Jobs for Astronomers

Bye bye research. So now what?

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One year ago, I posted the above status on the Facebook Astronomers page. My decision to quit research in astrophysics didn't come out of the blue. I had been working as a post-doc for one year. At the beginning of that post-doc I was enthusiastic, happy to be able to work on my own projects, to be considered an expert in something, to have the opportunity to produce some results. But 6 months into it, I felt too much pressure by the "publish or perish" mentality. All my friends were happily publishing paper after paper, while I was just discovering a serious error in the first paper I was about to submit. My boss noticed the decline in my performance, and eventually gave me an ultimatum: "You are smart", he said, "smarter than many people who have successful careers in astrophysics. But you're not putting in the hours. This is not enough. You can make it in science, but you have to really think whether you really want to or not. If you do, you still have time to turn things around. But you'll have to start working hard now."

I was not working very hard, that's a fact. I never liked hard work, I could never work long hours. My brain would just give up after a while. I never managed to take work with me at home, as I often saw my colleagues doing. I could never boast "I stayed late at the office". I was too interested in other things: my family. Cooking. Going for a walk. Watching TV. Knitting. Blogging. Lots and lots of other things. I was confused, since I'd spent almost 13 years of my life working towards the goal of becoming a professional astrophysicist, but still I was feeling that this goal was slipping away. And it was all my fault. I wasn't putting in the hours. I wasn't dedicated to the job. "You can do it. But you'll have to think if you really want to."

I told my boss that I'd try, and I started working harder. At about that time, I attended a conference, where I could present my work to some important people in the field. I did what I was supposed to, but I am not ashamed to admit that most of the time I spent at that conference, I felt I'd rather be somewhere else, maybe in the shops nearby buying new clothes, or drinking coffee with a friend. Even though I felt very much at home in that environment, knowing almost everybody in the field and having already heard most of the participants talk about their work before, I was constantly thinking "OK, what's new"? Hearing a colleague speak about his work in a particular field for what seemed to be the millionth time made me think whether I wanted to do the same: working in a tiny subfield of a subfield for the next 30 years, adding a little bit every year to present at the next conference, not really contributing much to science but having an exaggerated idea of myself and my importance. Because I was a scientist. I was smart. I was special.

The last day of that conference I took a pregnancy test - and it was positive.

What did I want? I wanted to be one of the smart people. Like many of us who work or have worked in science, I felt that it's almost taboo to talk about leaving research. But my employer's words had made their impact: did I really want this? Or was it just a means of self-validation? Did I want to continue dragging my family around? As hard as that was with one child, I couldn't imagine doing it with two.

I asked my husband if he thought that I had been happy with my job the past 8 years - that's how long he knew me. He just said "no". You have to understand, my husband does not elaborate. But his answers are always sincere and to-the-point.

I had to admit the veracity of my husband's statement. I decided to be realistic and stop waiting for something to change while doing the same things over and over again. If I hadn't been happy all this time, waiting to become fulfilled with my job at some indeterminate point in the future was plain stupid. 

When I posted the above status in the Astronomers group, I was feeling disappointed, but also relieved to finally be able to put my frustration to words. The responce was unbelievable: more than a hundred "likes", hundreds of comments. People whom I didn't know started friending me, others sent me messages of support. Some sent me messages saying that they were in a similar situation, but were too scared to talk about it. Some said they had lost relationships or even missed the chance to have a family because of the constant moving from post-doc to post-doc. An acquaintance told me he had been working in a different field for a couple of years now, feeling quite happy and content with his life and his work, but had kept this change hidden from most people because there's a certain stigma following those who left research. Others told me how very brave I was to speak out about a subject that is considered taboo in many universities and scientific institutes. Excuse me? I'm not brave! I'm quitting, for heaven's sake. Brave people are not supposed to be quitters, right?

One year later, I have to admit that I am still wondering if I made the correct decision. I quit my post-doc in France, where I never felt at home, indeed I never even felt safe (not very hard to happen, when you experience an armed robbery with multiple gunshots next to your home). I moved back to Germany, where I understand the language and I feel quite at home. For the time being I am a rather overqualified stay-at-home mom, taking care of a baby that I'm helplessly in love with. I had the chance to experience things that I missed with my daughter, including just babbling together with my baby, looking at him, being with him. This quality time was missing from my life.

But I'll agree with what you're thinking: I can't stay unemployed forever. My skills are mostly in theoretical astrophysics, so data science (which seems to be popular these days) is not an option for me. I briefly scoped the world of science communication. It seems to me that it's not that easy to get into - and you need some kind of work experience and/or additional training. It's a kind of chicken-and-egg problem: you need work experience to work, and to work in order to get work experience. One can do some work for free in order to develop and show one's skills to potential employers, but the question really is - do you want to work for free?

I already have some plans for the immediate future, but I think this post has gone on long enough. I'll leave you to enjoy the rest of the summer (those of you in the northern hemisphere, at least), and I hope to be back with more blog posts and hopefully contributions from other struggling or successful astronomers outside academia soon.

Ioanna Arka