siaa_logo_blue Penny D Sackett sackett_circle

Australian National University

Canberra, Australia
Job Title: Chief Scientist for Australia and Academic Professor at the Australian National University



She is an Astronomer: How long is it since you got your PhD?

Penny D Sackett: 24 years

My degrees in physics meant that my training was relevant and gave me skills that others with degrees in astronomy only might not otherwise have.  But the reason I switched from physics to astronomy was because the problems seemed more interesting, more numerous (per scientist) and more varied in drawing upon several aspects of physics and mathematics.  In addition, it was possible to work in small teams that were across both the theoretical and the observational aspects of a problem simultaneously.


SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers ?

PDS: Throughout much of my career I think it was expected that I would settle for less than men of similar age, experience or skill. It was assumed (and even voiced) that I would probably settle for less pay. Or that I was a 'young' or 'non-obvious' candidate for positions that I applied for - and eventually won (even though I was of similar age to others that had previously held the post). Or that others would know better than I when I would be 'ready' to apply for promotion.


SIAA: Are women under-represented in your institution?

PDS: In the public service in Australia, women are rather well represented, though more progress could be made at the most senior levels.


SIAA: What is your family status?

PDS: Husband, no children.


SIAA: Have you had career breaks?

PDS: My partner and I have 'taken turns' following one another to other cities and countries.  Although not always producing the best outcome at the time for one of us individually, we have felt that on balance both our lives and our careers have been enriched, and certainly our time together has much more enjoyable and stable.  I have also had 'breaks' due to health, change in research emphasis (eg, from physics to astronomy), and the decision to work in the public service.


SIAA: How difficult did you find the return to your work?

PDS: The primary difficulty I have faced in re-entering or 're-beginning' my career has been in overcoming the additional overhead in my time associated with the restart, which can cause one to feel, and/or be perceived to be behind the curve for a particular career stage.  On the other hand, I have also found that I have often brought new skills or perspectives back with me (from a different field, a different sector, or a personal strength) that have been beneficial to my work.


SIAA: How many hours per day do you normally dedicate to work?

PDS: 55 hours per week.


SIAA: What would most help you advance your career?

PDS: More hours in the day. More emphasis by institutions and funding bodies on rewarding essential personal contributions to long-term, important and novel results rather than the ability to 'game' assessment systems that rely on near-term, risk-adverse measures of quantity over quality.


SIAA: What were your career highlights?

PDS: Establishing and nurturing a world-wide team (PLANET) to continuously monitor the skies for microlensing events that betray the presence of an extra-solar planet, a team that discovered one of the smallest (least massive) extra-solar planets known.

Overseeing, as Director, the team that reconstructed the research centre at Mount Stromlo after the devastating bushfires of January 2003, both in terms of physical infrastructure and a vision for optical astronomy in Australia that included the Skymapper Southern Sky Survey and the Giant Magellan Telescopes.

Being given the opportunity and responsibility to serve as Australia's Chief Scientist, thereby providing independent advice to the Government on matters at the intersection of science and policy.


SIAA: What recommendation would you make to young women starting their career in astronomy?


PDS: Think hard about what is most important to you, based on your own value system, and then don't settle for less.