I often play around with the idea of leaving astronomy.
To be clear: I love astronomy, I love research, and I enjoy my work. This is especially true since joining the group at UGent. But I’ve noticed that during the summer months, I become highly critical of my research ability, despondent about the lack of long-term job security and worried about future career prospects. All these symptoms are a natural part of postdoc life, where research positions are short (typically 2 or 3 years), can be based anywhere in the world, and you’re expected to rack up EXP before leveling-up to a permanent position. On one hand, not knowing where I’ll be working in 2015 is an exciting notion, and the wealth of experience from exploring science when based in different countries and cultures is an amazing perk of the job. On the other hand, it creates this period of self-evaluation that I find to be a minor distraction. I should be concentrating on research, getting the job done, yet instead find myself wondering, what am I doing with my life?
I imagine pursuing another couple of postdocs before trying to get the much-coveted tenure-track position that all kids want these days. The competition is fierce. A smart, sensible person, who sees that there are very few permanent positions available and that they will likely be taken by colleagues with far longer publication lists, would maybe decide that it’s better to fold their hand and try playing a new game with better chances of winning.
Do I want to be 35 years old, having held, say, four postdocs, and find myself without a permanent position? Not really. Yet despite being quite common, the idea is scary as hell, more so when one considers raising a family.
Following this train of thought, I start investigating alternative options to astronomy. There’s a large number of very cool jobs involving science (which further fuels my curiosity about leaving the field) that lie just a Google-search away. It’s often quite difficult matching up the wide ranging skill-set of an astronomer with online job advertisements. There’s a great open letter to employers here that showcases our capabilities. Whilst an astronomers’ transferable skills usually tick most requirements on application forms, a problem I’ve encountered is knowledge. For most alternative jobs I’m interested in, one needs a relevant degree in that field. For example, oil exploration with one of the major petroleum companies require geophysics. Or, research for the Human Genome Project requires genetics, etc etc etc! Even far-flung dreams about joining space exploration ventures such as Virgin Galactic require engineering, not pure physics. D’oh!
But a recent post on the Jobs for Astronomers blog actually presents a longer list of problems in attempting to leave academia for industry than I had imagined. For example, most companies will overlook your academic experience and likely employ you into a junior role on a lower salary. Starting a new carer in a new field obviously requires starting from scratch to some extent and is not so surprising. The author reaches the conclusion “that an academic career – despite its insecurity and family incompatibility – is the lesser evil”, but goes on to say that “trying the academic career and failing after 5 post-docs makes the fall-back to master level an even harder landing than it is already today”.
This sentiment is the same sentiment that provokes my day-dreaming of alternative careers in the first place, the same sentiment that echoes in the Facebook comments and blog posts of fellow postdocs. It sounds like there are a lot of worried postdocs out there. I think it is the fear of investing a significant amount of your time and energy, constantly moving around the world and trying to publish research papers, drifting into social limbo and sacrificing friendships, only to find out in five or ten years that, for one reason or another, you cannot reach that final goal. Simply put, it is the fear of failure. And I get the impression (purely drawn from daily conversation and internet comments) that leaving astronomy is often seen as a taboo subject mainly because the common notion is that quitting astronomy seems to imply failure of some sort. It doesn’t, it shouldn’t.
This fear should not drive you from astronomy, dissuade you from industry, or guide your career decisions. No matter where you go, the competition for the better jobs – whatever your definition of better may be – will always be tougher the higher up you climb and, these days, it seems few jobs offer true security. So ultimately, after all the investigation and speculation about what life would be like should I follow a different career path, the daydreams stop, reality kicks in, and I find myself back where I started: sat at my desk, eager to keep pushing out the next paper, working towards the next postdoc.
Whatever happens, I like the cliche that often the journey is more important than the destination.
Are you a postdoc with similar day dreams? I’d like to hear your comments below!