What’s our Greatest Weakness?

by Kelle on March 14, 2012

I’m curious: What do ya’ll think is the bit of professional astronomy that most needs to be changed? Regardless of government funding levels, is there one thing that’s holding us back from being the best astronomers we can be more than others? What’s our greatest weakness? Is it the disconnect between course work (theory) and practical astronomy (programming)? Disconnect between telescope time and funding? Not enough support for career tracks other than academia? Not enough open access to results? Competitive culture? Not competitive enough? If there was one thing you could change about our culture and traditions that would have the biggest impact on making astronomy more productive as a whole and an even better career choice than it is now, what would it be? Let’s vent a bit, but also think about what we can do to strive for positive change. Please include your current career stage in your comment.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Emil Rivera-Thorsen March 14, 2012 at 11:13 am

Nomadic life (and this is of course not astronomy-specific). Often you have to move between cities and countries to get the next position, if any. This is very hard to combine with having partner and children, and pushes many talented people into more stable and secure careers. This is also a larger problem to women than to men, creating a gender inequality that could part explain the lopsided gender distribution in science.

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2 Eilat March 14, 2012 at 11:41 am

Can I “like” this?

3 Meredith Rawls March 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm

I second the “like”! This and the overproduction of PhDs (compared to postdoc positions / jobs in the field in general) makes it less likely I will be stay in astronomy once I get my PhD. My “dream job” would be a semi-stable position that exists in one geographic place and somehow involves astronomy. I’m thankful that I enjoy teaching and public outreach as well as research, and that my husband has an career significantly more flexible than mine. (I’m a grad student, if that wasn’t clear.)

4 Derek Fox March 14, 2012 at 2:43 pm

I agree and believe we should treat our young astronomers better. At the same time, I think it’s important to be aware of the cognitive dissonance between “pursuing an astronomy career is tough” on the one hand and “too many people want to be astronomers” on the other. If we are able – with much effort – to make the career more attractive, and more feasible personally (which I support doing!), then this will tend to attract more people to the field and make it even more “crowded” than it is already.

With respect to PhD programs, I am sternly in favor of “truth in advertising” but have yet to hear any proposals for “PhD birth control” that I could support. No one forces anyone to apply and enroll in graduate school; as long as they are enrolling with eyes wide open I think our efforts are better spent on preparing our students for a range of futures than on denying them the chance to compete and choose for themselves.

Cheers,
Derek

5 Adam Ginsburg March 14, 2012 at 6:21 pm

@Derek – I think you’ve identified the problem. Grad students are not enrolling with eyes wide open. From the prospective students I’ve talked to over the past 5ish years, most simply haven’t thought about long term goals – they want to do astronomy, but don’t have clear perceptions of the career tracks that allow one to be a professional astronomer. Academic departments are pretty bad about that – they advertise how much funding they have, how good their research is, maybe some of their successful grad students, but few (any?) keep complete statistics on the career paths of their PhD graduates. I would therefore encourage faculty advising undergraduates who are considering grad school to inform them about the prospects of continuing on.

6 Emil Rivera-Thorsen March 14, 2012 at 7:25 pm

We are all in it for the thrills of science. I don’t think anyone is in the game for the money. I also do not think this is going to change much if we make the positions more attractive than they are at present – it would take quite a lot before it can compete on finances and convenience with other jobs requiring a similar level of skill, time and devotion.
On the other hand, the fact that it is so difficult to get to live an even fairly stable family life with a science career can mean that otherwise very talented peope who might have had no problem getting a position in an even very competitive environment simply choose to quit the race.
This favors the singles over those with families, it favors men over women, but it does not favor talent.

7 Derek Fox March 14, 2012 at 10:00 pm

@Emil, yes, I agree with your original comment and response. Let’s make an astronomy career as attractive as possible for everyone and get the most talented people we can!

8 nick March 15, 2012 at 3:33 am

“We are all in it for the thrills of science. I don’t think anyone is in the game for the money.”

I, at least, am in it to make a living and help support my family in addition to the thrills of science. I haven’t met too many people in the middle of their second postdoc, i.e. after a decade or so of skilled and difficult work for minimal return, who wouldn’t be less bitter with a different ratio of thrills/salary. Saying that we’re in it for the love of science sort of perpetuates the idea that we (astronomy) can take advantage of the most productive years of people’s working lives and then dump them on the curb with a sigh when they’re approaching middle age.

9 Emil Rivera-Thorsen March 15, 2012 at 9:43 am

Nick, I understand that my comment could be understood that way but it was pretty much the opposite of what I meant to say. My whole point was that astronomy is not super lucrative, and making life a bit more financially bearable for us wouldn’t make the field suddenly swarm with people who were in it for the money. I completely agree, we all want to make a decent living. But I think you can also agree that as Get Rich Quick schemes go, astronomy wouldn’t be your first choice?

10 Colin March 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm

The career path after a doctorate is terrible for married couples or those with children. Obligatory for that faculty job or research position are several post-docs, each coming with a radical move across the country (or world). That may be exciting for many people, but those with families are forced to sacrifice quite a lot.

11 John O'Meara March 14, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Astronomy needs to embrace high-risk/high-return ideas on larger telescopes. Even at the 10% level. These days, you practically have to know the answer to your question as you write the proposal, and where’s the fun in that?
(current career stage: soon [hopefully] to be tenured Asst. Prof in a small Liberal Arts college in the great state of Vermont)

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12 opit March 14, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Oh, there’s many.
— most of are not good programmers and we are slow to realise how important good coding practices are. We tend to reinvent the wheel, hard-code everything, have unstructured and unoptimised code.
— we have so many data, but store it in ridiculous ways (flat files, anyone?) and are not usually equipped to analyse it well.
I’m a first-year PhD student, so these are the first impressions only.

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13 Emil Rivera-Thorsen March 14, 2012 at 7:14 pm

I think that is a local issue, I have only seen a few places (I am a Ph. D. student myself too), and I have already encountered wildly oscillating levels of coding savvy… ness(?).
It is clear that we are not skilled programmers, but still.

14 Rachel March 15, 2012 at 11:12 am

I think this is a huge issue, profession-wide, not a local problem at all. If programming was included as a required part of undergraduate or graduate education (or both), most of us would be far better off. You can’t be an astronomer without programming these days, it is ridiculous that this is not a universal part of the education process for us. And no matter what anyone says, most people are not good at “picking it up as they go along” — and even if they think they’re ok, it usually leads to terrible coding practices.

15 August Muench March 15, 2012 at 11:35 am

local issue? no idea what you mean. certainly, there are “local” examples of embracing good coding skill in an ocean of barely getting by scientific computing. we would all benefit from a change of culture in how we code, teach coding, share code and data. we would benefit from a culture of code fluency and that is just not there.

16 Ryan T. Hamilton March 15, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Coding practices are indeed bad. Out of the 30 or so grad. students around me, I’m sure there are less than 5 who use any sort of real version control (which I learned from the posts on here). Additionally, how many grad. student hours have been wasted on silly things that have been well established for years, like any sort of fitting, or efficiently parsing input files?

Things like the PSU stats summer school and SciCoder are great, but at the base level we’re not trained as computer scientists but need to be. I know lots of people who treat pointers as a black art that can’t be learned and global variables as the solution, for example. What worked for our advisors will not work for us anymore, which plays into what Wayne S mentions.

17 Katie March 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm

I would also say the instability and insecurity caused by the requirement of doing 2 or 3 postdocs after grad school to even have a chance at a permanent position. This puts a person into their 30’s before they have a permanent position, which can be difficult in any case, and especially when significant others and children become involved.

I’m finishing my first postdoc and leaving astronomy for a defense contractor in a few months, in large part because of this very reason.

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18 Derek Fox March 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm

With respect to US astronomy, I think our greatest weakness is the fitful, start-and-stop nature of funding streams, much of which (e.g. HST, Chandra) is 1 or 2-year grants and at best (e.g. NSF) reaches 3-years – once you include time to advertise and hire a postdoc or train a graduate student, it becomes a real challenge to complete and publish a novel and interesting project on this timescale. This problem goes all the way to the top, since our Congress no longer sees fit to pass its annual budgets, umm, annually – rather the agencies operate under continuing resolutions which effectively forbid any adaptation to changing circumstances and if anything (given the prospect of later recissions), must be treated an upper bound to the moneys they can expect to ultimately distribute – leading to extreme conservatism in funding decisions, both in terms of money and in terms of the type of projects supported.

In short, I find myself jealous of colleagues abroad who can fund their groups for 4 or 5 years on a single grant application. The fact that things are done differently elsewhere shows that the US situation is not in any way inevitable. And, for those complaining about the short terms of postdoc positions – these are effectively a direct result of the limited-duration nature of the grants that support this work.

At the same time – and to address one of the hints above – I am very proud of the open and competitive environment which sees oversubscription by factors of >5 for our premier facilities like Hubble, Chandra, Gemini, as well as for NSF support. Competitiveness is vital to maintaining a high-quality research enterprise and something we as astronomers should never shrink away from.

Cheers,
Derek (now tenured faculty; previously grad student, postdoc, junior faculty…)

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19 Wayne S March 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Simply I see the disconnect between the trainers (faculty etc) and the trainees (grad students). We are not interacting with the same world and do not experience the same problems and thus the advice that is often given is poor.

Grad Student

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20 Sarah March 14, 2012 at 5:51 pm

Slumlords and Slumlord Institutes: I think we should be less tolerant of bad behaviour. A career in science is hard enough with job insecurity, hard work and frequent moving, without having to deal with douchebags (M/F!). It seems perfectly acceptable to be a complete ass to your students and postdocs as long as you continue to publish (e.g. your students’ work under your own name?) and bring in grant money; I’ve heard too many stories where people get away with this for years and no other senior staff are willing to stand up against it. If nothing else, it sets a terrible example to junior scientists.

And it doesn’t just apply to people but also to institutes: some departments’ hiring policies don’t give postdocs a fair deal, but given the law of supply and demand in the astro jobs market, young people will take the jobs and put up with a shitty situation. We have the right to decent pay, reasonable benefits, safe and humane working conditions (e.g. offices with windows). Being on a short term contract is a lot less worrying if you know at least you’re saving for the future, your healthcare is covered and you will not be totally screwed if you or your s/o get pregnant (intentionally or otherwise).

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21 Lars March 19, 2012 at 7:34 pm

This is so true! I had to learn it, unfortunately, the hard way, on my own experience. It is a problem deeply connected with the way how the science funding and science policy works in these days: insecure funding, shorter projects, which brings us to short term postdoc positions.. what I miss sometimes is this apparent lack of profesionality, from time to time; I have seen scientists who are great to work with, heard a lot of good stories, but also the scientists and bosses who are being so bad to their students and postdocs, but bring in grant money, and no one touches them. Competitiveness is fine, but no company in the “real world” would let their best people go. And if yes, then the other company would take them over. I have heard stories about young scientists who had to leave their continent (!) because they could not find any new job because of their old boss. The world doesn’t have to be fair, but at least more profesionallity would be fine also for science.

(Ex-) Ph.D student, in search of a new Ph.D. position

22 Catarina March 14, 2012 at 5:58 pm

I think one of the growing problems in observational astronomy is the way we handle the property rights of data. In a time where many surveys are carried out by large consortia, these tend to withhold the data for long periods of time and difficult access even when the data are already public. Given the wealth of information contained in these large datasets, I don’t think it is fair for the astronomers who got the time to assume they are entitled to exclusivity in exploring or keeping it for extensive periods of time. Even when those are public, an invisible threat prevails, and often its use by others is named (and shamed) as scooping. I don’t think this is an efficient way of doing science, and on the longer run, it doesn’t benefit any research field.

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23 Jeremy March 16, 2012 at 10:33 am

Astronomy is actually relatively good about openness of data compared to most other scientific fields! There are many telescopes that have archives where data automatically become public after a specified time, there are many projects that invested large amounts of time and money to make datasets that become public relatively quickly, there are a large number of codes that are either explicitly publically-available or require a simple email to get, etc. These boggle the mind of people in many other sciences: data are secretively guarded, analysis algorithms are secretively guarded, the idea of making data public with no expectation of authorship is laughable, etc. This is particularly true in fields that have significant amounts of private financing, not surprisingly, but is not exclusive to them.

That isn’t to say we can’t do better. I think that essentially all decent-sized observatories should have archives that go public eventually and get incorporated into the VO, that theoretical simulations (where this sort of openness tends to be less) should be made public eventually, and that people should publish electronic tables with their full data whenever possible. But astronomy is already remarkably good about this sort of thing.

(stage: postdoc, soon to be asst prof)

24 Ben March 15, 2012 at 12:46 am

We don’t have enough time.

This causes all sorts of problems, for example as a community we focus too much on the short term; we reward sloppy but flashy work over conscientious but slower work; we don’t give credit to work that builds needed infrastructure, and as a result our infrastructure rots away from underneath – I’m thinking particularly of astronomical software, although there are hardware issues as well, like how we get facilities to work at the “some-to-most of the time” level because we don’t have the time to make them work reliably. And we evaluate papers and people based on reading abstracts or stupid metrics like paper counts and h-indexes, because we don’t have enough time to actually read people’s papers to judge their quality.

The time pressure also causes positive incentives for selfish behavior over cooperative behavior and generally makes everyone miserable.

Lack of time appears to be a general condition of modern professional life and I don’t expect us to reverse it. My criticism is that all too often, people in astronomy _embrace_ this condition and the perverse results, rather than trying to resist it or behave decently, often out of their own insecurities over their positions. This flows from the top down: academia is a pyramid of status insecurities.

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25 Sarah March 15, 2012 at 4:42 am

@ Ben – this is a *really* good point. As an instrumentalist it’s frustrating to see how every new project reinvents the wheel to some extent, simply because there isn’t enough of a long term view to invest in methods, infrastructure (inc. software), and study of instrument performance to find out why an instrument is reaching, say, only 80% of its performance spec.

26 Randi March 15, 2012 at 12:56 am

Better training in communicating science to others! This includes communicating with the public, teaching, giving talks (to various audiences), and writing papers. As with many skills in academia, what you learn is highly determined by the mentors and advisors you have around you, so this is a highly variable experience. Including structured opportunities to improve communication skills would both serve to benefit the scientific community (how many inscrutable papers have you read?), and improve the scientific community’s standing with the public. The more astronomers who do communicate clearly, passionately, and non-condescendingly with the public and their students, the more likely we are to end up in a future where the public says “Of course astronomy is important and we should continue funding it!”

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27 August Muench March 15, 2012 at 12:22 pm

“Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. And if you achieve that reward you will ask no other.” C.P-G

having gotten that out of the way, here is my take. the issue is not about creating more stability in science jobs. wow, i actually wrote that and i have no chance at permanent status in my job. anyway, in my mind the issue is about career flexibility and reformulating “scientist.”

the culture needs to change so that graduate programs exist not to help TTPs produce 100 papers a year, make incremental discoveries or ensure their scientific legacies but to train scientists with transmutable skills (in coding, statistics, communication), to make explicit that the path to doing “science” is not about doing “astronomy”, that outreach is not just an impact but a goal (and is not ‘inreach’), etc.

that sounds rather righteous but i’m not sure i have the “time” to make it less so. sorry.

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28 astrojournalclub (@astronomyjc) March 21, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Trying to decide on an #astrojc topic for tomorrow Should we continue this ‘what’s our greatest weakness’ conversation? http://t.co/jpTKeASA

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29 astrojournalclub (@astronomyjc) March 22, 2012 at 6:02 am

Should we continue this ‘what’s our greatest weakness’ conversation in #astrojc tonight? http://t.co/jpTKeASA Or should we discuss a paper?

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30 astrojournalclub (@astronomyjc) March 22, 2012 at 4:07 pm

It’s #astrojc time! Tonight: What’s our greatest weakness in astronomy? http://t.co/jpTKeASA via this thread on astrobetter

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31 Eric March 22, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Get away from “xxx astronomy must be this” type of comments and reasons to fund or not fund proposals (or give or not give it telescope time). I admit I’m biased, but if I (as an AGN person) see the comment “This proposal has no cosmological significance” to a proposal that IS not cosmology I will scream. Such a comment has NO scientific merit and in my opinion if a panel chair sees that as a reason to deny time to a proposal that chair has the duty to return it to the writer and tell them to reconsider.

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