Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Job Prospects and Imposter Syndrome

My friend at the Visible Universe just posted this interesting article about a story on the problems of finding a job in Astronomy. Who knew anyone in the "real world" cared about the plight of newly trained Astronomers.

Lately I seem to find myself having a lot of lunchtime conversations about this very topic. I seem to flip-flop between two opinions. On the one hand I say to myself, studying Astronomy is cool - really cool - and relatively speaking (say compared to finding the cure for cancer, or helping starving children in Africa) fairly pointless. It has no real economic value, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that finding a job is hard - it's sort of like trying to be a full time artist, or actor, or professional sports-player. Some people can be very successful, but their paths are naturally littered by those who failed on the way. But then I say... hang on! I've spent the last 10 years of my life training to be an Astronomer. I calculated at the start of graduate school that someone was investing 1/4 million dollars in me getting my PhD alone...! I've used telescopes that cost 10s of thousands of dollars a night to run - and I've had many nights on those telescopes. Surely it would be a huge waste to the field if I just disappear from Astronomy. I'm pretty sure that I'm good at this or at least just as good as others (see below for more comments), and I've seen friends who I *know* are good at Astronomy leave the field. So why do I feel that (generally speaking - with a few notable and mainly female exceptions) no-one really cares if young Astronomers are able to get permanent jobs...? It seems like a big waste of time and effort for the field,a nd can't be healthy in the long run...

Another interesting blog I recently came across is Mother of all Scientists. Earlier this month ScienceMama posted some really thought provoking comments there about Imposter Syndrome (the feeling that you don't really deserve to be where you are - that your successes are the result of a string of lucky accidents). A lot of those comments really hit home for me. I remember justifying getting into my fancy undergrad college by saying "they need to up their numbers of women in Physics" (my BA is in Physics), and I still feel a bit like my thesis committee went easy on my by passing my PhD. I can't even say "I'm good at Astronomy", without adding a qualifier (see above). I talked the other day with another young female Astronomer who by outside standards is doing much better than me. She has a fancy postdoc fellowship in a sub-field of Astronomy that everyone is excited about - she was even interviewed last job season for faculty jobs at R1 universities. But she too is worried that she'll never find a "proper" job and that she doesn't belong! Why do we do this to ourselves.

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