John Johnson: Zen and the Art of Astronomy Research

Today we have the great pleasure to publish a guest piece written for Astrobites by John Johnson, exoplanet researcher extroardinaire at Caltech. We met John at his recent visit to the CfA and are grateful to him for sharing his insights into the graduate student experience.

Professor John Johnson, Caltech

Professor John Johnson, California Institute of Technology

I had the pleasure of visiting the Harvard Center for Astrophysics back in February when I stopped through to give a colloquium. One of the CfA traditions is for the graduate students to treat the speaker to lunch. So on the day of my talk I hung out in a classroom with about two dozen graduate students where we munched on pizza and talked about everything from the difficulty of measuring stellar radial velocities at 1 m/s precision, to advice about applying for postdoctoral fellowships, to what it’s like to be a professor.

Near the end of our conversation one of the students asked me if I had any career advice for them. I’m sure this is a common if not boiler-plate question to ask speakers, so I thought carefully about what advice they likely haven’t heard before. Rather than talking about how many papers they should publish in order to get a named fellowship, or what fields of research are hotter than others, I decided to focus on a topic that I’ve found extremely important in my professional life lately: mental health.

Most people find the topic of mental health a bit unsettling, so I made sure to qualify what I meant by the term. I wasn’t insinuating that anyone in the room was crazy or mentally unstable. And I wasn’t trying to get all squishy with my audience by talking about warm fuzzies, or fuzzies of any T_{eff} for that matter. But in the same way that it’s important for you to take care of your lower back by lifting with your legs, it’s important to take care of your mental state while you tackle the rigors of science. After all, you can in principle reduce your data with a bad back. However, if you’re not thinking clearly, or if you are perpetually unhappy with your lot in life, your astronomy research will certainly suffer.

I can’t remember all of the specific advice I gave to the Harvard astro-grads because it wasn’t really planned. So I hope the good folks who run Astrobites won’t mind if I riff once again. Here’s my advice about keeping things in order upstairs:

1) For most of us, if we were to wake up five mornings in a row with excruciating pain in our right arm, we’d probably go see a doctor and get it checked out. So why is it that we don’t get our minds checked out if we, say, wake up five mornings in a row feeling stressed, burned-out, or otherwise unhappy?

The field of astronomy comprises extremely smart, technically-gifted people who could easily have made very comfortable salaries after they graduated with their B.S. degrees. Yet astronomy grad students spend their days in cramped offices working 10 to 14 hour days for annual salaries that place them squarely below the poverty line. My point is that we’re not doing astronomy for the money. Most of us are in this field because we find it inspiring, exciting and…fun. Right? Isn’t that why were here? Yet, sadly, some graduate students spend a lot of their time being stressed-out and unhappy. I know my time in grad school certainly wasn’t all roses and publications.

All of this is to say that if your arm hurts you should see a doctor. If you’re unhappy, you need talk to someone. Your university has a counseling center set up just for this type of thing. They know how to help and they’ll keep it confidential. Seeking help for your mental state isn’t being weak or an indication that something is fundamentally wrong with you. This is 2011, after all, not 1950. Go get a checkup if you need it.

2) Spend a small part of your week pondering the Universe. I just wrote about how grad students are paid relatively little given their talent and expertise. The flip side of that is you all have pretty sweet jobs. It’s your job to figure out how the Universe works. So focus solely on this part of your job for at least one hour a week away from any distractions, and away from your day-to-day grind. In so doing you’ll simultaneously keep your mind limber and strong, while keeping yourself from burning out on seemingly menial tasks like tracking down that bug in your spectrum-fitting code.

Perhaps someone once mentioned that the reddest subgiants in the Solar neighborhood give a lower limit of the age of the Galaxy, but you were busy with something else and couldn’t give the notion the reflection it deserves. Or after one of your recent research talks someone stumped you with a question that, while you were able to wiggle free of at the time, you really should have had a better answer for. Or maybe you can’t seem to remember whether it’s okay to use a preposition to end a sentence with. Make sure you have a small window of time in your week to give the matter some serious thought.

3) Identify something that poses a serious challenge for you and pick a fight with it. I’m being figurative, of course, so please don’t apply this advice to your challenging office mate. Instead, I’m talking about that topic in your field or aspect of your job that you don’t have a firm handle on just yet. Maybe you’re still uncomfortable giving talks, or you’re not satisfied with your writing style. Don’t shy away from these things. Spend some time reading books on that tough topic. Sign up to give an extra journal club talk. Write a guest post on Astrobites!

By continuously looking for ways to shore up your perceived weak points you’ll give yourself opportunities for small yet regular victories, all while adding variety to your work week. Remember, your time to learn didn’t end with your qual exam; it continues throughout your career.

4) Periodically make it a point to give someone effusive yet specific praise for a job well done. Did a postdoc in your dept recently give an outstanding research talk? Stop by their office and tell them that you really liked it, and be specific about what aspects of the talk worked for you. Did a classmate recently post a paper on astro-ph? Read their paper, stop them in the hallway and congratulate them on a job well done. Or how about this: we’ve all gotten one of those emails from someone congratulating us on our recent paper, and BTW they published on the topic last year and would appreciate a citation. Try sending one of those emails to someone, but without the last part requesting a citation. If nothing else, it’s a lot of fun imagining the look of confusion on the recipient’s face when they reach the end of your note.

Kind words, encouragement and praise are hard to come by in astronomy, but keep in mind that you’re not the only person who needs these things.


This might sound like strange advice coming from a professor. Shouldn’t I be telling you about publishing or perishing? Shouldn’t I tell you to suck it up and pull an all-nighter again? Well, science is fundamentally a human pursuit and we do ourselves and the field a disservice by forgetting this simple fact. Unhappy graduate students tend to be sloppy, less productive researchers. Happy students, on the other hand, vigorously pursue interesting science questions, give outstanding talks and churn out well-written papers. Thus, as a professor, it’s in my best interest to work in a science field full of mentally-healthy students.

Interested in sharing your perspective with Astrobites readers? Leave a comment below, or contact us to inquire about writing a guest post.

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  1. Great guest post! Thanks so much for this great insight and wise words. I know many scientists who relate eudaimonia to their pursuit of knowledge but it is still rare to hear a professor offer specifics on how they themselves put this into practice. The analogy you made of physical health to mental health is a compelling one. I also appreciate your call to put aside time to ponder certain questions and tackle personal weakness. The field of Astronomy benefits greatly from those who air these issues, let alone from those who follow this advice.

  2. Great advice for a post-grad, but great advice for anyone. Well done and it seems all to often we forget that in the end, science is a human endeavor and we must take care of our not only our body, but of our mind. Same is true of life. This is a wonderful service that those who run Astrobites provide and they cover a wide range of topics that are both diverse and can appeal to so many. I’m grateful that they do this.

  3. I can’t resist throwing in a recommendation for the book that I presume is the namesake for this post: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Just substitute “Debugging Code” for “Motorcycle Maintenance.”

  4. It’s so refreshing to see a professor directly address this topic. Thank you so much for your insightful advice and willingness to tackle the issue head-on!

  5. It also helps if the department is supportive to its students. When I did my PhD in the UK we had a very supportive department. A great example was when the trade union representing public employees put up a poster saying “50% of people will suffer depression during their life”. Someone scored out life and wrote PhD. A few days later we got an email from the head of the postgraduate programme referencing this and asking if anything could be done to improve pastoral care for the students.

    I don’t know about any graduate programmes in the US but I hope they have the same attitude rather than “you fail because you’re weak”.

  6. Well said!

  7. This was a great post and incredible advice that should be brought up more often!

    Here is a mental healthy blog to read in the mix of a hectic work week. It brings up coherent tips to help balance your life and remain happy.

    • +1 for Zen Habits! great blog that helps keep things in perspective.

  8. Really enlightening article but my question is how somebody could find mentally and spiritually balance when he/she works or study in such as competitive field? OK, in theory we are doing what we love and ever wanted to do, but practically there is this invisible force (competition) that push you do more and more, increase your limits and finally forced you to lost magic and imagination!!

    • I know that’s been a problem for me. I hesitate to call my experiences competition (everyone is always friendly and helpful – you guys are great!) but being surrounded by such talented and successful colleagues has made me push myself pretty hard. I had a lot of thoughts along the lines of “I’m doing X pretty well, but I’m not as good at Y as this person and I’m not working as hard as that person at Z.” That drove me to work harder at both Y and Z while still pursuing X. I think a lot of this was, and is, driven by impostor thoughts. (

      I had to step back and decide that I need to measure my success internally and to be satisfied – and proud – of the things I have done. It’s always going to be a work in progress, but recognizing and deciding to be mindful of these thoughts was, for me, an important step towards finding my balance.



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