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Life After Astronomy


by Barry Meyers-Rice

June 1997


Inside conference room N305, my committee deliberated. The defense had been bearable – the
discomfort rated somewhere between a periodontal cleaning and being mugged – so all I could do was
hover ghostlike about the halls and wait. I aged rapidly. After a Hubble time or so, the door opened
and my advisor stepped out, all grins. Was he anticipating the sweet pleasure of informing me of my
failure–thrilling at the notion of seeing me die at his feet? Had I disobeyed him one too many times? He
extended his hand–did he have a gun?

"Congratulations, Doctor."

After the celebrations and jubilations, it was time to look forward. Did I have a post-doc arranged? No.
Had I been rejected by all my prospects? No. Had I even looked for jobs? No. I was an astronomer with a
sinful, shameful secret. My dark heresy was that I planned to leave astronomy. While I enjoyed
astronomy and had made some interesting discoveries, the thrills derived from exploring the
frontiers of astronomical understanding were not invigorating enough to propel me through a happy
career.

During most of my graduate student years I had not revealed my dissatisfaction to others. I could not. The whole issue was dosed with embarrassment, and flavored with self-doubt and shame. Was I giving up? The phrases that bedeviled me – Abandoning the field, Leaving astronomy, Quitting, Not being able to hack it – all emphasized the inevitable loss I would suffer, and what were apparently my inadequacies. For some reason the default feeling about leaving astronomy was one of shortcomings on my part. (Later discussions with other astronomers changing careers often revealed they suffered the same neurosis. It was as if by leaving astronomy, we were betraying some sacred duty or honor. We were defectors.) Only with effort could I grasp a positive perspective. The changes that brought the "inevitable loss" would be accompanied by inevitable gain. The perspective that I had "inadequacies" was generated from an external socialization process, and did not really agree with my own feelings. My own feeling was that by staying in astronomy I was stagnating. By leaving I was gaining the opportunity to do something I enjoyed more – I was Embarking on a new career, Exploring new options, Making a brave choice, and Following my dreams.

I remember the day I decided to come out of my closet. My brother, who had already earned a biology Ph.D, had reminded me that even in the most petty of institutions the worst aftermath of exiting the field was that I would be the subject of a few postcolloquium discussions. Thinking about departmental
dynamics and politics, I knew he was right. I also knew this should not be an important consideration in
charting my life's path. So I confided in my closest friends and in time leaked the news to others.

My shocking secret released, I braced myself for the onslaught of criticism. My first astonishing
realization was that most people did not care – approaching grant and observing proposal deadlines
and other responsibilities governed their days. Despite my egocentric projections, their lives did not
orbit mine. The responses I did get were interesting. Most people were surprised. Some did not even seem
to understand the concept, "Leave astronomy? What do you mean?" It was if I told them I had decided to
turn into a spring breeze. Others muttered about the atrocious job market. Surprisingly, a few nodded and quietly told me they were considering the same route. My advisor was thoughtful and supportive. The aftermath of my disclosures was far less painful than I had anticipated. The AAS did not revoke my membership, nor did it burm me in effigy (at least, not at the most recent meeting, although I might have overlooked something at the poster sessions).

So what was I going to do instead? I had traveled directly from high school to college to graduate
school. In other words, I knew little of the job world. What were the options I knew? My world consisted of
astronomers, staff, and support crew. There were also administrators, secretaries, janitors, and the guy that
came by to lock the building at 5:00 p.m.

Not much there that interested me. Jobs in industry or the military, despite their financial benefits, did not agree with my ethos. Instead I looked for jobs in education, after all I am a very good teacher and my students enjoy my classes. I dreamed of finding a science faculty position in a private college where I could teach a variety of classes–not just physics, astronomy, and math, but also biology (botany is one of my hobbies). But during a long hike in the desert (when out of work, one has time for many long hikes), I realized I was interested in teaching mostly because it was a low-imagination solution to my career quandary. I know several scientists who settled upon teaching because it was a consolation career for them–they did not get the research job they really wanted so they instead reconciled themselves to a career several rungs down their personal ladders. I was about to repeat this mistake. I was not being creative about my life's path–I was steering towards the ruts. Being a teacher would not have been in my best interests, nor would it have served the students–they deserve enthusiastic, invigorated, and genuinely involved teachers who are proud and honored to be in a classroom.

I needed time to understand what I wanted. I took a year off from work (I still taught a few classes at the
local community college to keep my financial situation only partly catastrophic). I explored my interests.

My new career was not simply a sudden leap into the unknown. Ten years previous to all this, I had bought
a Venus Flytrap (a small carnivorous plant, or CP) at a grocery store. In the years that followed, my
interest in carnivorous plants grew until I had a greenhouse filled with hundreds of species,
maintained a CP related internet site, co-edited an international CP journal and was an invited member
of the World Conservation Union's Species Survival Commission. My botanical interests had expanded to
include wetlands, where most carnivorous plants live and a dedication to conservation germinated after
seeing favorite habitats destroyed by land development. It was during this time that The Nature Conservancy caught my eye. This national nonprofit environmental organization is dedicated to preserving biologically significant lands by direct action (for example, by buying it).

For many of my graduate student years I had sent them a minute annual donation, and had volunteered on the preserves a day or two every few months. Now that I had more time, I decided to volunteer more frequently. It was great fun. The organization was efficient, the departments were receptive to appropriate applications of technology, and the staff members were mission-oriented. I met people. I made connections. I started reading the weekly job roster–at first tentatively and only in the dark of night, then openly and brazenly. I announced to my friends and connections that I was looking for a job with "The Conservancy." I sent application letters–many, many application letters. I made many calls. In time, following a sea of rejection slips, after promising starts and depressing ends, with luck, a great job and I found each other.

I am no longer writing observing proposals. Nor am I writing code to model dusty star formation regions.
My datebook lists no curriculum committee meetings to attend. But I am working with data, literature,
and people focused on goals that I find fulfilling. I am helping distribute information on how to manage
invasive, foreign plant species that are displacing the native plants in The Nature Conservancy's many
preserves. Our wild lands are continually threatened by new problems that have hidden solutions. Some
days I may be researching methods of combating Ficus carica trees or any of the hundreds of other biological threats to the preserves. Other days I may be plowing through the literature on new ways to use
controlled burns. Soon we will be analyzing the effectiveness of our methods using data from the
field. And in a few months I will flex my HTML skills to help design a new early warning "Weeds on
the Web" site to keep our preserve managers updated with the most recent stewardship tools. I am not using
all my training, but I did not want to anyway. Instead I am letting myself be happy. There is life after
astronomy.

Barry Meyers-Rice has left his work on dusty stellar environments to work as the Assistant Weed Specialist for The Nature Conservancy. He can be reached through his home page at http://www.indirect.com/www/bazza.

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