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Into the Astro Industry with Kristen Griffin (part 1)

This is Part 1 of my interview with Ph.D. Astronomer, Kristen Shapiro Griffin. Kristen is a former classmate of mine from UC Berkeley (go BADGrads!) and she is also my grand-mentee from the UC Berkeley Astronomy peer mentoring program: I mentored Julie Comerford, and Julie mentored Kristen. Kristen went to work at Northrop Grumman upon receiving her doctorate and she now lives in SoCal. I asked her to share her thoughts and experiences on the astronomy "industry" (non-academic) path. My questions and Kristen's insightful answers are given below. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3!

0) Tell me about your job! What does your day-to-day look like?  How is it different now than when you started, and what was that evolution like?

I work at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in the civil space new mission area.  My official title is Systems Engineer, which means that my job is to design systems that work together effectively to meet the mission objectives – in this case, to return the desired science.  In practice, this means that my job is split into two parts.  The science part involves lots of interaction with the research community (in my case, astrophysics and planetary science) to understand science needs for upcoming missions and to make sure that the community is aware of state-of-the-art industry capabilities that might enable future science.  The engineering part involves working closely with engineers at Northrop Grumman to design the actual mission; this includes orbital mechanics, simulation of science operations, spacecraft engineering, and instrument engineering.  On the side, I also do some technical tasks in support of missions in the development, construction, and operational phases here at Northrop Grumman, including JWST.

Northrop Grumman: Science! Technology!
Meetings that end on time!
My day-to-day varies a lot.  There are almost always a handful of meetings, for technical discussions, collaboration building, project coordination, progress reporting, budget planning, etc.  Meetings start and stop on time; sometimes I have back-to-back all day and sometimes almost none.  When I’m at my desk, I do any of the following: science or engineering tasks in support of our missions under design, simulations of mission performance, generate text or PowerPoint charts to communicate results to diverse audiences, generate project management materials such as budgets and staffing plans, work on documentation of engineering efforts and status, and many other things.  Often I do multiple, very different tasks during one day, and of course there’s always more tasks than there is time.  I am expected to prioritize accordingly and meet all my deadlines.

Over my three years at Northrop Grumman, my position has developed from team member to science lead to project lead on multiple mission design efforts.  The impact to my day-to-day has been relatively minimal, although increased responsibility carries with it increased accountability in the form of reporting results, monitoring budgets, and communicating needs to management.

1) You were an extremely competent and accomplished astro grad student at UC Berkeley.  Why'd you leave? (my question from back in the day that will be shared by many astronomers)

I want to spend a minute and take issue with the question, “Why’d you leave?”  The implication in the question is that an academic career is the most successful and desirable outcome, and I would really love to see this change.  People have diverse interests, and our community really ought to support, in word and in action, sending our best and brightest out into the world to make a difference in ways besides research.  There are so many important roles that need a strong science presence, in government, industry, non-profits, and education.  Moreover, there are not enough long-term research positions in academia to support the current PhD and postdoc output.  So let’s get the word “leave” out of our vocabulary and start demonstrating to our students the real value in non-academic career options.

That said, the reason I “left” had nothing to do with feeling negative about a research career.  I love research, and I like to think I was pretty decent at it.  It also had nothing to do with getting away from all the trials of multiple postdocs, tenure, work-life, etc.  It was because I’m passionate about being involved in where astronomy and other physical sciences are going, and I was eager to be a part of that process.  I saw that, in academia, only the most accomplished senior faculty have the opportunity to influence the direction of the field (e.g. through leading Decadal survey panels, NASA mission review panels, institutes, etc), and that path would take me 20-30 years with only a very slim chance of success.  In my current position, I was able to step straight from grad school into the cutting edge of future technologies and future missions.  It is incredibly exciting and a superb fit for me.

2) Have you ever regretted leaving?

No.  Never.  Not even on exceptionally bad days.

There are four reasons for this: 
A pipeline leading into an ocean.

  1. The job.  I spent a lot of time and effort on my job search and as a result was able to find a job where both the big picture and the (majority of) the day-to-day tasks make me happy.
  2. The people.  The scientists, engineers, NASA employees, etc that I have met and worked with outside of academia are some of the most brilliant people I have ever encountered.  Their expertise is in areas so far removed from mine that meetings and collaborations are a learning experience for all involved, and the products are creative solutions to big problems.  I have found my co-workers and outside collaborators to be supportive and a pleasure to work with.  As a side benefit, the demographics were also a pleasant surprise.  Roughly 50% of the people I work with day-to-day are women, including quite a few in senior positions, and there is ethnic diversity as well.
  3. The environment.  Contrary to my expectations, I really thrive in a professional environment.  In exchange for having to step-up my wardrobe and spend a little more time on my appearance in the morning, I've enjoyed the extra professionalism with which people interact in industry; I like to say that people have to "check the crazy at the door."  There are expectations for how people present themselves and deal with one another, and problems are taken seriously and addressed by HR.
    Additionally, the company respects its employees by offering real benefits: 401k, annual time off,  ompensated parental leave, insurance for everything you could ever imagine (medical, dental, vision, disability, AD&D, life, spouse's life, legal, etc.).
  4. Career opportunities.  There is a fear in academia that, if you leave, you can never go back, and you can never successfully re-enter the pipeline.  And, frankly, that’s probably true.  However, when I look forward now and think about the possible directions for my future career growth, I find them to be staggeringly diverse.  The number of doors opened by a few years of experience in government, industry, etc is simply incredible, and I would never trade the opportunities I now have.  Outside of academia, there is no pipeline; there’s an ocean.
3) What do you miss the most about academia?

My friends and collaborators in academia, scattered across the globe.  In academia, the round-the-world conference circuit meant that I saw the usual suspects in my sub-field at least once a year, somewhere.  In my current position, I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to still connect with my US-based friends at AAS and DPS; however, international travel is a much bigger deal at my company than it was in academia.  As a result, I have friends and former collaborators whom I haven't seen since I took this position, and I wish that were different.

4) What do you miss the least?

You know, in my opinion, there are a several things that are fundamentally broken in academic positions and career paths, and I think a good fraction of your readers have spent some time themselves thinking about these things.  So I won't go into them here.

However, the number one thing that I really don't miss (which I will discuss) is what I call the "existential stress" of academia: will I get a postdoc? where will it be? can my family move there? can they move again 3 years later? will I find a permanent position? etc.  Yes, there is always uncertainty in industry because jobs aren't guaranteed, and yes, I will likely make several job (and possibly physical) moves over the course of my career.  But I have to tell you, it is simply much less existentially stressful on this side.  My chances are much greater, in industry, that major moves will be on my timescale, one that fits my career and my family, and not on an arbitrary three, five, or seven year deadline.


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