Outreach and Careers in Academia

Posted By Pamela on Jul 15, 2007 | 5 comments

Fraser and I got a great letter from someone who listens to Astronomy Cast. This person noted quite correctly that Carl Sagan was strongly criticized for spending so much time popularizing astronomy. This person asked if things have changed significantly for us today.

This is a hard question to answer. There are people whose jobs it is to publicize astronomy. They are embraced by the astronomy community for what they do. These people are education and public outreach officers and program directors. These people, unlike Sagan, aren’t professors.

I’m trying to be a professor, but to make Astronomy Cast and teaching both happen, I have chosen to teach part time. Like Sagan, I’d like to be a tenured professor, but I’m still trying to figure out how to get there from here. The criteria that faculty are judged by don’t leave room for someone to spend a lot of time popularizing science and expressing opinions in op-ed pieces or blogs. Were I a full time professor, I would be promoted / granted tenure based on three different criteria: scholarship, teaching, and service.

Scholarship generally refers to activities I do that move forward our knowledge and understanding of whatever I decide to do research in. For me, that is variable stars and studying how New Media can be used to promote Astronomy. Because I chose to spend significant amounts of my time communicating astronomy research done by others, the amount of time I have to do my own original research is limited. This means that it is harder for me to get significant amounts of research done compared to other people with the same professional demands (teaching, service, etc…) To be competitive, I have to use time that would otherwise go to sleeping, eating, or weeding to either blog / podcast or do research. I have a personal goal of publishing a minimum of 1 peer-reviewed paper a year. For some small teaching-focused universities, that is enough, but it isn’t necessarily enough for big school’s like Cornell, where Sagan was tenured. So yes, blogging and podcasting get me criticized: There are those who say I waste my time communicating science when I should be doing science. It’s a problem, but if I select where I work carefully, it’s not a large problem.

The next of these criteria is easy to understand; teaching refers to how well I am able to teach astronomy in the classroom. This is largely, but not entirely a popularity contest. I do get observed by one of my peers on one day of my choosing (when they remember to come – which doesn’t always happen). Student evaluations are weighted very heavily. I generally do pretty well in this category, but my blogging and podcasting can effect my evaluations. Last semester I let off steam in my blog (here) and was reprimanded multiple times as different people became aware of the post. This was actually a very serious problem for me, and it is why my blog is no longer on my university office computer. I now fully understand why FemaleScienceProfessor writes anonymously – the cost of publicly writing something you feel is true can be too high. Every time I write an opinion or discuss something controversial I take a risk. All it takes is one student to be offended and write one angry letter to my department chair. So… I live with a constant nagging fear at all times that what I say outside of the classroom will get me in trouble in the classroom. This too is a problem, but it is one every faculty member faces in one way or another.

The third category, service, refers to how well I serve my community through my actions. In the category of service it seems like this should be a slam dunk for someone who communicates science to the public, but it’s not. If I were a tenure-track professor, my service evaluation would be based on serving on department committees, university committees, and doing local outreach for programs that have been adopted by my department. The work I currently do with the International Year of Astronomy, Astronomy Cast don’t count for nothing, but they wouldn’t be part of my official service unless I negotiated a special contract – which would be hard and would annoy some people in the process. So, this category is one where I suspect I would get personally annoyed because I’d be forced to do things I didn’t enjoy, but… That’s what happens when you have a full time permanent job. This isn’t a problem, it’s just not a criteria where what I do benefits as much as you may think it would.

As much as I want to someday work as a tenured professor (or at least as a professor in a position more permanent than 1 semester) in a situation where I can maintain a small but respectable stream of research while writing and publicizing astronomy, that day isn’t today. I’m young though, that time may come. In order to have the freedom to communicate astronomy today, I have to be a part-time professor. It’s a choice that sometimes makes everything I do a little bit harder, but at least I get to pursue my dreams.


  1. “There are those who say I waste my time communicating science when I should be doing science.”

    I’m so bothered by this, because those same people are up in arms every time we face an Intelligent Design or science in the classroom legal battle.

    We obviously need people to both do science and spread the word. And when we have someone who can firmly plant themselves on both sides of the fence “Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and our own Pamela, they should be celebrated and endorsed.

    I can only testify to my own experience, so here it is. Since listening to Astronomy Cast over the last 8 months, I have joined an Astronomy club, actually looked at the moon with a pair of binoculars (born and raised in a big city, never occurred to me to do it), and own my own telescope. I have learned so much about the night sky and the AMAZING things that are out there. My enthusiasm is such that I got a very good friend hooked. They now find it “hard to argue in favor of creationism” as this person very recently believed in.

    Very smart friend, but just never took that intelligence and applied it to the universe. It’s amazing what a small podcast and it’s collateral effects can be.

    Just my $.02.

  2. Is it better to write to the Dean of you Faculty or to whom? This is an example of what I said in the AstroCast survey about listeners wanting to help. If taxpayers are footing the bill for science, we need to know what we are paying for and science outreach is a prime example of returning to the people information about what their money is being used for. Thank YOU for your great podcast!

  3. May you continue to dream and stride towards your goals.

    I have every part of my anatomy crossed that you achieve these goals, despite all the obstacles.

  4. Hi John,

    Letters to department chairs and college deans in support of programs always help faculty. And as odd as this may sound, just sending the faculty member of a program you like a written letter they can put in their file is also a powerful thing.


  5. What you are undertaking in your outreach in astronomy education to the public is a noble endevour. We need more like yourself with a formal degree, to make the public aware of our biggest enviroment, the universe. I am a dedicated amature astronomer, who does public/school outreach and I train teachers how to teach kids about the universe. My lack of a formal degree has not kept me from self-educating myself,(which is a everyday activity) but it has closed doors on me in certain venues.I do my outreach in a very professional manner, with materials and teaching aids from many sources to inspire learners of all ages. You can go to places I can not. Please continue your work,the podcast are awesome! Time to go look at Jupiter’s dancing moons, and comet Linear in Bootes!

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