What are career options outside of academia for someone with an astronomy Ph.D.?
March 26, 2012 7:15 AM   Subscribe

What are career options outside of academia for someone with an astronomy Ph.D.?

The forseeable end of a second astronomy post-doc position (two is a typical number of postdocs in this field) has given rise to the following question – what are career options OUTSIDE of academia for someone with an astronomy Ph.D. who either chooses to leave the field or fails to get a professorial job? Other than a few limited options (support astronomy at an observatory, teaching), it is very difficult to get any good information on this from within the astronomy community, as it is all geared towards academia.

What are other options? What other employers might be looking for someone with such a degree or related skills? How do you find out about them, research them, apply for them? What are the pros and cons of the positions – the hours, the community, the location?
posted by kyrademon to Work & Money (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

There are a number of scientists who work in science policy, generally in government.

Check out the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, and for other ideas of places to look, look at the various places previous program fellows have been placed and are working now.

This list of links might also be helpful.

And of course check out NASA and related federal labs, especially if you are interested in program or contract management.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:54 AM on March 26, 2012

Rather than looking at it from the perspective of "what jobs are there for someone with an astronomy Ph.D.", you may find it more enlightening to consider "what jobs are there for someone with this particular skillset". I would guess that the skillset in this case would include a good background in maths and possibly programming/modelling experience? Presumably there would also be a good understanding of how materials interact.

Possibilities might be the financial or energy sectors (geophysics, for example, would not be too much of a leap).
posted by oclipa at 8:03 AM on March 26, 2012

Federal labs (two of my friends with astronomy PhDs are at NASA Goddard) - apply through http://www.usajobs.gov (but easier to hear about openings if you talk to people you know who work at those places)

Software development (especially for a defense contractor if you can get security clearance) - I met more than a few PhD physicists around here.

Quantitative Finance - talk to a recruiter

If you're at a university, especially one with a large science/engineering community, I highly suggest speaking with people in the career office and looking at which companies are recruiting on campus, especially in the above fields.
posted by deanc at 8:24 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Software development, particularly if you have hands on experience with digital signal processing, data management, etc. I used to interview a lot of software engineer candidates at Google and some of my favourites were always the physics PhDs. I could care less about their minute research of quantum gravity's effect on ocean eddy currents or whatever, but often in the pursuit of research the students would have written a lot of very impressive software. If you want to pursue this path, polish up your software portfolio, summarize your expertise, and put any code you can online as an open source release.
posted by Nelson at 8:42 AM on March 26, 2012

If you're not opposed to going back to school, you could do an MSc in medical physics. Since you already have a PhD, you would be an attractive candidate as a clinical medical physicist.
posted by Premeditated Symmetry Breaking at 8:54 AM on March 26, 2012

Science writer.
posted by JJ86 at 9:25 AM on March 26, 2012

I know someone who left academia with her PhD after one or two postdocs, and is now very happy working as an analyst for a large city government. As I understand it her position involves floating among many departments figuring out how to use data they have to answer complex questions they have - so she might do analysis of traffic data, or of crime data, to determine patterns and give information to decisionmakers about what to prioritize. So basically you'd look for a position that needs someone with good quantitative and data analysis skills.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:05 AM on March 26, 2012

I have an Astronomy PhD and, after two (teaching-focused) postdocs, was lucky enough to get a job teaching at a small liberal arts college (just started this semester).

Here's a sampling of some things my friends (with Astronomy PhDs) are doing outside the traditional "professor" track:

*Working for banks: I have friends who work in a few different positions at investment banks. One works doing modeling of the markets and trying to take advantage of small changes in the larger indices to make money. His comment on this is that "data are data" and what they try to do is model a set of data and explain the forces driving it. It turns out that there's a surprising number of similarities between calculating the tidal forces on galaxies and figuring out what is driving a stock up and down (this is grossly simplified, of course, but you get the point). One of the things that this friend actually said though, is that you shouldn't think of banking as an alternative to the traditional career track. While a lot of your skills transfer, you shouldn't think, "Oh; the professor thing didn't work out, so I guess I'll do banking." If you're interested in banking, by all means do it, but don't think of it as another type of professorship; the work and culture is very, very different from academia.

*Working for defense contractors: I have a friend who works for one of the big defense contractors. The same sort of "data are data" argument applies here. If you understand how to think quantitatively about problems, people who want missiles to fly straight have interest in you.

*Working in an advisory position: I have a friend who almost became an AAAS fellow, in which she would have been advising US Representatives about science (she ended up taking another position). But that's only a one year position, so you'd have to look at spinning that into something more permanent if this was the road you were interested in.

*Working at a planetarium: If teaching is more up your alley, trying to find a university or science museum that wants/needs an astronomer to run their planetarium. This isn't quite "outside academia," but it's an option.

The general theme of these (particularly the first two) is that they rely on thinking clearly and quantitatively about problems. Those are the skills you have and any sort of field that uses those skills (defense, banking, accounting, engineering) will have use for you.

It's funny; I was just talking about this with one of my students ~an hour ago. Feel free to MeMail me if you have more questions or want to talk more about your specific situation. A lot of it is going to depend what you're interested in doing, so you could also post more specifics here if want more targeted advice.
posted by Betelgeuse at 10:36 AM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

A guy I met is an astrophysicist who is an ex-academic -- became a software engineer. He was pretty early at VMware.
posted by rr at 12:06 PM on March 26, 2012

I know a guy with astrophysics PhD who is teaching high school physics and astronomy - says he likes working with high school kids better than his previous gig as a professor.
posted by leslies at 5:33 AM on March 28, 2012

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