Sunday, 5 June 2016

A Sunday Confession: I never wanted to be an astronomer

After an almost endless Sunday, winter has arrived with a thump in Sydney and it is wet, very, very wet. So, time for a quick post.

Last week, I spoke at an Early Career Event in the Yarra Valley, with myself and Rachel Webster from the University of Melbourne talking about the process of applying for jobs in academia. I felt it was a very productive couple of days, discussing a whole range of topics, from transition into industry and the two-body problem, and I received some very positive feedback on the material I presented. I even recruited a new mentee to work with. 

What I found interesting was the number of people who said they had decided to be a scientist or astronomer when they were a child, and were essentially following their dream to become a professor at a university one day. While I didn't really discuss this at the meeting, I have a confession, namely that I never wanted to be an astronomer. 

 This will possibly come as a surprise to some. What I am doing here as a university professor undertaking research in astronomy if it was never my life dream? 

I don't really remember having too many career ideas as a child. I was considering being a vet, or looking after dinosaur bones in a museum, but the thought of being astronomer was not on the list. I know I had an interest in science, and I read about science and astronomy, but I never had a telescope, never remembered the names of constellations, never wanted to be an astronomer myself.

I discovered, at about age 16, that I could do maths and physics, did OK in school, found myself in university, where I did better, and then ended up doing a PhD. I did my PhD at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, but went there because I really liked physics, and the thought of applying physics to the universe. With luck and chance, I found myself in postdoctoral positions and then a permanent position, and now a professor. 

And my passion is still understanding the workings of the universe through the laws of physics, and it's the part of my job I love (one aspect of the ECR meeting was discussing the issue that a lot of the academic job at a university is not research!). And I am pleased to find myself where I am, but I didn't set out along this path with any purpose or forethought. In fact, in the times I have thought about jumping ship and trying another a career, the notion of not being an astronomer anymore never bothered me. And I think it still doesn't. As long as the job is interesting, I think I'd be happy. 

So, there's my Sunday confession. I'm happy being a research astronomer trying to understand the universe, but it has never been a dream of mine. I think this has helped weather some of the trials facing researchers in the establishing a career. I never wanted to be an astronomer.

Oh, and I don't think much of Star Trek either. 


  1. Geraint, it certainly was a surprise to hear that astronomy was not your first choice.It would be a great loss to astronomy if you were to change disciplines.My education in higher end astronomy has been greatly increased by listening to you, as i know many others have as well.My goal as a youngster was to become a professional astronomer, but instead I was diverted to a 30 year career in Forensics..But I did keep a toe in the astronomical water, as an amateur astronomer for over 50 years.

  2. "the two-body problem"

    Is there any solution to this which is not unfair to those not in such a constellation?

    1. Yes - from someone who has "solved" it without any special deals etc.

    2. OK, but in such a case it was not really a problem. I mean, is there any offer made to such couples which is not unfair to those who don't have such a relationship?

    3. Well, I would suggest that it's incorrect to suggest that it was not a problem - it was a big problem. I don't think asking for two positions puts anyone at an advantage over anyone else.

    4. Asking, in itself, doesn't. But if the university gives a person who otherwise wouldn't have a chance (and if there is a chance, why not just apply separately and not mention the relationship?) a job, this is unfair to "normal" applicants. The money has to come from somewhere, even if indirectly. Some of the justifications seem bizarre: "I'm not taking a job away from anyone else, since my position was specially created for me." Again, the money has to come from somewhere. "But it's not a permanent job; it's just a five-year fellowship to tide me over." I'm sure many other people could make better use of such a fellowship.

      If someone applies for a job with a negotiable salary, gets offered a high salary, then says "OK, pay me 2/3 and my spouse 1/3" then one might be able to argue that there is no loss of money (although, of course, the candidate might have demanded less if the goal was just one position). However, even here, the trailing spouse puts "permanent position at prestigious institute" on their CV, which again gives an unfair advantage.

      Many dual-career couples see themselves as underdogs. However, a person with a non-academic spouse is usually in an even worse position, at least in fields where changing countries is common, since many people, for various reasons, cannot work where their spouse can, at least not until after a few years.

      In any other context, getting a job one otherwise would not because one has a sexual relationship with a certain person is rightly deemed to be a bad thing (not because of sex, but because it should be irrelevant whereas qualifications should be).

      Sorry to come across so grumpily, but think about it. Academic jobs are rare. Surely the goal is that qualifications alone should determine who gets a job. For every trailing spouse (who would probably otherwise have left the field) who gets a job, there is a better qualified candidate who will leave the field, due to the law of conservation of academic positions.

    5. I know that what I am going to say is going to be controversial, but here goes. At some level, it comes to the what is the point of universities. Many seem to think that they the bastions of meritocracy, but they are not - they have multiple goals, policies, strategies etc, and hiring fits into this. IMHO a career in science is not the same thing as science.

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