Astronomers in the Academy and Industry …

I recent read this post, “Astronomers in the Academy and Industry“, by incoming AAS president, Megan Urry, which discusses the merits of forging stronger collaborations between astronomy departments and industry (e.g. finance, biotech, etc) with the aim of building transferable skills and contact networks to help post-graduates who will ultimately transition from academia to industry.  I think it’s great that such ideas are now being taken seriously: collaborations with industry during one’s PhD will surely do wonders for one’s employment prospects and CV and they give a flavour of life outside astronomy. 

On the other hand, I disagree strongly with Megan’s statement regarding the over-flowing sink problem:

In my view, however, this is not a crisis, and decreasing the supply at the front end (i.e., in graduate-student admissions) would be a mistake. It’s a feature, not a bug, that we give students the opportunity to learn and to grow and, as postdocs, to demonstrate individually what they can do. During this process, plenty of students decide that the academic life is not for them and look for other options.

What an absolute load of rubbish! For starters, anyone who thinks that post-doctoral research is an opportunity for post-grads to demonstrate their skills *individually* has to be joking: with the current hierarchy post-docs are pretty much still slaves to their supervisors; only a handful of fellowship positions allow for genuine individual research.  Second, it’s not like anyone (well, not many) really *decides* academic life isn’t for them: like ‘Oh no, I don’t think I’d enjoy one day having the freedom to research my pet interests in the field of science I love … and have a well paid, well respected job for life doing it!’.  No, the truth is people leave because they can’t face the prospect of a further however-many-years of slaving away as a post-doc under long-past-their-use-by-date professors who got their permanent jobs with a fraction of the CV of a modern post-doc, whilst being lowly paid and having to move country/city every couple of years (i.e. no mortgage prospects, etc.).  Third, “graduate students learn and grow” … true-ish, but not thanks to their supervisors (for the most part): they’ll learn a few non-transferable skills like how to operate a telescope and they’ll learn how to use a few astronomical software programs while they reduce mounds of data, but it’s not like their professor is going to teach them anything beyond the most rudimentary statistics or ODE solving algorithms.  As for advanced applied or mathematical statistics they’ll have to teach themselves in between data reduction, likewise for modern programming techniques and data management tools.

Here’s a proposal you won’t see any professors supporting: how about revoking tenure and subjecting the establishment to the same pressures of the modern employment market those below them in the hierarchy have to face!

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3 Responses to Astronomers in the Academy and Industry …

  1. It’s also true that in 80% of the cases I try to teach something heterodox (as compared to the usual things supervisors teach to their students) to a student, I find tons of apathy. I guess it is just an image of the present world in which anything difficult that takes more than 2 hours to learn should be discarded. I’m probably becoming too old even though I feel young 😉

  2. Phillip Helbig says:

    I disagree that doing away with tenure is a good option. Yes, some senior folks might then notice how difficult it is but then, like the junior folks, they will probably leave academia as well. Rather than bringing the seniors down to the junior level, one should bring the juniors up to the senior level, i.e. for the same amount of money (whether one wants to invest more money in academia is a separate question), fewer fixed-term positions and more permanent positions, hiring people for permanent (or at least tenure-track) jobs at a younger age.

    • Phillip Helbig says:

      I might add that while a doctoral degree might be of use in some jobs outside of academia, a postdoc, and certainly several postdocs, is probably a disadvantage.

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