What's it Like, Being an Astronomer?

All of our discussion on scientific method has been very formal. But how science is actually played out in the real world involves human beings like you and me. Let's see how life as an astronomer is.

About 180 American universities offer undergraduate degrees in Astronomy. And about 60 offer graduate (usually PhD) degree programs. The number one

At the prime focus cage of the Palomar 200" Telescope

university in the world, as determined by the quality of the faculty and the quality of the published research (citations, ranking by peers) is right here - it's UC Santa Cruz. For those who still think of UCSC as a granola school for alternative studies, that sterotype has been obsolete for many years. In truth, however, UCSC has always been world-class in astronomy - being headquarters for Lick Observatory and for the Keck Observatories. A future astronomer typically earns an undergraduate degree in physics, mathematics, or astronomy. A strong background in computational physics is also required in today's world. To do professional science today, you need to be able to program a computer in a modern computer language.

The twin Keck 10m telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii

Science people usually look back on their graduate student years fondly as the most enjoyable of their careers. You work with a professor on exciting projects, and are supported by grant money applied for by your professor. A prospective graduate student will look closely not just at the university, but at the professors he would work with and exactly what projects they work on, and what is the quality of their work. At UCSC, there are particularly strong programs in computational cosmology, the discovery of exo-planets and planetary science in general, and astronomical instrumentation design. As a grad student, you'll spend a fair amount of time in front of a computer, programming up codes to process observations into calibrated data, or writing codes which do numerical experiments and simulations which test the evolution of astronomical systems under differing assumptions of the processes you think are at work. You'll be going to weekly colloquia (a colloquium is essentially a talk, given usually by a visiting professor presenting his research on a specialized project). These colloquia are given in rooms with plenty of chairs and it's typical that you can, even now while you're at Cabrillo, attend colloquia at UCSC to get a feel for what it's like. There's no "bouncers" at the door keeping anyone from coming in and having a listen. The more, the better, as it looks better to have lots of interested folk. After the talk, it's typical that the department takes the speaker out to dinner where there is plenty of informal conversation on things both scientific and non-scientific. There are also conferences given around the world on particular specializations, and as a grad student you'll generally have money set aside for going to these conferences. Usually given at locations where there is both a host scholarly institution, and also probably is a nice place to visit! Hilo, Hawaii near the Keck Observatory, perhaps; maybe Paris, home of the I.A.P, or Basel Switzerland near CERN, or ... there are always interesting places. Here, you can meet with other scientists socially and collaborations may be started. Perhaps you've been working on a new computer code for modelling the hydrodynamics of accretion disks around black holes, and you meet with an observational astronomer who is gathering X-ray data on black holes in the centers of galaxies, and you two want to get together to study what kind of light should be emitted by these black holes under various circumstances. Or, countless other possibilities....

Astronomy is done in magical places! This is Sphinx Observatory, who's access is through a huge elevator drilled down into the Jungfrau Mountain in the Alps.

Most astronomers get academic jobs - they teach and do research at universities. Some get work at government labs like the Jet Propulsion Lab, or NASA. You might be surprised to hear how few nights you will spend at an observatory. Even a full-on observational astronomer may spend only ~20-25 nights a year doing observations at a big telescope. Gathering data is only the first step; turning it into knowledge takes a lot of time and work, and writing up proposals to get that precious time also takes time. Most observatories are built with money raised at least in part by universities, and a large fraction of the nights are reserved for faculty at that university. The University of California built Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, and UC astronomers get almost all the time on this scope. The Keck Telescopes in Hawaii are the second biggest telescopes in the world, and the best instrumented. They were built as a collaboration between UC and Caltech, and these two institutions' faculty get the majority of the time. There are also National observatories: Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona is a U.S. optical observatory open to all PhD holders in astronomy in the U.S. (This site has some video's of operations at Kitt Peak). So is the Hubble Space Telescope. The VLA Radio Observatory in New Mexico is also a national observatory, for radio wavelength astronomy. To get time at a big telescope, you need to write up a proposal. The proposal describes what the motivation for the project is, what prior work has been done, and what new work is needed, and why this telescope and instrument (spectrograph, imager, polarimeter, whatever...) is the right equipment to answer this particular scientific question, and also why you and your collaborators are qualified to do the work (a resume on your past work is useful here). The TAC committee ("time allocation committee") reads all proposals and allocates the nights. Typically, you may get ~4 or so nights to do your project, depending on what exactly the needs are. For those nights, you'd better arrive in plenty of time, expect to be up all night long, and not fumble around with things you didn't prepare for! Efficiency is very important. It's expensive to run an observatory, with staff, night telescope operators, utilities, etc, and there are almost always more proposed nights than there are available nights. What if it's cloudy? Tough! You get clouded out. You stay up and be prepared in case it clears, you monitor the weather.... and you apply for more telescope time on the next application cycle. Grad students not infrequently have their degrees delayed by perhaps a year or more because of bad luck with clouds on their critical observing nights.

Usually you work in a collaboration. Sometimes, it's a big collaboration, with a dozen or even dozens of other astronomers and grad students and post-docs. Each has their speciality to add to the mix of producing a first rate piece of science at the end of it. One professor and his grad student has a computer code for processing spectroscopy from the particular instrument you used. Another has expertise in modelling UV light emission from what you're observing, another at interpretting raw spectra and converting to element and ionization state abundances, etc., etc. It's rare, these days, to find scientific papers with a single author.

What is harder to describe here, is just how much fun it all is! You're asking Big Questions of Mother Nature, and working with very bright people who are a joy to be around, and you're going to far flung places around the world, and mountaintop observatories for nights on end. Or knocking around ideas about how to get around a tough problem at a pub or a cafe with fellow astronomers. On conferences, there's always time for skiing, hiking through the Alps, sampling fine ales at the local pubs, mountain biking near the Aspen Institute for Physics etc. (I've done all these, and more, at conferences). It's an exciting lifestyle, and if you enjoy being around people who can stimulate and excite you with their ideas and their conversation, it's hard to beat. It's competitive to get a job as a professional astronomer, because it is such a rewarding life, but focus on the fun of learning and if you've got the talent, I highly recommend it.

On Moving from Astronomer to Data Analyst
This letter was sent by astronomer Jessica Kirkpatrick to AAS members in '13 and has really valuable tips on skills to acquire and what private industry is looking for...

"I recently made the transition from astrophysics researcher to data scientist for a tech company.  Here are suggestions for people in academia / research who are interested in pursuing a tech job. Most tech companies are interested in smart, talented people who can learn quickly and have good problem solving skills. Scientists have these attributes. Therefore, if you apply for a job at a tech company, your application is likely to catch the interest of a recruiter. However, once you get an interview, there are many other skills that the company will try to assess, skills that you may have (or not) already. The following are some tips which will help you in both the application /interview process, as well as on the job at a tech company.

1) Learn a Standard Language
Sorry astronomers, but IDL isn't going to cut it if you want to get a tech job. You need to learn one of the industry-standard programming languages. Python, Ruby, Java, Perl, and C++ are all good languages to pick-up. It would also be good to learn a statistical analysis package like R, SAS, SPSS or Excel as well as a visualization package to show your results. Some jobs involve a coding interview. These require some knowledge of computer science algorithms. Look online (http://blog.geekli.st/post/34361344887/how-to-crack-the-toughest-coding-...) as there are many examples of coding problems for you to practice.

2) Learn About Databases
"Big data" is the Web 2.0 it-phrase. If you want to play with big data, you are going to need to learn how to manage, handle and access it. SQL is a must. It would be great if you could also familiarize yourself with Hadoop/MapReduce and Hive.

3) Brush-up Your Stats
Many tech interviews involve doing complicated math, probability, statistics, brain-teasers and open-ended problems. Dust off some of your old statistics texts or pick up a book about data analysis using one of the above languages. Search online for past interview questions (http://www.glassdoor.com/Interview/index.htm) of the companies you are applying to.

4) Communication is Key
To be effective in a tech job, not only should you be able to program, analyze data and solve problems -- you need to easily explain your work to people who aren't very technical. Communication is incredibly important for these roles, and a huge part of the interview process is gauging how well you explain complicated ideas to a lay-person. There are many opportunities to practice this skill within academia, so give many talks, teach classes, tutor, volunteer or do whatever you can to become very comfortable explaining technical ideas to people with different backgrounds and skill levels.

5) Convert Your CV into a Resume
There is a difference, and it is important(http://chronicle.com/article/From-CV-to-R-sum-/44712). People at tech companies get hundreds of resumes. It is important to succinctly highlight the skills you bring to each job. It's great that you’ve published dozens of papers, given lots of talks and taught many classes... but what is more important are the skills you acquired from those experiences. Resumes should only be 1-2 pages. Look at the skills required for the job you are applying for, and then try to demonstrate those skills by listing the relevant experience.

6) Academic vs. Business Problems
In academia the goal is usually to get the most accurate solution possible. Time and efficiency are less important than doing something thoroughly and rigorously. In business the goal is to increase your company's value. Therefore any task must optimize both accuracy and value. This is a difficult transition for many academics to make. Spend some time reading TechCrunch (http://techcrunch.com/) and other such sites to help familiarize yourself with the various metrics and problems that tech companies care about. Be prepared to work on short deadlines and to be able to prioritize tasks in order to increase the value of your work. Keep this in mind when answering open-ended interview questions so you demonstrate your understanding of this difference.

7) Do an Internship or Project
The best way to get your foot in the door of a tech company is to do an internship. Many of the major tech companies have paid summer internships that will introduce you to this type of work, as well as teach you many of the skills mentioned above. The Insight Data Science Fellowship (http://insightdatascience.com/) is an internship specifically designed for helping academics transition into tech positions. If you are unable to take time off from your current job, then consider doing a project on your own. Create an application for your phone or do a research project with one of the many free data sources out there. This will give some insight into the work you might do at a tech company and an important set of talking points for interviews."


A Day in the Life of an Observational Astronomer (at the European Southern Observatory)