Joey Schmitt (PhD ’17, Astronomy)

What did you study at Yale, and what is your current profession/job?

I am a Presidential Management Fellow in the Air Force (as a civilian) at the Pentagon working as an operations research analyst, which is closely related to a data scientist. However, I’m planning to transition into a science policy career soon. I graduated from Yale in 2017 with a PhD in astronomy. My dissertation focused on the search for exoplanets, planets beyond the solar system.

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?

As a Presidential Management Fellow, I get to do a 4-6 month rotation outside of my agency. This gives me some flexibility to try out other jobs to figure out what I like and get a broader (and résumé-building) experience. My job also gives me a lot of independence. Government benefits are also pretty good, especially the paid leave and the holidays. Challenges include dealing with government bureaucracy, difficulty acquiring the necessary data, and a lack of subject matter expertise, as I came into this job with no military background or experience.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

The PhD from Yale gives me a lot of credibility in the office; it carries weight. One of my research discoveries at the end of my second year was that I did not want to pursue academia, so this gave me three years to build up my skills and experiences that would make me a better candidate for a future job in science policy. While the current political climate has made it difficult for now, the opportunities I found (and made for myself) at Yale have positioned me well for when the political climate warms back up.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?

For my current job, programming is far and away the most important skill that I picked up thanks to my time at Yale. Broad familiarity with many statistical techniques is also useful, even if I had never practiced many of them before. Beyond the skills for my current job, however, I also practiced my public speaking skills through outreach events at the planetarium and practiced my writing skills through authoring a few online stories on the latest astronomical literature. While these skills are useful in any field, they will be the primary skills I advertise while I attempt to transition into more of a policy role.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

No, not directly related to my line of work. However, I did become a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellow at the National Academy of Sciences during my last year at Yale. This three-month fellowship helped give me an introduction to science policy and started my policy network.

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

If you want to work as an operations research analyst or a data scientist, become proficient in programming, preferably multiple languages, and statistical techniques, especially those best suited for large datasets. If you want to work in policy, then practice your public speaking and writing skills and get some experience (fellowships, volunteering, etc.) working in policy before you graduate. Also, read the news.