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Living the Dilbert Life

 

Mercury, September/October 1997 Table of Contents

Andrea E. Schweitzer
Honeywell Loveland

More 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.

"What 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?

My 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.

Yet 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.

While 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].

The 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.

Leaving Means Grieving

In 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.

When 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 issues.

My 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.

First, 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.

The 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.

Third, 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 in.

If 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.

Denied Access

Astronomy 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.

Second, 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.

For 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.

Luckily, 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.

Third, 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.

I 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.

A Postdoc Is Not Enough

Astronomy 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.

A 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 Ph.D. program.

No 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.

And 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.

Dilbert aside, the biggest differences I've experienced during my first year working in industry are:

  • There's more money--great for paying off my student loans.

  • I receive better fringe benefits: retirement contributions, paid moving expenses, full health care.

  • Even 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 manager.

  • In 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.

  • People are hired not just because they are smart, but also because they work well as a team.

  • There 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.

Of 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.

Staying Connected

Most 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.

My 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 job.

I 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.

ANDREA 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 schweitz@frii.com and andrea.schweitzer@iac.honeywell.com.

 
 

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