My PhD ring was featured in this week’s Scientist Show & Tell for LabX and the National Academy of Sciences. When I first laid eyes on it at Jean Jean Vintage, I thought it looked exactly like a black hole with big jets shooting out of the top and bottom. I would visit it in the store and try it on periodically until I just had to have it. Since the ring looks like the artist’s illustrations of black holes that I use in research talks, it seemed like fate to commemorate getting my PhD.
On the left is a radio image of the giant lobes formed by jets, powered by the supermassive black hole at the center dot. On the right is an artist’s illustration of an accreting stellar black hole with jets shooting out the top and bottom. (Credits: NRAO, me, NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Astronomy research makes for an interesting and challenging career. In my experience, it’s one of the more collaborative physical sciences, and it’s one of the most fascinating things I could possibly be doing with my time. I’m regularly asked for my advice by high school and college/university students on what they should do to become a professional astronomer, so I’m sharing it all here. Other professional astronomers like Prof. Katie Mack also have advice on their websites!
Take physics, math, and computer programming (if offered). It will be most helpful to you if you can take pre-calculus and calculus 1 in high school, and AP/IB/honors physics (if available). Statistics is also very useful, but unfortunately you may have to choose stats OR calc, and I would probably recommend calculus for now (but listen to your teacher’s advice, since they know you and your program best). Much of astronomy is actually done with writing scientific research software for data analysis or simulations, so having a programming background is SUPER useful!
You can also look into summer research opportunities at your local college or university. As a researcher, it is often difficult to hire a high school student on their own for research, so it’s best to go through established programs. Check online for summer research opportunities both in your area and (non-local) residential programs.
When looking at colleges/universities, keep in mind that not all programs are equally rigorous. Many times, astronomy is part of a physics (or sometimes physics & astronomy) department, so you will take lots of physics classes. Do undergrads take two semesters of upper-level Electricity & Magnetism? Two semesters of upper-level Quantum Mechanics? Can undergrads take graduate-level classes if they complete the pre-requisites? Both small liberal arts colleges and massive public research universities can have rigorous physics and astronomy programs, so ask questions! Also ask what research opportunities there are for undergrads on campus (in addition to summer research), and how many students go on to grad school (if you think that’s something you might want to do).
Keep up with your athletic and artistic pursuits. Hobbies are good for the soul.
Again, take physics, math, computer programming, and astronomy (if offered), and meet with your advisor to be sure you’re fulfilling the course requirements for your degree. Make study groups with your classmates, and ask questions at office hours with your prof and/or teaching assistant. College is when the training wheels start to come off and you transition to being a self-driven learner, so your coursework will transition from being formulaic plug-and-play to being multi-stage problems that help you synthesize different aspects of the course material.
Talk with your academic advisor about research opportunities, both during the semester and the summer. Different universities have policies about doing this for course credit vs. being an hourly employee, so ask questions, accept advice from your mentor(s), and do whatever is best for your personal situation. Building on a former student’s research project is great experience, and is true to how most research actually goes!
Applying to grad school
If you decide that you really like research and want to pursue graduate school, talk with your academic advisor (and research advisor, if they’re different people). Again, listen to their advice. Chat with grad students, postdocs, and profs who work in areas you’re interested in, and ask them what classes are most helpful for studying that field. Remember that grad school in the US and Canada (and post-MSc PhD programs elsewhere) is *paid* and tuition is either covered by grants or very inexpensive. You should not be taking out a loan to go to grad school in the sciences. Iterate with your advisor (and even a writing tutor) on grad school application materials, and give your letter writers ample time (like 4 weeks notice) for the letters of recommendation. You can also ask a letter writer to include specific pieces of information to explain any discrepancy in your transcript, like if you had health problems and that’s why your grades dropped one semester.
Policies vary based on country and school, but often times you’ll be invited to visit either as an interview stage or after you’ve been accepted to grad school. Take this opportunity to chat with professors you want to work with, grad students (to see how happy they are and how much they’d recommend the program), and get a feel for the location and whether or not you could realistically live there for 6ish years. If you’re part of an underrepresented demographic and you don’t see anyone else from that demographic at that school, ask questions of mentors and current grad students (there and elsewhere) to figure out whether there’s a notable systemic problem there, or there just don’t happen to be any students of that demographic there at that time.
You should know that there’s a mental health crisis among graduate students, and graduate school is HARD (both emotionally and mentally). Part of the difficulty is because you’ve chosen a particular path and that path is challenging (research is part exploration and part banging your head against a wall). You’re also in a life stage with a lot of existential angst and growing pains as you figure out what kind of adult you are and what kind of life you want. Advisor fit is one of the better predictors of mental wellbeing among graduate students, so pick someone who you mesh well with and who you think will support and inspire you. Your advisor makes or breaks your grad school experience — a great advisor will help you find a niche that plays to your strengths in whatever sub-field you find interesting (like high-energy astronomy, or exoplanets, or quantum information, or optics); a negligent advisor will amplify feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can cause you to dislike a research topic that you might otherwise think you love. It can be tricky to judge the quality of a working relationship based on short interactions, but chatting with grad students (both in their group and not) can help fill in the picture.
Some final thoughts
Above all, know that it is very normal to change your dreams, and change your major, and change your job. There are new and varied challenges to being an astronomer as you move along the path from undergrad to grad to postdoc (and presumably to professor). There is more than one way to be an astronomer, and the community as a whole needs people with varied talents and areas of expertise — not just research, but also outreach, teaching, policy, and advocacy. Building your own support network of peers and mentors (more senior grad students, postdocs, and profs) can help you find your own path to success!
I wrote a guest post in AstroBetter about doing my MSc in Canada at the University of Alberta. Going abroad for a MSc is quite an uncommon path for US-born students in STEM, but I’m really glad I did it. Read the whole post here.
In the Netherlands it’s traditional to print up like 200 copies of the thesis in soft-bound B5-size (6.8-9.8 in) and hand them out to everyone at the institute (the API has 100+ people), your close friends and family, and mail some to collaborators and close colleagues. It’s almost like your business card. I have about 20 PhD theses of people who graduated from API before me while I was there, and it’s really nice to finally get to pass out a thesis of my own.
My public PhD defense, reception, and party are Thursday April 19th in Amsterdam! If you’re around and would like to come, please contact me via email or Twitter to get the details! Only 6 more days to go!!!
I’m at the stage of my PhD where I’m finishing research for and writing up my last two chapters (and then putting together a broad intro and conclusion for everything), and writing two fellowship applications, and sometimes I have trouble focusing on what I’m working on. I asked my wonderful friends on Twitter and Facebook who’ve written theses and papers for their advice, and it’s all so good! So I’m sharing it with you! It has been lightly edited for flow.
(And yes, I know I’ve written two theses and two first-author papers before. Apparently I’ve blocked it out.)
Make a plan
“Maybe make an outline with just the section, subsections, etc first, and then fill in. It’s actually a good idea to do that as soon as you are pretty sure the results will turn into a paper.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook
“Lay out a timetable with achievable goals for each day/week and stick to it. Also vary what you’re doing, one paper one week another the next.” – Lucy Heil via Facebook
“Make an outline to keep it organized and keep you on track. I also don’t write in order. I’ll start at the end and jump around based on how I’m feeling. What also works for me is a change of setting or writing in a notebook instead of staring at a computer screen.” – Desi Paynter-Plivac via Facebook
“When I have a big deadline, I find it helpful to really use a daily planner and write in everything, especially those things that always seem to distract me (social media, email, housework, etc). I give myself a set time of the day to check email or Facebook. When I’m tempted to go there, I remind myself, ‘no, you get to check Facebook at 4, not now.’ I actually need to do this more.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook
“For myself, I know I can’t get myself to write papers that don’t tell (compelling!) stories. So I’m very selective about what I take on.” – Richard Scalzo via Twitter
Break it into bite-sized chunks
“Don’t make the thesis a goal. Make a small piece the goal, and then move on to the next goal.” – Tom Maccarone via Facebook
“DO NOT sit down with ‘write the whole thing’ in your head. Focus on a small part, e.g. spectral calibration with Blobbo spectrograph.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter
“Break it down to many small components (more than 10) and establish rewards for each (a walk, baking, TV)… Good luck!” – Anne Pasek via Twitter
“Break it down into small chunks and have lots of treats to keep you going. Stu usually had a chocolate bar in the car for me when he picked me up from the office. Also, it’s hard but take a small break either when you can or get someone to make you take one. So don’t eat at the desk, grab lunch or a coffee elsewhere. Gives you a chance to come back fresh. Evens if it’s only 5 mins, it can make a huge difference. I know it’s hard to take them but it’s better for you in the long run.” – Jeanette Gladstone via Facebook
Just start writing
“Try a free write. For me, this works best with pen and paper in longhand. It works like this, just set a goal. It can be time (e.g. 10 minutes) or a number of pages (e.g. 3, longhand) and write whatever comes to mind. Write all the distracting thoughts. Write your dream from last night. Write how much you hate writing. Write what you wish you could write in your thesis. I find this gets all those distracting thoughts out of my head. Most of that I write in my free writes is crap. But occasionally something good comes up. And when that does, I just copy to my computer. But I don’t expect anything there to be good.” – Rachel Frey via Facebook
“I like starting with writing the results section, or even just the captions of my figures, because the results are the exciting bits. 🙂 Basically, just start anywhere that feels manageable to you, and make sure you give yourself plenty of rewards. Writing papers is hard!” – Daniela Huppenkothen via Twitter
“Try distraction free writer, say ommwriter or google for free one. Pomodoro it. 29 minute timer, shut off all other windows. Just write. Then get out of your chair and stare outside.” – Matt Kenworthy via Twitter
“Often writing gets me in the flow, and at least it avoids spending hours/days staring at a screen. I’ve always found ‘just write’ to be solid advice. Forcing yourself to write something, even if it’s not perfect / needs to be rewritten.” – Vincent van Eylen via Twitter
“Don’t write it in order, write the bit you have the idea for. Also don’t force yourself to write if you have no inspiration, sort figures etc. until you do and then write whilst you have the thought. Don’t try to edit as you go along, get all ideas down then go back and reorganise. That’s what worked for me.” – Charlie Feldman via Facebook
“I forced myself in a harsh way to sit every day and write. No calculations, no data, no anything else, but writing only, and I forces myself to write at least 2 news pages every damn single day even if I rewrote previous pages, the manuscript has to increase by 2 text pages no matter what (I do remember how some days were very long…, that period took about 3 months) and then another 3 months went into polishing it.” – Natasha Ivanova via Facebook
“I managed by hitting up a coffee shop everyday for 3 hours. In those three hours, at least three paragraphs must be written. Why only three as my limit? Realistic expectations. Better off with few solid paragraphs than pages of BS that have to be rewritten!” – Hoang Pham via Facebook
Take frequent breaks
“On big projects, I set a timer for 20 minutes, write as many words as I can in 20 minutes, & edit it later. Easier to edit than from scratch.” – Diana Crow via Twitter
“Something like the Be Focused mac app where you only focus on a specific task during each, say, 25 minute slot and don’t do anything else. Then take a break when the time is up. This helps me so much when I’m really struggling to focus.” – Emily Petroff via Facebook
“I don’t use it myself, but I know a lot of people who use the Pomodoro timer. It makes you work for 25 minute blocks of time and then take a break. Good to use if you feel like you don’t know where to start or the project feels too big.” – Emma Gonzalez-Lesser via Facebook
“I use timers all the time. For everything. Any task that seems overwhelming isn’t so bad if you tell yourself, ‘I’m only going to work for 10/15/25 minutes, then take a break and do something else.'” – Rachel Frey via Facebook
Save the rest for when you’re feeling out of it
“When you can’t write, make figures and tables. Better yet, always make them first.” – Maria Womack via Twitter
“You can always put together what you have. Plots, method..previous work. Even outlook. Just get writing. Don’t expect to be super-motivated before writing. It’s ok when it feels like a drag. Start anyway. For me motivation comes with writing.” – Ludmila Carone via Twitter
“Inserting the references, figure/section/equation links, etc… is another such thing. I prefer just to have placeholders when writing to not disturb the flow. Then do the ‘dumb’ things when I’m tired.” – Remco de Kok via Twitter
Mix it up!
“Switch locations where you’re doing the writing, for me it’s easy to burn out a place and get into an unproductive rut. When I was writing my thesis I’d rotate between the office, the Library, home, and a coffee shop as I burned each place out. If you have multiple papers on the go, procrastinate on one, by working on the other.” – David Tsang via Facebook
“Have a token or clothing item that you only wear while you’re working on your thesis. I had a thesis scarf that when the scarf went on it was time to work. Also then other people can see you’re wearing your thesis scarf and they leave you alone (a friend had a thesis tiara which was arguably better).” – Emily Petroff via Facebook
“Steve Reich and standing desks. Music for 18 Musicians and Electric Counterpoint – makes you feel like everything you are writing will change the world.” – Brian Barth via Facebook
“Okay this may sound crazy but I was once in a class where we did yoga for focus and it was really helpful. You do like 2-3 minutes of sun salutations while focusing on a small goal, then immediately sit down and do it. You slow your breathing and heart rate down and clear your mind and then it becomes a lot easier to focus. Repeat as needed.” – Anna Lenti via Facebook
Take care of yourself
“Be kind to yourself and know that some days you won’t write very much and that’s ok.” – Benjamin Pope via Twitter
“I’ve found that having a ‘thesis buddy’ really helps me. She and I chat about how much progress we’ve made (a positive conversation) and sometimes meet up and write together in the library to stay motivated. I’ve also found that working somewhere with natural light helps me stay focused.” – Mackenzie Jones via Facebook
“Making your work environment as pleasant as possible is important. Whatever makes you feel good…a nice flower on your desk, scented candles, pictures of your loved ones, a hot cup of coffee… Whatever it is, but put it on your desk and make your work place your favorite place to go to. Also when I lacked inspiration, I would just take a break, walk through the woods and get back to work later. If you’re into essential oils….lemon and peppermint help with focus and mood! You can do it!!!” – Silvie Solana via Facebook
Writing this up as a blog post was one of my treats to myself for fixing some giant tables and making a big detailed combo-plot! As you can see in the top photo, I took Silvie’s advice and turned the spare room into a writing corner — so far it’s working! Good luck hugs to everyone else who’s writing up 💖💖
The paper from my MSc research has been accepted for publication in ApJ!!!!!
We simulated pulse profiles from thermonuclear X-ray bursts on the surfaces of accreting neutron stars, and fitted them with an evolutionary optimization algorithm to determine how well we could constrain the masses and radii of the neutron stars! The ADS entry for it is here. We’ll update the arXiv version once the proofs are finished!
Since application season is upon us, here’s some thoughts on applying for a PhD for those who have/will have an MSc.
Are you sure?
It seems a bit basic, but the first thing to think about is why you want to do a PhD in astro. It’s hard by design, and ~90% of people with astro PhDs don’t end up in tenured academic positions. I don’t know if that’s what your aim is, but it’s good to know regardless. So think about whether it will be worth it for you given your goals. There are still plenty of valid reasons to do a PhD in astro when you know you won’t end up as an academic, so just think about it.
What do you want?
The next thing to think about is what kind of research you want to do, and take inspiration from what parts of your MSc you’ve enjoyed or found the most interesting. Theory? Data/observations? Experimental lab astro? Instrumentation? Also consider what topics you find most interesting, and which aspects of them you like. This is probably going to be related to your MSc topic, but if you want to shift fields, now is probably the best time to do it.
Where do you want to be?
Then, one of the bigger things to consider is which continent you want to be on. Each country has their own academic system and way of doing things, though there are some similarities. Keep in mind that some systems are harder to get into if you’re not a citizen or permanent resident. For example, it’s not possible for non-UK citizens to get UK funding to do a PhD there, so you’d need to bring in your own external funds like an NSERC, Marie Curie, Rhodes, or Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
Keep an eye on the AAS job register, “Pre-doctoral/Graduate Positions” section (scroll down) and the EAS job directory (filter by position). Not all jobs will be listed yet. For example, Amsterdam usually has a few PhD positions available, and they start advertising these at the end of October. For Canadian and American universities, they typically won’t advertise on there, so you’ll want to look through department websites and see what the different professors do. When you find someone whose research sounds like it’d be a good fit, email them to ask if they are looking to take on a new PhD student. Another place to look for potential advisors is in the author list of papers you find interesting! Again, do your homework and read up on them before emailing them. Check out the AstroBetter wiki for lists of programs and advice on applications. But once you have an idea of what you want to do and generally where you want to do it, ask the profs in your current place if they know which places have people doing that kind of research.
For the US, many places still require the GRE and Physics GRE (but not all!), so there’s that hurdle to get over, and you’ll want to email the department chair of grad studies/admissions to ask if they’ll accept your MSc courses.
Tips on the PhD application itself
You will typically need 3 letters of recommendation. Ask your letter writers now if they feel comfortable writing you a strong letter of recommendation. Yes, use the adjective “strong” in there. If you won’t have a letter from your MSc supervisor, you need to have a really good reason, and have another letter writer explain why that’s the case. For my applications I had letters from my MSc supervisor, another professor in the department who I knew pretty well and had taken a class with, and my undergraduate mentor. Get your letter writers lined up now, and when you know where you want to apply, give them the deadlines and the details. Email them a 2-weeks-before reminder, 1-week-before reminder, and a 2-days-before reminder. Also, if there are any discrepancies in your record, explain it to a letter writer and ask them to include it.
Once you’ve written a draft of the research statement that most places ask for, have a PhD/postdoc and your advisor iterate feedback with you on it. It seriously makes it better.
I was enthused to see a post by AAS CSMA members on the Women in Astronomy blog (http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.nl/2016/07/black-lives-matter-standing-in.html) making a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I was very disappointed that this statement is not (yet) officially endorsed by the AAS or even the CSMA. Please endorse this statement or issue a similar one.
At a time when our Black colleagues and their families are facing the very real threat of violence and death in their everyday lives, they need to know that their professional organization acknowledges this and provides full support. The amount of effort it takes to do the emotional diversity work is staggering, and our Black colleagues do it every day. It is past time for white allies and predominantly white organizations to step up and shoulder that responsibility too, *especially* when Black people are being gunned down by the police. I find it wrong that the only diversity issue widely discussed in astronomy is sexism, when racism and white supremacy are so pervasive as well. Additionally, solidarity with gender minorities without solidarity with racial/ethnic minorities does not fully support colleagues with intersectional identities such as black women.
Our Black colleagues need to know that they have the full official support of the AAS, and that their contributions to science matter to the AAS, not just because they are POC and “diversity is important”, but because they are human beings with inherently valuable lives, and we live in a world where that needs to be re-said. Science does not happen in a societal vacuum, and the voice of the AAS is needed now to ensure that Black astronomers feel like a valuable part of the scientific community.
PhD Candidate, Univ. of Amsterdam
Junior AAS member
(Thank you to Dave Tsang and Madhura Killedar for feedback on this letter!)