|Approaching mammatus at sunset, bad news for night pilots and astronomers|
I got interested in science when I was five years old, at the 1964 World's Fair. I was initially interested in dinosaurs, but I switched fields to astronomy when I was still five, and I've been at it ever since.
All throughout Project Apollo, the '70s, and most of the Space Shuttle program, up to when I finally got tenure in 2005, I was told about nine billion times, "A degree in ASTRONOMY? What are you going to do with THAT?" I was told this by seemingly everyone: relatives, academic advisers nearly every step of the way, friends, and often people I'd just met.
I understood early that many more people want to work as astronomers than there will ever be jobs for them. It's much like making a living as an actor, or a musician—or getting a job as an astronaut. I therefore don't understand why so many academics say, "No one ever told me!" when they're having career trouble.
I don't want to seem hard or mean, since I spent too many years as a postdoc and as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor. Fourteen years of never being able to see a year into the future caused me chronic anxiety that was awful, almost as bad as the skimpy paychecks. One particularly unscrupulous boss would yell, "Your work is its own reward!" when cutting my pay. Me yelling back, "So give me your paycheck!" didn't help.
It made my brain want to scream, but still, I wasn't surprised by it. I'd been reminded about nine billion times that this wouldn't be easy, and that risk was involved. I knew this at least since I was seven years old, when a relative gave me a copy of "The Question and Answer Book of Space" (then new), and I read its entry, "Is it easy to become an astronaut?" (It said no, since many more people wanted to be astronauts than there were jobs for them.) I knew that there was a significant possibility that I'd never make any living as an astronomer, much less a decent one.
So, as a veteran of plenty of career trouble, I still don't understand why so many academics say, "No one ever told me!" when having career trouble. Karen Kelsky, on her site "The Professor Is In," reports she often gets this remark from academics having career trouble (although I didn't see any astronomers quoted on her site).
Why do they say this? I never did, since I was told about nine billion times to expect a struggle. But of course, per ardua ad astra. When I was an undergraduate, in the mid-to-late '70s, most of my fellow astronomy students knew it wouldn't be easy. This might have partly been because in the '70s, after the cancellation of Project Apollo, unemployed Ph.D.s were novel.
Many academics today seem genuinely surprised when they have career trouble. Why? Do people not say, "A degree in ______? What are you going to do with THAT?" in fields other than astronomy?
Curiously also, most of my students today seem genuinely surprised when I tell them about the stinky job market in astronomy. Why?