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