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.