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Into the Astro Industry with Louis Desroches (part 1)

This is part 1 of 2 of my interview with Ph.D. Astronomer Louis Desroches. Louis is another classmate of mine from the UC Berkeley Astronomy Dept. After graduating, Louis worked as a postdoc at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab before being promoted to program manager position at LBNL. In this interview Louis breaks down his decision to forego the astronomy academic track, talks about his current job and his life since making that decision.   

1) Tell me about your job

I am a program manager and assistant group leader at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working in the Energy Efficiency Standards group. We primarily support the Department of Energy's efficiency standards program (which covers appliances, lighting, and other commercial and industrial equipment), by developing the technical, economic, and environmental cost-benefit analyses (and documentation) that are needed to justify any potential new mandatory federal efficiency standards. Efficiency standards reduce the nation's energy consumption by many quads (quadrillion BTUs) and provide utility bill savings for consumers. By 2030, the cumulative operating cost savings from all standards is estimated to reach $1.7 trillion, with a reduction of 6.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions (equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 1.4 billion cars).

My day-to-day generally consists of a mix of the following:
  • managing a small (2-5) team of research staff (per rulemaking project) that researches and develops the economic models. These models are rather involved and address a variety of issues. It takes many months to develop them. 
  • reviewing those models, and all the necessary documentation (I do a bit of writing as well)
  • regular conference calls with DOE project managers.
  • occasional public meetings with affected stakeholder groups (industry representatives, consumer advocates, utilities, etc.).
  • other miscellaneous group management tasks.
On the side I also write technical reports, conference papers, and journal articles based on all of our work.

I have been at LBNL for 4 years. I originally started as a postdoc, working on a scoping report looking at advanced technologies to improve the efficiency of a broad collection of appliances and equipment. I then transitioned to become a program manager of a single rulemaking project, and have since taken on more responsibilities that now include several rulemaking projects as well as group management tasks. As a postdoc, I was somewhat removed from the rulemaking side of things, working largely with only 1 other person. With an increase in the number of rulemaking projects, our group needed more people to manage them, which is why I became a program manager. Over time, as I became more comfortable with the responsibilities, I was assigned more and more projects.

Some aspects of the day-to-day required getting used to (mostly the accelerated pace of work and strict deadlines), and there was a bit of a learning curve on the technical aspects of the analyses, but overall the transition was relatively easy and painless. I tend to work on a greater variety of projects than in academia, which tends to be more of a deeper dive on a single subject at any given time. Nevertheless, I found my astronomy skills to be quite useful and relevant, and appreciated by those I was working with.

2) What was the nature your path from UC Berkeley astro grad school to your current non-academic job? How did you come to the decision you did and how did you make the transition?

Late in grad school, I took a cold hard look at my potential astronomy career path, and realized that I probably would have been an adequate astronomer at best. I found the subject interesting, but I was not passionate about the subject like many of my classmates were. And academia is not a field for those who are not passionate about what they do. I wasn't really reading the daily arXiv, I wasn't attending journal club or colloquia, I wasn't talking shop all that much with others in the department. In short, it became more of a "job" and I wasn't interested in working in my spare time. The hardest part for me was accepting that this was not, in fact, just the "grad school blues".

Academia is for people who live and breathe their subjects. People who LOVE to think about their work, and how to make it better. That's why those in academia gladly work so many hours, and are willing to bounce around from institution to institution, because most don't really see it as "working" but "playing". Academics often say that they feel grateful for getting paid to do what they love to do.

In my case, I lost my passion (I don't know where or when exactly - that's for another story). And the life of an academic can be terrible if you don't love what you do. Once I accepted this, I knew that astronomy was no longer a viable career path for me.

At the same time, I was beginning to get more and more interested in energy policy and economics, and started to attend a bunch of talks and symposia, read papers, and I even audited a grad seminar class. I wanted to get involved in serious issues affecting our society, to try and do some good in the world. Don't get me wrong, I still value the importance of exploratory science like astronomy (and I am saddened by all the funding reductions), but I personally wanted my work to have a more immediate impact on the world. My interest in energy issues and my motivation for positive change led very naturally to my current position.
As for how I actually did that, keep reading below. 

3) Our former classmate Kristen Shapiro Griffin took issue with the notion of people "leaving astronomy." What is your take?

In Kristen's case, she has a fair point. She hasn't left astronomy - she is helping to shape its direction using the tools of industry. And that's great.

In my case, however, I really have left astronomy, and I don't mind using that phrase. My world is energy policy now, and there is no connection to astronomy. That being said, I think it's important for astronomy students to realize that both these options exist. You can remain involved in a non-academic way, or you could do something completely different. So in that sense, maybe it's best to use a different phrase than "leaving astronomy" when talking about non-academic options in a general way.   

4) Do you ever regret your decision to leave academia?

Regretted, no. But I have wondered "what if" on occasion. What if I had a different thesis project, and maybe that was enough to maintain a passion for astronomy? Where would I be today? But I don't regret my decision.
I'm proud of the work that I do, and I really feel like I'm having a positive impact on the world. The people I work with are great, and I've learned a tremendous amount in just a few years. I feel like I have plenty of professional development and career opportunities. Most importantly, I have a greater handle and control over my own career than I ever felt as an academic. In fact, I am now fortunate enough to work from home, in the city I want to live in. I never would have had that option in academia, where I would be bouncing from institution to institution and at the mercy of whatever openings were available in a given year.
So I'm definitely happy with my decision.


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