference; NASA’s Lunar Science Forum, which focuses on the Moon; and the Planetary Crater Consortium which is exactly my field.  Going to these conferences allows you to see what questions other people are asking, and it may spark ideas for you.  You may also see presentations there that you don’t agree with and think are wrong, and so you can work towards doing research to try to show that.

Writing:  I was never a good writer, generally scraping by in English class happy with my B.  I thought, initially, I was going into science so that I wouldn’t have to write.  And then my Ph.D. thesis was 250 pages long.

Writing is really just as important in a hard science field as being able to do research.  One could do the best, most ground-breaking research in the world, but if they cannot communicate it well, no one will know about it and they will die forgotten.  While I no longer have to write essays on what the pig symbolized in Lord of the Flies, I do have to be able to write up my research in a concise, clear way that other people will understand, and write it in a convincing way so that they’ll believe it.

Time Management:  Time management is an issue in any job, but in research it can be particularly difficult.  I was asked to answer these questions for the Job Shadow website in February, and I finally finished in May.  As I’m writing my answers to this question in late April, already today I started running a code for one project, answered e-mails from volunteers who are working on another, answered e-mails for someone who’s writing a paper using my data for a third project, and told someone that I’d get back to them on Wednesday about a project I’m involved in that they’re running and they need feedback Friday.

Being able to set priorities, rank tasks by importance and due dates, and keep track of everything is something I’m still learning how to do.

What is most rewarding?

The rewards are really discovery:  I’m doing things that no one else has ever done before, and I’m the first person in the world to know about my new discoveries.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

My advice is that it’s hard but rewarding.  Anyone who says getting a Ph.D. in a hard* science (such as physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology, etc.) is easy, is lying.  It requires a minimum of 8-10 years of study after college and, during graduate school, you will eat, sleep, and breathe your work.

*Versus “soft” science such as psychology.  “Hard” here does not refer to the difficulty.

How much time off do you get/take?

As a postdoc at my institute, I technically get all Federal holidays off as well as accumulate 20 vacation days per year.  In practice (see “Work Day” above), I work until my work is done.  Whether that’s 20 hours one week and 60 hours another, it generally averages out.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about astrophysics.  Probably the main one is that all we do is stare through telescopes.  While some people use telescopes in their research, all of my data comes from images that I stare at on the computer that were gathered by spacecraft orbiting other planets.

Another is that we all have top-secret clearance, or we all work for NASA.  I have barely enough clearance to park at work.  While most of us do write grant requests for NASA research money, very, very few astrophysicists or geophysicists are really NASA employees.  And I suppose a related misconception is that money spent for space exploration is actually spent in space – it all gets spent on Earth, and at least for NASA, almost all is required by federal law to be spent within the United States, so it’s money that goes back into the economy.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I hope to end up in a tenure-track faculty position at a Research I institution.  This would mean that I would be responsible for running my own research program that involves undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs.  It would also mean that I have teaching responsibilities at both the undergraduate and graduate level, usually three semesters-worth per year (teaching one class one semester, two another).

Research I institutes (versus Research II or III) focus more on research than teaching, while Research III is the most teaching-intensive with very little emphasis for faculty on original research.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

That’s about it.


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