Examples of Non-Academic Career Paths

Stephanie Chasteen

PhD Condensed Matter Physics, Postdoctoral Fellow, Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception

By Meghan Anzelc

Stephanie Chasteen started out with a B.A. in social psychology and finished her formal education with a PhD in condensed matter physics from UC Santa Cruz. Her first job after her B.A. was as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. She has also worked at the National Public Radio (NPR) Science Desk as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow, assisted with the Twin Cities Public Television production “From Quarks to the Cosmos”, was an International Coordinator for the Emergent Matter Project, and has been a teaching assistant, volunteer science fair judge and a freelance journalist. Chasteen is clearly not your traditional physicist.

As an Exploratorium postdoc, Chasteen creates and teaches hands-on science activities to middle and high school science teachers. “I also explore the life of a museum scientist, getting involved in a variety of projects such as podcasting and broad communication projects on nanotechnology,” she says.

Chasteen was always interested in science. While an undergrad, she took a lot of science classes and says, “I wanted to study more physics, but didn’t want to be a physicst per se.” She describes herself as “a science generalist with a particular bent towards physics.” Her first encounter with science education came while working in the Peace Corps. She says it “was really a very rudimentary experience in science education, as I was teaching [people about] HIV/AIDS and basic sanitation.” During this time she met a science journalist, “and realized there were a variety of pathways open to me in alternative careers,” Chasteen says. She went back to school to get her physics PhD “because I knew that I wanted to study physics and because I enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure where it would take me,” she says.

While in graduate school, Chasteen continued to be involved in science education, doing freelance journalism and then the NPR internship. She says she “enjoyed doing education throughout grad school and in the Peace Corps and [acquired] a good sense of the diverse approaches to science through my work in Africa.” Her broad experiences and general science knowledge paid off with her job at the Exploratorium. She says, “it was a perfect match – they were looking for someone with a broad interest in science, someone who was interested in communicating science to the public. So, I went directly from graduate school to my current job, but it was a long journey starting in undergrad, building up to my current job through a variety of experiences.”

When did Chasteen decide that science education was the right field for her? “Hard to say,” she says, “but probably in the Peace Corps when I found out what a science writer was. I’m still deciding my ultimate career, which will probably involve writing and education. I may enjoy media development, such as a producer position doing science broadcase media (like NOVA). In terms of science, I said I wanted to be a physicist in 8th grade when I found out that physicists figure out how the world works. I’ve always liked understanding how things work.”

As for what attracted her to science education, she says it’s the “constant challenge. I like learning something new every day. In my current job, the teachers are always asking us interesting questions about science and I have to go back to my graduate textbooks to answer them.” Why not formal science education, like academia? Chasteen says, “I don’t want the long horrible hard hours needed to get tenure. This field has long hours but not the sort of drudgery required of a professor. I want a full life, with a variety of colorful challenges, and I didn’t enjoy the narrowness of academia.” She adds, “I feel like I’m using my degree for something important. I love figuring out how things work and helping other people understand it. I’m also a very creative person, and I like coming up with new ways to explain things or to see something and I love having things explained to me. I get [that] in this job; I’m always learning and helping others learn. I like creative writing and there’s room for that in science communication.” The advantages of working in a museum, she says, are that “there is always something new going on; there are many creative people and tons of different projects and it’s very stimulating.”

Since Chasteen began her science career as a generalist, she did a lot of preparation for a non-traditional science career. Because of her interest in writing, she joined the national and state science writers associations (NASW and NCSWA) as well as AAAS. To network, she attended meetings, professional society social gatherings and gave talks. A volunteer opportunity to present a book at a science club later led to a job as well. Chasteen also involved herself in a broad spectrum of opportunities: she took science and environmental journalism and science education classes, judged the science fair, and her freelance journalism work developed from writing for the local paper for free.

Would she have done anything differently? If she had known earlier she liked museums, she says, “perhaps I could have volunteered at a local museum.” She adds that “in retrospect, I may have enjoyed life better if I’d walked out with a Master’s and not stayed for the PhD, but it is a good degree to have under your belt. I also feel that I don’t have the deep foundation in physics that I would have had if I’d completed the undergraduate degree in physics.” On the other hand, she says, “if I had completed the Bachelors, I wouldn’t have the broader education I do.”

When asked about her transition to her current position, Chasteen says, “there were things that were easier about the Exploratorium, like I got lots of positive feedback for simple things like figuring out how to learn software, as opposed to graduate school. There were things that were harder, like time management and focus. Things are so frenetic in the museum that it’s hard to focus. In graduate school I had one or two tasks that would take weeks. Here I have four or five tasks in a day, at least. It took some getting used to.” As for her advisor, Chasteen says, “I was very lucky in that my advisor wanted me to get what was best for me out of grad school, so she encouraged me to get the science writing internships and supported me (both financially and with encouragement) in order for me to do so; she also thought I was well-suited to this career and could make a big impact.” However, networking in the museum field can be tough. She says, “This is such a weird career, even weirder than simply science journalism, that it is tough to get contacts. As I’m starting to look for a job, however, I’m finding that my contacts through the Exploratorium are invaluable. Many people are helping me…make connections to find out about careers in other museums and other areas, so, once you’re in a non-traditional career, things start to move smoothly.” Chasteen says networking in science journalism wasn’t easy either. “It probably took me two years of gradual floundering in grad school to learn how science journalism works, to make contacts and get some help getting started. It was good to do it while I was in school and had the time and financial support to do so,” she adds.

Her job search after grad school was also unconventional. She says, “I only applied for this postdoc after I graduated – I like to rely on luck sometimes.” As for her job application, she says, “I found that writing the letter and application for the Exploratorium job was very, very easy; it flowed from my fingertips. That’s because it was the right job for me. It was very easy to describe all the different experiences that I’ve had and how it would apply to the postdoc.” Specifically, she says, she took her resume and “I highlighted all the different things I’d done and broke it down by ‘academic physics’ and ‘education and journalism’ experience. This let me showcase both the academic credentials, and give an impressive list of all my tutoring and writing and education experience, so it showed both packages succinctly and clearly. I did the same for my publications list.”

Chasteen’s Exploratorium postdoc is a self-tailored position, so she can choose the projects she wants to work on. A usual week includes creating podcasts and science activities. “I create podcasts for science teachers and have a podcast series on nanotech, called SmallTalk. About one day every week or two I work from home to do audio editing on a podcast,” she says. “I also create activities for science teachers. Over the course of a week I put in several hours either talking about activity development or trying stuff out, although I don’t spend as much time on this as I would like,” she adds. In addition to these projects, there is the usual day-to-day business to keep up with. Chasteen says she spends a couple hours a day answering emails. “This organization is big on email communication, so I end up taking care of all those little pieces of business. Sometimes this includes answering questions from teachers on physics, which really stretches my physics knowledge,” she says. She also attends a conference on science or science teaching every couple of months and says, “I learn a lot there and make connections, and see what other people are working on.” Finally, there is the professional development within the museum. Chasteen attends museum events, browbag lectures and meetings to stay up to date on what others in the museum are doing.

Museum work, like all jobs, has its pros and cons. The pay is low and there isn’t much job security, but the pros include “fun people, a creative atmosphere, a chance to learn a lot of different things and stretch my knowledge,” Chasteen says. She says the challenges are “to juggle different priorities because there is so much going on within the museum that I can benefit from and so many things I want to work on to contribute, and to take what I’ve learned in school and use it in novel situations. This last part is very difficult, because I wasn’t trained to answer general questions like this.” Another benefit of museum work is the flexible schedule. Chasteen says, “I often work Saturdays and usually take Monday off to make up for it, so my weekends are often a little skewed which can make social events more difficult. However, because it’s so flexible I can also go out late on weekdays and come in late in the morning. It’s like being a grad student in many ways, to have that flexibility.” The pace of museum work can be stressful. She says, “there is so much going on and I’m still learning to juggle multiple responsibilities and tasks, and to do things efficiently and not just well (like we did in grad school). I exercise a lot more than I used to in order to manage stress.”

If you’re interested in a non-traditional career, Chasteen suggests you “talk to people who have those careers to get advice on how to get started. Go to conferences and meetings and network. Volunteer your time for stuff that seems fun, and just be your enthusiastic self. Good stuff will come from it where you least expect it. Above all, have fun, because where you have fun is where things tend to happen. When you’re doing something because you ‘should’ because it will be ‘good for your career’ oftentimes nothing comes of it. At least, that’s what happened for me. Being generous with my time was very valuable, because people would then be generous with me – in terms of time, advice, or other career help.”

As for careers in museums, she says, “I think creativity really helps, as well as an ability to apply your scientific knowledge to broader questions – for example, to be able to answer questions like ‘why does lightening look jagged’. And again, have fun, do what draws you. It’s hard work too, yes, but you should have some sort of passionate inclination to do it.” In museums, she says, “there are few jobs for scientists per se, but many of the outreach programs, such as teacher development programs, need scientists.”

What would Chasteen do differently if she could do it all over again? She says, “I wish that I had taken an extra year of classes while in graduate school – spent longer on the undergraduate classes and spread out the graduate classes. I feel like my education wasn’t as deep as it could be because of my particular background.” In terms of her research, she wishes she had done more collaborative research. She notes that “I learned so much from talking to people, but it seems like we all stopped talking to each other once we started research. I think that having that dialogue would have made it easier for me to communicate science later on, as well as to understand it, and learn from my colleagues.” She mentions she missed an opportunity to design her own course in grad school and that had she done that, it “would have taught me how to explain a wide variety of subjects to people, and also given me more classroom teaching experience.” But, she is happy where she is now and says, “in terms of this career, again, I feel that I was lucky in that I had a lot of time and opportunity to explore science education and journalism, so I was well prepared.” Chasteen’s last bit of advice is “don’t do what everyone expects you to do; follow whatever wacky dream you have, and people will notice.”