Astronomer for Hire

Hey, Bora got a job interview by suggesting that he was the right person for the job on his blog. I don't have the specific job in hand, but it's a public forum. Perhaps there's somebody out there looking for me, only they don't know it, and I don't know it. And, let me quote Bora again, because I've demonstrated that this quote also applies to me: "Some people like to keep secrets, but I like to air my thoughts in public (why have a blog otherwise?)...."

What can I do for you? I've got skills, aptitudes, attitudes, and goals that may be perfectly matched by something out there I haven't thought of.

Below I list an honest assessment of my strengths and my shortcomings.

First, a link to my curriculum vitae. This is the version that I irregularly update when the administration requests a current CV from me. I have another version with a more complete work history and much more information about my computer skills. The short form: PhD in Physics from Caltech 10 years ago, with an excellent record of research, teaching, and outreach experience in physics and astronomy; extreme computer/Linux nerd.

My greatest strengths:

  • I'm an excellent communicator of science. For the last two years I've been a member of the AAS Shapley Lecture series. This year I gave three of them; out of 25 total lectures given, two other people gave three lectures. I gave two last year. At least two or three of the places where I've given lectures, I've been told that it was the best Shapley lecture that they've had. One place invited me back this coming summer on their own to have me speak to incoming honors students. I've given public-outreach talks in a lot of other venues, and have often received a lot of very positive feedback.

  • I'm a great teacher. You can easily find students who have been in my large introductory class who absolutely hate me; this is true, however, of anybody who has taught a large introductory class, particularly one to non-majors where there are people there hoping to satisfy a science requirement with a minimum amount of effort. You can also easily find people from those classes who have thought I was great. In the past, when I've taught small upper-division undergraduate classes, I've received near-uniform enthusiastic positive responses from my students.

    My favorite piece of feedback came from a student from the education college who was majoring in Human and Organizational Development. She was one of the top students in my introductory class that year. She took it because she was a friend of a science communication major who recommended it to her. At the end of the year, she said she expected to find the class interesting and that she'd learn a lot of facts about the Universe. However, she said, the course was so much more, because she learned not only facts, but that she could understand something about how things worked and why they were the way they were. I was extremely happy to hear this, because that was my goal. A lot of students end up frustrated, because they think they know how to do this sort of class: memorize the facts and the procedures, do the sorts of things that got them very good test scores on standardized tests. Some students become angry because the class is too hard. But a good number of them do see the light: there is more to science than facts, there is understanding, there is questioning.

    One graduate student recently told me that I'm the best astronomy professor at Vanderbilt.

    Crucially, I care. I've paid attention to recent research results in physics and astronomy education. I've used "active learning" techniques, and continue to try to work with them while also thinking about the best way to put the content together for the courses I teach. I always try to be very available to students, and am eager to spend time talking to them and working with them outside of class.

  • I'm a great advisor of undergraduate students. I've never had a shortage of students interested in doing research with me. A few years ago, for a two-year period, I was responsible for 1/3 of the students who graduated with honors theses-- out of a department of some 28 or so people. Yes, I have been too busy and sometimes fail to meet with the students as often as I'd like, but I have had quite a number of students work with me and do well. At least four of them are right now in PhD programs working on degrees in physics and/or astronomy.

  • I'm an extremely talented computer nerd. I administer Linux systems. I ran 25 or so computers for the Supernova Cosmology Project in addition to being a post-doc working with the project on discovering the acceleration of the Universe. I live and breathe Perl and C++ (the latter best with the STL). I have converted flat-file astronomical databases to SQL, and I've written Perl/CGI and C++ code to allow use of even the large (multi-megabyte) data files associated with those databases at distributed sites. I've been the volunteer webmaster for at least two different hobby projects. I keep my home directory in the Subversion revision control system so that I can keep it synchronized on my work, home, and laptop computers. I learn computer languages very quickly.

  • I'm a good scientific researcher. Not superb, perhaps not even great, but definitely at least good. I've got a good understanding of the technical issues. I know how to do stuff, and I know how to create new tools to help me do things for which the tools might not exist right now. Other people come to me to provide them code to fit functions to data. I've lead an informal seminar on reducing spectroscopic data, and hope to lead an informal seminar on the meaning of error bars and uncertainties. A few years ago, I won Vanderbilt's Chancellor's Award for Research for my paper on supernova cosmology. My interests are diverse and varied, and perhaps do not have either the sort of laser-like focus or the finger on the sexy topic of the moment that distinguishes the most recognized researchers. However, my understanding is broad; I'm more likely to go to and understand a nuclear/particle/cosmology theory talk than most (all?) of the other astronomers here, but I'm also interested in the details of star formation that bore the fundamental theorists. My greatest talents in research, however, lie not so much with the research itself as with the leading of students in learning how to do the kinds of things one must do in research. Every observing run I've made in the last several years has been with students. I have taken other professors' students on my observing runs to help them get observing experience. This is where in research I see I can make the greatest contribution, even though I can also make a meaningful (if not outstanding (by the strict definition of that word)) contribution even in pure research.

My shortcomings:

  • I don't know how to keep my mouth shut. I'm a blogger, what do you expect? I am not terribly politically astute. I'm not imperceptive; I am, perhaps more often than average, able to perceive the touchy political issues that are out there. My shortcoming is then successfully navigating those waters. If I think something is stupid, I'm likely to make that clear by saying something ill-advised. I've done this a few times at faculty meetings. I've had people tell me that they're surprised that I speak my mind so easily at faculty meetings. Not that I do so too much, but that I do so much for an assistant professor. I have been known to bare my heart (more than once) in what is probably a very ill-advised manner for somebody thinking about those who may be judging him in the future.

  • I'm bad at marketing. I have this naive idea that good work should speak for itself, and as such I do not always do a good job of selling myself. I also have this naive sense that failures and missteps should be accepted and understood because everybody makes them, and that you don't need to spin them as successes, and that you don't need to downplay them overmuch, because after all one should judge the whole, and not bean-count the mistakes. The world doesn't work this way, but I frequently fail to act on the knowledge that it doesn't.

  • I'm incompetent at getting funding. This is the Achilles heel that has led me to post this in the first place. The reason I'm not going to get tenure at Vanderbilt is that I have failed to secure an NSF grant, and it is this one thing that has led me to the conclusion that there is almost certainly not a future for me at Vanderbilt (or at any other "R1" research university). I have one more year to try it, but at this point I think it makes more sense for me to move on rather than for me to keep beating my head against that wall. If you want to hire somebody to generate external funding, my track record shows that I am not your guy.

  • I don't have enough patience for bureaucracy. Meetings, phone calls, video conferences... all of them make me tired. My experience is that if more than three people are talking about a topic at once, it is almost always a meeting, very rarely a working group, and usually not efficient. I work well by myself, and work well if I'm working on a project with one or two other people (even sitting at the same desk and typing together on the computer) if it's somebody I work well with. Going to lots of meetings kills my productivity, partly because it takes time, and partly because doing that sort of thing just drains me. Not all meetings are bad. I've been to good meetings, and in moderation they are necessary. But I really do not want a job that's going to involve a lot of going out and coordinating and meeting with people on an administrative level. I'd rather be doing things... and part of my problem is that even though intellectually I realize that many people see administration as doing things, I have a hard time believing it myself; it's not my forte.

  • I have very diverse interests. Actually, I think this should be a strength. Indeed, a lot of places give lip service to this being a strength. In practice, though, the assessment criteria used in most situations makes this a weakness. The best graduate students in the eyes of many aren't the ones who go and play Brutus in a production of Julius Caesar, as I did, but the ones who don't have interests that deflect them from hyperfocus on their research project. The best faculty members at places like mine aren't the ones who are so interested in teaching that they spend time experimenting with active learning techniques and with new ways to frame the content of introductory astronomy classes, but the ones who do their teaching well without spending too much time on it, and remain focused on their research. Indeed, the best faculty members aren't the ones who dabble in and contribute in small ways to a wide range of research areas, but the ones who really make themselves known in a single area.

    As a post-doc at LBNL, I spent most of my time working on finding supernovae and analyzing the lightcurves that went into the discovery of the accelarting Universe. However. about a quarter of my time administering Linux machines... and didn't resent it, but enjoyed it. And that was just my work time. Outside of work, I had time to direct two plays, produce two plays, stage manage one play, and act in numerous plays with a local community theater... of whose artistic committee I was also a member. I played violin and/or viola with a string quartet at three different weddings. I had other hobbies. I put my heart into a lot of things, which does mean that the "main" thing does not receive the level of hyperfocus it would have otherwise. Again, I think this is a strength, but I know some will view it as a weakness, and I want to be honest about it.

What I really want:

Ultimately, to have a job that I find challenging and difficult without being too frustrating, to have a job where the positives outweigh the frustrations and annoyances, to work with creative and engaging people, to have a job where at least sometimes I want to think about it on my own time. And, to have a job where my contributions are recognized enough that I'm allowed to keep doing it.

Ideally? To teach physics and/or astronomy at the college level. To get to work with bright students. To get to think about, play with, help others understand, and share my enthusiasm about just how cool all of that stuff is, both at the introductory/non-majors level, and at the advanced level. That's my favorite thing. Alas, with the oversupply of faculty candidates in my field, and the fact that I'm tainted as "not tenure worthy at a Research University," it may not be possible for me to find a job that lets me do this and that pays enough money to meet the mortgage and my after-insurance family medical bills. But this is my first love.

To be surfing at the forefront of science is my second love. It's a love, mind you, but to be perfectly honest, the teaching and the working with students on learning how to understand and do science takes priority with me.

Failing that: anything that meets the criteria in the first paragraph. I love computers, and could be completely fulfilled and rewarded with a challenging job in that area. And there may well be something I haven't considered that would be just right for me.

Make me an offer I can't refuse.


More like this

You sound like a good candidate for a physics/astro prof at a liberal arts college. Maybe the next two years make a concerted effort to get such a position. It may mean relocating and taking a pay cut, as well as other annoyances, but some would say it's worth it. And you won't have to keep your mouth shut very often :)

I've spent a couple of years trying to get a job at a SLA. I had several interviews last year, and even one offer. Alas, for reasons I can't really discuss, I couldn't take that offer, as appealing as it was. Two of the other places I interviewed really appealed to me, and I would have taken an offer from either of them without hesitation. Alas, I didn't get the offer.

SLA jobs are just about as hard to get as R1 jobs, really. That is the place where I think I belong... although nowadays, even at those places the inability to et funding is a serious minus, even if it's less of a showstopper.

This year I didn't even get any interviews. At the stage where I am in my career, I'm more difficult to hire. My experience is a plus, but it's also a minus; I'm more expensive, and I'm being compared not against the other candidates, but against extrapolations of the other candidates. (I have 6 or so more years of experience, and thus need to be that much better.)

One possibility is that I will stay at Vanderbilt one more year and use the time to try once more to get a job at an SLA. I'm not sure yet if that really makes sense.


Rob, consider teaching high school. Your thoughts sound a whole lot like mine were a dozen years ago, as I was making myself miserable in grad school. Granted, you've been more successful with research than I ever could have been, but based on what you've described here, it sounds like you could be happy in a good high school situation. Call me or email me if you want to talk more about the possibility.


Why do you think you have such a problem getting grants?

Is there a way for you to hand off parts of that job to someone else? (For example, would it help to pay a writer to write or edit your proposals?) Have you asked for a peer review of your proposals? Have you asked the NSF why it denied a particular proposal?

I agree with the poster who sees you at a liberal arts college. I think you'd fit right in at my alma mater, where lots of profs have blogs and your diverse interests could become wonderful new classes for you and your students.

- Jennifer

Within the last 3 years, I was on an NSF panel that contained Rob's proposal. It was very clear which were outstanding proposals (only about 2-3), which were good, and which were not very good. Despite what everyone is saying, it's not much about the writing style. It came down to the science. Yes, if your science is excellent but your writing truly sucks, you are not going to get funded. But, great writing cannot salvage 'merely good' science. And that's what it came down to.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 19 May 2007 #permalink

Despite what everyone is saying, it's not much about the writing style. It came down to the science.

This confirms what I've thought all along, which is why I'm always dubious when I'm told that I should get somebody to sex up the writing.

I would be very interested to know who Anonymous is. My experience on the NOAO TAC, and hearing other people talk, is that it's clear which are outstanding, which are not very good... but the ones in between are just as much a function of the pre-understandings and preconceptions of the committee memebers as they are of the proposals. They all get ranked, and the rankings are reasonable-- but a different ranking would be reasonable as well. The boundary between the ones that get time and the ones that don't isn't that huge.

I've received conflicting messages from NSF panels about how compelling which pieces of the science are, and also how compelling other things are. It would be interesting to know who's making this judgment, as it would help me figure out if the science is really "merely good," or if it's "not clearly outstanding, and not of the greatest interest to the people reading the proposal."

When so few proposals are getting funding, if your proposal doesn't fall in line with the committee's preconceptions of what is the most interesting science, you're starting at a huge disadvantage.


Speaking only for my panel, I'm not saying there was a clear distinction between the ones that got funded and the ones that didn't, except for ~3 proposals that truly stood out, I'm saying basically what you've been saying, it's a crapshoot unless your proposal is truly outstanding or not very good. It should be discouraging to people that there is nothing you can do to significantly increase your proposal's chance of getting funded if your science is good or very good. It's playing dice. Why would scientists want to do that?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 20 May 2007 #permalink

Why would scientists want to do that?

Because we have no choice.

Because we love the teaching and the research. But in order to have the resources we need to do it, and in order to be allowed to keep doing it, we have to have funding. And there aren't a lot of avenues to that.

So we're forced into playing the NSF dice game if we want to have a hope of allowing to keep doing what we're good at and what we love.


I'll underline what Anonymous has to say, coming from the NIH study section perspective. It is exactly the same deal except by now, the "truly great" proposals don't stand alone quite so much these days. We have a big pool of the "great" proposals stacking up in endless revision land these day.

But it is an essential point that one should resist, as far as possible, that feeling of crushing incompetence. Rob feels that he cannot write his way into funding and this seems to depress him, natch. I know this is depressing, I get depressed myself. But when you see the odds, see the very tight distribution of meritorious proposals, you really start to understand tha this is a lottery. It isn't personal. It doesn't even mean that your science sucks.

One thought. It would appear Rob, that you take a fairly limited number of "shots" at funding each year? I don't know if this is a feature of the NSF or not. But in NIH land, if you want to get money, it is a shotgun approach that is advisable for most people. Grants going out each of the three rounds per year. Revise everything as many times as is permitted. Follow the targeted announcements, push out proposals of interest to diverse agencies.

Perhaps you might say "ahh, but I want to do MY science, not follow trends and do something tangential that I may have minimal interest in". My answer is , Does one wish to have a career or not?

NSF astronomy -- one call for proposals a year, that's it. November is proposal month. You shoot your wad once a year, you find out 6 or so months later that the world hates you, you shoot your wad again. That's it. Not a lot of room to shotgun, not a lot of chance to make up for it if you need to check a box for tenure.

In the past there have been NASA projects, although they tended to be for specific focused science... and the other thing about which science to do is that it takes time and effort to develop enough expertise to write a meaningful proposal, so there's only so much one can do. One can get some money from submitting to the space telescopes (Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra), and I put two of those proposals in this year-- but my chair tells me that the kind of money one gets out of that isn't enough to check off the tenure box, so given my current situation it's much less useful. (The Hubble proposal was declined, the Chandra proposal is still pending.)

There just aren't a lot of avenues for astronomy funding.

There are only so many proposals one person can submit at once while doing anything whatsoever else. Add to that the fact that the typical astronomer also writes 3-5 telescopes proposals each year. Most of those aren't of the same scale as an NSF proposal, but they're nontrivial. The greatest number of NSF proposals I've ever simultaneously s ubmitted two (although it may have been three, with one last-minute collaborative proposal I was co-PI on, mostly written by somebody else). If I stay in the game, this year it will be two or three, two of them being collaborative. That's about my limit. I want to do science at all, not spend my life doing nothing but proposals.

The whole thing is an escalating nightmare. Because proposals are so competitive, people submit more proposals, and because more proposals are submitted, it's more competitive... and it takes more time for panel members to slog through them all. This can't be an efficient system.


It isn't personal. It doesn't even mean that your science sucks.

I would note, however, that in some cases it does mean that you are going to get fired.

Whether or not it's personal, whether or not it's the best answer for my institution or for my field, the outcome is the same.