The Academic Pyramid

The leaves here in Heidelberg have turned and fallen, which can mean only one thing: we’re all writing job proposals again. If you’re a postdoc with lofty ambitions for holding a permanent job one day (one day!), you’re never really off the market. A good resource if you need inspiration in your hunt is Astrobetter, which has a page on the wiki with some helpful links. Astrobetter is of course also home to the Astrophysics Jobs Rumour Mill – the site we all love to hate.

Some time ago in October, Physics World published an article about postdoc careers, and academic careers in general, entitled “The academic pyramid”. It’s written by Margaret Harris and I was one of the interviewees – the others are fellow astros Alan Duffy in Australia and Barnaby Rowe at UCL, and Aime McNamara, a medical physics postdoc. There’s a link to the article from this blog post, you have to register but access is free. I meant to write about it earlier but didn’t get round to it; the links on Astrobetter reminded me.

The questions Harris asked me were interesting so I spent quite some time working on my responses. It was a really good opportunity to give it all some thought. On paper being a postdoc really rocks! I go to work more or less when I want, wearing what I want, some days I work from home, other days send me to Chile, or California, or Rio de Janeiro. I get paid a decent wage and have two excellent computers. I meet Nobel prize winners and people who write books for a living. Smart people ask for my opinion. What’s not to love, exactly?

The underbelly of the academic job that the travel and the prestige and the apparent laid-backness of it all manage to conceal, is the continuous, relentless pressure to Perform and Be Brilliant on so many levels. You have to be enthusiastic, write papers, go to conferences, read the literature, apply for funding, apply for jobs, network, do some teaching, do some outreach. All of those things, all the time, with confidence and a smile. It’s like a decathlon for the brain.

As an academic, particularly in a small field like astronomy, you will have to make difficult decisions in your career, and possibly sacrifice other things that matter to you in life. You will almost certainly be on fixed-term contracts throughout your mid-twenties to early-/mid-thirties, so you need to be comfortable with having a limited horizon and a degree of uncertainty in your life for that time.

But if you’re passionate about your topic and you can mentally and physically cope with the demands of the job, not to mention the occasional exotic jaunt, a research career is fantastic and you shouldn’t let any of the negativity put you off. Just work hard, live it and love it.


What’s our greatest weakness?

I’m curious: What do ya’ll think is the bit of professional astronomy that most needs to be changed? Regardless of government funding levels, is there one thing that’s holding us back from being the best astronomers we can be more than others? What’s our greatest weakness? Is it the disconnect between course work (theory) and practical astronomy (programming)? Disconnect between telescope time and funding? Not enough support for career tracks other than academia? Not enough open access to results? Competitive culture? Not competitive enough? If there was one thing you could change about our culture and traditions that would have the biggest impact on making astronomy more productive as a whole and an even better career choice than it is now, what would it be?

These questions by Kelle Cruz over on Astrobetter have sparked a pretty lively discussion, about careers, money, bad behaviour, and short-termism in science.

I was particularly piqued by one commenter, who seems to suggest that we shouldn’t make astronomy too attractive a career, as there are too many of us already. “We are all in it for the thrills of science.” Right. (In fairness, he does go on to mitigate the statement. But still.)

Got a bee in you bonnet? Go comment here.

Topcat, Top Dog

Astrobetter has a guest post by Niall “in the gutter” Deacon of the University of Hawaii on one of my favourite pieces of astronomical software, Topcat. Developed as part of the UK’s Virtual Observatory program Astrogrid, Topcat gives astronomers Tools for Operations on Catalogues and Tables. That doesn’t sound very sexy, but for anyone who deals with data from large public surveys or needs to cross-match several large datasets, Topcat is the grease in the cogs of their productivity.

Niall recorded a cool screencast to show off some of Topcat’s functionality, which I’ve embedded above.  There’s also some useful discussion in the comments on Astrobetter, including one from Mark Taylor who actually wrote Topcat.

I use Topcat almost exclusively in conjunction with image viewer Aladin. Connecting the two via the SAMP protocol, which is done at the click of a button, allows you to send targets back and forth between the two, visualise catalog data or create tables from image data. Recent versions of DS9 are also VO-enabled, though I find the VO functionality of Aladin, i.e. searching catalogs, images and archives, more efficient and versatile.

Astrobetter guest post: Mendeley

Staying on top of the literature, even in a narrow field, is one of the biggest challenges we face in research today. Do you have an ever-growing pile of astro-ph papers on your desk you’ve meaning to read? Yeah, we all have that. In recent years a number of software packages and web applications have come on the market to help researchers organise their literature: Papers, Reference Manager, Jabref, and Zotero. Past AstroBetter posts have introduced Papers and discussed Papers vs. BibDesk. A recent addition that’s been getting good press lately is London-based Mendeley.[...]

I wrote a guest post on Mendeley for the Astrobetter blog.  Go read it here!

More screenshots are in my public Astrobetter notebook, alongside those I did for the Evernote post.

Astrobetter Guest Post: Evernote

Some time ago Kelle Cruz, one of the writers of the Astrobetter blog, invited me to write a guest post on how I use Evernote for work. It’s just appeared on the blog today, so go check it out.

I created a public notebook in Evernote with some screenshots to illustrate some of the ways I use the programme I’ve described in the post. At the same time this can give Evernote newbies a flavour of the application’s  look and feel.