Today while gardening my iPod got stuck on “repeat” while my hands were very very dirty for several hours. This resulted in me listening to Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick, … Boom three times before I could get my hands clean enough that I dared touch my happy little white iPod. While I was (on repeat) listening to this musical about turning 30 and trying to hold onto the non-lucrative career that you dreamed of, I had this realization that while astronomy majors do make fun of English/theater/art majors, we’re really not all that different. Sure, in grad school I got paid enough to have an apartment by myself (if I lived on processed foods), which most English/theater/art grad students can’t say, but … Well … Just like them my job prospects were always close to zero, my future earning potential was always close to lower middle class, and the likelihood that I’d just go do something else with my life was always high.
I know how to program computers. I know how to do web design. I know a lot of useful skills, and should I choose to seek employment using said useful skills, I could almost double my full time base pay rate. But, I’d also die on the inside. Like an English major who finds happiness in solitary writing, I find joy in studying and communicating astronomy.
Those of us who do astronomy choose this field for a lot of reasons. Money is not one of them (After getting a PhD, the typical PostDoc earns something over $30k per year. Tenure-Track Faculty start around $45k).
People go into astronomy for many reasons. There are those who do it because it is the most difficult degree program they can think of, and they demand an intellectual challenge. There are those who did it because they once found it interesting, but now do it because it’s a stimulating job. And there are some of us that fell in love with astronomy as kids and just never knew when we should stop. I’m definitely in this third category. I’ve been reading astronomy magazines and stories as long as I can remember, and using tech a little bit longer I suspect. This is the only thing I know how to be. Even when I was an editor at Astronomy magazine, I self identified myself as the PhD astronomer on staff, not as the news editor. I don’t know how to be something else. An astronomer is just who I am.
But, sometimes when I look at my student loans, and look at my old sofa (bought used a long time ago), and look at artwork for sale in the coffee shop (and still stupidly expensive), and just look at stupid things like pointless new sheets and pointless new shoes, I wonder if it would be all that bad to work at a Big Bad Computer Company. And sometimes, when my husband sees what I earn compared to his software developer salary, it is hard to not decide that maybe working in industry would be good for my soul.
And then my soul screams.
I have a job that I love (most days), where I work with students who are fun to work with (most of them at least), and I have the freedom to seek grant money to do what I want to do and to intellectually explore the things I want to explore, and to even volunteer to help others to explore. Just as the English major or musician or other creative types who only add to the intellectual beauty of the world, astronomers do what we do for the thrill and pleasure and beauty of what we create.
Yes, we are paid more then English Majors and Artists, and this even shows up in the federal budget, where the National Endowment for the arts received $144.4 million and the National Science Foundation Astronomy budget is $250 million, but … The only real reason is our research costs more to do (you try buying telescope time on what you make waiting tables). So, my humanities colleagues and I have both chosen careers with almost no job prospects, and that cause people to ask “So, um, what do you do? Really? What good is astronomy/English for the US economy?”
What do I do? Something that makes me happy. What good is it for the economy? Well, I employ an undergrad, and maybe that is enough.
(Actually, your tax deductible donations to Astronomy Cast pay that undergrad and a friendly woman who writes transcripts, but hey… That money could otherwise be going to processed cheese spread or worse.)