Free Advice

There’s been a lot of conversation about an email sent to students in a certain astronomy department, which originally appeared here:

While I certainly think the original email was problematic, with an eau d’ “we walked uphill both ways in the snow” about it, I also think there were seeds of good advice buried in it– both for students and those further along.

In the following, I’ve tried to cultivate those seeds into some advice for being an astronomer, largely based on my own philosophy of course. I’m sure not everyone will agree with these points, and it should be noted that as I don’t have a permanent job yet, I don’t know whether these are “successful” strategies in the long term. Perhaps one day we will share a laugh over this post, just before I ask you if you want fries with that.

If you are counting how many hours a week you are working, you probably don’t like your job very much. 

The thing you spend your life on shouldn’t feel like a transaction to you. I have no idea how many hours a week I worked in grad school, because I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I could probably go back and estimate, but why? It varied week to week, just like the hours I work now. Some weeks are efficient and productive and require less time, and some are slow, arduous, and irritating. Just like now.

I know we’d all like to think that the only thing standing between us and awesomeness is a single number– a magical tipping point beyond which success is certain (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell). Unfortunately, that’s not true. You can spend a lot of time trying to do something better and only see incremental gains, even when other things come naturally and require little investment of time. That’s not to dismiss hard work, which I think often takes a back seat to the idea of “talent” in our common lore– talent is usually just hard work that went well. But ultimately, success is not a product that can be yours for a set purchase price.

The way you feel about your work is like the weather on a long hike– changing, fickle, with days you will always remember and days you will try to forget. The calculus of whether it’s worth it to go hiking at all is up to the individual.

Work-life balance will be an ongoing challenge throughout your life. 

Being an astronomer shares a good deal in common with being an artist. It is demanding, and on dark days there seems to be no return for your blood and sweat. Exceptional dedication is required, it’s true, but dedication is also not sufficient to ensure some sort of easily quantifiable success. We do what we do, at least in many cases, because our desire to know the natural world is a deep hunger, immensely rewarding when slaked, but never gone for long. If your work matters to you, it is easy to let it take over your life, because it will reach without bounds anywhere you let it. And you will let it, at least part of the time.

Your challenge is to figure out what your priorities are, and allot your time accordingly. Keep in mind that you only get to decide your priorities, and you have to acknowledge that these priorities may not be shared by everyone else. In practice, that means that some places you work will value your decisions, and others not.

You’re not looking for employment, you’re looking for a home.

Applying for faculty jobs is a little like trying to decide if you want to marry someone on the first date: you don’t know if it’s going to work out, and it’s weird and a bit scary to think about spending the rest of your life in one place (and that’s if you get past the fear of rejection!). But it’s not like you have a totally flat prior on what places will be a good fit for you. Before you apply for jobs, postdoc, faculty or otherwise, think about the kind of place you want to be. Acting like success only comes in one flavor is like assuming that everyone grows up to marry a hot model. Some hot models have difficult personalities.

We need to embrace a broader definition of success amongst our peers and our students. We are doing a better job of vocalizing “not everyone will become research faculty”, but it still sounds like a threat. Not everyone should be research faculty– first and foremost because it’s not right for everyone, and only secondly because there are a finite number of jobs. If you’ve thought about what your priorities are and what aspects of being an astronomer you like, it will be pretty clear whether or not those are compatible with a traditional tenure-track research job. If they are not, you have other options– everything from teaching, to working in a science museum, to being a data scientist, to being a quant at a financial firm. These are not consolation prizes, they are good careers.

That being said, telling early career astronomers that they will definitely be employed is a bit of a bait-and-switch. It does happen to be true that there are many things one can do with the degrees and skills we acquire as astronomers. If you are open to doing something a little different, and if you work to acquire translatable skills, you are likely to be employed. However, those statistics are cold comfort for people who are astronomers because they can’t imagine doing something else, for whom exceptional dedication has not resulted in the employment necessary to go on doing astronomy. If your work really matters to you, it can be heart-breaking to leave it behind. Like other heartbreaks, there is no easy solution beyond picking yourself up, figuring out what’s next, and moving on.

As scientists, we are good at figuring out practical solutions to abstract problems, working within the resources available, and thinking about how to apply the skills we have to what we want to solve. The abstract problem here is what you want to be when you grow up.

Curricula should reflect the practice of the field.

Reading papers, writing proposals/papers and giving talks should be integrated with class work. As astronomers, we spend a lot of time doing these things, but it’s rare we learn them in a classroom setting that is designed for feedback and improvement. I am grateful to University of Washington for providing these in spades– we wrote HST proposals, we wrote literature reviews, and we gave talks constantly. We did regular class work as well– problem sets and exams– but I think the practical assignments prepared me far better for what I do on a regular basis.

Specialize, but don’t leave your head in the sand.

As a grad student, your top priority has to be gaining the depth in your field that will allow you to write your thesis. You need to come out of grad school as an expert in something– ideally, something that you can be known for to potential collaborators or employers. Grad school is a time of great focus, so it’s understandable if you haven’t read everything you weren’t actually forced to by a class or having signed up for Journal Club.

Having said that, try to make some time in your life to learn about fields outside your own. One of the things I love about being part of LSST is that it has broadened my scientific horizons and allowed me to learn about a lot of different subfields. I have no desire to actually become an expert in many of these subfields, but I find that they are often sources of inspiration as I think about my own work. Eventually, you will be visiting departments where most people don’t work on what you work on, and you will enjoy it a lot more if you can talk to people about their work. If you don’t have time to read astro-ph, at least ask your friends what they are working on.

You cannot control how people interact with you, only how you interact with them.

Being a jerk and being smart do not share a causal relationship. It is fine to challenge a speaker with a question, but keep it respectful– learning stops as soon as arrogance steps in.

It’s also important to realize that we work in a field where various of our colleagues have difficulty picking up on social cues. Not everyone who seems like they are being a jerk is actually doing so on purpose.

Dealing with aggressive questioning can be very challenging for students, as the ability to weather the storm relies on having enough confidence in the material to not become rattled. This is difficult, because the nature of being a student is for that information to be still fresh and malleable in one’s mind. For mentors, the challenge is to have a supportive enough environment in general such that the occasional difficult Q&A doesn’t seem like a personal attack.

A simple step towards making these situations less charged is just to talk with students about strategies for dealing with questions, which will depend on the individual and their strengths. Although taking the learn-to-swim-via-a-swift-kick-into-the-deep-end approach seems it would teach students what to do in these situations, it doesn’t. It just models poor behavior that they then perpetrate on others.

Your health is the most important thing you have.

When I was 19, I had brain surgery. I was minding my own business being a college student, when a routine visit to the doctor resulted in finding out I had a pituitary tumor. I will spare you the details of how you actually get a thing removed from smack in the middle of your head, but suffice it to say that the experience hits the pause button on everything and provides some lasting perspective on the brevity of life.

All the things you have to do, your deadlines, your assignments, your code– all of it crumbles like ash in the face of losing your well being, whether it be physical or mental. We humans are fragile, with short lives that grow even shorter when we don’t care for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, we are capable of overcoming great hardship, and we can withstand a lot– but no one ever overcame anything while simultaneously pretending it wasn’t there. Care for yourself, and exercise patience even as you test your limits. Above all, if you are in need of help, or even think you might be, reach out to someone.

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12 Responses to Free Advice

  1. Phil Medina says:

    Lucianne Walkowicz, You are wise beyond your years.

  2. Love this. Substituting nouns, one can use this advice in a broad range of life situations. I’ll be saving this and sharing. Thanks.

  3. Sarah Tuttle says:

    Nicely done. Way to cheer up my friday, and remind me why we keep showing up.

  4. Alice Allen says:

    Beautiful advice beautifully written; thank you.

  5. Wow, I have read many responses to the letter, yours and the astrobites answer are the two I really like the most. Good job!

  6. Dennis says:

    Lucianne you are so wise, I enjoy all your comments and your insight on the Universe Programs. Thanks………Dennis

  7. Elisabeth Newton says:

    Thanks, Lucianne. The reason I find the original letter so irritating (infuriating?) is because, to me, the message it sends is pretty much the exact opposite of the ideas you are conveying: that we should be counting hours and putting in so many that there is no work/life balance, that we should be okay with hostility at our department, that all is lost if we don’t get a faculty job.

  8. Pingback: Working Hours for Graduate Students - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  9. Claire Cramer says:

    Awesome essay, Lucianne. I would like to point out that the academic career path is not the only career path that allows one to do scientific research. As a scientist at a government lab, I spend a much larger fraction of my time doing research than many tenure track and tenured professors. I spend most of my time doing astronomy-related work on an official program, with infinite opportunities for independent side projects limited only by my willingness to spend time on them while still getting the programmatic work done. The choice between academia and not doing astronomy (or, more broadly, science) is false. The tradeoffs are different and working for the government is not for everyone, but I think that was your point.

  10. Pingback: is a Ph.D. worth it? | Antipodal Points

  11. Pingback: Personal comment on the infamous letter to astronomy grad students | Tanya's Astro Blog

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