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

 

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If you die in science, you die for real

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

Are we being too romantic with physics?

Featured image: Could you point me out to the next step of this problem?

This week was a very hectic one, one of the reasons being because I did two exams on Electromagnetism I, probably the most dreaded course in every physics graduation program. If you’re not familiar with it, electromagnetism is the advanced study of the interactions between charges, electric fields and magnetic fields, as well as their applications. It involves a lot of vector calculus and special math techniques (the ones learned on courses of mathematical physics or mathematical methods for physicists), and it also require a lot of, let’s say, cunning in order to formulate the problems into mathematical equations and solve them. And this is where things get problematic for me, and for many other students.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this article on Medium, which speaks of three points tied together: Walter Lewin and his involvement in sexual harassment on MIT, the way physics is [wrongly?] taught in universities and how it affects the learning process of minorities, especially females. I understand how the gender issue has been such an important problem discussed among scientists, but what really struck me while reading was the author’s vision on how we can improve the students’ learning in a physics program by doing one thing: teaching them problem-solving skills. According to the author, that would also help close the gap of gender and minorities on physics, whacking two moles with just one swing. And this article started me thinking: why aren’t we generally taught the techniques of solving physics problems? Actually, there’s a fun expression in Portuguese for that: it’s the jump of the cat. Why aren’t we taught “the jump of the cat” in physics problems?

Preeya Phadnis makes a very important point on that: physics teachers argue that they shouldn’t teach the “jump of the cat” before the students try and battle with the exercises for themselves, because that would take away their chance of having an eureka moment, the climax of solving a very difficult physics problem. Another argument for not teaching the skill is that letting the students figure things out “builds character”, strengthen their wit. Now, analyzing my behavior since I started studying physics, I’d say that I have been guilty of counseling my colleagues (and even myself) into doing things by themselves and just battle until you win the fight against the problems. I am a strong advocate of discovering things by ourselves, because that’s how I’ve been hacking my way into astronomy research: most of the things I know were learned outside of classrooms.

But here is the problem, and I agree with the author: people come from different conditions, have different backgrounds and do not have the same skills. And the way teachers minister their classes act as gatekeeping, especially when they say things like:

  • “Physics is supposed to be difficult: deal with it”
  • “If you want something easy, go study [presumptuously insert a another program here]”
  • “You’re not working hard enough”
  • “Some people do not have what it takes to be a physicist”
  • “Some people will never learn [insert course name here]”

I don’t think teachers should be gatekeepers. That’s not their job. They’re supposed to do exactly the opposite: to open doors. You see, it’s not asking the teacher to be more lenient on the evaluation or just ask easy questions, but it would be helpful if they could actually encourage the students instead of putting them off of physics. No, I don’t think physics is for few people. If they don’t have the necessary skills to solve a physics problem, why not teach them? Let’s go back to electromagnetism: if you’re not familiar with it, you should know that solving a problem of EM can take a long time – depending on how it’s set, it can take several hours or even days for the student to develop a solution, and the smallest mistake will screw everything up – and things can get worse if you don’t have the right skills. Achieving an eureka is a good sensation, but also a too romantic of a vision on physics. And when your work is not even recognized, why bother? What was it worth for? Yeah, you solved a problem that was already solved a hundred years ago, big deal. Looking at the bright side, at least you developed the problem-solving skill a little bit – but at what cost? The biggest problem is that some people will not even learn, since the towel was already thrown midway through the problem because they thought they did not have what it takes to solve it.

I once heard that I am a lazy physicist, that I don’t want to solve the most intricate and difficult problems because they seem to take too much work. From a teacher. While that might partially be true, it’s not about laziness, it’s because I have different skills (such as programming, using numerical methods, working with schematic plots in order to advance in the problem), but I wasn’t allowed to use them to solve those problems. Instead, I was forced to develop a skill – solving difficult problems on paper – by myself, because that’s how, supposedly, physics should be [or was] done [before me].

This week is also the last of the semester at the university, and some students were doing their final exams while others were already on vacation. However, when a few of us gathered in front of the university library, I was very sad to know that one of my friends from the physics courses is leaving the program. She is a girl and a former research colleague, and her reason for doing so is because she doesn’t think she has the right skills to be a successful [astro-]physicist, and she also felt very demotivated to continue taking the courses. I wonder how much of her despondency was caused by discouragement from her peers, teachers and the general culture of physics school. I also learned that many of my colleagues from the electromagnetism class gave up on it midway through the course because they couldn’t keep up with it. Additionally, there are a couple of other students that have been hanging up on even more basic courses (such as vector calculus and basic physics) – for years –  and they are just now managing to arrive at the more advanced courses. It’s quite depressing.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, though, and this is a point correctly made by a professor that I know: here in Brazil, and very frequently at my home university, most people who enter the physics program are there because that’s the only option, their “plan B”. These people think that, by entering on that program, they can easily do a transfer to an engineering program [1] after the first year. What they don’t realize is that it is not allowed to transfer from physics to engineering, only the other way around. When these fresh students realize that, there is a massive leave from the program, which usually occurs after the first and second semesters. I remember that, when I entered the physics program (as a diploma carrier), there were something like 50 or 60 freshmen. Right now, at the 6th semester, a very optimistic estimation would be around 10 students. What I mean by all this, is that there will always be a very high leave rate for the first year of a physics program here, but I would assume that everyone that stays there after that is either interested on physics or have absolutely nothing better to do besides carrying on the courses. If there is a reason for these people to stick to the physics program after the trial of the first year, there must be also a reason for they to decide to leave after 5 or 6 semesters. Could it be just a sudden realization that “physics is not for me” [2] or were they ever so slowly forced to think that throughout the years?

To be honest, I was also very discouraged and demotivated from the EM course. But I still kept on, because… I don’t really know, maybe I had external motivations to do so. It’s such an interesting part of physics, and yet, they managed to turn it into a torture. The classes were 2-hour long (without break) whiteboard grinding sessions, with lots of intricate derivations of crazy equations, and very few connections with practical physics. Maybe there are physicists who enjoy this approach, but I’m not one of them – I prefer to take a more pragmatic approach. I like to say that I street fight physics, going down and dirty with it. It’s not beautiful, in fact it is sometimes inelegant or ugly, but it’s the way I do. I wish that we could have a more diverse physics teaching, a celebration of the different skills among scientists, and that the ones we don’t have could be taught instead of used to filter us at university.

While this ideal environment is not achieved at the universities (and I don’t think it will be done in a timely manner), I highly recommend other striving physics students to do the following: just hack the system – find ways and shortcuts to do the problem-solving, learn them, make annotations and study them. The problem is that, with this approach, you’ll miss out on the actual physics (the things that happen outside the mathematical equations). Or maybe it will help? If you learn the problem-solving skills fast enough, perhaps you’ll have time to study the implications of the equations. But again, this might be highly dependent on one’s background and conditions. Also, we could do without the boring 2-hour long pointless classes, right?


 

[1] Why do people leave physics to do engineering? For 2 reasons. First: engineering pays better. Second (which is probably tied to the first): engineering is their first option, and their grade on the selection exam wasn’t good enough to make it into the highly competitive vacancies.

[2] One might wonder if that is what happened to me when I decided to leave engineering and go study astrophysics. Well, it’s not because I thought engineering wasn’t for me, it’s more complicated than that. I do think I have the skills to be an engineer, but the thing is that I actually did not find it joyful. It was boring (at the context I was in). There are other additional reasons that contributed to my decision, but I will leave them for another post.

Are we being too romantic with physics?

Ugh… FINE, I’ll play along

In the last post (which was written almost two weeks ago – geez, I need to get back to writing more here), I ranted quite vigorously about one of the teachers at my university and how crappy his classes and assignments were. Well, so this is kind of an update on that, and it has a good and a bad note. However, I don’t want to rant as much now, because I am in a good mood, and I admit that, indeed, I overreacted. Maybe.

You see, education in Brazil is old-fashioned. Even before going abroad and studying in Netherlands, I had already got pretty mad at how things were carried out here, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to me to find everything the same way it was before (which I wrote about in another previous post). The thing is: I stand up for what I believe, so much that I wrote a direct and signed letter of suggestions to the beforementioned teacher. The other thing is: it seems to have had an effect. Classes have been a bit more interesting, and the dull assignments are less plentiful, giving some space to more thought provoking ones. I’m also trying to do some changes on my part, for instance, by being more active on that online platform the teacher decided to use. Things are not perfect, as expected, but you know: baby steps.

It led me to realize that the teaching/learning process is not only about the teacher or the student, it’s about both of them. While I was ranting about the classes being crappy, I did not mention that I am a terrible student. If none of them try to be a little bit better themselves, there is no motivation for the other party to try to get better too. Well, so yeah, that was the good news. Now, the bad news is that I didn’t realize that I would bump into an even worse class.

So here is a little bit of backstory: I took a course on Quantum Physics 1 when I studied in Netherlands, and I thought I could ask for credits on the Quantum Physics (which is some kind of introductory and redundant course on modern physics – I seriously don’t know what the balls it is doing in our curriculum) class at my home university. However, the institute’s board decided to give me the credits on Quantum Mechanics 1, said to be the best equivalent to the course I took abroad. The weird thing is that this QM1 course has the QP course as a prerequisite, and the board did not give me the credits on it (because I lacked enough credits for both of them), even though they did for the more advanced course. Later I discovered that it was only one of the members that voted against me having both, but whatever – no grudges, his reasons were fair. But, man, couldn’t they cut me some slack?

So, bottomline, I had to enroll in the Quantum Physics course. Which is dutifully taught by the oldest professor at the institute. And, you guessed right, his teaching methods are just as equally old, so much that his are the only classes to be compulsory. Yep, they are crappy and I cannot simply stay and study at home, because I will fail the course even if I get a 100% score on the tests. But enough ranting, this post is not about it, because I have already ranted to the former coordinator of the Physics department (he is actually quite cool with being honest and open with the students). What he, and some other students that I talked with, said is that I should stop complaining and simply accept things as they are, because there is absolutely nothing that I can do about it. No chance, nada. I have to take the QP course, and go to the classes.

And you know what? Fine. Just: fine. What the fucking ever. If there is nothing else to be done, so be it. If this is what it takes for me to be an astrophysicist, then I will play along. It’s not that old coot that will stop me from pursuing my career, and I kinda feel there will be a lot more people like him in the future that I will have to deal with, so better practice now, right? *sigh*

Ugh… FINE, I’ll play along