Want to be a Professional Astronomer?

We need one of those propaganda videos, like the Marines had when I was a kid:

Seriously, I remember watching that and actually thinking it would be awesome to be a Marine! (And for those of you who don’t know me that well, I loathe armed conflict.)

Well, I’m a scientist. Can’t we do anything cool to attract people to be interested in it, or help support it? Baby steps, folks, baby steps. And Duncan Forbes at Swinburne in Australia (where I almost moved when I was offered a position with them last February) has composed a how-to guide entitled:

So You Want To Be A Professional Astronomer!

It’s actually a very balanced account of what it takes, showing both the amazing tools astronomers get to play with and the exotic locales we get to visit:

But what’s nice is it’s also realistic about the frustrations you can expect to face going down this path, including a highly uncertain job future and an uncertain job location, average pay, and the necessity of working on projects you have little-to-no interest in to further your career.

It’s actually an excellent career guide to being a professional observational astronomer, and it’s realistic when it states that if you go from college to grad school and go straight through, get 2 to 3 postdocs lasting 2-3 years each, you’ll then be ready to settle in and begin your career in a permanent position by time you’re between 35 and 40.

Seriously. But what I found most interesting about this was that it gave advice for what not to do when you apply for jobs. Unbeknownst to Duncan, this is actually applicable to anyone looking for any job, so I’ll repeat his advice here; don’t do the following:

  • Use the ‘shotgun’ approach of applications: many and wide.
  • Ignore the application instructions.
  • Write it on the last possible day.
  • Forget about running a spellchecker.
  • Fail to include a well-directed cover letter.
  • Forget to tell your references that you’re including them as references.

This is particularly relevant to me, because I’m just now preparing to leave academia (just in time for my 30th birthday), and I’m looking for a new job. There was one part of the deal I couldn’t abide by: living in a place that makes me unhappy. And that’s really a big deal to me. I have a hard time living in a place like this:

when I know that there are places like this that I could be living:

So Jamie and I are moving up to Portland, OR, this summer, and I’ve just started to look for a job up there! (And if you live in the greater Portland and are looking to hire me, I’m officially on the job market.)

I don’t know where I’ll wind up living or what I’ll wind up doing, but chalk me up as another one of Duncan’s statistics: the 80% of people who start Ph.D. programs in astronomy/astrophysics who leave without getting a permanent position. (FYI, those of you who are interested in the physics route instead, like I was, should be aware that those statistics are closer to 90%.)


  1. #1 Kendall
    May 30, 2008

    You’re bumming me out! But you seem an extremely intelligent individual and I trust you will land on your feet. Best of luck with your move. I will continue to enjoy your blog as long as it’s around.


  2. #2 ethan
    May 30, 2008

    You’re right! I shouldn’t have stated what I did without reminding people of what the good things are about astronomy, including the ability to actually be on the cutting edge of what we know about the Universe! I plan on keeping the blog and to continue writing, even if I’m not a part of academia. I think I might even keep up the scientific research, as it’s just too much fun to stop!
    Thanks for the good wishes, and best to you as well.


  3. #3 IBYea
    April 16, 2009

    Crap, I guess I will have to cross my fingers when someday I get my degree in astronomy. ^_^

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