Review: What should young scientists spend their time on?

Last week the astronomy twitter journal club held a lively discussion on science jobs, particularly focusing on how best to go about getting them. There’s a preview of the meeting here.

I’ve highlighted some of the key points from the meeting in the review below. I couldn’t include everything though, so if you’re interested in the topic read the full tweet transcript.

Job advice – dos

Let’s start with a pretty broad question: what skills do you think are essential in getting an astro job? – @astronomyjc

some rambling tips on how to maximise chances of a fulfilling astro career coming right up

be lucky; be prepared to be mobile; publish high-quality work as 1st author; make sure your work gets seen – give good talk, often!

learn to write great proposals; avoid working in backwater subjects; understand priority management and behave accordingly

deliver on your promises – do not, under any circumstances, overcommit; try to avoid the 2-body problem

learn to be supremely efficient – exploit the great tools out there (evernote!); learn a rare skill (in UK, try interferometry)

do your bit, but don’t get sucked entirely into the outreach business – we can’t all be @profbriancox

remember than there is life outside HEI sector: UK national labs (UKATC!), ESO, ESA, NRAO, CSIRO – all superb employers

spend less time worrying about future job market and more time writing difficult few paras that finishes great paper – just do it!


I’ve been told that showing evidence of being able to attract independent funding is important – @kevinschawinski

Give talks at NAM, AAS, in ur dept, at confs. That is true thru ur career. I get frustrated at lack of travel money 4 that reason – @Matt_Burleigh

I don’t know if this is helpful, but tt faculty searches are often looking for people who will be leaders in their subarea.- @johngizis

lesson: look for new opportunities (instruments, fields). Fellowships often follow exploitation of new missions and instruments – @Matt_Burleigh

Number one thing at all levels is some sign of initiative – @e_astronomer

along the being prepared line, I think reading as many papers as possible is very helpful, both in getting ideas and in interviews.- @johngizis

Forget “prestigious institutes”. That means living on past glories. Make your own prestige. – @telescoper

Shocked to notice how little all this good advice resembles my early career path… must have been a different era – @NGC3314

But have to add the importance of “fit”. Candidates are culled because interests don’t “match”. So, good to develop “portfolio diversification”. Increases chance of “fit”, and demonstrates that you’re unlikely to ossify. – @dalcantonJD

Your CV is a brochure advertising you. Versality is good, as long as you don’t spread yourself too thin. – @telescoper

I think it is difficult to “package” what one should do at an early career in the path to whatever the ultimate goal. A career should be tailor made to ones own ultimate goal and it certainly is not a straight line for most of us! – @vrib_ast

and don’ts

don’t upset too many people. I dont mean keep quiet, but dont come across as arrogant, a bullshitter, a bore. dont behave badly – nicking other ppl’s data, cutting ppl off author lists, deliberately downgrading a rival’s proposal – @Matt_Burleigh

I can think of many people who love the sound of their own voice and it seems to push them on. Frustrating! – @samb8s

Some interview killers: undercut competitors, freeze in front of students, show contempt for institution/colleagues, display ego++ – @NGC3314

Dating other astronomers – the 2-body problem

@robivison what does try to avoid the 2-body problem mean?! sounds like don’t have a life … – @evanocathain

@robivison 2body problem is huge for many. It’s a real issue throughout academia. Unsolvable I think – @Matt_Burleigh

@Matt_Burleigh @robivison not just a problem for academia. It a problem for any mobile career. – @KarenLMasters

@Matt_Burleigh solvable, but unpleasant. prevent grief down the road – date outside your field, or date future nobel winner 😉 – @robivison

The hiring process

Our hiring: identifiable contribution in collaboration, coding>>using codes, capable of independent work, attract $$ (tenure must) – @NGC3314

Quantity over quality?

I often fear it is indeed quantity over quality. Many get involved in big projects to “bump up” their count – @Matt_Burleigh

times have changed. quality wins out over quantity every time for jobs in good depts. must still meet basic quantity criteria tho – @robivison

when you are a PDRA, you have the most chance to publish in ur career. Once you start teaching, time for own work disappears…. – @Matt_Burleigh

The importance of good references

I think reference letters matter as much as talks or papers. what do you think? – @therem

Strong normalization (i.e. unwritten code!) issues with ref letters, most weighted for v. junior people – @NGC3314

sadly, having a reference from a Big Name & having spent time at Distinguished Old Uni also helps – @Matt_Burleigh

definitely pays to find a couple of Big Names outside your institute (international = best) willing to write you a good reference – @robivison

agree with Rob re getting international profs in ur field to write letters for u. Helped me a lot. Buy them a beer…. – @Matt_Burleigh

I’m only realising now what a leg up a high profile supervisor is – even if they’re a crap supervisor – @sarahkendrew

referees who write skilfully help a lot : they may sell you better than you do – @e_astronomer


How big a factor does luck play? i.e. being in the right place at the right time, for instance when a new instrument comes online – @astronomyjc

can’t discount the luck factor, but there is absolutely no doubt that folk make their own – @robivison

luck is *extremely* important, so one has to maximize the number of acceptable possibilities – @therem

“the more I practice the luckier I get” – Gary Player. But I *hate* the 24/7/365 culture in academia and dont want to encourage it – @Matt_Burleigh

Being noticed

also, being noticed >> being right (last tweet: within limits, obvs…..) – @sarahkendrew

following the herd won’t make you stand out; but wacky stuff could make you look flaky. Tricky.- @e_astronomer

its true that the American “show & tell” culture is a great help to them. But if u push it too far…. – @Matt_Burleigh

lets settle on noticed and MIGHT be right – @e_astronomer

Paper authorship & team membership

Important generic point, though. If your supervisor doesn’t let you be first author, you’re doomed. – @telescoper

Indeed. I dont ever want to do that to my PhDs. So I hope no one holds the 2nd authorships against me… – @Matt_Burleigh

But much easier to get a Nature/Science paper under your belt if you’re an observationalist? – @dr_paul_woods

Nature/ Science papers not worth the candle. Usually trite. Doesn’t matter where it’s published if it’s good. – @telescoper

@dr_paul_woods @BuChanda “Stayed away from big projects, so I have few papers”. Why does that follow, logically? – @telescoper

‘Cos in big projects, other people write publications to which you contribute. When I first author, I do work – @dr_paul_woods

Re: freeloaders on many-author papers: Sometimes PDRAs have done shedloads of work so should get name on paper – @astrofairy

And finally…

People seem to be looking for universal rules, which is impossible as the process is fundamentally chaotic. Most important point was made by @robivison which is to be lucky. – @telescoper

but fortune favours the prepared mind. – @e_astronomer

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