PNAS: Richard Edgar, Chandra X-Ray Center

(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of Dr. Richard Edgar of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory project at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which operates the Chandra X-ray Observatory under contract with NASA. I’m in the calibration group. We think about instrumental issues and help observers tell astrophysical effects from instrumental ones. We’re also entitled to 30% of our time for our own research.

2) What is your science background?

BA in Math and Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder
MS and PhD in Physics, University of Wisconsin–Madison

3) What led you to this job?

followed the money from astrophysics theory to space hardware.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I sit in front of a computer in my office, mostly puzzling over data new and old that pertain to x-ray astronomy.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

There’s some original research; the rest of the day is spent processing data (most of it from Chandra or the pre-launch ground calibration) and thinking about x-ray mirrors and detectors.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

It’s all-important. I couldn’t do this job without a background in x-ray astronomy and detector physics.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

Learn as much as possible about as many different fields of physics as you can.

8) What’s the most important thing you learned from science?

I guess it’s a way of approaching how you know what you know: respect the data, but be skeptical about how they were obtained and what they mean.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

Diversify. Your thesis project will presumably be solved somehow, some day, and you’ll be wanting to do something else. Find out what parts of your field you really just don’t care about, and avoid them.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What’s the pay like?

It parallels the federal salary scale. I started at GS-13 and it goes up through Senior level (is there a GS-16?)