If you die in science, you die for real

In 2011, I made a choice that would completely change my life: I decided to become a scientist. It was a very weird period, I was doubtful and delusional. The thing that I didn’t realize, however, is that the feeling of doubt and delusion would never go away, the better I tried.

The change itself was actually reinvigorating. Since when I first had a talk with the like-minded, I felt an urge, an euphoria, that I still feel when I go up a mountain to work at an observatory. I absolutely love to observe the sky, and the sensation seems to become ever stronger the more I do. The twilight is the beginning of a new night, of new opportunities and a travel that might end at new discoveries and excitement. For the first time in my entire life, I really feel like I belong somewhere.

And this is why… I am afraid. Almost every day, while sailing through the internet or visiting Twitter, I end up reading a post about how academia is broken; that there are too many students or postdocs trying to get an academic job and there are not many being offered; that working in academia is frustrating and it pays badly. I am afraid I might end up leaving science, and coming back to the same frustrations I had when I was looking for a job in corporations.

Since I made the decision to become a scientist, I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. To be completely honest, I was in the “follow your passion” mindset. I had confidence that everything would be fine if I did my best. Some say that we are afraid of what we don’t know, so it could be that I’m afraid now because I don’t know the exact level of difficulty of being a scientist or just because my future is uncertain.

Money is not a bigdeal for me: I was born in a simple family, and I can live comfortably with just a couple of bucks to buy me food and pay for the internet. But I know that many people want to construct their families, and have a nice house to raise their kids, pay for good education for them. So it’s understandable why a career in academia is problematic on that point. A scientist will only be able to have these good things when they are on a professorship track, and it can take a couple of decades to achieve that.

One can argue that I can be an astronomer or a scientist, even without being in academia: I could, for example, be working on data science, since it is big thing right now with corporations; or I could be a writer, working in science outreach. So there is that: looking for something outside academia. Of course, the chances and opportunities would depend mostly on luck, but also on what you have “worked” on during your graduate courses (the quotation marks are there because some companies don’t consider research as “working”). And this is where all my frustrations with corporations come from: not seeing the value in science.

When I read these inspirational and informative posts about looking for jobs outside academia, it’s a bit unsettling to read about isolated cases. I mean, maybe John was lucky enough to find a position as data scientist in an awesome company, and maybe Mary hit the ballpark when she founded her own business; but what about all the other people who left academia and are stuck at uninteresting jobs, just as almost all of my friends who went straight from undergrad to corporations? What do they have to say? Do they exist? We don’t have numbers on it, or at least I never saw them. As an astronomer obsessed with statistics, I find it hard to believe that getting a satisfying job outside academia is an easier task. We should be honest about the issue.

Outside of academia, I know very few people who actually enjoy their jobs as much as I do with astronomy, and all of them have a larger income than I do. They have cars, live in nice places, post selfies on Facebook when they’re traveling, but they hate to wake up in the morning and having to go to work. For them, the weekend is a blessing, and the weekdays are a curse. This is exactly what I want to avoid. Finding a satisfying job is hard, anywhere; there is no magic pill that will solve this quest.

I was talking to a friend this week, who is a professor, and he said things were even worse, in Brazil, a few years ago (around the 90’s and 2000’s). When he was in my position, a graduate student, in the same institution, he had absolutely no prospects of finding a job. Research in our country was sparse and fellowships were rare. It is just now that we are getting on our feet with science. Additionally, most of Brazilian research is done exclusively in academia, far away from companies. So, as you can see, at the current generation of scientists, there are two prospects: 1) In public universities, there are many positions being created as the result of investments and outright retirement of the old professors; for instance, at IAG/USP, most professors are either very old or very young, because of the recession gap from the 90’s to the 2000’s. 2) As the local culture of scientific jobs changes, there will [hopefully] be a broader integration between research and companies, which will open up opportunities outside academia.

Sometimes I think that being a scientist is like being an artist: it’s a very elusive position, one that few can get into; one that not everyone recognizes its importance; one that is full of ups and downs; and most importantly: one that takes a lot from you, and it will probably not financially pay-off your efforts. But, damn, it’s awfully satisfying.

Maybe I should stop focusing too much on the objectives, it’s not like a “if you die in science, you die for real” kind of situation. Perhaps I should just enjoy the ride, whatever the destination. To be honest, it’s been like that since the beginning: for instance, I never chose my exact field of study (apart from focusing more on stellar astrophysics, which I find very enticing), and that’s the reason why I’ve wondered through stellar evolution, formation of stars, interstellar medium and now solar twins and spectroscopy. Also, if you asked me 5 years ago, I would never have said that I wanted to be an exchange student in Netherlands. Things just happen, and our inclinations change. Maybe the randomness of life is what makes it worth living.


Featured image: “Science by Jurne, Huer by Enron” by Steve Rotman

 

If you die in science, you die for real

Let’s talk about talks

Last Tuesday (Apr 14), there was an interesting discussion at IAG/USP about the outcomes of a poll, or rather, a survey that some of the astronomers did about the attendance to the department’s talks (seminars and colloquia). I don’t have the actual numbers, but there were some results like this:

  • 50% of the faculty staff and 50% of the postdoc answered the survey, and so did some 60% of the graduate students, plus a handful of undergraduate students
  • Most people said they only attended talks related to, specifically, their field of research
  • Most people answered that the main reason for not attending other talks was because they were bad, and the second (but close) reason was “lack of time”

While these results are somewhat alarming, they are not at all surprising. I have to confess that I too shared this closed-mindedness of only attending to talks that only belonged to my area. But luckily I was remembered that astronomy is not only the study of stars, or galaxies, or any other particular field: astronomy is a body of knowledge that encompasses countless aspects of the universe. I think it is common to separate things because we like to work with compartmentalized blocks, it’s easier that way. Or at least it seems, most of the time.

First point: why go?

The discussions reminded me of this cartoon: don’t forget the bigger picture, it says. And now that I think about it, I’ll probably print it and glue it to my office’s door, just because more people should see it. It’s not like a simple cartoon will magically change someone’s mind, but it can help. There are countless reasons why we should listen to other fields of research, such as networking opportunities, intuition pumps, the sharing of new ideas, and maybe even a potential new collaboration.

One of the reasons why people decide to become scientists is the autonomy. Scientists have, to a certain level, more freedom than other professional careers. In principle, we are not generally forced to attend meetings that are not of our immediate interest, nor do we have to have a fixed, written in stone, schedule. While we have our own interests and motivations, it is important to remind that we need to address to certain expectations. Scientists are expected to produce knowledge, to answer questions, to give back to the people who paid their salaries. There is no such a thing as a free lunch. The better we can weave our little dents in humanity’s body of knowledge, the better scientists we are.

Okay, but what if talks are outright bad or too hard to understand? What if the talkers don’t introduce the subject? What if they do not consider that they are addressing a broader audience, even if the organizers said them so? There are a few mitigating actions that can help in this point, such as red-flagging bad talkers and making sure they are prepared to talk to a particular target audience. In the discussion, someone gave the idea of a postdoc giving an introductory talk [a few days] before the main one, so as to “normalize” everyone to the same level. So, there are things we can do, and others that we can’t. If the talker is just bad, what can effectively be done about it? Nothing more than a red flag. So there is no point in discussing this. There will always be some bad talks, we just have to deal with them.

Second point: quantity vs. quality

An important issue that was pointed out is that it is not always about the quantity of people that attend talks, but rather how much knowledge is exchanged, which is the actual point of having a talk. As someone wisely said, it is possible to have a wonderful session with just ten people.

Some people criticize their snappy-styled, sitcom-sized talks, but there is much we can learn from TED. Their talks engage people in ways that, sadly, few scientists can do. Last week, during a Data Science Workshop at IAG/USP, we had a wonderful and engaging presentation by Professor Claudia Medeiros (Instituto de Computação/USP), where she introduced us into the many doors that were open for data scientists in the corporate world. She didn’t delve into the technicalities of data science, she focused on a broader topic that would suit the varied audience we had. And she delivered the message, that was received with many curious questions.

But as I said previously, expecting to always have a good talk is not a good thing. Let’s be more pratical: what can we do to make people engage more? A suggestion made on that discussion is to give an opportunity to people who were too embarrassed to ask questions, such as using an anonymous questioning system or even Twitter hashtags (which is a great idea). Also, we should avoid pointless questions such as “did you consider the magnetic fields?”: they do not help in engaging people; in fact, they can make it harder. Please, leave technical questions for an after-talk session or just read the paper; unless, of course, the talk is targeted to a technical audience who will actually be interested to know about your goddamned magnetic fields.

Another idea I read somewhere was that some people find the informal sessions, such as the coffee-break and the dinner, actually more productive, science-wise. Maybe we could have meetings that consisted only on feasting. I don’t think I would suit to these, though, because I would always have my mouth busy and wouldn’t be able to talk.

Second point: blaming an abstract entity

Something was brought up in the discussion that made me a bit uneasy at the time, and in hindsight, I completely disagree with: they said the lack of care for talks or other areas of astronomy (or the fact that students are afraid to ask questions) are part of “our culture” (whatever they meant by that). In fact, I think it is a dangerous line of thought. This thing about always blaming our culture for its miseries has a name in Brazil: it is known as Complexo de Vira-lata (which literally translates to “the Mutt Complex”). If you’re reading this post and work in another astronomy department somewhere else, you’ll most probably relate to the issues of talk attendance. When I was an exchange at Kapteyn Astronomical Institute, at the University of Groningen, the attendance to talks too wasn’t that prolific (I don’t have numbers to cite, though). And the faculty staff didn’t stimulate students to attend them; in fact, it was only my graduate colleagues that did.

I don’t think this is an issue of the culture of our country or of our astronomy departments. First of all, how to objectively define a culture? And how can we change it? Or rather, is it possible to change a culture? How can we change something that we can’t even define? As with the bad talkers, there is no point in discussing this. We should not blame what we can’t define.

Wrapping up: my suggestion

And after presenting you with the discussion we had, here is my take on the issue: can we try smaller groups of discussion? I remember that the best science discussion sessions I had during my course in academia, so far, have been with small groups: up to 10 people, tops. The problem with big sessions is that they will eventually turn into the so dreaded traditional talks, which are less engaging and are more prone to frustrations, almost like classes. Sometimes they are unavoidable, such as in congresses and scientific meetings, and maybe this is their place. But in weekly sessions, it is probably too much.


Featured image: “Back Lighting” by Steve Jurvetson

 

Let’s talk about talks

Uncertainties

It’s been quite a disheartening weekend so far. You see, I follow a bunch of astronomers (and other scientists) either on Twitter or on blogs, and sometimes I stumble upon a few vents and posts that make me a bit uneasy about the career of a scientist, especially if you’re a female or part of an ethnic minority. Today is one of these days.

I just read this article on Talebearing, which sums up the worries of graduate student who suddenly realizes that most PhDs in his area (biology) don’t make it into fully-fledged career as scientists, i.e. a tenure track professorship job, a teaching job, or a job as a staff scientist at an industrial corporation. The author argues that one of the biggest caveats of a career on science is that it doesn’t pay as well as “normal” job, e.g. a consultant, and that it is too time- and effort-consuming. Additionally, to make things worse, I just read the news that many Brazilian graduate students hadn’t received their scholarships from CAPES since last November.

Well, while all these things make my future very uncertain, should it really be cause for a tremendous concern or even dread? I don’t think this kind of problem is only limited to science. I have the impression that every career path someone chooses has its own risks and costs. So it all comes down to how much (time/money/effort) people are willing to invest in order to achieve a goal. Also, there is one very important factor that should be clear: randomness play a huge role. And I think that is the main cause of delusion with a career in science: most prospective students don’t take into account the fact that sometimes you just have to be lucky.

As for myself, I was always very aware of the relatively low income for scientists (when compared to other careers), and that isn’t a big source of concern to me, since I was born and raised in a low-income family. I don’t like to say that we were poor, because I know all too many people who are or were truly poor, and sometimes had to go to bed with an empty stomach. Most of these people don’t really have a choice: they embrace whatever opportunity appears in order make a living. I was lucky enough to be able to make a career choice, and that is astronomy. Since I don’t have wife and kids to support, nor do I have high living standards, I can afford to earn less than other career paths. However, I would depend solely on that income, so there is not much room to delays in payments, such as the one CAPES did with the graduate students’ scholarships (2 months). We have bills to pay!

What about the prospects of finding a job as a scientist? I think it really depends on too many factors, and most of these are random. We should be aware of this fact. We could rephrase the question: is it enough to just do your job really well? Or what else can we do to improve our chances of finding a job as a scientist? I think that’s a much more useful question, and also a more difficult one to answer. What if you start doing something that, in principle, should improve your chances, but ends up undermining your productivity as a scientist? That’s another risk to be accounted for.

I also see many successful scientists or former scientists that are currently successful at another job saying that the [academic] system is broken. Universities are relying too much on productivity and not quality. Or that the influx of prospective students is growing too much and that everything is going to break down soon. What they do not do is to propose a solution. I mean, it’s easy to point out the flaws when you’re at an advantage position, but what about us who are in the middle of the storm? What should we do? Simply abandon the dream to become a scientist and pursue an easier path?

Maybe we are creating too many role models, and are not being realistic with our future. Maybe the career path of a scientist requires an amount of effort that most prospective students are not willing to pay for. Maybe this is all too random for people who want a more secure future. Maybe, sooner or later, we are going to reach the point of embracing whatever opportunity appears in order to make a living. And why should that be a bad thing?


Featured image: “Life’s uncertainties” by Fadzly Mubin on Flickr

Uncertainties