Sunday, 3 June 2012

There's more to being an astronomer than doing astronomy

Back in Sydney after a couple of nights in the lovely Port Stephens, in the town of Shoal Bay at the ASA Early Career Research Workshop. Here's the grey sky as seen from my hotel room (it may be grey, but it's a lovely place).
I should point out, with 17 years under my belt since my PhD, and being a professor at a large university, I am not an Early Career Researcher, and so I was there as a grown-up, providing advice and live stories.

I spoke on the topic of networking, something that sounds horribly business-world-like, but is an important aspect of establishing a career. There were a lot of postdocs there, many recently out of their PhD, but a few in their third postdoc, all with the question of "How do we get that career in astronomy?"

The discussions were frank and honest - the room was told that it is a 100% certainty that they all will not have a job in astronomy in the future - and I think the postdocs appreciated this honesty. I'll come back to this at the end.

The whole thing was broadcast on some new-fangled thing called twitter, which was apparently "trending" (I think I know what that means), but it was clear that the broader community is interested in early career advice.

So, here's one of the panel discussions
(pinched from Bryan Gaensler's twitter thing). Those that know Australian astronomy will recognise the people here, all senior "grown-ups" in the community.

There was too much material presented to summarize here, but interested people should check out the twitter feed (and there will be notes coming up sometime in the future). But there are a couple of things I would like to mention.

Firstly, the fact that senior astronomers can find time to attend such workshops shows that they care about the issues facing early career researchers. A lot of my career was effectively flying blind, not really knowing a lot of the key things I now know. We knew that the chance of obtaining a faculty position was slim, but I didn't really know what I needed to do to get one. The fact that I am where I am feels like a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and plenty of luck.

The second thing, which is sometimes forgotten when you read a paper or see a press release, is that the authors are people, and people with lives, partners, children, pets, parents and a mortgage, as well as observatory or university duties to perform. Well, they might not have all of these, but they will have non-astronomical things to deal with. We should not forget this, and we grown ups should be prepared to provide mentoring and advice to help with career choices. We should remember that there is more to being an astronomer than doing astronomy.

I'll finish on a more personal note. In the image above you can see that we were discussing the two-body problem. For those not in the know, what it boils down to is how do a couple survive the constant moving which is part of the astronomy career, jumping from country to country, especially when both have careers of their own, and when children appear on the scene.

While I am not a great fan of public speaking, and can often fake confidence, I felt myself welling up a little when talking about my own experiences. Now I am in the lucky position that we have the two-body problem solved (my wife is a successful career academic also), but in thinking through my own personal circumstances, I remembered how bloody stressful it was getting to where we are today, and this came through when I attempted to talk about it.

So, to the Early Career Researchers out there, it isn't easy, for anyone. But persevere, astronomy is a pretty good life, and a privilege to have.


  1. Hi G, thanks for the summary! As you know, I heard about this conference from Twitter. All the cool kids are on there now, and I feel less out of touch with Australian astronomy from following Bryan.

    I don't know how qualified I am to be giving this kind of advice, but I am about the start a faculty position, so maybe that counts for something. I think it's really beneficial to budding astronomers to get educated in things that are applicable not just in astronomy. It worked for me with the stats, and your wife with the medical physics. Plenty of young astronomers that I know are really great with computers, machine learning and all that stuff. Inside and outside of academia, there are many opportunities for astronomers if they can do more than operate a telescope and run Iraf. I'm looking forward to being able to continue my astronomy-related research but from a building that says statistics on it (of course, it's statistics research too).
    I'm sure something similar might be viable for a lot of others as well.

    1. Hi Brendon - Your advice is extremely valuable as you are in the transition from ECR to grown-up, and I think it really helps people new to the game to hear other peoples' stories. Thanks for the comment.

      Also, if people *have* followed on twitter, it would be good to let the organizer, Darren Croton, know. We are likely to do similar things in the future, and the more we can record a success, the better.

  2. If one is at all critical of the two-body problem, one comes across as being anti-family, anti-children, anti-women, a macho, a patriarchist etc. One has to sympathize or even empathize with the two-body problem in order to be politically correct.

    On the other hand, a bare minimum of respect for equal opportunity seems to be to a) advertise all jobs and b) give the job to the best applicant.

    These two goals cannot be reconciled.

    It is properly considered wrong for someone to get a job because of a sexual relationship with the employer (consensual or not, previous to the employment or not) when that job would have otherwise gone to someone else. But solving the two-body problem means giving a job to someone who would not otherwise get it because of a sexual relationship with a particular person (not the employer, but the "leading spouse".

    Some of the defenses are laughable: "It's not a real job, it's just a 5-year stipend to tide me over until I have a chance to apply for something else". Many other people would really like to have such a deal. Many two-body folks claim that they have it worse. However, someone with a partner who cannot work at all in a different country (at least not until after several years) is in a much worse position, but no department money goes to them. Some claim that no-one is harmed since they were hired with "extra money". Right.

  3. Let me add that I have 3 children (and a stepchild from a previous marriage) and spent years feeding 4 mouths while working as a research assistant in another country. Without going into details, the main reason I don't have a proper job in astronomy today is because of family commitments. No-one knows the problems of doing research on a temporary job with a family better than I do.

    Let me also add that I do think that one should weight an applicant's accomplishments with the environment in which they were produced; family situation is one aspect of this environment (but there are others). (One isn't given a job as a reward for past accomplishments, but because past accomplishments are used to make a guess at future accomplishments; not weighting past accomplishments with their environment would give a bad prediction for the future.)

    I also think that it should be easier for a couple who both have (or want to have) academic careers; when I'm in charge of world astronomy I'll certainly see to that.

    I just think that giving a job to someone who otherwise wouldn't get it because their partner is being offered a job creates more problems than it solves. When one asks what is the main accomplishment of civilization, equal opportunity has to be high on that list. It shouldn't be sacrificed.

    1. Of course, most solutions to the two-body problem involve giving a job to someone who wouldn't otherwise have one, or at least something paid for directly or indirectly from sources which would otherwise fund more jobs, hence my emphasis on this issue.

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