Cecilie Sand Nørholm is an astrophysicist at Planetarium Copenhagen. She graduated from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen with a master’s degree in astrophysics.

Please give a description of the work you do in your current position.

Currently, I am on maternity leave, so my position mostly consists of taking care of a 6-month-old 😉

Jokes aside, while my current job title is astrophysicist, my job has a great deal of variation. Amongst other things, I am responsible for making sure our exhibitions, planetarium shows, SoMe content, etc. are factually correct and up-to-date. This means doing research on various topics, e.g. reading scientific papers and press releases, but also includes developing new exhibitions, activities for visitors and school children, and content for our dome theater. The latter also means programming our digital universe, which is awesome!

Part of my job is also to create and hold lectures and shows in the dome and answer our “astronomy mailbox” where anyone, from school children to the old lady down the street, can ask any question they might have about astronomy or the night sky. And finally, part of my job description is also to take part in interviews and be available when we are contacted by the press in connection with something space-related. This still takes some getting used to, I admit.

How do you use the skills you learned as a physicist or engineer in your work?

My job description can sound pretty far from anything “physics-related”, and in the beginning, I had to get used to the thought of not being a “classic” physicist, i.e. a person who is programming, calculating and analyzing. However, an important part of my job is to research various topics and methods, and by doing this, I found that the ability to read through scientific papers, get a quick overview of relevant information, and gain new knowledge in general, is something I learned during my studies.

Besides this, I also do some coding, though not in any of the most used languages – but I find that the coding experience I gained through my education has been very useful.

And finally, I often use a “hidden skill”, which I have only recently come to realize is part of being a physicist; I know a little bit about how the scientific world works. This is now something I always have in mind when finding and contacting scientists. We are regularly in touch with physicists, engineers and other scientists for example in connection with hosting lectures or collaborating on new exhibitions.

Lastly, this might not be directly linked to physics skills, but in general, I’m happy that there’s now more focus on science communication both in the scientific community and also during the physics and engineering education. This has been very useful for me in my job position, of course, but whether you’re working as a scientist or as a physicist in the financial sector, I think it’s very important to learn how to express yourself and to know your audience – especially when you’re working with something that you’re passionate about.

What made you decide to pursue a career in the private sector?

For most of my studies, I struggled with expectations (mostly my own) to do a Ph.D., as I thought this was the only option or “right thing” to do. I love the idea of being a researcher, but while doing my master’s thesis I also found that I probably would not strive in a research environment.

Part of this was because I always felt that everyone was much smarter/had everything more together than I did, but also because I knew I wanted to start a family at some point. While the statistics are slowly getting better, there are still very few women, and even fewer women with children, in astrophysics – and to be honest, the lack of female role models kind of made me feel like I had to choose between a career in research or starting a family. Now, I know that it’s possible to do both, and I admire the people who do, but for me it was something that tipped the scale towards a job in the private industry.

During my studies, I had worked as a guide/educator at the Planetarium, and really enjoyed it (and as a bonus, I also felt like it was something I was actually quite good at) – so when I was offered a full-time position there, it felt like a great opportunity.

What motivated you to study physics or engineering in the first place? 

I have been interested in astronomy for as long as I can remember. From what I have been told, it all started when my granddad took me outside to watch the Hale Bopp comet when I was around 3 years old. Later, during secondary school, I found out that you could actually study astronomy, and so it all went from there.

What advice would you give to young people (in particular women and minorities) who would like to pursue a career in the private industry or public sector? 

You have a lot more options/possibilities than you think – this, especially, is something I had to tell myself when I felt like everyone expected me to do a Ph.D. Also, a comforting piece of advice I was once given is that your first job will probably not be your last, so you have plenty of time to explore your career options and figure out what you like to do.

And finally, however cliché it might sound, try to believe in yourself (or find colleagues who encourage you to believe in yourself). From someone who struggles a great deal with imposter syndrome, I know this might be hard to do, but personally, I have found that it makes it easier to find rest and be happy about your career choices.