The Human Side of an Astronomer: Nicholas McConnell University of California, Berkeley
June 14, 2012
University of California, Berkeley
As of writing this, I am two months away from finishing my PhD thesis at UC Berkeley and beginning a post-doc at the University of Hawai’i. My educational
path essentially has marked a beeline toward an academic career. My interest in physics and astronomy crystalized near the end of high school, and I signed up for physics courses the first day I arrived at college (Boston University). In my final year at B.U., I briefly considered finding a teaching or industry job, but it felt more natural to apply to graduate school. At Berkeley, I’ve followed a conventional PhD timeline: coursework and TA-ing, prelim exam (year two), research, thesis proposal (year four), more research, thesis writing (year six).
My build-a-scientist kit came with just one problem: I spent a good deal of graduate school stressed out and unhappy. It’s not that I was overworked — I had plenty of time to play sports, socialize, and travel. But during my workdays, I felt like I was investing my time mostly toward other people’s expectations. My research was gaining momentum, and I could sense my advisors’ and collaborators’ ambitions growing: more proposals, more data! I realized that our project could extend well beyond my PhD, but advancing it felt like an obligation as much as an opportunity. I had invested almost ten years in learning *how* to do astronomy, but I’d lost track of *why* I was doing it.
This past summer I began investigating multiple options for the next stage in my career (my PhD was within striking distance, and I was determined to finish it rather than immediately jump ship). I started by reflecting upon the familiar: what aspects of my current job did I value? What accomplishments was I most proud of? To my amazement, I felt my attitude improve before I found a single job opportunity. By giving myself permission to consider my priorities foremost, I had found room to appreciate my research as part of a broader agenda. Importantly, my advisor was supportive when I finally worked up the courage to discuss alternate choices, and suggested steps I could take to expand my training beyond pure research.
Ironically, considering career opportunities outside astronomy has helped me find more fulfillment within it. Astronomy is a fascinating field for many reasons. It explores the largest, farthest, and oldest objects in existence, it broadcasts dozens of new discoveries every year, and it receives lots of public enthusiasm. But I’ve learned that my favorite part is the constant interaction with interesting, passionate colleagues. And so I will ensure that my path forward balances research with efforts to build stronger professional communities and provide support for younger scientists. My textbooks didn’t prepare me for this outcome, but I’m excited to write my own chapter.
Relevant Links and Opportunities:
UC Berkeley astronomy department website.
Gemini Observatory press release on an exciting research result from my team.
American Astronomical Society career page