To the Other Side (or, I wonder what my friends are doing now)

Jason Steffen is a Lindheimer Fellow and Research Assistant Professor at CIERA at Northwestern University.  He works (now) primarily in the field of exoplanets, but has been known to frequent the fields of experimental cosmology, gravitation, and dark matter.

Most AAS members eventually transition from astronomy to something else. Like professional athletes, most scientific careers are less than a decade long—and only a small handful of professional athletes go on to become life-long coaches. The rest move on to other professions with whatever marketable skills they have. The transition is often not an easy one, and the skills they (the athletes) have developed often have limited marketability. Professional scientists (by which I mean senior graduate students and postdocs – people whose primary responsibility is the execution of scientific research) retire at roughly the same age. However, unlike the typical athlete, they retire with exceptionally marketable skills.

Each year the Astrophysics Jobs Rumor Mill is visited by a gazillion people (or a gazillion times by the same people – right?) to track the real-time career movements of our peers within the academic or scientific environment. Yet, there is little ability to track the real-time career movements of those among us who move into the greener pastures of the private sector. The transition from the academic track to the private sector often comes with considerable trauma (i.e., disappointment) and uncertainty in part because of our collective lack of experience working in the private sector and because of our expectations regarding the roll of the career dice each year during the academic hiring season.

My own experience in the private sector (as an analyst for a telecommunications company and as a software engineer for a defense contractor) showed me many things. Most importantly, I saw that there are challenging problems to solve in the private sector and my skills as an astrophysicist allowed me to make valuable contributions to these efforts. I theorize that, deep down, many of us are actually driven more by the desire to solve difficult problems and to make valuable contributions than we are to a particular field of scientific research. (My own experience in experimental tests of gravity, dark matter detection, and exoplanets tells me that each field is interesting – even the boarding of airplane passengers can be interesting.)

One challenge in the career transition is knowing what field to move into. We all know the default list: Google, Wall Street, or McKinsey and Company. However, these careers aren’t necessarily fulfilling to an individual, and certainly don’t constitute the bulk of the potential careers that are available to us. One thing that would be useful is a collection of recent examples of career moves made by AAS members. A companion to the “astrophysics jobs rumor wiki” that focuses on moves into the private sector (an ”astrophysics non-academic career moves wiki” of some sort) that indicates where our colleagues have landed upon leaving academia could be a useful resource to know both what careers are available to consider and who we might know that works in those fields.

There is a bigger world out there than just astronomy and many companies need people who know how to add, code, touch expensive equipment without breaking it, solve challenging problems, identify new phenomena, and communicate those findings effectively. There are many opportunities to make important, and very meaningful, contributions to humanity and seeing real-time examples of where our colleagues go as they move into the private sector can help us both make decisions regarding our career and make better preparations for those decisions.

Do you think that this new addition to the rumor mill would be useful?  Are there any particular pieces of information that you think would be useful to include? Leave your ideas in the comments!

8 comments… add one
  • Yvette Jul 21, 2014 @ 9:35

    As a PhD student in astronomy, I would highly welcome such a section. My department is very good compared to others when it comes to bringing in alumni for one day a year to tell us what they now do, but seeing what others do afterwards who have an astronomy background would be great!

  • Claire Cramer Jul 21, 2014 @ 11:15

    The Women in Astronomy blog has been doing a series of posts on this topic, profiling astronomers in various careers:

    As far as I can tell from having read some but not all of the posts, the profiles are not gender-specific and seem to be more or less what you’re suggesting would be valuable. Maybe a collaborative effort between the WIA folks and the Rumor Mill folks could move these posts into a place where they’d reach a broader audience?

  • Eric Bellm Jul 21, 2014 @ 13:22

    It’s really valuable for astronomers considering other careers to be able to find and talk to other scientists in that field. The challenge is tapping into that network. Two social media groups that may be useful in this regard are the LinkedIn group “Astronomers Beyond Academia” ( and the Facebook group “Extronomers” (

  • Roman Shcherbakov Jul 21, 2014 @ 13:33

    This list of former astronomers and their non-academic positions may be helpful:

  • Nick Nelson Jul 21, 2014 @ 15:27

    There is a fairly strong LinkedIn group called “Astronomers Beyond Academia”. Most people there are outside of academia or are thinking about leaving the field.

  • Leonard Burtscher Jul 21, 2014 @ 16:59

    Jason, This is a very valuable suggestion which would lower the concerns many junior scientists (including myself) have regarding future career prospects within and outside academia. Apart from the next job, it would also be interesting to assess at what “scientific age” (say, years after Ph.D.) people leave academia. Do you have a suggestion on how to assemble this information? Should one allow others to submit data pseudonymously?
    — Leonard

  • Rachel M. Jul 28, 2014 @ 20:50

    I think this is a great idea. The career profiles offered on other sites, which others have mentioned above, are valuable but not really the same thing. This list could be more of a table, a la rumor mill, rather than lengthy descriptions and personal stories.
    My votes for what to include in such a list/table: name, job title (and possibly a short description if the title isn’t clear enough), company/organization working for, business sector (just some standard categories like corporate, nonprofit, etc.) what stage of the academic track were you most recently on (again, just some general categories, like ‘grad student’, ‘got phd’, ‘did one postdoc’, ‘did multiple postdocs’, ‘faculty position’), and whether or not you are willing to be contacted by others interested in working in that field (because I think it would be valuable to see the information even if you can’t necessarily follow up with that individual).

  • Kelle Jul 29, 2014 @ 12:26

    I think a non-academic section of the Rumor Mill would be cool…it’s a wiki, so anybody can add the section.

    The AAS and the Employment Committee (of which I am the Chair) are working on building a full-fledged Astro Alumni Network. A site where you can update your own record and search for astro alumni by profession, expertise, or geographic location. Building such a thing is non-trivial and will probably take us a couple years, but we are working on it!

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