This guest post is by Nathan Sanders, a graduate student in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University. He writes about the latest research in astrophysics and graduate student life at Astrobites.

Most of the advice you’ve read to date on GradHacker has come from the perspective of graduate students in the social sciences. I think the vast majority of this information has been applicable to almost any discipline, but there are certainly differences between fields that cannot easily be addressed without a first-hand account.

As a graduate student in astronomy, I can offer one perspective from the physical sciences. However, the experiences of students in any field will be diverse. I’ll draw a number of contrasts I see between Astronomy programs and other disciplines in the physical sciences.

Regularly scheduled programming

The unavoidable constant of graduate student life in astronomy is hours upon hours in front of computers. While I’m sure that many fields could compete for most-time-spent-in-an-office-chair, let me lay out the case for astronomy.

Whether you’re focusing on theory or observation (which is how most astronomers specialize), almost everything I do requires a computer. Astronomers reduce their observations with specialized image analysis toolkits, analyze their data in numerical analysis environments, run simulations in sophisticated radiative transfer and hydrodynamics codes, etc. We even compile our papers! Moreover, because astronomy departments are typically very small, long email threads are the norm for communication between collaborators.

The reasons for this — digital instrumentation, enormous datasets, highly-nonlinear physical processes — are somewhat immaterial, but any prospective astronomer should be prepared for life in front of dual-monitors.

However, I would offer a word of encouragement to undergraduates who, like myself, have not received formal training in any particular programming environment: all of these skills are best learned in the course of doing research.

Travel

The next feature to highlight, for which astronomy is infamous, is travel.

If you’re working on an observational project, it’s likely that you’ll have to travel to a telescope at some point, and possibly many times, during your graduate career. While some telescopes have queue observing (where your data is taken for you) or remote observing (where you control the instruments via the Internet), many of the premier facilities require you to work on site. Unless your institution happens to be located near some of the world’s best skies — these include mountain tops in Arizona, Hawaii, Chile, and the Australia outback — this can mean many thousands of miles in the air.

Many astronomers love observing and are happy to make the trip. Moreover, applying for telescope time is highly competitive and students are grateful for the opportunity. Nonetheless, each trip essentially requires the sacrifice of about a week of your life. For most observations, it also involves completely flipping your sleep schedule.

If you’re (un?)lucky, you might even be tasked with helping to assemble a telescope at the South Pole.

Independence

The second unique feature of the astronomy graduate program that I would point to is independence.

While there are no shortage of enormous collaborations in astronomy, each student’s thesis project is usually highly self-directed. In fact, it’s rare for faculty to have more than two or three students simultaneously.

This is at contrast to fields where the smallest unit is a lab with dozens of researchers. In astronomical journals, it’s very common for papers to have just one or two authors and, while it can vary wildly, it’s typical for a PhD thesis to be drawn from five or more first-authored publications.

I think this aspect of the field is generally a feature, but in some cases it can cause bugs. This format requires astronomy students to be highly self-motivated. In situations where there is not strong support from older students, post-docs, and faculty, though, this can result in students being left behind.

The academic track

The last characteristic of astronomy I’d like to highlight, which I think is very much in its favor, is that astronomy faculty are generally easy-going people. I think every graduate student has friends in fields where misery is the norm and the degree program is akin to hazing, but to my knowledge such situations are exceedingly rare in astronomy. Most astronomy graduate students I know would say that they are treated with respect from the faculty they interact with.

My opinion is that this is in part due to the career path expected of astronomers. While I have seen many older students apply their Astrophysics PhDs with great success in other fields, there frankly are not many private employers who look for astronomy degrees on resumes. This is a discipline where the academic track dominates.

While this is not necessarily a good thing, as a consequence I think that astronomers don’t want to make enemies. Older researchers expect that students will be their colleagues for years to come. It’s also true that astronomy is a relatively small field, and word gets around quickly if there is a collaboration to avoid.

Astrobites

Since I can only assume that you’ve now started filling out the paperwork to change your degree to Astrophysics, let me leave you with one last bit of advice. If you want to know more about astronomy, start out taking one bite at a time! Visit Astrobites, a daily blog written by astronomy graduate students where we summarize one new research paper per day.

I think that Astrobites is a great way for undergraduates setting out on a career in research to ease themselves into the field. We started it because it’s exactly what we wish we had had at that stage. There’s also Chembites for chemists and we’re hoping that similar sites will pop up for other fields.

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9 Responses to The Unique Universe of Astronomy Grads

  1. Deno says:

    Nathan, great post, but you forgot about the third leg of astronomy (the other two being observation and theory): Instrumentation! For shame….

  2. tim says:

    Ah, you’ve beaten me to it! An astro grad myself, I just got to know GradHacker about a week ago and noticed it was all (mostly) social science students. I was therefore thinking of writing a guest post, but apparently you have the writing experience over at astrobites (which is a pretty awesome site by the way, and was started in part, I think, by a former UVa student, Ian C. Still, I may have something to contribute to GradHacker in the coming month, while I’ll be teaching a summer class on Cosmology to non-science undergrads…

    In any case, what you say is essentially true to the ‘t’, especially about our life in front of a computer (!), which was a fact I started to come to terms with during my first undergrad research experience. However, also in accord with what you’ve written, there are plenty of offsetting benefits: I’ve been to about a half dozen conferences already, two of which were int’l, I have completed on-site observing at and have visited amazing optical telescopes, and have remotely taken data using the 100-meter GBT everywhere from my kitchen table to the market downtown over wireless. Astro grad life rules.

    • Terry Brock says:

      I can assure you, Gradhacker wants posts from ALL grad students. It happens to be primarily social science and humanities because those are the people who started the website! There is a link to “Write with us” under the “About Gradhacker” tab on the top of the page. Please contribute!

  3. Stephanie Hilliard says:

    Loved your post. I am coming out of a medical science graduate arena (as support staff) and going into a social sciences field as a graduate student, but it was great to get another perspective on graduate work from a “hard sciences” POV. Very interesting article.

  4. Carol says:

    Nathan,
    Thanks for the lively and informative post! As someone in the arts and humanities who has a close, personal relationship to an astronomy grad student (ie I am the mother of one of your classmates), I am grateful for the congenial tour of your universe.
    Carol

  5. Quora says:

    What are some good astronomy/astrophysics resources/tools?…

    Most of the sites here aren’t very mathematical so they won’t help upper-division undergrads much. However, they are amazingly useful for learning more about astronomy in general (and many cover far more than what you will find in any book or textboo…

  6. Quora says:

    Is it wise to ask specific scientific questions on Quora, given that it may clue in competitors to certain goals?…

    It really depends on the field you’re in, and how competitive/collaborative it is – as well as the number of people in the field relative to the amount of work that can be done in the field. It would be unwise to do it in organic chemistry, which is *…

  7. Quora says:

    What are the best websites and resources to learn about space?…

    Yup Most of the sites here aren’t very mathematical so they won’t help upper-division undergrads much. However, they are amazingly useful for learning more about astronomy in general (and many cover far more than what you will find in any book or tex…

  8. [...] I wrote a short piece for GradHacker describing what makes being an astronomy grad student unique. If you’re an undergraduate considering the career options in front of you, this should help [...]

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