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
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
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?