Academia is a Pyramid Scheme

Dr. Tanya Harrison
8 min readAug 28, 2020

When it comes to space, academia isn’t the only game in town.

SpaceX Starlink launch, June 2020. Image credit: SpaceX (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Space has been my career goal since I was a child. As a teenager, I began looking in earnest into what exactly that would entail, reaching out to local space advocacy groups and folks working in aerospace for guidance. From this I formulated my 5-step plan:

1. Go to university to get a Ph.D.

2. Become a professor

3. Get to work on NASA missions

4. Publish papers

5. Become an expert in my chosen field so that folks like the Discovery Channel would want to interview me

(Obviously watching things like Discovery Channel documentaries had a big influence on me as a kid. That, and watching a LOT of Star Trek.)

Shockingly to me even to this day, I accomplished all of these things except becoming a professor – and did them completely out of order – all by the age of 30.

What enabled me to do this? Getting out of academia.

Since I loved Mars, I instinctively chose astronomy as my undergraduate major, thinking, “Planets are in space; therefore, I should be an astronomer!” It wasn’t until my end-of-junior-year counselling session where they make sure you’re set to graduate on time that I found out I really should have gone into geology to study Mars. Whoops. But I was so far along into the astronomy degree at that point that I decided to finish it and then switch to geology in graduate school. The catch was that not having a B.Sc. in geology meant going into a Masters program rather than directly into a Ph.D.

Switching to geology ended up being the right move, but my graduate school experience was quite miserable. This isn’t uncommon, as a quick glance at any graduate student’s Twitter account will probably reveal. I won’t get into all of the reasons for my misery here, but the result of them was that I was no longer sure I wanted to put myself through that trauma again and pursue a Ph.D.

What is a space scientist to do without a Ph.D. though?

Alternative career options were never something presented to me. The assumption was that we were all there to get Ph.Ds and become professors. (Note: This may be different in some

Dr. Tanya Harrison

Professional Martian who's worked on rocks and robots on the Red Planet on multiple NASA Mars missions