Astronomical Techniques - An Astronomical Career

In the practice of resaerch, we all encounter what seems an inevitable tension between science as an intellectual and a social activity. I collect here some thoughts on pursuing a research career, especially in the bizarre environment and reward structure of academia. I'll award no points for seeing where I have and have not done any of the following. Some of these are suggested by W.I.B. Beveridge's Art of Scientific Investigation, noting that the situation in biology, while it seems the numerically dominant field, is rather different in conduct from astronomy. These are all predicated on the notion that you think you can contribute to the field, and therefore that science is better served if you're doing it than not doing it.

Graduate school: To begin with, should you select one based on its academic program, reputation in placement, facilities, or a specific person you want to work with?

Select an appropriate dissertation advisor and topic. You might consider a potential advisor's standing in the field, record of getting grad students into good jobs, research field and style, and personality. A good topic is one that will stretch your skills, but is possible within a few years. (And beware the trap of spending a lifetime polishing your dissertation - that seldom pays off).

The job market: By now the norm is to spend 5 years or so in postdoctoral positions. What is the most fruitful way to do so? One might choose between freestyle postdocs, such as CfA or Hubble fellowships, and directed, grant-funded work under a pundit. A pundit may be more advantageous than it first seems, since then someone important in the field has a personal interest in your further success, if only for reasons of maintaining personal reputation.

Don't be shy about jumping topics. Very few people can or should spend a lifetime expanding on their thesis work. Be able to recognize new opportunities and learn what you need to - before everyone else does. This is rather more the norm in place like Britain, in which there are no (instead of almost no) academic positions, and field-jumping is a fact of life. Keeping this in mind is a helpful antidote to tunnel vision in your work (as is, say, teaching AY101 and thereby needing to keep up in related fields a bit more than might otherwise be the case).

At various stages, publications may be the primary way you are evaluated. Know what's worth publishing! A few well-cited individual papers will probably make more impact than being one of 30 authors on a dozen papers about gamma-ray burst counterparts. Be aware of what the evaluation criteria for retention or promotion are, especially if they are unwritten.

An aspect of the research arena that calls for delicate personal skills is knowing when the social arena is important and when it's not. While science aspires to be as objective as humanly possible, there's a reason more "laws" and principles are named for Hubble than Zwicky. And if you read Hubble's biography, and ask whether you would have admired him as a person, consider what this says about Zwicky.

One way to achieve professional prominence is by virtue of rare expertise, which you have painstakingly acquired against the time when it will be in demand, and managed not to starve yourself out of the field while waiting. This may be software development, understanding the influence of rotation on steller evolution, experience with the physical optics of atmospheric fluctuations, modelling evolving stellar populations... To carry this off, though, you either have to be very lucky (what the evolutionary biologists call preadaptation), or have an unusually clear long-term view of the field so you can get a head start.

Pretty clearly, rising to the top of a competitive field takes a certain amount of assertiveness, blending into aggressiveness. It's your call as to how much you can take of this by personality. Any research field takes a certain amount of persistence just to get started in, and this is often the difference between success or giving up in a research career. (Sandy Faber has claimed that she's more persistent than smart, but I wonder...). Still, when are you persistent and when are you just stupid about it? Oddly enough, some people have managed to stay in the field by sheer pigheadedness, by militantly not realizing that they weren't generally considered faculty material. Maybe that was crazy like a fox on their parts.

In many fields, you will find that there is an "invisible college" (using the term from Spencer Klaw's The New Brahmins: Scientific Life in America). This consists of the people who have the high profiles, do the exciting work (just ask them), and sit on the committees that make the real decisions. Obviously most people would rather be in than outside...

There are some fascinating distinctions between the environments of academic and "industrial" work, even in as impractical a field as astronomy. Academic institutions (at least in the US) are usually seeking someone who they regard as having the potential to lead a funded group, regularly advising grad students and bringing in overhead money and prestige (pick the order). Thus, university interviews for faculty positions are exercises in futures speculation. It's especially noteworthy that teamwork doesn't usually enter (yet?) into these decisions, while team projects are more and more important. For positions at NASA installations or contractors, such considerations are less important, often because you'll be working for an existing boss anyway, and the standards of judgment for success differ. Success in academia is often measured by number of publications or total grant amount - even measuring your impact by using the Science Citation Index is actually considered somewhat enlightened. At some NASA installations, as long as the gizmo flies, the software works, and the reports are all filed, you're in fine shape. And if the gizmo flies and the software works, what's to complain about?

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