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Jobs to gain useful experience in astronomy/astrophysics

  1. Jul 17, 2015 #1
    Hey guys & gals,

    a long time lurker here. For a variety of reasons I have failed to secure a PhD position that I wanted this year after finishing my MPhys degree in physics, so I decided to take a year away from studying, regroup, work towards publishing a paper and then come back with full force.

    So, given that I need to eat something, I need to find a job for a year. Since I am interested in a PhD in cosmology and a few other areas in astrophysics, I thought it would make sense to find a job that would give me useful experience. Now, my dilemma is such that it's nearly impossible to find a job which would deal directly with cosmology or astrophysics. So my question is whether I should join one of those physics graduate schemes, which would likely not deal with astrophysics directly, but be closer to my field of study, or if I should rather find a job that would give me useful skills (data analysis, machine learning, programming, etc.) without necessary being related to physics? Thanks!

    TL;DR: Need to take year off uni, thus need a job that would be useful for a PhD in astrophysics/cosmology. Does anyone know any jobs that would be useful?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 17, 2015 #2
    Almost zero, as no private industry does astrophysics/cosmology and the way academic research is done, you know.

    I think that even as someone with an MSc, there are options to work in academics. At my university almost every study group has people working there that don't have PhD's. Now I don't know if they could get the same job today, as often they are not very valuable members with tons of experience and a good track record supporting students/research and education credentials.

    Probably zero chance of getting such a job when they know you want to get a PhD position anyway. Same with basically any job in physics in industry. Why would they hire you for a year when you will be gone after that? Of course you can deceive them. But they know there's people out there that want short term jobs when they search someone for the long term. In high tech industry it takes quite some time before a highly educated person becomes adjusted to the tech specific to that company to be productive at the MSc level.

    Most of the jobs you may be hired for won't make you more succesful as a PhD student. You are already at quite an advanced level. Unlikely an easy to get short term job will be advanced enough.

    So you failed to secure a PhD position or failed to secure an astrophysics/cosmology/theoretical physics position? Big difference.
  4. Jul 17, 2015 #3
    Grad students are cheaper than real employees. If they wouldn't take you as a grad student, I am not optimistic they would take you as an employee.

    Programming skills are in demand in most locations.
  5. Jul 17, 2015 #4
    Thanks for the reply. I failed to secure a cosmology position. Ok, maybe I'll try to refine my question. Would working for a year (or two) doing, say, data analysis for some sort of a science company be considered as a useful experience when applying for a PhD in observational cosmology?
  6. Jul 17, 2015 #5
    Hi, thanks for the reply. By any chance, do you know what sort of programming jobs would be viewed as useful experience in cosmology/astrophysics?
  7. Jul 17, 2015 #6
    True, they probably crossed over from either lab experts or excellence in teaching at a lower level. Still, makes me wonder how they got the jobs they have now.
    Maybe they got their jobs back in the days when full-time contracts were still being offered and now they are too expensive to lay off.

    Some of these people must have done enough impressive work to earn them a PhD, but they don't get them because they don't work through the PhD requirements, as that would lower their pay.

    Not suggesting OP can apply for such a job right now and maybe they don't exist where you live or even where I live as of today.
  8. Jul 17, 2015 #7
    Most likely a job where you are digging deeply into these beauties:

  9. Jul 17, 2015 #8
    Out of everything, that would be your best bet. Even a programming job would require you to be a software engineer, being able to produce shippable software. No physics or math graduate learns how to do that.

    Again the question returns at how well you are now able to program data analysis solutions. Even if you followed in-depth courses on this subject, you have no job experience and you have the wrong degree. Even fresh graduates have to be taught how to do this stuff for real.
    The thing with a PhD that involves tons of data analysis is that you will have been doing months and months of pure data analysis. Doing research is a job and very different from the taught courses on the exact same subject. Following courses is completely different from doing research, which is sometimes similar to industry work.
    Did your master thesis heavily involve data analysis?
  10. Jul 17, 2015 #9
    It involved some data analysis, but was mostly about numerically solving differential equations that have no analytic solutions.
  11. Jul 17, 2015 #10
    Well, you have to find some company and convince them that in a few months you will be making them more money than they are paying you. This means that very quickly you have to be better at their method than they are right now. If you can pitch them to this idea, you can get a job. If you can deliver on that promise means much less. Many people with the wrong degree who in fact can, can't pitch the idea.

    Almost all companies are extremely risk averse. When it comes to the methods they use as well as to the people they hire.

    Even if you want to make a career switch, meaning you won't be gone when a PhD position opens up, in their eyes, for sure, and are willing to do an unpaid internship, it may be hard in the wrong local area with the wrong job market.

    Also, will having a 2 year delay working somewhere have a positive affect on your odds of getting a PhD position? I always was under the impression that once you accept a normal job, it is hard to go back.

    Also, here it is quite common for PhD positions to be awarded based on networking and then a vacancy is made public because protocol demands so; the job is already awarded and anyone applying to said vacancy has a near 0% odds.
    But then again, that's BSc->MSc->PhD.
  12. Jul 19, 2015 #11
    I really appreciated all of Almeisan's post. I can give a little personal color on the note above.

    At the entry level, it's the rare, exceptional candidate that will be more value than the company is paying them within 12 months.

    The last candidate I interviewed with an astro background told me they'd probably return to academia in two years and it made them an immediate no-go. I'm not going to spend 3-6 months training someone and then wait 12 months for them to really get into the swing of things just to have them leave right when they're useful.

    So, you're looking for an employer who doesn't think that way. . .

    I'll echo Almesian and say that I'd be surprised if there were any non-academic data work that would make you a better astro PhD candidate.

    So, in regards to the opening post, I'd first grab a decidedly non-technical job for the interim, and then be applying to grad school non-stop. If a programming or data analysis job falls into your lap, that's awesome, but realistically you'll be at Starbucks till grad school.
  13. Jul 19, 2015 #12


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    So essentially, what both you and Almeisan are saying is that failing to enter a PhD program is tantamount to only looking for poverty-level jobs, then? I think that is just ridiculous.

    The point is not to apply to any non-academic position in the expectation that the job would make him/her a better astro PhD candidate -- it's to find a job that would use the skills he/she has developed thus far (programming, data analysis), while then subsequently applying for PhD programs in the following year.

    And if the OP is applying to a position, the most stupid thing to admit to is that they intend to return to academia in two years. I would never say this during an interview. If I'm asked where I see myself in 5 years, I would state something to the effect of seeking to further my knowledge & experience in statistics/data science/software or whatever.
  14. Jul 19, 2015 #13
    No, that is missing their point. Their point is that very few employers can afford to give someone a job where they will increase their skills, earn a good wage, and most likely be gone within a year.

    Failing to get into a PhD program means that no one was willing to pay the going rate for a research or teaching assistantship for one's skills, which is much less than a full time job using and growing a similar skill set.

    A better plan would be to find more of a transient job and use one's own (likely unpaid) efforts to improve their skill set for their physics dream.
  15. Jul 19, 2015 #14


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    First of all, how would an employer know that the said candidate will be gone within a year? It's part of the candidate's expectation that he/she can convince the employer that he/she will stick it out for however length of time. I am in general always in favour of complete honesty, but in this instance, I think telling a small white lie that he/she doesn't intend to bolt to pursue a PhD is more than fine.

    I would also like to point that there are very few "transient" jobs out there that pay anything more than poverty-level wages. If you need money to live on, that is a horrible way to live.
  16. Jul 19, 2015 #15
    Lying to am employer to gain employment is reprehensible. Would you want an employer to lie to you about the long term prospects of continued employment? If you were an employer, would you want candidates lying to you?

    There are a lot of temp/consulting type of programming and other IT jobs out there that pay more than poverty-level wages. Sure, one will need to have some room mates, may be eating a bit of raman, and won't be upgrading to a new set of wheels in the first year, but the wages are not poverty level for short-term programming and IT jobs.
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2015
  17. Jul 19, 2015 #16


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    Dr. Courtney, let me clarify my previous post, just so that there is no misunderstanding. When I stated earlier that "a small white lie" is more than fine, I was referring only to being asked the following question or type of question: "Where do you see yourself in 2/5/10 years?" I have always felt that this question is silly to ask, because within that time interval any number of factors (many beyond the control of the candidate or the employer) could occur which would change what opportunities or challenges the candidate may face.

    So my reply should be taken and interpreted as a criticism of this type of question, rather than advocating deceiving an employer. Of course, if I were an employer, I wouldn't want the candidates to be lying to me, but if I'm so silly as to ask the above question, I'm more or less certain that the reply would be canned, rehearsed, or other disingenuous.

    As far as long term prospects of continued employment are concerned, I would think that an employer would not be going to the expense of advertising for a full-time position and interviewing candidates if there wasn't a requirement that continued employment was required, so I don't see how the employer gains by lying to the candidates. Am I being naive about that?

    As for my statement about poverty-level wages, I was specifically responding to the following quote from Locrian:

    "So, in regards to the opening post, I'd first grab a decidedly non-technical job for the interim, and then be applying to grad school non-stop. If a programming or data analysis job falls into your lap, that's awesome, but realistically you'll be at Starbucks till grad school."

    Given that Starbucks and other similar places pay their employers minimum wage, I would call that poverty-level wages.
  18. Jul 19, 2015 #17
    A lot of states are dominated by "at will" employment relationships and a lot of initial teaching contracts are one year deals. Over the past three decades, I've seen enough employers deal dishonestly with prospective employees about the realistic possibilities of long term employment that I recommend job candidates do their homework and assess the reality of the longer term prospects before accepting a position, especially if there is significant cost and risk involved (turning down another offer, leaving a current position, buying a home, relocating, etc.)

    Thanks for clarifying. I thought the main focus of your reply was my use of the word "transient" employment. Whether or not minimum wage is "poverty level" depends on one's life circumstance. If one can live with a spouse or parents, minimum wage x 40 hours a week isn't bad. I don't think I'd mind a son or daughter moving back in after college to work a minimum wage job for a year or two and strengthen their grad school application. There are a number of friends and relatives who I'd likely welcome into my home under similar circumstances. Now, I would not welcome dope smoking hippie types into my home, but hard working people really looking to better themselves are a different deal.

    My experience is that it is usually the objectionable lifestyle choices of recent college grads that connect low paying jobs to poverty, because responsible adults are requiring unacceptable levels of accountability regarding destructive behaviors to let them move in.
  19. Jul 20, 2015 #18
    This is absolutely not what I said, and there's no way someone could honestly interpret my post that way.

    An honest reading of my post would instead conclude I was saying that, given the 12 month employment term and the skills they had available, temporary low paying jobs were most likely, and they would need a much longer commitment to obtain a better paying job.
  20. Jul 20, 2015 #19


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    OK, I admit that I was exaggerating when I made that response earlier, but at the same time I personally felt that the OP shouldn't settle for a low paying job of the waiter/barista variety (I remember your quote about "...but realistically you'll be at Starbucks till grad school") while waiting to be enrolled for their PhD program of their choice. What Dr. Courtney suggested regarding temp consulting/programming type jobs would be better for the OP to look into while waiting for the year or so before starting their PhD.
  21. Jul 20, 2015 #20
    If you have no interest in pursuing a PhD career, your potential employee can hire you for the long term and train you to their specific skill/technology. They won't do this if you are just there for a year.

    A PhD is a training job for the academic world. The same tame track exists informal in most industry, yet you don't get a degree.

    If you show up at a PhD job interview and you tell them you won't be completing your PhD, you won't get accepted either.
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