Astronomy as a profession

This is my first post on my blog, but it definitely entails a few things I’ve always wanted to vent out into world during my astronomy career. It was sparked by a post made by a postdoc into the facebook astronomer group that she was “quitting astrophysics”. In the post she sounded off about the field brutal and contributing little or nothing to science. Of course the work-life balance issues, especially relating to young mothers came up, albeit as a PS. It garnered quite a lot of feedback, most of it sympathetic and I will talk about the problems we have in astronomy a bit in this post. However, I will reserve my views about women in astronomy (kids, two body problem, etc.) for a later discussion, so as to not clutter up my train of though in this post.

So, a job in astronomy… yep, it’s hard to get. There are about 10,000 professional astronomers in the world give or take a few thousands depending on your definition of astronomer. Looking at it from that angle, of course it is difficult, there are far more people interested in astronomy in the world than the 10,000. Collegetimes actually took this argument ad absurdum and published it under “The 11 hardest jobs to get in America“, because there are only about 50 (tenure track) positions advertised every year.

Of course, being president of the United States also ranks as “profession” in their list and herein lies the point. There are some professions in this world that pass as dream professions for some. Many kids want to be professional athletes when they are small, but the ones that actually make it are few and far in between. My daughter at the moment wants to be a rock star / dancer. I do think astronomy is at the boundary of those dream professions, in that for some it’s a dream, they wanted to explore the Universe ever since they were kids and for others they kinda slipped into it during the later years of their studies.

This is why the facebook post irked me so much. The second sentence read: “I find the astronomy world to be a brutal place where dreams go to die.” It has been quite the opposite for me, actually and it is the dream aspect that has been keeping me going (along with encouraging words from mentors and friends, of course). I can always count on astronomy, the idea of learning about the Universe, to keep me going when it gets tough (when the 7th proposal is rejected in a row, when the paper is going nowhere, when you feel there is no job out there for you, …). Videos like this or this make me feel privileged to be part of the endeavour of finding out our place in the Universe and how it came to be. The times when I see the wonder of my students looking through a small telescope or just saying “whoa!” when they got a concept on the blackboard remimd me that I came from the DREAM side to this profession. And the dream is what keeps me going!

But enough about ranting about what makes astronomy so great, otherwise I would never shut up. Let’s get to the bad part. Unfortunately, if you want to someday hold a secure position working in research in astronomy you will have to compete with a lot of people that hold that dream and have already overcome many steps and challenges to get to vie with you for that position. The numbers are roughly the following (this is from memory from an AAS presentation from about 3 years ago, I’m only paraphrasing): Roughly speaking for every qualified applicant, there is a postdoc position. however, the position might not be the position you were originally looking for, so roughly the ratio of *willing and enthusiastic* applicants per position is about 2:1. I don’t know if that is good or bad, scary or not, but it certainly leaves me scrambling on the rumor mill pages during upcoming job seasons a lot – even with a job, heh! The situation becomes bleak when it comes to permanent positions, the ratio rises to about 4:1 and even 10:1 when it comes to top tier research schools tenure-track positions. Those are some daunting odds that rank right up there with Hubble Observing time success chances.

Would you be willing to set your personal life with all that it entails (moving, partner, kids, friends, “stuff”…) for a 10:1 shot? One that isn’t even guarateed to work out (you get denied tenure)? One where you feel that it is a closed club to enter, so why even bother to try?

I don’t know what your answer is to these questions. For me it was something different in that the questions were kinda worded wrong. In the facebook thread somebody mentioned Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin’s quote on the matter and I felt in summarized my feelings on the matter perfectly: “Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.” The reward is not to sit in a nifty professor’s University office, the goal is your research and I’m glad I’m part of it.

It’s the same as the xkcd comic on this page. Trying to model yourself after that great professor will most probably lead to disappointment. You do astronomy, because you love astronomy, so do what you love. Even though it’s circular logic, it’s nice to be reminded of it when you are swearing at the computer, because some code is not working. When I can sound excited about the research that I do and for that time forget that I don’t have a permanent position. Who cares about the rumor mill? I get to observe with great telescopes, travel to interesting locations and learn about how stuff works in the Universe. And I do it, because I want to, not because it’s some job

Of course I can’t feel that way always, it would be unnatural, so for those times tell myself: “Yes, it’s hard to win the lottery, but if you never play, then you will never win!” 🙂

One comment on “Astronomy as a profession

  1. Love the words at the end: “Don’t worry too much about your exact future. Go in, work for the present, do it the best you can, because the future will sort of take care of itself. I can’t guarantee you’re gonna get a job as an astronomer, but I think you’ll have a good, happy life if you do something that you enjoy”

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