Career Options with an Astronomy PhD
August 4, 2008 10:20 PM   Subscribe

I have a PhD in astronomy, and am considering careers outside of academia or NASA. What other careers could I most naturally transition to? So far I have come up with Patent Agent/Lawyer or researcher at a think-tank like RAND. What are these jobs like, and how do you get them?

I have a PhD in astronomy, have completed one postdoc, and am currently working as a staff scientist at a non-academic (no teaching) institute. I like my job, but current funding trends mean it lacks stability. I am considering a career change, but after being on a narrow track for so long, I need help discovering what my options are. I would love to make use of my analytical skills and I need to live in Los Angeles. I am willing to go back to school for something like a law degree or MBA if that opens up any particularly exciting doors. I am not interested in management consulting. Any suggestions?

I currently have two ideas that I would love to learn more about:

1. Patent agent/lawyer.
2. Researcher at RAND. (The job ad for Applied Math and Physical Sciences Researcher at this site looks very appealing!)

If you have one of these jobs, I would love to know how you like it. What are the hours like? How high is the stress level? How would my background be perceived by recruiters? (Do I have a shot?) What is the job market like? What is the entry-level pay? How does one get in the door?
posted by pizzazz to Work & Money (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to double check that you qualify to take the Patent bar as well - (see pages 8-9) - They specifically list astronomy classes as not qualifying, so you'd have to meet the requirements through other course work.

And not to be a downer or anything, but I don't know how much demand there would be for a patent lawyer with a PhD in Astronomy. Most large IP department that hire patent lawyers for patent prosecution work are looking for people with either engineering backgrounds or PhD's in chemistry related subjects - that way they can do either engineering patents or pharma patents.

If you qualify for the patent bar, and do well in law school, you'll be picked up by someone to do patent prosecution, but it might be a little harder for you than an engineer. Starting salary at a large firm is 145k-165k, but you will be working .... a lot!
posted by Arbac at 12:08 AM on August 5, 2008

Oh - sorry hit submit a little to quickly.
Getting hired as a patent lawyer is relatively straight forward if you do well in law school. There are major IP job fairs that happen every fall, and you would go as a law student - hopefully get hired for a summer associate position, work well over the summer and then get an offer.

The job fairs are also good for finding a starting entry level associate position if you don't get an offer after summer.

The Loyola patent job fair in Chicago every year is huge, and any law student can attend. The AIPLA Job fair takes place in October every year in DC and is also huge. Since you're looking to stay in LA, there is also the SFIPLA job fair which has some LA firms interviewing, and if you go to law school in southern california, you qualify to participate in the Southern California IP associate search hosted by Whittier College of law.

Most law firm recruiting is very structured. If you don't get anything through a job fair, or your law school's fall OCI program, then you need to start networking and asking around. But for the most part, most patent people I know found their jobs through one of the major IP job fairs.

Good luck in your career search!
posted by Arbac at 12:15 AM on August 5, 2008

Well, I can't comment on the two tracks you identified, but I'd like to address the broader question you opened with - what other careers could you transition to. With your background your maths are certain to be fairly strong - have you considered a career in finance?

Investment banking in general, probably some type of quantitative analyst position would be suitable. We (I'm a banker) find that many times it's easier to take someone with a strong maths background and teach them the finance we need them to know to help us in our market activities. Typical problems that we'd pitch at someone with your background would be first sourcing then cleansing data, validating datasets, building & calibrating models, vetting output of models against dynamic market conditions, etc. In fact, having worked with several astronomers-turned-quants, I'm sure you'd find many of your skills directly transferable, but there would still be a a lifetime of learning (finance!) ahead of you.

Just to give you an idea how applicable what you probably already know is: we use the Kalman Filter from astrophysics in some markets to help us make forecasts. The inherent feedback mechanisms these recursive linear filters offer help us understand and describe the conditional density function of the underlying data generating process. While I've used Kalman Fiters in the equity markets, they seem to more widely used for short term forecasting of currency exchange ranges (I'm in equities, not FX myself). This is very, very mainstream stuff now - I teach finance part time and we pitch Kalman Filters to second term Masters students.

Banking, especially so positions close to the trading desk (like I'm describing) is a meritocracy, meaning the more value you add, the greater your remuneration. It's really as simple as that.

Myself, I'm a life long student of the markets, but lots of people switch in mid career and find they rapidly develop an interest in this field, the problems we struggle with, the constantly changing markets and, of course, the money.

But I'd advise anyone against entering any field, banking included, solely for the cash. I'm lucky, earned the money but never acquired the lifestyle, saved a lot and invested well. I'm taking a year off work to pursue another degree, a luxury that working in many other fields wouldn't afford me at this stage in my career. I guess I'd say even if you spent just a decade in finance that ten years would afford you far more opportunities post-banking career than other jobs most certainly would.

In LA there is a fair amount of finance about. If you're so inclined, take a look through my profile for some links to finance news and see if this interests you.

Don't hesitate to email if you'd like to discuss further off thread. I'm sure you'd do wonderfully in finance - I've worked with a few astronomers and, if nothing else, you guys surely have unique insights into market events!
posted by Mutant at 5:41 AM on August 5, 2008

I'm in the field, too. For what it's worth, the people I've known who have left Astronomy have done one of three things:

1. Consulting (McKinsey, specifically)
2. Computer work (Google, startups, scientific computing)
3. High Finance (Goldman-Sachs)
posted by headlessagnew at 6:36 AM on August 5, 2008

OP here.

Thanks very much for the suggestions so far.

Arbac, my undergraduate degree is physics, so I believe that I qualify for the patent bar exam.

Mutant, I had not considered finance, but I will now!! I love math, especially statistics. That is what led me to Astronomy in the first place.

headlessagnew, I looked at Google-LA, but most of their job ads required a computer science PhD plus job experience in that field. How did your ex-astro pals get around this? Did they have connections?
posted by pizzazz at 9:44 AM on August 5, 2008

Hi Pizzazz - I work at a patent law firm and we have someone with your exact background (B.S. in Physics, M.S. and Ph.D. in Astronomy) who is currently a patent agent here. So, you definitley have a shot. They don't get paid the big bucks that Arbac mentions (that is more for attorneys, rather than patent agents) but as far as I can tell (I am not in recruiting) they get a very respectible salary in the upper 70's.

You can get a job at our firm or any other by browsing our website and applying online. You can also attend the various patent fairs (Loyola Patent Fair was last week so you're out of luck there) and see if you can get picked up there. Also, you may want to attend job fairs at your alma mater or at other law schools (they normally post them online) since many law firms recruit from there.

Your work day, for the most part, is pretty standard. You'd be working mostly on patent applications - you'd be drafting applications, making sure that the technical information is accurate and correct, etc. You also may be called on to provide opinions on various technologies for your clients (feasibility, applicability, etc.). That means you, again, for the most part, would have a pretty standard work hours as far as you want to structure it. If you were doing litigation work (much less common for patent agents, at least in my firm) you may have much longer days during trial prep and trial, and shorter days when you're off trial.

The stress level varies depending on what you're working on. If a client comes to you with a patent to prosecute one day before the deadline, well, then, you'd be stressed (that would be almost impossible too, but for these purposes we'll imagine). Litigation is way more stressful than prosecution.

My information comes from working with patent agents - I am not one myself. I actually work in marketing the firm, so I am not involved in HR or recruiting, either.

Feel free to mefimail me if you have any questions. Good luck!
posted by MeetMegan at 12:16 PM on August 5, 2008

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