Wait, you want to leave astronomy? Oh no!!
This page lists some resources for job ideas, as well as descriptions of specific career paths that some recent Berkeley grads have investigated. Please fill it in with additional information. The final section, at the bottom of the page, gives specific advice on how to get started on your own career search, to make a network outside of academia, and hopefully to land a position.
People leave academic astronomy for a number of reasons. Some have a clear-cut idea of the type of work that they would prefer to be involved in. Others are less sure but feel that a career of only research and teaching might not be fulfilling for them. In addition, most cite as secondary reasons concerns about the typical academic career path. Here are some numbers from recent studies in the US and UK (e.g. Metcalfe et al. 2008): There are enough postdoc positions for every graduating PhD recipient to get one. The typical number of postdoc positions before landing a permanent position is 2-3. There is only 1 permanent position for every 3 graduate students, but most people who want to stay in academia will be able to do so. In other words, 2/3 of astronomy graduate students choose not to pursue a tenure-track position at a university.
There are a number of excellent resources to help you decide what sort of non-academic career paths are available to astronomers. The AAS Non-Academic Astronomer's Network explicitly lists the names, career paths, current jobs, and contact information of astronomers who have left academia. These are people who volunteered to have their information posted on this site, which means that they are happy to be contacted for “informational interviews” (see below on how to get a “real” job). Additionally, the AAS has a running series of people writing about their experiences in different careers in their newsletter. Finally, don't be afraid to use Berkeley's career services, which are extensive. Log in to their “Callisto” network to sign up for regular discipline-specific emails about the regular Career Fairs and employer information sessions that happen on campus. These emails and events can be low signal-to-noise, but every once in a while they produce a real gem that you otherwise would have missed.
Remember how you used to say, way back when you started grad school, “Well, if it doesn't work out, there are always loads of opportunities for science PhDs.” Now that you almost have a science PhD, do you have any good idea of what such opportunities might be? Most of us don't, because resources for alternative careers can be somewhat limited. In addition to the links above, here are some ideas to get you started.
These jobs are the go-to for many PhDs. Consulting firms love our analytic skills and the fact that basic math doesn't scare us.
That being said, if you are set on joining a consulting firm, do your homework. Consulting interviews follow a different format than most other interviews, and include a “case study” portion. There are plenty of books available to prepare/practice for this. Knowing some business jargon will help a lot. The Career Center will conduct mock interviews with you, and they are familiar with this process (several people at the Career Center are former consultants!).
If you are considering consulting as a career path, be aware of the completely different lifestyle. Consultants work very long hours, do an extensive amount of traveling (being on the road for 4 nights/week is not uncommon), and must provide reasonable suggestions to the top executives of companies with imperfect data gathered on short timescales. The benefits, of course, are that projects are short-term (a nice sense of accomplishment), you are constantly interacting with executives of many companies (useful networking contacts for future employment), and you can cover a diverse set of industries.
Although some consultants become career employees, most consultants stay for only a few years before moving on to a different company (usually as a result of working with them!). This is normal, and expected, in this industry. So it's a good stepping stone to the business world.
BADgrad alum to contact for info: Rob Crockett.
Although not the best time join this industry, investors generally prize very highly people with physics backgrounds. Positions can include market analysts, fund managers, financial planners, and so on. You can specialize to some extent in specific industries or types of investments (for example, investments in high-tech firms, socially responsible investments, etc…).
Even if you think you are a highly inferior programmer compared to some of your fellow grads, you are still probably qualified to be a software engineer for one of the many internet firms in the area (and elsewhere). Again, these jobs are looking for our analytic and computer skills. Some local companies to investigate are Google and Facebook.
This is perhaps the most surprising of potential jobs. Aerospace engineering companies do love instrument builders, but they also love the rest of us too! The big companies that service the astronomy community are Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Ball Aerospace, all of whom build instruments and space observatories. They need hardware engineers, software engineers, and people on the business end who are knowledgeable and can interface easily with the astronomy community.
The way into science policy within the national government is via one of the 1-3 year fellowships offered. In the government, you can participate in the legislative branch (think working for Congress people or lobbying on the Hill) and the executive branch (think making policy at NASA and the NSF). Some fellowships of interest are:
- AAS John Bahcall Fellowship (legislative)
- AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship (legislative and executive)
- Presidential Management Fellowship (executive)
- APS Congressional Fellowship (legislative)
- AIP Science Fellowship Program (legislative and executive through State Department)
BADgrad alum to contact for info: Evan Levine.
Additionally, many universities have international and public policy departments, which may offer postdoctoral science-related foreign policy fellowships. Stanford has a few such programs, at their Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). There are also a number of “think-tanks,” in DC and elsewhere, that do more extensive research on policy issues and then make recommendations to the government.
There are also opportunities to get a taste of the policy world; these can be done during graduate school. They are:
- AAS Congressional Lobby (a few days in Washington helping the AAS)
- AAS Local Congressional Visits Day (talking to your local representative)
- Mirzayan Graduate Fellowship Program (12 weeks at the National Academies)
BADgrad alum to contact for info: Julia Kregenow.
Good science educators are always needed, at all levels of education. Among the non-traditional career paths you may want to consider are working in education in small liberal arts colleges, in smaller astronomy departments in non-top-tier state schools, and in community colleges. There is also a department at the University of Arizona that studies Astronomy Education and which techniques are successful.
Here's a little guide into the world of searching for non-academic jobs. It's written in a step-by-step format, with Steps 1-3 generally designed for early-to-mid stage grad students and Steps 4-6 designed for grad students in their final 1-2 years. But don't feel confined by the specific order; seize opportunities as they come!
This is Step 1, but it's also Steps 2-6. As you learn more about the career options out there, you'll continue to refine the direction of your job search. That said, it's still important that your search has some shape to it before you begin anything else. One of the first things people will ask you is what you're looking for, what your passions are, and what type of work you want to do. So start with the resources and job descriptions above, walk around a few career fairs, attend a few employer information sessions, and begin to think about what you want.
In particular, it's good to have a solid idea of both the type of work you want to do (policy? education? engineering?), as well as the day-to-day work that interests you: Do you prefer interacting with people or working on your computer all day? What kind of hours would you like to keep? How much travel do you want / are you willing to do for work? Do you prefer “big picture” thinking or focusing on concrete tasks? Do you like short-term or long-term projects? Do you like to write, or do you prefer technical work?
Chances are that if you've read this far into this wiki page, you have some specific thoughts about leaving academia. Probably there are things that you wish academic careers offered and that you're now searching for in other directions. Keep these in mind throughout your search.
Finally, it's important to get organized right away. Go out and buy a notebook or binder for your job search. On the first page, write down your thoughts about your next career move. Answer the above questions and list some of the types of careers that interest you. This notebook will be very important during your search, because you will get a very large number of contacts, and it will be impossible to keep track of them all in your head. Additionally, your thoughts on potential employers and career paths will evolve, and this is the place to make note of your decisions.
Every job has it's own standards for self-presentation, even academia. If the journal club speaker showed up in a full suit and handed out business cards before his talk, it would look pretty weird, and you might think, “This person does not understand the academic culture.” You might even think, “This person's lack of exposure to academic culture shows that he hasn't had much experience in academia and therefore is probably not very good at his research.”
It is VERY important to understand the culture that you want to join. Some may be very formal, and others (especially education and technical fields) may not. However, they are almost all more formal than what we're used to in graduate school. Here are some things you'll need to prepare.
Finally, for all of the categories in this section, note that Google is your friend. Every question you have about entering the business world has been asked by every college graduate ever (except those that went to grad school…) and has been answered roughly a million times on the Internet.
You probably don't have a business card, since the department doesn't issue them and academics don't distribute them. However, people you meet will want to have your card so that they can remember you and get in touch with you. So make yourself a few hundred business cards. You can design them however you like and add whatever logo you see fit (UC Berkeley, the logo of a collaboration you work on, etc), but keep them simple. The background should be white, the lettering should be black, and the formatting should be simple and elegant. Present yourself well. For example, “Graduate Student Researcher” looks a lot more impressive than “2nd yr grad.” Give your work email, since that looks more formal than a gmail address. If you choose to also give a phone number, explicitly note that it is your cell number, and make sure that your voicemail message is simple and professional.
When you meet somebody that you think will be a good contact, always ask whether they have a business card and whether it would be ok for you to contact them (either now, or in a few years when you're seriously job-searching). This should only happen after a conversation in which they sound somewhat interested in talking to you and in helping you with your search. Tape their business card in your notebook and write down where you met the person, something to help you remember them, a little bit about what you learned from them and what their position is, and any personal details that were mentioned in passing (i.e. it is always nice to know whether a contact is married, has kids, just moved to a new area, etc so that you can sound polite and interested the next time you talk to them).
Give a contact your business card only if they ask for your information. Instead, ask for their card, and then follow up. If they say, “Here's my card, send me an email next week so I have your contact info,” DO NOT SAY, “Here, just take my card instead,” and walk away. Instead, say, “Thank you, here's a business card with my info, but I'll also touch base next week by email so that you have my information in your computer as well.”
In academia, people present themselves with CVs, which are basically a formatted list of everything you've ever done. It's a good idea to start your CV as early as possible and to update it frequently, to avoid forgetting things. It's also a good idea to keep a CV even if you don't want to go into academia, since it serves as a formal collection of your career and will help you in shaping your resume. For ideas on CV formatting and content, check out your fellow BADgrads, many of whom (especially the more senior ones) link to their CV from the webpages. Likewise, most postdocs and young professors you know will also have on-line CVs that you can download and use as guidance.
Outside academia, people present themselves with resumes, which are a ONE PAGE summary of your experience and skills. In contrast to the long CV, a resume should never exceed one page. High-level executives manage to do this; so can you. Also in contrast to the CV, which is an objective reporting of facts, a resume is designed to sell your skills and experience. Your resume will take several iterations to get right, and you should consult at least once with as many of the following as possible: the Career Center, one or more friends in the business world, and one or more former grad students who now work outside academia. Ask for sample resumes, especially from former grad students. In general, the title of the resume is your name (do not have the word “Resume” anywhere on the document), and your contact information should appear at the very top, in very concise formatting. The following text should be divided into sections such as Education, Research Experience, Teaching, Service.
Most academics significantly undersell themselves in a first draft of a resume. Make a big deal of your education, which separates you from most people! List yourself as a “Ph.D. Candidate,” and don't forget your masters and your bachelors! This is the area to also note any scholarships, fellowships, and academic honor societies like Sigma Xi or Phi Beta Kappa. Don't bother with your GPA; most employers won't care, and if they do, they'll ask.
The meat of your resume at this point in your career is your research experience. You will have to explain your skills to people who may not be familiar with them. Here, and everywhere in the resume, use strong and active language to describe your experience. For example, during grad school you've created and executed multi-year projects, analyzed and modeled data, made decisions under time pressure while operating world-class observing facilities, and applied logical and creative approaches to solving complex problems. Be a little descriptive, but on the same level that you would use to describe your work to family members. Organize your experience into 3-6 one or two line bullet points. Describe the types of roles that you've played in teams; you were a team leader on your first-author papers and probably have experience working with groups of a variety of sizes. Also make a very concise note of the number of publications (first-author and co-authored) and number of talks you've given. If you've been invited to speak at institutes or at conferences, indicate these additional honors separately. Unlike in your CV, you should NOT list paper titles or talk titles. List any telescope time and grants that you've been awarded (if you participated in writing the proposal).
In the remainder of your resume, include your non-research experience. Teaching is a big deal and shows your ability to speak in front of people, to organize and lead a group of people, to plan and execute semester-long curricula, and to supervise. If you've participated in outreach, non-research workshops, etc, think about what you did during those activities and what skills and experience you gained from them. Finally, don't forget all those other things you did in grad school, especially as grad student jobs. Some examples: GA Rep = “Represented interests of 50 astronomy graduate students to governing student body and to University”. Prospie Visiting Committee = “Designed, organized, and supervised four-day orientation program for prospective graduate students”. Head GSI for Alex Filippenko = “Managed semester-long efforts of 12 graduate student instructors and coursework of 1000 undergraduate students; Managed disciplinary problems; Recognized in University-wide prize for 'Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor' .” In other words, think in concrete terms about what you did and how you can make it sound as impressive as it actually is. You get the idea.
One last key difference between a CV and a resume is as follows: A CV is written to represent your work, and you therefore need only one. A resume is written to summarize your skills, and you therefore need to tailor it to every job you apply for. It does not make sense to post a resume on your webpage, since you will use a different version for every job application. In each resume, you'll adjust the order and depth of your various experiences and skills to most appeal to the job you're applying for. A resume for a teaching position will emphasize your GSI work and student feedback; a resume for a policy position will emphasize your managerial and decision-making skills; and a resume for a technical position will emphasize your extensive research skills.
You probably (rightly) suspect that you'll need to step up your wardrobe to make a good impression out there in the real world. While most people will not explicitly judge you on individual items of clothing, every potential contact you meet will remember their overall impression of you, which will be driven in large part by your wardrobe (in addition to you words and actions of course). The keep is to own a handful of high-quality outfits. Do not bargain shop here; wait until you have the cash to go on a mini shopping spree.
A good rule of thumb for informal meetings such as on-campus workshops, employer information sessions, and career events at AAS is to dress at the high end of business casual. This means nice black or brown pants and a button-down shirt / dressy sweater. Don't ignore your shoes, which should also be dress quality. Splurge on the outfit; cheap clothes typically do not look as nice as their more expensive kin. The goal is to look professional and competent, but also not to look like you're trying too hard, which comes off as desperate. (For an example of trying too hard, check out the undergrads at on-campus career fairs in full suits.) Avoid carrying a backpack if possible; instead use a large purse or laptop case.
For interviews or other formal situations, the default is always business formal, which means a suit. If in doubt, you can always ask about dress code when the visit is being set-up. Do not under any circumstances try to save money when buying a suit. It shows. A cheap suit looks cheap, and it makes you look unprofessional and inexperienced. Do not shop off-the-rack at a department store. Ladies, go somewhere upscale like Ann Taylor. Have a salesperson help you out (you're spending enough that they'll be willing to devote some time to you). If the suit costs less than $200 (full price - nobody says you can't find sales!), it's probably not nice enough. Same for the shoes. For women, shoes should have a medium size heel and be close-toed. For woman, the accent in the outfit comes from the button-down shirt, and for men, the accent comes from the tie (the shirt should be white). In either case, choose a bold “power” color. Accessories should be kept to a bare minimum.
Every job has its own lingo, which you'll need to learn. This will happen gradually, and there's not much you can do about it, except always pay close attention. When you're able to speak about the job you want using the same vocabulary as the people offering the job, you'll sound as though you belong there. So every time somebody talks to you about their career or your career options, pay very close attention to the specific words they use to describe the relevant work, skills, and job titles. Don't be afraid to ask for definitions if it's not clear to you. The goal is to learn the meaning of these words so that you can use them in future interactions.
In addition to getting ideas on this wiki page and the links provided here, attend any workshops and information sessions that sound interesting to you. These include a number of events on-campus that happen on a regular basis: career fairs, information sessions for specific employers, and general talks about getting jobs outside of academia (they bring speakers on this subject every once in a while). If something is particular interesting to you, approach the speaker afterwards and ask for a follow-up conversation, either during his/her visit to campus or over the phone.
Another exceptional resource for this are AAS meetings. Have you ever explored the “booth” area? Many educational, policy, and technical careers are represented by booths at AAS. Visit the ones that interest you. Many times, the booths will be staffed by PR personnel, but there will be more senior people from the organization at the AAS meeting, who staff their booth for one afternoon or so, and can give you more detailed information about career options. Ask at the booth when you can find these people at their booth.
In recent years, AAS has also been really ramping up their career services at meetings. Most meetings have several career development workshops. Attend any and all that sound interesting to you. Although some of these workshops have been low quality, the quality continues to improve, and some BADgrads have found recent sessions to be very valuable sources of information. These workshops serve multiple purposes: not only will you build your skills, you'll also have a window into the business world. Moreover, if you're interested in the specific career of the speaker, stay afterwards to arrange a time to talk with him/her one-on-one, and you've just gained another contact!
Finally, have a careful look through the AAS agenda. It will likely include a number of talks and/or town hall sessions on education, employment, policy, the future of the field, etc. Make sure to attend those that interest you. If you're in a talkative mood that day, sit next to somebody you don't know and talk to them before the session starts. You never know who you might meet.
This step is really the key to your job search, and it will extend over many months. You should begin having “informational interviews” only once graduation is in sight (within 2 years). People will ask when you're finishing, and you should be able to say with certainty. Starting too soon may also give the impression that you're a “quitter.” However, if you meet a really wonderful contact during your 2nd year, you can still hold an informational interview with them if you make clear that you just wanted to learn a bit more about them although you're enjoying and committed to your Ph.D.
The most important rule about informational interviews is that they are not interviews. They are for information only. Do not even hint at asking for a job.
Here's how it works:
First, find somebody to have an informational interview with. This is somebody whose current position sounds interesting to you, or who has an educational and work background similar to yours, or preferably both. You can find people directly in the “Resources” section above, meet people at workshops, or look up former BADgrads. You can also check out alumni networks of both Berkeley and your undergraduate alma mater.
Next, send this person a short email. Introduce yourself and your career interests in 1-2 sentences. Explain how you found their contact information and why you want to talk to them. Ask whether you could make a 20-minute phone appointment. Based on the experience of several BADgrads, nearly everyone you email will respond, and most will do so quite promptly. Remember that people love to talk about their experiences and their successes, so most will be delighted to give a young person advice.
Once you have an appointment arranged, do as much research on this person and their company / organization as possible. Although they will repeat much of this in your conversation, try to know as much as you can beforehand. Using this information, come up with a list of questions you have about their career path (“how did you start off in this field? how did you transition from grad school into industry? how did you find that transition?”), their company (“can you explain the organization of the company a little? what are the roles of the different departments?”), their job (“what's your title? do you work in a team? what's your particular function?”), and their day-to-day work (“what's a typical week like for you? do you spend most of your time in meetings, with clients, at your computer? are you directly involved in policy decisions / classroom work / instrument construction / etc?”). Any questions are fair game.
At the appointment, you are in charge of placing the call. Find a quiet spot. Some people wear business attire to put themselves in the professional mind-set. Call on time. Thank them immediately for their time. Prepare a 5 minute blurb to introduce yourself, and begin with that. Make notes during your conversation, and ask questions as they come up. After 20 minutes, you will probably not be done, but make sure to check whether it's ok to continue (“we're scheduled for 20 min and I see that time is up; do you need to go?”). Chances are that they will want to continue and that they will want to recommend other people for you to talk to. Profess interest in every additional contact they offer, and write down that contact information. If the conversation is going well, and if you find yourself still very interested in pursuing such a career, you can ask “what advice would you give to a young person with my experience trying to start a career in X?” If it feels appropriate, you can even ask “do you know of any particular positions/companies that I should look into?” Again, do not ask for a job or even hint that you are asking for a job. Express interest. That's all. If you are very lucky, they may ask for your resume or alert you to a particular opening. If they do that, let them take the lead and refrain from the assumption that they're considering you for a job. At the end of the conversation, thank them profusely.
The following day, email another thank you.
Follow up will all of the additional contacts they gave you. They have probably alerted these people that you may get in touch, and it reflects mildly negatively on them if you don't. Repeat the informational interview steps above with all of these additional contacts.
Record all information in your job notebook, and keep track of your various contacts. Also keep track of who referred you to whom. It gets complicated very quickly.
As you go through this process, you will likely refine your vision of your future career, and you'll discover which avenues suit you and which do not. This is also your main chance to ask about and learn the lingo, the culture, and the atmosphere associated with various career paths. And to make a lot of great contacts! Although you never once asked for a job, you're putting your name out there, and one of these contacts may wind up leading you to your next job.
Now that you've decided what you want to do and where you want to do it, it's time to apply. The application process will differ dramatically for different career paths, but you can be guaranteed that it's very dissimilar from the postdoc application process. For nearly every job, you'll need a resume that you've tailored to the position and a cover letter. For the cover letter, Google is your friend and can help you figure out what to write. So can the Career Center.
Try to avoid blind resume drops, since these rarely turn into job offers. Instead, apply for positions that your contacts have let you know about and/or encouraged you to apply for. Finding jobs to apply for can be one of the most challenging parts of the job search, but hopefully you got some good career-specific tips from your informational interviews (of which you've hopefully had a very large number, like 50). At this point, you can also get back in touch by email with those contacts with whom you had the most positive conversations to let them know that their conversation with you and the other contacts they gave have encouraged you to try to start your own career in their field. Conclude the email with a non-committal statement requiring no action on their part but voicing your active interest, such as “Of course, if you hear about any openings that might be relevant for someone with my background and interests, I'd be very grateful to hear about it.”
On-campus employer visits are also often accompanied by on-campus interviews, by-passing the initial stages of the application process. You can find out about and schedule these through the Career Center.
You got the interview! Hooray! In some cases, the employer may view this as nothing more than a conversation with potential; however, in other cases, the employer may be ready to hire you but wants to meet you first.
Either way, you should be prepared to put your best foot forward. Dress in business formal (see above). Carry nothing except a leather portfolio (you can buy these in the book store) that contains copies of your resume and business card. Ladies can carry a small, black purse. Prepare a set of questions in the same way as you did for the informational interview. Arrive 15 minutes early. If you're very nervous, consult with Google for general interview advice. There's plenty out there.
But don't be nervous! The important thing to remember is that you already ARE a professional - just not in that particular field. You've accomplished a great deal during graduate school, and you have a lot of skills that most people can only dream about. Stay calm, and present yourself confidently. Most of the interview will be discussing your resume, and you know that by heart!
Be enthusiastic about the job. Ask questions. Sit forward; this subconsciously conveys interest. At the end of the interview, explicitly state your interest, and ask what the next step in the process is. Thank your interviewer on the spot, and send a follow-up email several days later reiterating your thanks and your interest.
At one on-campus career workshop, the speaker said that your time at work should be divided as follows: “80% doing the best job you can do, 10% on career development, and 10% on telling everyone what a good job you do during the 80%.” Even if you're looking to leave academia as fast as your resume can carry you, this still holds. Spend the vast majority of your time being a darn good astronomer, because you will be judged for future positions by what you've done. Even if the career is very different from academia, your employer will look at your resume to see whether you are an enthusiastic, motivated employee. So, while you are in grad school, the most important thing you can do for your future career is to be a great researcher.
Then spend 10% of your time at conferences, showing off your work and making a name for yourself in the community. Your advisor will love this and will be an excellent reference. Other people in the community will respect you and will speak highly of you. This is career capital, and you should not squander or ignore it just because you're contemplating a career change. It's a small world, and you never know who may speak highly of you and give you that extra advantage.
Finally, spend 10% of your time thinking about the future. This does not need to be a regular 10%; it will be less than this early in grad school and much, much more than this in your final 2 years. (Most late-stage grads go through a period of several months to a semester in which 100% of their time is spent on getting their next job.) But do try to go to interesting workshops on campus and at AAS early in grad school, start your resume early, and be thinking. Later on, you'll devote a lot of time to informational interviews and job applications and, hopefully, to interviewing for and getting a new job!