Three Rules for Transitioning by Louis-Benoit Desroches
My name is Louis and I am, or rather I was, an astronomer. I now work in the field of energy analysis and policy research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, mostly supporting the U.S. Department of Energy’s Appliance and Commercial Equipment Standards program. That may seem like an odd fit for someone with an astronomy background, but the truth is the transition was quite natural. Astronomers are highly trained professionals who can contribute and excel in a variety of industries outside academia. In our group at LBNL, for example, there are several former astronomers and physicists. My hope is that the lessons I have learned in my transition will help those who are contemplating a transition of their own.
My story begins in graduate school, specifically about mid-way through. Until then there was never any doubt in my mind about my future academic astronomy career. The subject was interesting, the people were great. But then a funny thing happened—I began to pay more and more attention to current events and less attention to astro-ph. In particular I was drawn to stories related to climate science and the economics of carbon emissions. My social conscience was really starting to nag at me, and I wanted to do something about this problem. My astronomy research started to slip in priority. At first, I mostly ignored all of this, blaming my falling interest in astronomy on the usual grad school blues and assumed it would pick up again. My classmates, however, taught me an important lesson. I saw in them true passion for astronomy. They lived and breathed astronomy. And that is when I realized I was in the wrong field—my passion was elsewhere. I came to this conclusion about a year or two before finishing my thesis (which in hindsight should have been much earlier). This leads me to:
Lesson 1: Be truthful to yourself, sooner rather than later. Take a cold, hard look at your interests and motivations. Astronomy is a great field to work in, but it is best for those with a dedicated passion.
If you decide to transition out, that does not mean that you should stop right away. There is plenty of value in completing an astronomy degree. But knowing your motivations earlier rather than later will aid you in transitioning. In my case, I talked to many people to get a feel for this new field I was interested in, to help narrow my focus. I spent some time attending seminars and lectures on energy and resource management. I sat in on a weekly energy analysis group lunch (with the professor’s permission, of course). I talked to energy analysis graduate students. I attended a few energy-related conferences on campus. I audited a graduate seminar course on energy efficiency policy and I did a lot of reading in my spare time (trying not to interfere with my astronomy research obligations). As a side bonus, starting these activities early helps to build up your networking skills. It is through student contacts in the energy and resources group that I learned of an opening at LBNL. Which brings me to:
Lesson 2. Prepare yourself for the transition. Talk to lots of people and narrow your focus. Over the years I have talked to some people who get their astronomy degrees and then say “now what?” Also, I sometimes meet people with only a vague interest in sustainability. Your chances of a successful transition are much higher with preparation and a focused search, which requires you to know what you want. Plus, you will be familiar with all the jargon of your new field.
One of the biggest hurdles astronomers face looking for jobs outside academia is trying to sell themselves to an audience that may not understand astronomy. This is a huge barrier. Submitting a technically detailed CV is pretty much useless outside academia. Astronomers, however, are expertly trained in many highly valued skills: quantitative analysis, written and oral communication (both technical and non-technical), statistical literacy, programming, database management, funding/budgeting, and supervising. The trick is not to focus on the technical details of your thesis, but on the transferable skills. My first few job applications focused way too much on my astronomy research, without properly highlighting the above skills. Not surprisingly, there were no takers.
Once I learned to emphasize the right things, I landed an interview. Which leads me to:
Lesson 3. Know how to sell yourself to a non-astronomy crowd. Write a résumé, not a CV. Focus on transferable skills, and avoid getting lost in technical details. Explain why you are switching fields. And remember above all else—the point of the résumé is to stand out and get an interview, not a job. Make yourself interesting so that employers want to talk to you, and then wow them during the interview so you get the job.
Once you start your new non-academic job, you will be surprised at how valuable your astronomy training is. The scientific process, the analytical reasoning, the ability to handle a huge amount of data, the big-picture thinking, the communication skills—all will serve you well. Of course, there will always be new challenges in whatever field you transition to. For me, I now live in a world of sparse economic “data” with poorly understood errors, stronger deadline pressures, and the reality of political sensitivities. It has taken me a while to become comfortable with these, but I have always felt prepared. I have never regretted my astronomy education and in fact I believe it has given me a unique perspective which has added lots of value to my new line of work.
Re-printed from the July/August 2012 issue of the AAS Newsletter with permission from the American Astronomical Society and Dr. Desroches.