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Into the Astro Industry with Kristen Griffin (part 3)

This is Part 3 of my interview with Ph.D. Astronomer, Kristen Shapiro Griffin (You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 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.

9) How'd you break the news to your advisor that you were going to leave academia? How'd he take it?

What you imagine your professor will do when you tell
her/him that you're leaving the academic track.
I was incredibly fortunate in the advisor-student relationship I enjoyed during grad school.  So many people have either work-style or personality conflicts with their advisor, and I was lucky to avoid that. As a result, I had an advisor with whom I shared a truly wonderful working relationship, who promoted me to colleagues and at conferences, and who invested a lot of time, energy, and money in my professional development towards a mutually agreed upon goal, my pursuit of a tenured faculty position.  When I made the decision to leave academia, there was therefore a lot of guilt, to the point that I seriously contemplated not leaving for this reason alone.

Fortunately, my sister (outside academia) gave me some of the best advice I've ever been given: Other people (besides your spouse and family) do not make their career decisions based on you; you can't make your career decisions based on them.  You are the only one who has to do your job and live your life, so you have the sole right to choose what to do and how to do it.

So I set about breaking the news to my advisor.  I started early, when I was applying for jobs, and let him know that I was applying to both postdocs and non-academic positions.  We talked a lot about why I was doing that, and his opinion that I should take a postdoc was fairly clear, though he certainly did not force this opinion on me.  I was offered and accepted my current position before any postdoc offers came back.  (In industry, you are given only 1-2 weeks to accept or decline an offer!)  At the time, my advisor was out of the country, so I Skyped with him, which was less than ideal.  Before we talked, I wrote down exactly why I was making the decision I was, so that I could articulate it to him.  It was a difficult conversation for me, because I felt very guilty, and I could see that he was somewhat sad about my decision.  However, he accepted it remarkably well, and it did not affect our relationship when he returned to the country or since (we still get together once or twice a year).

During this process, I made two critical errors in judgment.  The first was an assumption that I understood the motivation for my advisor’s reaction, which was not corrected until this week, when I sent a draft of this interview to my advisor.  In fact, his reaction was not, as I had assumed, due to a belief that the ultimate goal for all students is to become acclaimed professors themselves.  Instead, he reminded me that one of his personal goals (which we often discuss) is to increase the percentage of female leaders in academic research, which he views as a crucial issue in which progress is much slower than it really ought to be.  So the lesson learned for me here was that an advisor’s reaction to the “bad” news that a student is “leaving” may – and likely does – have more complex roots than just disappointment at not creating the next generation of super-star professor in every student.

My second error in judgment was a miscalculation of how efficiently news travels in academia.  I broke the news to my advisor in very late December, right before the holidays.  I intended to complete the hiring process in my new position and then withdraw my application for all other positions, including the postdocs I'd applied for.  Since the holidays were right around the corner, I decided to relax over vacation and wait until the new year to withdraw my applications.  As it turned out, to my surprise, decisions started rolling in over vacation, so I ended up having to instantly turn down offers before I managed to (quickly) withdraw my application from consideration at other positions.  I was very embarrassed about this - and a bit afraid of my advisor's reaction if he knew that I had turned down attractive postdoc offers - so I didn’t discuss this with him.  With 20/20 hindsight, I realize that of course he would eventually hear about it through other channels, so I wish I had been brave enough to break that news to him myself.  To my advisor's credit, he graciously waited until over a year had passed before he even let on that he knew.

10) Any advice for how students should talk to their advisor about leaving?

You know, I think it really depends a lot on the particulars of the advisor-student relationship.  Learning from my experience, I would suggest only three things that should be common to all student-advisor combinations: (1) Take my sister's advice.  It's your life, and you should do what makes you happy, even if that means making difficult and unpopular decisions.  (2) Be honest with your advisor every step of the way, including the parts that are harder to discuss.  In most
cases, your advisor will probably be even more understanding and supportive than you expect, even if they wish you would stay in academia.  Knowing that you are looking outside academia will probably not influence the letters they write for any research-based positions, but this is something to be verified with a few people who know your advisor personally.  (3) Start early.  Very few people react well to sudden, extreme news, so let your advisor be a part of your decision process.  Discuss impressions of different career paths, concerns with an academic career path, etc.  Bear in mind that your advisor will represent one perspective, and learn from that perspective as well as others.

11) Any other, general advice for a student teetering on the edge of leaving academia?

Sometimes it's hard, inside academia, to see a way out and to even know what might be available, whether it's interesting, and whether you qualify.  I think these mental obstacles are challenging for a lot of people to overcome, but there are so many more resources than you think:

  1. Go to a AAS meeting.  Sign up for every career workshop you can find; these usually cost $10-50 extra each, but they're worth it.  Visit the exhibitor booths during the evening poster sessions, when they are most likely to be fully staffed, and talk with the people at the booth.  Get their cards and send them an email early the following week to schedule informational interviews.  Spend time in the non-science sessions (career panels, all of the town halls, any EPO talks, etc), and talk to the speakers afterwards.  Get their cards / contact information and follow-up.  Pay attention to whether the session has a sponsor, write it down, and look up the company that night in your room.

  2. Use your resources.  AAS, AAAS, APS, etc all have career resources on their websites, often including potential contacts.  Use the alumni networks at both your undergrad and graduate institutes.  Sign up for career emails from the career center at your university (even if you're a grad or postdoc), and go to events, talks, career fairs.  Go to the career center.

  3. Talk to people!  Both inside and outside of academia.  There is only so much you will ever find out on the internet or as a passive listener.  So approach people, get their contact information, and follow up.  This is the only way to really learn about what they do and figure out whether or not it's right for you.  Incidentally, when it is time to apply for jobs, you will also want to use these contacts to increase your chances of getting offers.

In fact, I would recommend these actions for all students, whether or not they are thinking of leaving academia.  Career paths are important life decisions and should be made deliberately.  Spend some time during grad school really learning about the various career options inside and outside of academia, and then decide what's right for you.  I once heard that everyone should spend 80% of their time doing the very best they can do in their current job, 10% of their time telling everyone what a good job they're doing, and 10% of their time on career development.  I have found that to be superb advice.

And, for your readers interested in more concrete, “how to” advice, I would refer them first to a little writeup I put on the Berkeley grad student wiki several years ago as a good starting point.

One final thing.  These days, more than ever, you are defined by your network.  Never, ever burn bridges!


CyndiF said…
Excellent interview, Kristen and John. Astronomers have an impressive skill set for academic, teaching, and industry jobs. I know and have worked with astronomers in analytics, "Big data", aerospace, asteroid mining, atmospheric modeling, public outreach, and academic research. We are pretty lucky that we well trained to take on a dynamic work scene, especially when so many of our traditional academic roles are teetering on unsustainability.

It remains the role of those astronomers still in academia to ensure that other career paths are not demonized. In the before time, professors could convince themselves that "the best" people got tenure track positions. As these positions become more rare and competitive, the role of luck and good timing become more obvious in selecting the winners of the TT lottery. Open, accepting attention to other career paths is essential in a good advisor.

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