September/October 1997 Table of Contents
and more young scientists are taking the leap from the Ivory Tower
into an industry cubicle. But there has been little discussion of
the emotional hurdles that they face.
do you want to be when you grow up?" After a lifetime of answering,
"An astronomer," what else do you become? What happens when you
look at the astronomy job market and wonder whether you will ever
land a permanent position? What happens if you look at yourself
and consider leaving professional astronomy? And then what happens
if you (gulp) take the leap into industry?
choice to leave professional astronomy was not easy, but I consider
myself successful. I am happy with my new life and find my industry
job enjoyable and challenging. Though I miss elements of professional
science, I believe I have retained many of the best aspects of it,
and left behind some of the worst. My job with Honeywell provides
a stable and rewarding career, while allowing me free time to pursue
the astronomical interests I cherish most.
the painfulness of the transition is evident when I compare my college
and doctoral graduations. When I graduated from college, it was
a time marked by celebrations, and I looked forward to the challenge
and the opportunities offered at a large research university. But
when I completed my Ph.D. in May 1996, I experienced a very different
kind of graduation.
my friends and I enjoyed our commencement exercises in the traditional
hoods and gowns, for me the more powerful ceremony that spring was
the memorial service for Jason Cardelli. Jason was known for bringing
visibility to the plight of "soft-money" astronomers, who must make
do with a succession of short-term, low-pay, low-prestige jobs.
After a decade of the uncertain life, Jason finally landed a faculty
position at Villanova University. Barely two years later, he died
from heart failure [see Society News, July/August, p. 6].
ceremony surrounding Jason's death--its sadness, its lively remembrances--held
more meaning for my graduate-school experience than the graduation
exercises themselves. The turbulent emotions I felt upon the completion
of my Ph.D. seemed to have no place in the pageantry of graduation,
yet they were an acceptable part of a memorial service. After six
years of graduate school, I felt bitter and sad. But I also felt
joyfully nostalgic for my research experiences, such as prime-focus
observing from the Palomar 200-inch and Kitt Peak 4-meter telescopes.
I doubt that my emotions, a mix of happiness and frustration, were
unusual for a new Ph.D. scientist.
several ways, I was more fortunate than some of my peers. I had
my choice of one-year teaching positions at prestigious colleges.
Instead I accepted a job offer from Honeywell Loveland, a small
division of Honeywell, the control-systems giant, located an hour
away from my hometown in Colorado. I am grateful that I could choose
to leave professional astronomy, rather than being forced out for
lack of job opportunities. But it was a gut-wrenching decision.
discussing how to find a job in industry, most people talk about
how to write a résumé or what to say during an interview.
Numerous books detail the mechanics of a job search. But I feel
there are more important issues in making a successful career transition.
There is another side, a non-technical side, to an industry job
search, and the astronomical community tends to skirt around these
emotional transition was the most critical step in leaving professional
science. No one else's transition will be quite like mine; indeed,
those job-search books that do mention emotions describe different
progressions. I have identified three issues that hit me the hardest.
the grieving. Although this seems obvious to me now, when I began
seriously considering industry jobs my grief was an elusive, unnamed
jumble of feelings. I didn't recognize my own grieving process until
my mother, a social worker who had seen other young scientists wrestle
with these same issues, pointed it out to me. In hindsight my grief
was to be expected: I became an astronomer because I loved it, and
so of course it was a great loss to leave. My loss is palpable even
as I write this article, keeping an eye on the television as the
Pathfinder mission returns its first pictures of Mars. I fondly
recall my experience during the Voyager Neptune encounter when I
was working at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and the irony sinks in that
I'm now writing an article about how I left it all behind.
second emotional transition was my loss of identity. People sitting
next to me on airplanes used to say "Wow!" when I told them I was
an astronomer, but they don't react that way now that I'm an engineer.
I have lost much of my life's work. When I wrote my résumé,
the hardest part was hitting the "cut" button for the details of
my years of research, knowing there was nowhere to "paste" it back
you as a job-seeker do not recognize the emotional side of an industry
job search and deal with the grieving process, it may hinder your
ability to make the best use of your time and energy, write a good
résumé, do networking, interview effectively, and enjoy
an industry job. These are tough consequences, and oftentimes there
is scarce recognition of the importance of emotional transitions
or support in dealing with them. It is crucial for individuals and
the astronomical community to begin addressing these emotional issues.
departments and the American Astronomical Society can do several
things to support scientists making the transition. First, it would
help to openly acknowledge the emotional issues young scientists
wrestle with. As helpful as a résumé-writing seminar
might be, I believe it is more important for faculty to be openly
supportive of students' transitions. Most professors want to be
helpful, but don't know where to begin.
professors can direct students toward useful resources and make
sure all students are allowed access to those resources. At the
University of Wisconsin, the School of Engineering has a career
center for students doing an industry job search. But because I
was in the astronomy department, a part of the School of Letters
and Sciences, I was denied access to many of those resources. It
wasn't that the career-center staff didn't want to help me, but
they had to operate under strict university rules.
example, there was an interview sign-up sheet at the center, but
I was not allowed to sign up for an open interview slot with Honeywell,
even after the engineering students had already reserved their interviews.
The career-center staff said I could sign up if I had a letter from
the recruiter stating that Honeywell would like to interview me.
But when I asked for the name of the recruiter so that I could request
such a letter, they said they were not allowed to give out this
information to non-engineering students.
the recruiter had a master's in physics from Wisconsin. He wrote
directly to the physics department to say he would like to meet
with science, as well as engineering, students. So I got my interview
and the rest is history.
the astronomical community can provide ways for those of us who
go into industry to stay connected to astronomy. Once you leave
graduate school, computer accounts are often canceled and astronomy
software is tough to come by. When I was writing a conference-proceedings
paper, I did not have easy access to "LaTeX." An Internet account
is easy to find; "IRAF" is not. Astronomy departments could also
keep in contact with former students who work in industry, and bring
them back to visit. Such connections would be useful to current
students and might even lead to more financial support for astronomy
in the long run.
also want to voice my support for a stop-and-think period after
the first couple of years of graduate study [see "Reforming Graduate
Education," p. 19]. I know that I entered graduate school with rose-colored
glasses, and didn't really have enough information to stop and think
about my career decision until I was nearly done. Students need
to recognize the realities of the job market and the sacrifices
a scientific career entails. I made my decision to leave professional
astronomy partly based upon what I learned from frank discussions
with successful postdocs and young faculty.
Postdoc Is Not Enough
is a risky field, both financially and socially. Most young scientists
now have multiple postdoc positions--hopscotching from job to job
every couple of years and landing a permanent position in their
mid- to late 30s, if they are fortunate. The 20s and 30s are an
important time to start saving for retirement and building equity
in a home. Young scientists give this up. And many of them owe tens
of thousands of dollars in student loans.
scientific career these days has painful social implications, too.
Uprooting every few years isn't conducive to friendships or community
ties, not to mention a long-term relationship. There are many fulfilled
young scientists. But there are also many postdocs who are lonesome
because of their frequent moves and long hours. There are many young
faculty who are exhausted by their workload. Graduate students need
to be given this perspective, of what a "successful" academic career
entails, so that they may stop and think before committing to a
job security, frequent moves, low salaries with few benefits, long
phone conversations with a partner who could be half a continent
away, endlessly deferred dreams of home ownership and family: I
did not want such a life. I chose to turn down the astronomy jobs
that were offered to me in favor of an industry job. I wish I had
been informed of the realities, and encouraged to stop and think,
earlier in graduate school.
what is my life like, now that I am in industry? Dilbert cartoons
can be a frighteningly accurate representation. My office is a cubicle.
I confess to having written a project status report that contained
the word synergize. My co-workers, always ready for a good joke,
made me a safety hat with a red flag on top, modeled after the one
for Dilbert's short friend Wally, so that I would be visible when
walking down the cubicle aisles.
aside, the biggest differences I've experienced during my first
year working in industry are:
more money--great for paying off my student loans.
receive better fringe benefits: retirement contributions, paid
moving expenses, full health care.
though I'm the only woman in the engineering department, there's
less of a chilly climate. I have been treated as an equal, and
thus far I have been welcomed into a leadership role, such as
running meetings and filling in after the departure of the department
academia, I've noticed that when people talk about their children,
they often complain that they don't have enough time for them,
that being a devoted scientist means being willing to make that
sacrifice. But at Honeywell, people don't seem to feel guilty
about putting family above career. There is a greater acceptance
of people's lives beyond the office, without it compromising
how they are perceived on the job.
are hired not just because they are smart, but also because
they work well as a team.
are frequent discussions and training sessions about the company's
process: making decisions, interacting with others, improving
communication. There is introspection about how things are done,
not just discussion of what is done. That's not to say that
everything goes smoothly--it doesn't--but people work hard at
trying new strategies.
course, these are my experiences in only one company, and the climate
in different companies and industries will vary greatly. Some industry
jobs are high-stress, requiring long hours, constant travel, and
political games. For me, finding a good company to work for was
a higher priority than the details of my job description.
important, I have found meaningful ways to stay connected to astronomy.
My job is satisfying partly because I have managers who are supportive
of my astronomical interests. Ironically, since leaving professional
astronomy, I have been able to attend more astronomy conferences.
I have become a regular guest lecturer at the Front Range Community
College; volunteered at the local science museum; offered to assist
the local "Telescopes in Education" project; and made countless
dry-ice comet models with kids. I have also continued research collaborations,
albeit at a much slower pace.
ongoing connections to astronomy can sometimes be painful, as in
the pang I feel when I go to conferences and see research in which
I no longer take part. I encourage the astronomical community to
provide more ways for those of us in industry to remain involved.
Nevertheless, it is amazing how many opportunities you can find--and
make--to continue to do astronomy, especially once you no longer
have to worry about funding or trying to land the next astronomy
have also joined the Northern Colorado Amateur Astronomy Club. Through
the more experienced club members, I continue to round out my knowledge.
I still have a lot to learn from the night sky, and I am looking
forward to building my own telescope--something I never had time
for as a professional. As I look through smaller telescopes, I have
lost the depth and detail of the great telescopes, but I have gained
the perspective of a wider field of view.
E. SCHWEITZER is an engineer for Honeywell Loveland in
Fort Collins, Colo. She does program coordination and management
for software development. Being in the real world, she has time
for activities outside work, such as teaching kids about comets,
guest lecturing at the local community college, and continuing her
research on dwarf spheroidal galaxies. This article grew out of
a talk she gave at the January 1997 American Astronomical Society
meeting in Toronto. Schweitzer's email addresses are email@example.com