Careers in Astronomy
For those of you who feel like you have your life and your future completely figured out, I apologize in advance for this post. But ‘tis the season: the beginning of a new academic year, the time when many of you may be thinking about the next stage in your careers. Dan already wrote two fantastic posts this week about the process of applying to graduate school (here and here) but now I want to take a step back.
Going to graduate school is a large commitment, and making the decision to do so can be a stressful process. In astronomy, in particular, I have encountered numerous students plagued by a series of ‘what ifs’, all of which seem to stem from a basic misconception about what going to astronomy graduate school actually means for your future.
To help frame this misconception, I pose the following question to all of you thinking of pursuing astronomy, “What’s the point?” This may seem like a very philosophical question, and it is, but I guarantee that at some point in your career you will be asked to justify what you do to a “layman”. So start working on your answer now. And let me warn you: it is quite frankly harder in astronomy than some other sciences. Although space cowboys on asteroids are pretty cool, it is my opinion that we can’t really just default to, “some day this research will save the world.” We have to be more creative.
I’ll leave you to ponder that question for now, but note that it often leads to many others: What if somewhere down the road the government and private agencies decide to cut funding for research in astronomy? What if I love astronomy but want my job to have more of an effect on the daily lives of others? What if, horror of horrors, I get four years into a PhD and realize that research just isn’t for me (trust me, it happens, my mother told me so). These are all legitimate questions, and many people believe that by starting graduate school in astronomy you are forcing yourself into an exclusive path toward a tenured professorship at a university. Then, if anything goes ‘wrong’ along the way you are left hanging. This is not the case, however, and the arXiv agrees with me.
A few days ago, a compilation of articles originally published in the American Astronomical Society’s newsletter by the Committee of Employment was published in the archive. They are written by 11 authors, all of whom attended graduate school in astronomy, and all of whom have pursued vastly different careers. Given the incredible wealth of information in this article, I have summarized their various paths below, but for anyone truly interested, I suggest you read the articles. None of them are particularly long and all are well written.