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Into the Astro Industry with Louis Desroches (part 2)

5) What do you miss most about academia?

The people and the collegiality. The fact that it brings together people from around the world. Academia is a great way to cut through cultural barriers, and astronomers are wonderfully down to Earth people. There is also the profound feeling of knowing some truth about the universe before anyone else does, and sharing that search for the truth with smart, passionate, and energetic colleagues. It's fun to solve these big problems.

Surprisingly, I also miss the travel.  

6) What do you miss the least about academia?

The terrible uncertainty of the late grad school/postdoc/assistant professor years. Coupled with a two-body problem, the early career academic path can be brutal for families. A lot of others have discussed this issue in the past, so there's no need to say anything more.

Graph showing the estimated energy savings from DOE
rulemakings in addition to particular pieces of legislation.
Not sexy, but more important than a new planet.
Also, unless you are a superstar, I have to acknowledge that the pay for early career academics isn't great. There's quite a divergence between academic and non-academic pay, especially in the early career. That can add up to quite a loss of earning potential. Now, to be fair, money isn't everything, and if someone loves astronomy research, this may be less of a concern. 

7) 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 non-academic job?

Here's what I did which helped me a lot. It's mostly applicable to those who are thinking of actually leaving astronomy (as opposed to pursuing an astronomy industry position).

Take advantage of the fact that you are on a university campus. I was interested in energy, policy, resource management, etc. so I started attending colloquia in those fields. I contacted a professor in a different department and asked if I could sit in on his weekly lunch meetings with his own students. I attended a couple of conferences and symposia that were held on campus (and as a student, I paid very little in registration). I audited a graduate seminar class on efficiency policy. And finally and most importantly, I got to know a couple grad students in energy and resources and talked to them about the work they did.

All of this not only helped me learn about new topics and new jargon, it also gave me a better understanding of the potential jobs in the field, and via the grad students, allowed me to reach out and contact a broad range of people (networking!). I learned of the energy policy postdoc position I was eventually hired for via one of these students. It is difficult to overstate the importance of networking, and this is generally a weakly developed skill for most astronomy grad students. So that is definitely something to practice while an Nth-year.

It's also important to recognize that as an Nth-year, you are way more qualified than you probably realize. My standard advice to astronomers thinking of changing fields is that astronomers are loaded with skills and talent and are surprisingly employable. The trick is to advertise yourself properly to potential employers who don't know anything about astronomy or the academic life. Focus on things like problem-solving skills (and statistical analyses), programming skills, communication skills (writing technical and general audience papers, presentations, teaching, outreach), general management skills (supervising and advising students, classroom management, collaborations, committees), and time management skills (self-directed thesis, proposal deadlines, conference deadlines, etc.). These are all generically very useful skills that employers want to see. On the programming side, it's helpful to know more transferable languages like python instead of IDL, but even knowing IDL is a bonus and you can probably pick up new languages fairly easily.

In my group alone (of about 60 people), there are at least 7 people with a physics or astronomy PhD who now work in energy policy. So there is clearly a match between the skills learned in grad school and the skills needed for our work.

One last piece of advice is that it helps tremendously to narrow your search when looking for a new job. Don't just go submitting resumes for something "other than astronomy". That strategy will fail. As an example, even something like "energy" is too broad. Just like astronomy there are many sub-fields and specialties. Are you interested in "supply" or "demand"? If supply then renewables, batteries, or even traditional resources like natural gas? If demand then energy efficiency or consumer behavior? What about the smart grid? And do you prefer the private sector, public sector, non-profit sector, or even research? Do some research first, read up on the subject, talk to people in the field about what they do, go to talks if you can...all of this helps you better understand a new field. Then, pick what you want to do. That way, when applying for a job, you will demonstrate commitment, enthusiasm, and determination to the transition, which shows you mean business and makes you very attractive. Employers tend to shy away from people who are doing broad searches and are vague about what they are looking for.

At the end of the day, if you are on the edge of leaving academia, talk to tons of people both in academia and outside of it to get both perspectives. Don't be shy. That will help you make the best decision. But most importantly be honest with yourself. If you aren't passionate about your research, it's time to leave.

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

I had multiple advisors, and they all took it rather well. My guess is that they sensed my waning enthusiasm for astronomy well before I told them. Ultimately, I told them my final year in order to explain why I wasn't applying for the usual suite of astronomy postdoc positions.

9) Do you have any advice for how students should talk to their advisor about leaving the academic track?

I think it's important to be honest. Especially by your final year so that your advisor doesn't do a bunch of unnecessary work promoting your thesis research on your behalf. Don't leave this discussion to the last minute.
Be prepared, however, to not receive any particularly good advice from your advisor. I don't mean this in a disrespectful way, but advisors have, by definition, chosen the academic career path and are therefore not likely to be all that helpful when it comes to discussing non-academic career options. Instead, get in touch with recent former grad students who have pursued non-academic paths. The department secretary, or student liaison admin person (or somebody similar) probably has a good handle on where students go after graduating. See if your local graduate student society sponsors panel discussions with former students. Maybe even your own department would organize this?

10) Do you have any advice for research advisors about how we can make our science field more helpful for students not aiming for the academic career path?

The best advice I can give is to keep in touch with any former students who have chosen non-academic careers. Keep those lines of communication open, invite them back every once in a while to talk to the current grad students directly, and try to learn about their experiences. This will only help the advisor provide more meaningful advice about non-academic options.


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