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Into the Astro Industry with Kristen Griffin (part 2)

This is Part 2 of my interview with Ph.D. Astronomer, Kristen Shapiro Griffin (You can find Part 1 here). Kristen is a former classmate of mine from UC Berkeley (go BADGrads!) and she is also my grand-mentee from the UC Berkeley Astronomy peer mentoring program. Kristen went to work at Northrop Grumman upon receiving her doctorate and she now lives in SoCal. I asked her to share her thoughts and experiences on the astronomy "industry" (non-academic) path. My questions and Kristen's insightful answers are given below. Stay tuned for Part 3!

5) It seems to me that astronomers are highly employable because we work on big, open-ended problems, often within teams.  Is this true?

Yes, this is absolutely true.  During a PhD, a grad student acquires so many skills that the average worker doesn’t have.  I want to take the skills you mentioned and go into a little more detail (in more industry-centric language).  As you mentioned, we learn how to take complex problems, dissect them into individual tasks, develop a plan to address each task, and then execute each task.  We do this on multiple problems simultaneously and manage our time accordingly to get all tasks done by firm deadlines (e.g. proposal due dates, grant deadlines, thesis completion, etc).  We manage our resources (time, grants, people on our team) to accomplish these tasks within our allocations.   

We do all this in the context of international collaborations of varying sizes, in both lead (first-author) and supporting (co-author) roles.  The international aspect of research makes it really unique, I think. Even if all of your collaborators are at the same institute, probably at least one of them was born outside your country of residence.  So every astronomer has the experience of recognizing cultural differences and language barriers and adjusting their collaboration style accordingly.  

In addition to working on teams, all astronomers are comfortable presenting technical results orally to large audiences (journal club, conferences, etc) and in writing.  Most are also comfortable presenting technical results to non-technical audiences, which prepares them for presenting technical results to government and/or executive audiences.

This is not normal!  Most people don’t have these experiences when they apply for jobs!  However, most people looking to hire don’t understand that all of these skills is what having a PhD means, and most astronomers don’t understand what in their skill set makes them different from the average worker outside academia. It really takes talking to people in industry and reading job requisitions to understand what skills are desired and stepping outside oneself a little bit to see whether you already have the skills you need.  (Hint: you probably do!)  

Anyone searching for a job outside academia is going to have to really think about their skill set when trying to communicate their value to prospective employers, who probably have no idea what it means when they see “PhD” on a resume.  The best way to do this is to talk to people outside of academia, learn the lingo of specific industries and then think about what in the research experience is analogous.  And don't forget about the non-research things!  These can include mentoring, teaching and evaluating students, serving on hiring committees and making hiring recommendations, any public outreach/extracurricular activities, you name it.  Nobody will appreciate your PhD and your experience unless you explain to them why they should, in tangible and quantitative ways.

6) Also, among the sciences, astronomy stands alone as being heavily dependent on from-scratch coding for everything from statistical analyses to image processing. Is this assessment correct? Are astronomers uniquely positioned for industry?

Yes and no.  Although examples do exist, most astronomers outside of academia that I know do not actually use their astronomy from-scratch coding skills as such.  The reason is that the type of work done in academic research is a little bit of everything, and astronomers tend to be generalists rather than subject matter experts in software engineering, data management, image processing, etc.  When we compete for jobs with people who have degrees in those areas, I think we tend to be at a disadvantage.

However, that is not to say that we aren’t experts in anything! On the contrary, we are expert generalists, with skills that specialists don’t have, as I described above.  Often we are more able to think outside the box, to be willing to draw on a diverse set of tools to solve a problem, and to think in a multi-disciplinary way.  Additionally, we are able to understand a lot of different technical tools with at least some expertise, which makes it easy for us to interface with, collaborate with, and lead teams of specialists and to pull their results together into a cohesive whole.

So, if generalist work is appealing to someone looking outside academia, then yes, this type of experience does indeed make them more uniquely positioned than people with many other degrees.  However, if one particular technical task is appealing to that person, they will need to be prepared to compete with people who have specialized degrees in that area.

7) What could a first-year student do differently than a typical student to ensure they are well-positioned for industry down the line? Or is the standard course work okay? In other words, do you wish you did anything differently in your early grad years?

I don’t know that grad students should force themselves to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t in the name of career development.  If you hate computer science, don’t take a course in Big Data just because you think that’s where the jobs will be.  Instead, I would encourage only two things that I wish I’d done more:
  1. Follow your interests, and do so with a serious investment of your time. If you do enjoy one particular “specialist” part of research and/or education, take graduate-level coursework in that area and see whether there is any kind of certificate or graduate equivalent of minoring you can do in that field; keep in mind you may need to do on-line certificate programs and/or go outside your university.  If you enjoy science policy, get involved with AAS and other science advocacy organizations early.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of having no extra time because of existing commitments, but set aside some real fraction (10-30%) of your time to pursue other areas of interest that may help you in your career.
  2. Look into internships. Most entities (industry, non-profit, etc) have a summer internship program.  There are also short-term science policy internships at every government level.  Take time off and do one, if there’s something that interests you.  Yes, your advisor will protest and you’ll feel guilty about all the missed research time, but your field will go on without you just fine for 10 weeks.  And nothing compares to the industry knowledge, the resume building, and the network development that you can get during an internship. 
8) What can an Nth-year student who just discovered she/he is not interested in academia do late in the game to position themselves for a good job?

Nth-years and postdocs somehow feel like it’s “too late” to develop their resume and make themselves attractive to non-academic jobs.  However, for the reasons I discussed above, astronomers already have a desirable skill set.  So I would recommend two things:
  1. If you’re deciding you’re “just not interested in academia,” be careful that you’re not just running away.  Figure out what you do want and run towards it.  You will be a much more believable and attractive job candidate, and you will be happier in the job you do find.  This will take some work, and I recommend doing some serious self-assessment.  A number of career resources on-line, at AAS meetings, and elsewhere have descriptions of the kinds of brainstorming exercises you can do to find out what aspects of your current job you want to incorporate in your future position and what aspects you want to change.
  2. You have to get out and talk to people!  This is the only way to learn what types of jobs exist, what different career paths entail, and which ones are applicable to your skill set.  This is also the best way to build your network and eventually find a job.


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