This week, I am going to write about a different topic, jobs outside astronomy. It’s a topic that is, in fact close to my heart, as I spent four illuminating years outside astronomy, working on calibration and quality assurance for Earth Science remote sensing missions at Goddard Space Science Center. Those positions were highly formative for me, as it turned out, and I learned the Software Engineering skills that prepared me for my current work in building archives and managing data.
So it was with great interest that, at the 225th AAS Meeting in Seattle, I attended a standing room only Special Session of the Working Group on Astroinformatics and Astrostatistics and listened to a talk by Jessica Kirkpatrick on how she made the transition from astronomer to data scientist, perhaps one of the most enticing positions for astronomers. The talk is on Jessica’s blog at http://berkeleyjess.blogspot.com/2015/01/astrophysicist-to-data-scientist-talk.html, and her blog in general has a lot of advice on making this transition – young scientists out there, go take a look if you are considering such a career move.
Jessica explained why, after doing a Ph D on statistical analysis of SDSS quasars, she became a data scientist. Most of them will look familiar- availability of jobs, higher salaries, improved work-life balance. She went on to describe the skills needed to enter this type of work. These skills do not simply refer to technical skills (Python, SQL, git, …) but also to the ability to work in an interdisciplinary team, and the ability to work with customers.
Perhaps the most heartening lesson from the presentation is that skills developed to study astronomy can be directly transferred to or adapted for new fields. I certainly found that my skills in calibrating astronomical instruments and in quality assurance were of value in remote sensing. So while astronomy jobs may be scarce these days, it is also true that there are many interesting problems out there to investigate, and the skills needed to do astronomy are much needed in the big wide world.
I am sometimes asked to give early-career scientists some advice on careers, so I will end by slightly rephrasing something I wrote in 2010: ” … you can have a fulfilling career … outside the traditional faculty path. There are many ways to make a difference … outside pure research positions. Re-invent yourself every few years – it prevents burn out, and helps you develop broader skills. Look for opportunities rather than waiting for them. Try things out – you may surprise yourself in discovering new interests and talents.”