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When Graduate School Isn’t in the Immediate Future

Do you remember when you stepped onto your chosen college campus for the first time? You were probably overwhelmed with the powerful feeling that over the next four years you would discover your true passion and everything would unfold from there. Life would just fall into place.

If only it were that simple. I remember many torturous nights studying for the physics GRE and asking myself what I was doing with my life. I loved astronomy, but was graduate school really the right decision for me? It’s a hard question to answer. Many believe that if you care about science there are few other options besides graduate school and ultimately academia. My hope for this post is to unseat that misconception and maybe alleviate some of the pain that comes with asking these difficult questions.

Last year Maria posted a great astrobite on the various career paths available outside academia. I’d like to focus on options that are available right after college.  Some are stepping stones into graduate school while others are careers in themselves. I’ve talked extensively with people in each field, all of whom entered with only a bachelor’s degree and found themselves in a job they loved.

Communication

Education and Public Outreach: There are a variety of exciting opportunities for internships here, a lot of which can be found on NASA’s website: www.intern.nasa.gov. These interships focus on developing curricula and public information campaigns centered on specific missions. Most focus on the social media realm: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. NASA is constantly looking for people who can communicate clearly and generate enthusiasm. While most of these internships terminate at the end of summer, I have known quite a few cases where interns managed to stay on for an extra term or two. You really just have to get your foot in the door!

Planetarium Outreach Specialist: Just last week I received an email with this in the subject line – these jobs do exist! A newly built planetarium is looking for someone to design, develop, and implement interactive and automated programs. You could spend all day talking about astronomy with people who are truly interested, and all that is required is a bachelor’s degree.

High School Teacher: If you have ever taught, you know the gratification that comes when you inspire an “aha” moment or when students leave the classroom claiming, “That blew my mind!” Fresh out of college there are multiple internships that allow you to teach science in the classroom. Check out www.nais.org. If you’re lucky you can end up teaching astronomy to young minds (ones that haven’t been quite worn down by life yet) and possibly inspire them to love science and learning as much as you do!

Science Writer: This is, of course, a job that is dear to our hearts here at astrobites. If you love talking about research more than you love actually doing the research, this might be the career for you! After talking with many science writers, I think the best way into this field is to just get your feet wet any way you can. Start your own blog, pick up freelance writing, and apply for internships! You never know where it may take you.

Research

If you still think you want to do research, but don’t want to commit yourself to a PhD program, there are also ways for you to get a taste of the research world. Here are a couple:

Museum Specialist:  Most positions in museums lend themselves well to research and education/public outreach. While these positions may only require a bachelor’s degree, it is likely that they will include writing papers and attending conferences, very much like academia. In the museum setting there are also ample opportunities to give planetarium shows and even teach high school classes.

Post-Bac Research: This is the perfect opportunity to do research at a large institution with only a bachelor’s degree under your belt. Professors are sometimes looking for a full-time researcher to act as a kind of temporary grad student and take on some specific project. An undergrad just out of school with a degree in astronomy often fits the bill. Positions are likely to include learning how to observe as well as how to reduce and analyze astronomical data. You might even get a paper published out of it.  It is a great stepping-stone into graduate school as it gives you more research experience and a little more time to buff up those GRE scores, plus another chance to apply to grad schools. It is also a great opportunity to really determine whether or not you love doing research in astronomy. While official calls for these positions are rare, talking to professors in your local astronomy department – especially if you’ve done undergrad research for them – is a great way to set up this kind of arrangement. There is also an awesome one currently being offered at the University of Wyoming (although I am slightly biased.)

Encouragement

Hopefully I have convinced you that there are plenty of options after college besides graduate school and academia. At the end of each interview with people in these fields, I asked for words of encouragement and advice. Most said not to rule out a career in astronomy simply because graduate school isn’t in your immediate future. There are ample opportunities out there for people with just your skill set.

You should also be honest with yourself. It’s OK if you don’t love research. Or, to put it in a more positive light, it’s OK if you absolutely love discussing astronomy. If this is the case, seek out opportunities in science communication. If you do love research, then keep working towards the goal of graduate school. Find a research position and keep working hard – you will eventually be accepted into a graduate school that is the right fit.

One final logistical note: where can you find these jobs? I’ll admit they’re rare. It usually takes a lot of research and being lucky in the people you know. I have referenced a few locations throughout the post, but the AAS job register is a great resource too (check out the pre-doctoral/graduate positions).

Lastly, I would like to thank Dave Cook, Alice Enevoldsen, Shawn Staudaher, Faith Tucker, and Amanda White for answering my pesky questions.

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Shannon Hall

While writing for astrobites I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming working on exoplanet research. Previously, I graduated from Whitman College with two degrees: one in physics-astronomy and one in philosophy. I am now working toward my career goals in science journalism and education. Feel free to visit my website.

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Discussion

3 Responses to “When Graduate School Isn’t in the Immediate Future”

  1. I can attest to a lot of these alternative career paths as, through a poorly planned but ultimately successful series of detours, I have done a lot of them.

    I have worked at a museum (the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago), taught at three different high schools (all independent schools and NAIS members, one of them an international school), done a little research (Fermilab and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory) and currently work full time in Education and Public Outreach (the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and part time with Sonoma State University’s NASA EPO programs).

    So yes, there are other interesting science based jobs out there that don’t require a PHD (although I did get an M.S. in physics before I decided the PHD wasn’t in my future). Be open to the possibilities, use your networks and you can find them!

    Posted by hale-bopp | December 10, 2012, 4:31 pm
  2. I love this post. I’m in the midst of taking a year off before attending grad school in astronomy (I’ve deferred admission to a program that has already accepted me), and even though I’ve got a guaranteed spot in a graduate class, I often think seriously about other ways I could be involved in astronomy without being dedicated to the extraordinarily time-intensive life of aiming for a tenured professorship. Outreach is a passion of mine, and I think I might love a career in public science communication. Thanks so much for writing this, Shannon!

    Posted by Tom Rice | December 10, 2012, 5:19 pm
  3. I’m living torturous nights studying for the physics GRE and asking myself what I was doing with my life.

    Posted by Harry | October 29, 2013, 11:21 am

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