I walked into the pizzeria and asked to look at the menu. Quickly scanning the ingredients, I rejected each pizza as soon as I recognised a word that translated to a type of meat. “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope … maybe?” It was only my second week of living in Italy; I’d studied Italian for seven months and learnt a bunch of words but not all the words and there are just so many words.
Verdure – green – that sounds vego-friendly? Most of the ingredients seemed OK except this one: peperoni. I mean… that’s straight up meat. I glanced up uncertainly at the cameriere.
“Verdure”, I pointed at the menu, “é vegetariano?”
“Sí”, he replied.
“Ma… peperoni? É carne.”
He looked confused and said something to me I didn’t understand.
“Io non mangio carne. Le Verdure é vegetariano ma peperoni é carne. Non mangio carne.”
(Pepperoni is meat. I don’t eat meat.)
He seemed impatient and muttered something else. Never piss off your chef, I thought, or they’ll spit in your food. I reluctantly ordered the Verdure.
When it came out, I stared at the Verdure pizza. It looked fine. Pulling open the menu, I mentally drew lines connecting each word to a topping until there was only one topping left. And then… it clicked: capsicum. Peperoni was capsicum. Like Peppers. Peperoni. Capsicum. I looked up and grinned at the cameriere who had already turned away, glad to be done with this troublesome customer.
It was the 1980’s when the young Italian followed her husband across the world from the north-eastern region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia to the city of Sydney, Australia. She eventually found work of her own in the lower-north-shore suburb of Neutral Bay and spent her weekends hanging out in Kings’ Cross. Just before she returned home a few years later, somewhere across town a little girl of Indian heritage would move to the country with her family. But the two wouldn’t cross paths until 22 years later, when the girl, now a young woman, would turn up in her small but pretty village, Chialminis
, to sing Sunday mass with her Triestino choir
La Chiesa di Sant’Elena Imperatrice in Chialminis where the Sunday mass took place. Photo Credit: http://www.natisone.it
The entire village of about 50 people attended both mass and a concert held after a coffee break at the local cafe-bar. At the end of the concert, their conductor proudly elaborated on the choir’s diversity and international-roots; the now-elderly Italian woman asked to be introduced to the young Australian, before she’d even left the stage. There was plenty of time to talk as the town had invited the choristers to join them for lunch. The two women sat down together and exchanged stories in an awkward mix of Italian and English. Each had had very different experiences of Sydney, but both had bought groceries in Leichhardt (a suburb that still hosts a large Italian community). Meanwhile, the village served up a feast – including vegetarian pasta specially made at the last minute for the young woman – and plenty of their locally produced dessert-wine Ramandolo. The locals and the visitors would take turns to sing folk songs amongst the rounds of food. When the day came to an end, the two women bid each other adieu with the usual kisses on cheeks. Five minutes into the drive back to Trieste, the young woman and her fellow singers stopped to buy bottles of that sweet white-yellow wine. She would share it with her friends and colleagues at the astronomy department on her birthday that year.
Even after she left Trieste, the young woman couldn’t shake the feeling that she had been gifted a memory from someone’s life to protect, of which only she could understand the significance. She would recall this as one of her favourite days out of her three years spent living in Italy. Years later, she would find herself scanning the dessert wine section in Sydney, hoping (but not really expecting) to discover a bottle of Ramandolo, so that she could drink in honour of a woman named Lucia.
I left astronomy formally 18 months ago and recently finished up a computational modelling job in public health. With a little bit of time and perspective I now present to you my 10-step Program to Quitting Astronomy. Or any line of work. I’m not arguing that you *should* leave. This is simply about the process. Some of the details are specific to my aims, but I’m also incorporating a range of advice from my friends and colleagues, who each have their own unique goals. These steps don’t have to happen in exactly this order, but you’ll want or need to do most of these at some point. Good luck!
The 10-step program
- Acknowledge your feelings
- Identify your skills and interests
- Decide what to do next
- Find a mentor
- Go public
- Form a study group
- Re-train and re-brand
- Settle in
- Mentor others
So: you’re thinking about quitting astronomy. Why are you considering leaving? Are the problems specific to the job? Or a consequence of unusual circumstances? Could they exist in all workplaces? What future do you picture if you continue? What do you expect if you leave? What are the risks of leaving? What are the risks of staying? What are you afraid of? Do some honest soul-searching; talk to friends; read some quit-lit if you like. I had never planned to leave, so I struggled and this stage took me a whole year. At the end of the day, you might decide to stay. That’s OK. But your mental health is your health, so make that a priority whatever you decide.
If you make the decision to leave, then recognising your own skills and interests is crucial, especially when you come to re-branding (see Step 7). Make a mental list of intellectual interests and priorities (incl. workplace environment, autonomy, opportunity for progression, big picture, salary & benefits, flexibility & stability, family & relationships). Which of these are dealbreakers? My original list had astronomy near the top, and I had to gently but purposely delete it so that I could acknowledge its existence but then turn my attention to everything else.
Decide what to do next *generally* speaking, both in terms of your career and other life choices (based on Step 2)
. Take every opportunity to hear from friends and acquaintances outside your regular professional sphere about what they do and who they work with. Ask whether they hire people with your background and skills. My first resource was the JobsForAstronomers website, which – back in 2012 – introduced me to the now famous Insight Data Science Fellowship. Insight has since spawned several other satellite initiatives and similar data science programs are popping up everywhere. At that point, however, what mattered wasn’t the programs themselves, but rather realising that my PhD would really be useful and valued elsewhere, that I wouldn’t be wasting my achievements, and that a path existed somewhere to mediate my transition. At first I was drawn to data-science, but later decided (after going back to Step 1) that I still wanted to do some academic work as an applied statistician but in a different discipline; now I sit somewhere in between.
Seek out a mentor or three. Find ex-astronomers who are already working in a field you’re interested in joining (preferably people who you can relate to), ask them about what they do day-to-day, good companies/institutes to work with, where/how to look for jobs, and CV/application/interview tips. People are almost always willing to step up: advice is free and it’s flattering to be asked. In the last few years, a few Facebook groups have been formed to help with this.
It’s OK to cold-call someone to ask for advice. I did.
At some point you need to let people know your plans and where you’re looking to go. Partly for logistical reasons (so you can ask for reference letters) and partly for your own sanity (you can stop pretending that your sole purpose in life is to get a faculty job). As a bonus, once people know you’re looking for a job, they might just tell you about potential mentors and any openings they hear about. So go public with positivity. There’s no need to be defensive: you’ve made a (big) choice for valid reasons.
Channel your inner career-transition spirit animal and explore new identities
Find a few other people preparing to make a similar move and suggest that you form a study-group that doubles as a support-group. I’ve met these people either in my own department or at astro-conferences (these days people discuss post-astro careers at every single event; thankfully this is no longer a taboo subject). You can swap tips and discuss all the practicalities of steps 7 & 8. You will find out about twice as many job opportunities. Most importantly, you will not be alone in this.
Re-training is simple; we do it all the time, like reading up for new projects or teaching ourselves new programming languages. But re-branding feels like a bit of a dirty word for a researcher. The fact is we’ve always been one-person companies: creating a product, marketing, consulting, HR, all wrapped up in a human package. Re-branding means consciously influencing your potential professional community’s perception of you, communicating your expertise, what values you stand for, and ultimately if and where you would fit in with their team. Both re-training and re-branding could involve applying to fellowships and internships, completing MOOCs and kaggle-competitions, attending short courses & workshops, conferences & hackathons, meetups & career seminars, blogging demo-projects, and taking to social media.
Also, take some decent professional photographs – you’ll need them.
Beginning the transition involves a few things: job hunting, re-designing your CV, learning new interview skills, and time. Your mentors and support-study group will be crucial here so make the most of them. A good recruiter can do wonders, and networking is key. I found social-media to be very useful for serendipitous job ads, although I rely more on job-listing websites and newsletters. Interviews can be quite different to what you’re used to, so treat each one as a learning opportunity. Are companies reluctant to hire astronomers? I can’t speak for all companies, but I can tell you that to improve your chances you should avoid being seen as a risky hire: do your research, adapt to speak their language and understand their stakeholders’ needs. So… go out and score that job!
Optional extra: transition between countries…
Adjust and settle into your new job & new life. Get used to answering the question: “So, what do you do?”. I still almost always mention astronomy. No job is perfect, but sometimes it’s not until after we’ve had one job outside our previous career that we realise what we’d taken for granted. That said, nobody I know regrets their decision to leave. It’s OK to miss your research topic. I miss gravitational lensing terribly – the research, my colleagues, and the conferences. I still like to share major science news with my family, friends, and bus drivers. But why not get involved with other science disciplines? Why not the tech industries and start-ups? Why not help shape policy? Now that I’ve freed myself from the shackles of lifelong career goals, I have the opportunity to be part of any of it. I am also free, it turns out, to continue doing research astronomy as a hobby, at my own pace, on whatever I’m inclined to do.
Congratulations! You’ve moved on – with some help. Now it’s time to pay it forward. From the moment you go public (step 5), you can expect requests for mentorship or at least a one-off chat. One year on, I was asked to speak on a panel to junior academics about alternative career paths (keep an eye on emails from your previous department and volunteer when you see calls for speakers). Your ability to help others transition will be useful for at least a few years, so go out and do your duty. Maybe write a blog about your experience.
I had the privilege of attending the 2016 Australian Academy of Science Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank in Canberra just recently. I’d only heard about it via a single tweet the day before applications were due, but with the topic of “An interdisciplinary approach to living in a risky world”, my response was: yes please.
We were also asked to choose our preferred topic for breakout-group discussion, and I got my obvious favourite, the technical theme of “Uncertainty, ignorance and partial knowledge”, which turned out to have some focus on decision theory. The session would chaired by Prof. Mark Colyvan, a professor of Philosophy at my alma mater, The University of Sydney, who had recently responded to Luke Barnes’s recent fine-tuning of the universe talk. Some of the recommended reading got me thinking about matters we didn’t get to cover (like how much I don’t like maximin), but I’ll discuss with Mark, and I’m sure I’ll blog about that later. In the meantime, our breakout group spent a couple of hours throwing around our thoughts and ideas and have begun to craft a report and recommendations for the Academy regarding decision-making and risk communication in the face of uncertainty.
Wrap up from chair Prof Hugh Possingham
My fellow delegates were such interesting people from diverse backgrounds like health, maths, stats, philosophy, history, law, geology, ecology, microbiology etc, and absorbing ideas from these amazing people over the two days provided a complete mental recharge. It was like NYSF for grown-ups. Even the conference dinner speech by emergency doctor David Caldicott was so stimulating, leaving my laughing and crying, I’d dare say it was the “best event speech ever”.
Slide from Prof Terry Speed’s talk at the AAS Think Tank
Actually one of the things I most enjoyed at the Think Tank was finding out people’s thoughts on rationality during tea break, as always. As it turns out, most people I spoke to (about this topic, sample size ~5) were adamant that people are at heart, irrational creatures. Only one person (besides myself) thought otherwise. I’ve been told I have to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow to hear more arguments against the assumption of rationality. Apparently there are tests for this sort of thing…
I confess: I like Tom Stoppard because his plays highlight all the intellectually stimulating but somewhat pretentious (aren’t they all?) discussions I’ve had over the last 15 years. His latest, The Hard Problem, was no different. It follows Hilary, a psychology student who we meet as she applies for a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, hoping to inject some humanity into their research. As always, Stoppard treats us to some witty banter, this time about altruism, animal behaviour, coincidence, consciousness, ego, evolutionary biology, morality, neuroscience, religion, and the worlds of academia and finance. The Hard Problem is perhaps less clever and fresh than Arcadia or RosenGuild, but fun and thought-provoking nonetheless. Some of the characters are true to the bone while others, disappointingly, feel typecast, but there is definitely some familiar truth in all. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the brain-lit Hytner production that we saw streamed live from the National Theatre in London – worth seeing.
Parth Thakerar (Amal), Vera Chok (Bo), Lucy Robinson (Ursula), Rosie Hilal (Julia), Olivia Vinall (Hilary) and Damien Molony (Spike) in The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard @ Dorfman, National Theatre.
Recently I attended the second ever Bayesian Young Statisticians’ Meeting (BAYSM`14) in Vienna, which was a really stimulating experience, and something pretty new for me, being my first non-astronomy conference. I won a prize for my talk too, which was pretty sweet!
Swanky BAYSM`14 venue at WU Vienna designed by architect Zaha Hadid
During the two-day overview of theory and a variety of applications by the newest people in the field (read about the highlights over at the blogs of Ewan Cameron and Christian Robert), we heard from a few Keynote Speakers including Chris Holmes. In his talk, he mentioned the world of rational decision makers as envisioned by Leonard J. Savage in his 1954/1972 tome The Foundations of Statistics (adding that on my ‘to read’ list), and went on to describe the application of a loss function and minimax to avoid worst-case scenarios. Minimax isn’t the only approach to decision-making; I think other approaches are more relevant to our behaviour, as I’ll describe later.
“If you lived your life according to minimax, you’d never get out of bed” – C. Holmes
In my fist was a single piece of candy wrapped in bright yellow cellophane, accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of guilt and sadness. I had just seen a little boy grab four: one for him, one each for mum and dad, and one for grandma, presumably back at home. There was a sign on the wall saying “Please Take One”, but it still didn’t feel right.
“We shouldn’t do this. Don’t you see? We’re killing him.”
“Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)”, Félix González-Torres, 1991. Multicolored candies, individually wrapped in cellophane; ideal weight 175 lb.; installed dimensions variable, approximately 92 x 92 x 92 cm (36 x 36 x 36 in.)