Jobs for Astronomers

Where do we go from here?

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I hope you will indulge me as, for yet another time, I speak about myself towards the end of this post. Rest assured, I’m not doing this to gather popularity or sympathy, but rather because I suspect that there are many astronomers out there - male and female - who face issues similar to mine but are not able to vocalise them. I’d like to be candid about my experience in academia and without, and maybe if some of you can relate a little to my experience, you’ll get some ideas on how to proceed with your academic and non-academic professional pursuits.

So - the pure truth of the fact is that, at least in Europe, not much has been done in the matter of the proper education and preparation of students and young academics for life outside academia. The point of Jobs for Astronomy, when it was created almost two and a half years ago, was to break the taboo status of "leaving academia” and to actually inform people about possible career paths and how to pursue them. The problem, as I saw at the beginning of JfA’s life, was that there were too many people who were "thrown into the wild" to fend for themselves, with years of academic experience behind them but no idea whatsoever how to survive in the "outside world". Some of these people applied for hundreds of jobs but didn't get invited to interviews, and industry didn't seem to know how to evaluate them (I repeat, at least here in Europe - from what I hear things are better in the US, and I have no idea how things are on the other continents, feel free to educate me if you have some experience on this!). 

At some point in the future, institutions, supervisors, astronomical societies and thesis committees should finally become aware of the fact that the training of students and post-docs has to include a whole lot of skill set development that it doesn't include today, so that these people can actually get different kinds of jobs and are not left stranded and almost "disowned" by their academic parents. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be even more training for students, but rather that we will not be turning a blind eye to the problems of our field anymore. Who knows, maybe this will eventually help us solve even some “internal” problems in science circles, and make our education a little bit more, let's say "worldly".

Having said this, I think that, ideally, we would have to look at academic and non-academic jobs on equal terms, based on the skills astronomers bring them above anything else. How about a future when we don’t pretend anymore that the “outside world” does not exist?  

And the problem also exists in the opposite direction. I still think that industry doesn’t know what astronomers are and what skills they bring to the table. I vividly remember a person close to me (in the banking branch) boasting about how they made Powerpoint presentations for their colleagues, even though they were not required to do so, and even though they were never trained in Powerpoint. Meanwhile, most astronomers can toggle Microsoft Office, Open Office, can find their way around different Linux versions, can create anything from a grocery list to a full-fledged interactive presentation using LateX, are experts in at least one programming language, can parallelise code and run extensive simulations, and because of the well-known post-doc dance can speak a couple of languages, if not fluently, at least well enough to order a decent meal at a restaurant. And they were never officially trained in those things - they learned them “on the job”. You would think an employer would jump at the opportunity to give a job to someone like that.

So, something has to be done about this. Sadly, at the birth of JfA I was pregnant with my son, which had as a result, well, his birth and a 19-month long sleep deprivation and breastfeeding hormones haze. JfA went into a state of coma for a while. Sorry for that.

I can assure you I’m sleeping well enough now, and my brain is close to being functional again. I’ve accepted a low paying web developer internship kind of job, because, well, web development using Ruby on Rails is fun, one has to start somewhere, and the Jobs for Astronomers website is in dire need of development. 

As I’m getting into the world of web development, I feel strangely light, like the weight of years of stress has finally left me. I love astrophysics - I truly, deeply love it. I still wake up in the morning sometimes, after a dream in which I am magically able to work in the Max Planck Institute again, and I’m in tears - I love physics, and plasma physics, and all about physics, I can’t stress that enough. But I don’t love not ever knowing where I’ll be in two years, I don’t like being stressed about things like number of publications, citations and the such, to the extent that the actual science doesn’t matter as much anymore, I don’t miss for a second the overwhelming, debilitating stress of the academic life and the crushing consequences of living with impostor syndrome. 

I don’t know much about Rails yet, but as I’m starting, I strangely don’t feel like an impostor. Does academia breed impostor syndrome? I don’t know. I’d like to hear your take on this. 

Now, maybe my web development job sticks, and maybe it doesn’t. But whatever the outcome, it’s fine. I won’t be in tears if it doesn’t work out, my world will not fall apart, and I will not have a crisis of self-identity, like the one that started when I realised what I had done by quitting academia and will hopefully reach an end soon. The simple and pure matter of the fact is, tongue in cheek, almost no job is rocket science. I know I can learn it, and I can do it, and it can be interesting and fun. And, most importantly, I might be able to go home to my family in the evening and not stay awake at night, wondering what the next month or year will bring me, how many post-doc applications I’ll have to send, in which continent I’ll end up, where my children will go to school next and if I am even good enough for this line of work. I am fairly certain, I’ll be perfectly able to leave my work at work (I’m not just saying this - my husband has been a web developer for a couple of years and it seems that decoupling home from work is quite easy in his field). 

I will be sharing my experiences with you as I go along, as I will be sharing the development of the Jobs for Astronomers. Stick with me, and, if you can, help me reach potential non-academic employers and make our talents and our job register known to them!