Monday, March 16, 2009

Career Path Networking

In the comments on my post about job prospects (and lack thereof), Arti made an excellent suggestion:

Perhaps we can try to build up some sort of network to share ideas about career paths (both in and out of "astronomy")? One of the things I find is many astronomers have very little idea of where to even begin looking for other types of jobs...or how applicable their skills might be in other fields. It would be great for people to have a forum to share their findings...and for people who've found success in other arenas to share their experiences.

How about we start a discussion right here and on the AASWOMEN newletter about alternate career paths? Would a wiki or Facebook page be useful, too? (Would someone be willing to start one up?)

I'll start by sharing this anecdote: On one of my darker days, I got to talking with my brother, who studies biophysics. I lamented, "All the science funding seems to be in bio these days. Maybe I should jump ship." His answer was immediate: "That would be great! Your computer modeling expertise would be perfect for doing all sorts of modeling of kinetic processes. And medical imaging isn't all too different from astronomical imaging: you're trying to decipher blurry things that you can't necessarily access directly."

I came away from that conversation feeling a lot better about my future. Somehow, just knowing that I had a possible alternative that would allow me to still be a scientist, albeit not an astronomer, made me feel a whole lot better.

What ideas do you have?


  1. I think that's a great idea. There are so many ways to be involved in astronomy besides tenure-track research positions! I've been reading for a while, but the posting has slowed to a crawl, and it seemed mainly geared towards biological sciences.

  2. Due to some odd circumstances, I was planning a move without having a secure position in place. So, I started looking for an array of jobs that I would be qualified to do. I was amazed at the ideas I came up with after some thinking, and even with just a masters at that point, I got quite a few call backs and some interviews (before I accepted a transfer student position). It was very heartening to know that there are some really cool options outside the tenure track.

    Also, I think a wiki would be a great place to share some ideas.

  3. One of my former teaching assistants is now doing image processing/analysis for a police department. She's really enjoying the work.

  4. Hannah & Arti-- that's a great idea! Actually the AAS seems to have a similar kind of service, called the Non-Academic Astronomer's Network:

    It has a list of people who left academia for other jobs, with their name, description of their career paths and emails. I presume they are willing to be contacted by people interested in their career path.
    But it should be advertised more broadly , for both people who are interested in a non-traditional career and those who went through it and are willing to talk about it. Hannah perhaps you could include the above AAS link as part of your next post, so more people will see it?

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  6. I've looked a bit into creating a wiki. It looks like we could get free hosting from some sites, but in the long run I think it would be better to have it associated with a known (and permanent) domain. Perhaps in conjunction with AAS career services b/c, as Maryam points out, they are trying to create a space for non-academic careers. It sounds like there's enough interest that I'll get in touch with them.

  7. Great idea. I personally know several people who have taken their Astronomy degrees and gone on to work in fascinating jobs outside of Astronomy. I know one person who took her MSc in Astronomy, worked for a while in a University Outreach office (in Atmospheric Science I think), and is now a researcher for Nova on PBS. That's not a job that's any easier to get than a faculty job though - she spent quite a while in very uncertain temporary positions before getting it.

    Someone else I know retrained after a first postdoc in Astronomy, doing a 1 year MSc in Environmental Consulting, and now works for a firm who write custom software for companies to calculate their carbon footprint. She says Astronomy was ideal training for her job where she designs the software, but does not actually program it - she knows how to talk to the programmers. :)

    Also (before all the financial fuss) I had a long conversation with the (bond trading) husband of an astronomer friend who was extremely positive about astronomers becoming "quants" in the financial world. He said that any sort of knowledge of statistics (ie. at the level of "if there are 5 blue ball and 5 red balls in a bag how likely are you to pull out a red ball") puts our maths skills really far above the norm. OK so it's probably not the time to move into the financial sector - but presumably they are going to need people to clean up the mess....

  8. I think this is a great idea - perhaps something that could be spread around so that new graduate students know what else is possible when they are finished!

    I find we hear all the time about what we *could* do, but it would be very useful to actually hear stories from people that are doing work outside of academia (or even outside astronomy).