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Older news: to move to Cali!

The Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pasadena, CA

Erin and I have been trying to clear out some time to sit down and recount all of the exciting things that went down over the past two months. But for some reason the writing muses have managed to miss our house for a while. It's probably in part due to the technical-writing muses that have been kind enough to hang out with me for the past 6 months or so. It's been their territory around here for a while now.

So at long last, here it is:

When I accepted my current job in Hawaii, we knew it was a temporary position. Erin once said, "I recently realized that the friend who understands me the most here in Hawaii is the one who is a military wife, just because of all the job uncertainty." Yes, we've been wandering souls. Fortunately, I knew if I played my cards right, we could achieve a permanent post relatively quickly. If not, then it would be off to the next postdoc after three years here in Hawaii.

With this in mind, in November last year I applied for the tenure-track professor position in the Princeton Department of Astrophysical Sciences. Then in January this year I turned in an application for a similar post in the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Astronomy Department. Honestly, I was applying mainly to gain valuable job application experience for this coming Fall (2009) when I planned to enter the astronomy job market with a flurry of job applications.

Well, my plan worked out better than I had anticipated. I made the short list at Princeton and they invited me out for a job talk and interview in mid-December. The process was surprisingly painless. I gave an updated version of my colloquium talk about planets around massive stars and it was very well received. I was able to answer all of the questions after the talk, which is always a good sign. I had a great time meeting with many of the faculty members, postdocs and grad students. After I left I was happy that I made the short list, but I had no illusions of actually getting the job. After all, there were 7-8 other people on the short list and only one opening!

Nassau Hall, Princeton University

A similar process happened at Caltech. I made the short list in late January and was invited out for a job talk and interview in late March. But before I could get there, I got a call from the Princeton department chair who offered me the job! I got the call during lunch at work, and I immediately ran home to tell the family. Erin was surprised to see me home so early, and I told her, "Princeton called. They offered me the job!" Erin, Owen and I danced around the living room while Marcus looked on in confusion. It was the happiest day since MarMar was born.

Well, with an amazing job in the bag I was really relaxed for my Caltech talk and interview. I ended up doing much better at Caltech than I did at Princeton, at least in my opinion. I had written a brand new talk, which went well, and my interviews went smoothly because I'm a regular user of Caltech's main observing facility: the Keck Observatory. I enjoyed my time at Caltech even more than I had expected, and I was visiting right when the astro department was moving into their brand new building, the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. The place definitely had that new-building smell.

Right before I left for the airport, the Caltech division chair offered me the job! So I ended up in my dream position: an offer from both Princeton and Caltech. I often thought about how amazing it would be to be in such a situation. But then again, I've often daydreamed about being in the NBA. It's fun to think about, but how can you realistically plan for it?! Well, here I was with a wonderfully tough decision.

Okay, Erin will take it from here:

We departed the next day as a family for our visit to Princeton. After 14 hours in airports and rental car, we were welcomed into the home of a faculty member with young children. Though we were quite jet-lagged, it was great to meet a family at a similar stage in thier lives - and Owen had a blast with their son. We stayed at the historic Nassau Inn and spent the next few days meeting with members of the astronomy department and often their families, touring preschool & elementary schools and checking out the local parks. Despite the chilly weather, marcus' 4-day fever & mysterious rash, and Owen & Erin's bouts with the stomach flu, we were able to get a peek into Princeton life. We can't say enough about how kind and helpful the people in the Princeton Astronomy department were during these tough times. What a beautiful campus & city.


A week later we were departing Honolulu again, for a similar visit to Caltech in Pasadena. We stayed at the Atheneum - Caltech's Faculty Club and spent the next few days touring the area, learning about the community & schools. We were thoroughly impressed with the Caltech Children's Center, and also with the town of South Pasadena--which has a repuation for strong public schools and great community involvement. I was especially thrilled with the availability of Peet's coffee, fresh produce and the long-missed visits to Trader Joe's! No trip with children would be complete without some drama... and this trip was no exception. The day before our departure, Owen was stung by a bee at the playground (thankfully, he's not allergic to bee stings) and a bird pooped on his head! Between meetings we were able to spend time with John's parents who live about 20 minutes away, and the boys were able to play with their cousins.

Back to John:

Princeton and Caltech, along with the cities of Princeton and Pasadena, both offered amazing opportunities for our family. How could we make this tough decision? Well, Erin and I compiled a running pro-con list for each place, and when we took the difference of the two large quantities (Caltech - Princeton), several important factors remained. First, and perhaps most importantly, my family (Papa J, Nanna, my sisters and their kids, my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc) all live in the L.A. area, giving us an instant support and social network. The next factor had to do with the telescope resources I'd have at my disposal. Princeton has a 3.5-meter telescope atop Apache Point in New Mexico, and I would be able to build several new instruments for planet hunting. But Caltech has the 10-meter Keck telescopes. Advantage: Caltech. Finally, having never grown up on the East Coast, it would be tough for us to pass up the SoCal weather. We didn't doubt that we'd be able to adjust to New Jersey weather, but no adjustment would be necessary for 70 degree weather in February. Yes, we've gotten quite spoiled!

After reaching our decision, Erin exclaimed, "Well great, now how the heck do we say no to Princeton?!" This was a good question. I decided the best, really the only, aproach was to be as up-front and honest with them as they had with me. I explained our decision-making process the Princeton dept. chair and he said (paraphrasing), "Well, we can move neither your family nor the Keck telescopes to New Jersey. We're disappointed, but we understand your decision."

So that's that. I'm going to be an assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech! I have to repeat this statement to myself (and sometimes to Erin) each morning when I wake's still like a dream.

Oh! One last thing. While visiting Caltech, we had dinner at the division chair's house. He had a giant trampoline in his back yard and Owen absolutely loved it! He left the back yard only twice during our stay there: once to see the pet hamsters inside, and once for dinner. With that background, check out the last paragraph of my offer letter (page 3):
Owen approved. We're on our way to Pasadena!


Amy Pousson said…
Seriously, a trampoline in your offer? You TOTALLY made the right decision.
blissful_e said…
How exciting!! Congratulations!!!

Pro/con lists are a great way to make decisions, aren't they?

I'm a bit bummed that we've missed a chance to visit people we know in Hawaii, though SoCal will be much more accessible.
Stephanie Casey said…
I don't know why, but the idea of a trampoline delivered to your new place just for Owen brings tears to my eyes! How thoughtful of Caltech to think of your family. I can only hope something similar to this happens to us when Matt goes on the job market!
Code name: 1% said…
AWESOME! Congratulations, Professor JohnJohn and fambly.
jcom said…
I can't adequately express how overjoyed I am for all of you. The Johnsons have such a bright and exciting adventure ahead of them!
mama mia said…
Amazing ride, that is all I can say, amazing. Congrats again.
mama mia said…
Okay, just one more thing, that Cal-Tech Children's Center looks amazing too! Nonna is happy for Owen and Marcus.
kel said…
All of this is just so cool! I am feeling really uplifted after reading your post. Congrats John! And Erin, Owen & Marcus! Can't wait to come visit in SoCal now ; )
Robin said…
Hey John! You might not remember me... I was E's roommate at Rolla. Anyway, MANY congrats on your professorship at Caltech. Not many achieve their dream job, and I'm so happy for you and your family. Best wishes as you work towards tenure. Try to stay sane :). Also, if you're into Indian food, check out Akbar on Fair Oaks in Old Town. It's the best Indian I've had on this continent. It's a little crowded, but also always noisy, so kids should fit in well. Oh, there are so many good restaurants in Pasadena... My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Cory said…
Hi Johnsons!! I am so excited, when I am finished with school we'll be close again! Congratulations!
Natalie said…
The trampoline? That rocks! Congratulations.
Cindy said…
Did you meet the president of Caltech while you were there? Jean-Lou Chameau? We have met him through a wine distributor who lives in Atherton and both he and his wife seem like great people. Congratulations to all of you.
Misspudding said…
I just read this and totally had to comment because of the offer. A trampoline?! Kick ass!!!

When do you guys move?
JohnJohn said…
Yup, bonus trampoline.

We move in 9 days!

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