An Interview With an Astrophysicist: The Postdoc

Friday, November 18, 2011

As some readers may know, this past summer I had the privilege of being able to work for Dr. Andy Goulding at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.  Dr. Goulding is a first year Smithsonian Research Fellow in the High Energy Astrophysics division.  He did his PhD work in AGN activity at the University of Durham, UK in the fall of 2010 before moving to Boston as a postdoc.  Working with him was a wonderful educational experience that I'd happily do over if I had the chance.  He gave me a look into the life of a researcher and how much research differs from course work.

We've vaguely kept in touch since September and he generously agreed to answer a few questions on his career for me.  Of course, given the title of this blog, the first question was obvious.  He took a lot of time in answering these questions, and I definitely learned some new things.  For example, I had no idea that there was a difference between a postdoctoral research associate and a fellow.

What is the difference between an astronomer and an astrophysicist at this point in time?  Which, if you have a preference, are you?

From a professional point of view, this is really semantics. People have degrees/PhDs in astronomy and/or astrophysics - it depends on institution. However, it is more likely that someone who is an amateur (non-PhD) is considered to be an astronomer. Classically, an astrophysicist attempts to understand and interpret the astronomical observations through application of physics. My PhD is in astrophysics, so in the strictest sense, I am an astrophysicist.

What are your primary areas of research as an astronomer/astrophysicist?  How did you get interested in them?
Black hole growth and galaxy evolution. Black hole physics was considered a "popular science" in the 1990s, so when I was younger it was very easy to pick up a book in the local store, and this naturally progressed from a hobby into a profession.

How did you get into astronomy/astrophysics?  What did you study as an undergrad?  Where did you go to graduate school and why?
As an undergrad I studied Theoretical Physics - this involved particle theory, supersymmetry, advanced quantum theory and general relativity - this had little to do with astronomy, so it does not necessarily follow that your undergrad major must be your graduate major. Despite offers from several graduate schools in the UK, I decided to stay at my undergrad institution, Durham University, as it has a fantastic worldwide reputation as well as the largest astrophysics/cosmology department in the UK.

What precisely is a postdoctoral fellowship?  How does it fit in to a career in astronomy/astrophysics?
Once a predoc has completed their PhD, they will generally look for a Post-doctoral position at a different institution - these come in 2 flavors: (1) research associate and (2) fellowship. A research associate position is when a group/faculty has money available to employ a post-doc to carry out their specific research and help pre-doc students within the research group. A fellowship is generally a highly sort-after monetary prize which may or may not be linked with a specific institution and allows the holder to carry out the research of their choice - this is often predicated by the research proposal which is submitted in order to win the fellowship.

How has your career played out?  Is it what you expected?  What is the typical career arc of an astronomer/astrophysicist?
At this stage, I am not really in a position to answer this question. I completed my PhD in late 2010, and moved to Harvard shortly after to begin my fellowship which I had been accepted for earlier in the year. As I have only been here for a little over 12 months, it is not really possible to answer this question. 'Typically', an astrophysicist will expect to go from grad student (3-6 years) -> post-doc associate (2-3 years) -> [post-doc associate (2-3 years) ->] post-doc fellow (2-3 years) -> [post-doc fellow (2-3 years) ->] associate professor (3-10 years) -> tenured professor (indefinite). N.b., I added the other post-doc positions as some people prefer to stay as post-docs for longer periods of time to help with their publication records to move to the next stage and/or keep their teaching duties lower.

How have your goals evolved over the course of your career, if they have at all?
As I said above, my career is still becoming established. As I skipped the post-doc associate stage, and gained a fellowship on my first position, my current goal (for next year) will be to win a second prize fellowship to further expand my publication record.

If you hadn't gone into academia, what would you be doing with your education in astronomy/astrophysics?
My Masters degree is in theoretical physics, many people with this degree become statistical analysts and/or military defense specialists.

What is the best part of being an astronomer/astrophysicist?  The worst?
This is quite an interesting question as I'm pretty sure that you will get a different answer from every person. Being an astrophysicist is all about 'puzzle solving', we all have some intrinsic desire to answer the questions which are the most difficult to answer, so when we answer them, or move a step closer to answering them, this is the 'best part of being an astronomer'. However, it can be worst, you can find yourself working on one project for 6 months and then finding out that you have gone down completely the wrong avenue, and you have to start over. Of course, there are certainly perks too - for example, we travel to very exotic places (a lot), telescopes ares not generally in well-populated areas so you get to travel to places like Hawaii, the Canary Islands, Australia, the Atacama desert (Chile).

What can aspiring astronomers/astrophysicists do to make things easier for themselves?  i.e., what do you wish you'd known as an undergrad?
Of course, get very high grades and after that, you need something on your cv that will get you noticed (e.g., a summer studentship in a department)

What has been the most difficult stage of your career so far?  What have been some notable inspirations along the way?
At this point in time, astrophysics is struggling for funding from the government due to certain projects costing significantly more than was originally budgeted for, as such further funding money which would be relatively easy to propose for 5 years ago is not forth-coming. Hence, much more time must be put into proposing for the next year's projects, and this slows down the current research. This is not necessarily 'difficult' but it is certainly frustrating.

Any final thoughts for the undergraduate astronomy student?
Astronomy as an undergraduate student and astronomy research are nothing alike (as you have already seen, Eric).

One Response to An Interview With an Astrophysicist: The Postdoc

  1. Good thoughtful interview questions. I like how he explains the different reasons someone might choose to stay a postdoc for longer or shorter lengths of time.