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Jobs for Astronomers: careers beyond the academic horizon

Today we are very happy to host a post by Ioanna Arka, who did her PhD in high energy/plasma astrophysics at the Max Planck Institut for Nuclear Physics  of Heidelberg (Germany), and then got a post-doc position in Grenoble, which she quit one month ago – as she bravely decided to leave academia. While she is sitting at home waiting for her second baby to pop out, Ioanna shares with us a great initiative of hers: the web-based platform www.jobsforastronomers.com, which collects experiences, tips and job posts for “recovering astronomers”. 

We all know it: the number of PhDs awarded each year in Astronomy greatly exceeds the number of permanent or tenure track positions that open. However there seems to be little effort given to informing young researchers on alternative career options. The denial that a “world outside academia” exists is pervasive: we know when we enter graduate school that statistics are against us – most of us will end up in some other line of work. Still, this is not discussed in academic circles, students are rarely informed on what skills they need to hone in order to be competitive in non-academic environments, and most of us never learn to write resumes instead of CVs – indeed many astronomers don’t know the difference between the two.

Six months ago I decided to leave academia. Being in my first post-doc, pregnant with my second child, I felt that a life of moving from country to country, through temporary contracts, while being uncertain I would ever find a permanent job, was just not good enough, even though I loved astrophysics. I decided to publicly share my frustration in the facebook group “Astronomers” – and something unexpected happened: there was a huge wave of response. Apart from the extended discussion that followed my initial post, I received many personal messages, friend requests by prominent astronomers and even offers of psychological support from people I had never met. I learned that it is considered taboo to talk about leaving academia in astronomical circles. To my astonishment, some called me “brave” for speaking out loud about what so many are thinking but apparently don’t dare openly admit. Someone even told me that they had kept their career change a secret from the majority of their facebook friends.

There seem to be many researchers out there, mostly students and post-docs, who feel insecure about their prospects and are considering a change of career paths. What is more, there seem to be some who have made substantial sacrifices – notably personal relationships and in some cases even the possibility of having a family – in order to follow their dream of being a successful astronomer, and still are unable to find a permanent job in the field. However, there are also many former astronomers who work in other professions and report that their job satisfaction is very high. After being contacted by some of them, I decided to start a facebook group called “Jobs for Astronomers”, where those who have left academia can share their personal experience, inform the rest of us on what jobs an astronomer is mostly qualified for and even how to go about searching for and getting them.

The group has steadily grown since then, and it is completed by a website in which the information which is shared by the members of the group appears (www.jobsforastronomers.com). On this website you will also find brief testimonials by former astronomers who are now active in diverse lines of work. The good news is that there seem to be many alternative career paths available to most of us. The need, however, still exists, to properly inform the next generation of Astronomers on those prospects: those who decide to leave the familiar waters of academia are often thrown into the wild and have to slowly figure things out on our own, based on trial-and-error and the advice of friends who took the step before them. This can be a traumatic experience, and some astronomers report that – contrary to what is often advertised – it took them a lot of effort and knocking on many doors until they finally found a non-academic job.

There should be more coaching of graduate students, more information available to them on their career prospects, more incentive to hone skills that are valuable outside academia. Advisors and institutions should make it clear to students that a PhD in Astronomy is not a guarantee of lifelong employment in the field. But information should also flow in a different direction: employers in general should get acquainted with this highly skilled pool of potential employees, who are special in that they are versatile and adjustable. You might think that it is easy for a highly trained person holding a PhD to find a job outside academia. This not always the case, and one reason for this is that our skills are rarely properly marketed to the correct people.

These are only some of the goals of “Jobs for Astronomers”. As we slowly grow and share more information, I hope that we will achieve more, and that we will manage to somewhat lessen the insecurity that goes hand-in-hand with an Astronomy PhD.

Ioanna Arka – Jobs for Astronomers

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I am a fourth-year graduate student at the Ludwig Maximilians Universitaet of Munich, Germany. I am doing my PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, where I belong to the Dynamics group led by Ortwin Gerhard. I am interested in galactic dynamics and modelling of galaxies.

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