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.


Equal Opportunities: Not Just a Women’s Issue

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, where the interwebs celebrates women in science, engineering and technology. In past years I’ve written a little something for the occasion, but as I was travelling yesterday I had to give this year a miss. Do take a look at the many posts that were written on

On the subject of women in science, I was irked today when I heard about the upcoming elections for a new Equal Opportunities officer at my institute. The Max Planck Society prides itself on its family friendly policies and equal opportunities initiatives that aim to create a level playing field for men and women, and allow us to combine a “stable social background” with our scientific careers. Each of the 80 Max Planck Institutes around Germany elect their own EO officers, who are actively involved in the hiring of new staff, provide information to female staff on institute- or Society-wide initiatives, etc. They do good and valuable work.

Here’s the catch though: only women are allowed to stand for election for these posts, and only women are allowed to vote. If I understand it correctly, this is a Society-wide rule, in no way specific to our institute or to (astro)physics. I’m quite amazed at the short sightedness of this. Not only does it effectively remove all men from the entire process of creating a level playing field for men and women – men! the majority of the scientific workforce! -, it ignores all other kinds of bias that might occur, based on nationality, religion, skin colour, whatever. It’s making equal opportunities a women’s issue rather than something for everyone to think about.

Furthermore, it’s known that women themselves are as guilty of unconscious bias as men (this recent study was a good reminder). So while it’s good to have someone around with a clear mandate to spot biases in the hiring process, there’s really no reason why this should be a woman.

The attitude among men, in my experience, typically lies somewhere between complete disinterest and active annoyance. Though there are of course exceptions, men who truly care about the diversity of their workplace and the success of everyone, many seem to feel lthat women are getting an unfair advantage these days. When I see how often they are completely sidelined from discussions of equal opportunities, work-life balance or family-friendliness, I can sometimes sympathise (though to be clear: I do not agree).

Personally I try not to give the women in science “issue” too much thought these days. As a senior postdoc, being an excellent, conscientious, enthusiastic, self-promotional, hard-working publishing monster, ideally also healthy, sane and reasonably happy, is far more important than losing sleep over diversity in my workplace (sad, I know). Still, I don’t like this exclusion of men from gender or equal opportunities debates: at best, it gives them a free pass to think this is not their problem, at worst it makes them feel actively disregarded.

[The Max Planck Society has a lot of information on its family friendly policies on its webpages, and reading last year’s Annual Report, they certainly seem to be putting effort into supporting their female scientists. The report also contains lots of gender ratio figures in all areas of employment, so all the numbers are publicly available.]



So you want to do an instrumentation PhD

In the last couple of years I’ve been asked several times for advice on PhDs in astronomy, and instrumentation PhDs in particular. Many aspects of choosing a PhD became obvious to me only with hindsight, after I’d been a postdoc for a few years. Being at different institutes and seeing how postgraduate education is done differently in different countries (or even at different institutes within a country) have made various pros and cons clearer.

The simple availability of money for students for example makes a huge difference: in the UK, PhD stipends (in my time at least) came with a relatively small amount of travel money, allowing us to attend just one major conference over 3 years and perhaps 1-2 smaller ones. Every penny had to be squeezed out of the department. In Leiden, conversely, students were really pushed to travel, attend conferences, and many students would even visit collaborators abroad for extended periods of time. In their final year, they’re given the opportunity to go on a “talk tour”, usually round the US, to give seminars and colloquia about their work. These students were generally more confident about their research, better connected and very successful in the jobs market if they chose to apply for postdoc positions or fellowships.

This is not to say: UK bad, Netherlands good. It’s just an example, and there are pros and cons to every system. But it’s really important to get informed about every aspect of your PhD when you’re thinking of where to apply, and in what field. Anthony Finkelstein, who’s a Professor of Engineering at UCL in London, recently wrote a few blog posts on how to choose a PhD, and I thought these were really good – check them out.

I was recently interviewed by Physics World about careers in science, specifically postdoc careers. I think the article should be in the next issue, and from what I’ve seen it should be a good read. I’ll post something about that when it gets published.

A Faculty Address | profserious

Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of the UCL Faculty of Engineering Science and tweeter,  wrote a fictitious and pastiche-y commencement address for new graduates on his blog, which I rather like.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Class of 2012. Use statistical quality control. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, statistical quality control would be it. Scientists and engineers have shown that by careful sampling and testing you can ensure the quality of a product. The rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Undertake further formal education. I understand, you are fed up with education and with the exam treadmill. But trust me, in 20 years, you will look back and comprehend how little of what there was to know we have had the opportunity to teach you.

Your maths is better than you think.

Plan your career. Just understand that the real career opportunities arrive, out of the blue, in the email at 5.30 on a Friday evening. Be ready to take them.

Read the whole text here.

via Software Engineering Distilled | profserious.

Summer update: .Astronomy, kittens, Mars and superwomen

It’s mid-August and in recent months lots of milestones were passed here in Heidelberg: .Astronomy was a big success, I gave a talk at the super fun and interesting Galactic Star Formation conference here in Heidelberg (my slides are here), and I successfully managed to take my first 2-week holiday in some years.

I wandered round for a few days, feeling lost like a mother cat without her kittens (for kittens, read: laptop, astro-ph, infrared bubbles etc) – luckily I found some bona fide replacement kittens living behind the garden shed, and with that relaxation was achieved, a tan procured.

So back to work it is, and here’s a bit of a recap on what’s been happening…..

  • We’ve revamped our .Astronomy web presence with an attractive new site – excellent work from Rob on that. It contains little snippets and links on the hacks that were produced at the conference, and links to the great talks we heard. Stuart did an awesome jon on creating a nifty Javascript-based tool that syncs up the slides of the talks with the audio, tweets and other content, such as links. Thanks to him, you can now relive some of our keynote talks on the site.
  • Rob wrote a nice post on the hack we worked on at .Astro together with Karen Masters – I should say that I stole the idea from Brad Voytek, passed it on to Rob and Karen, who did all the hard work [NB. I think Hogg would approve of this hack-management approach].  Alasdair Allan then picked it up and wrote some nice words on O’Reilly Radar. Basically we wanted to examine trends in the astronomy literature by mining ADS; the idea is that the ability to do this will then allow a more sophisticated analysis to uncover hidden relations between concepts. I’m incredibly impressed with Rob’s efforts.
  •  NASA landed a very cool rover called Curiosity on the surface of Mars. It was lowered onto Mars with a crane! It has nuclear fuel! It zaps rocks with a laser! Mars looks just like Arizona! OK, you probably know all about this already.
  •  The Guardian posted a few good articles on life in academia that struck a note with me:  (1) The superwoman fallacy: what it really takes to be an academic and parent by Melissa Terras at UCL, and (2) The two body problem: trials and tribulations of a trailing spouse by writer Simon Perks. Notes were struck because (1) I’ve been working incredibly hard and my mind is suffering a little for it; and (2) oh joy, job season is a’knockin’ once again.

September always comes along with a flurry of meetings, telecons, trips and deadlines, so for the next week or 2 I’m enjoying the remainder of the summer quiet, while it lasts.