Joan Centrella received her PhD from Cambridge University, where she was a student at the Institute of Astronomy. Following postdoctoral appointments at the University of Texas and the University of Illinois, she joined the faculty of Drexel University in the Physics Department. At Drexel, she developed a research group focused on studying astrophysical sources of gravitational waves. She also taught physics and astronomy at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, supervised both graduate students and postdocs, and served as the adviser for all incoming graduate students in the department.

In 2001, she moved to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to join their newly-formed gravitational wave astrophysics group. She initiated and led their source modeling and numerical relativity effort in support of LISA. The primary focus of her research group was simulating the final merger of two black holes, considered to be the strongest and most important sources of gravitational radiation for both space-based and terrestrial detectors. In 2005, the Goddard team was one of three groups to achieve dramatic research breakthroughs and solve this long-standing problem. In May 2007, she was awarded the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for ground-breaking work in the simulation of gravitational wave signals from merging black holes. In May 2008, she and John Baker were awarded the John C. Lindsay Memorial Award for Space Science by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; this is the center's highest honor for outstanding contributions in space science.

In 2004 she became head of the Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory, which encompasses the gravitational wave and theoretical astrophysics groups at Goddard.

In May 2010, she took her current position as Deputy Director of the Astrophysics Science Division.