Academia is a Pyramid Scheme

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 other fields of science with more employability in the commercial sector, such as physics or chemistry. I’m only speaking from observations and experience in own my field. If you had – or didn’t have – this experience, I’d love to hear about your journey in the comments!)

Luckily, as a undergrad I had spent time employed as a research assistant processing Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based telescope data for professors. From this I learned that I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty in the data. So, as I neared the end of my Masters program, I started reaching out to folks whose papers I’d read while researching for my thesis, seeing if any one of them might be hiring for a data processing role. None were, but one of them pointed me to a private company called Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), which builds and operates cameras aboard NASA missions. It’s not a place I ever would’ve considered looking at, assuming they’d only need engineers. Lo and behold, they were hiring for an Assistant Staff Scientist position that only required a Masters degree! I immediately applied, got the job, and started that summer post-graduation.

At MSSS, my role was working in science operations for cameras aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Curiosity rover, as well as providing weather support for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Science operations involved targeting the cameras and then analyzing the data when it would come back down to Earth from the standpoint of a geologist: What information does this tell us about the history of Mars? Do we need to retake this image when the shadowing is less harsh so we can see the features better? Should we come back and take a stereopair here to get 3D information? This often made me one of the first, if not *the* first, human to ever see some of these images from Mars. It was an incredible feeling. I was working directly on NASA missions, literally the interplanetary photographer selecting what we’d take pictures of – everything from the framing to the lighting – and I was only 21 years old. Soon after, I started publishing papers and presenting at conferences, still in my early 20s, based on discoveries I was making from working on MRO.

All without a Ph.D.

At the time, this was actually quite a unique position to be in as a scientist with “only” a Masters degree because the NewSpace industry did not yet really exist. SpaceX had only launched their Falcon 1 rocket a couple of times. Virgin Galactic hadn’t yet done any test launches of SpaceShipTwo. Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle wouldn’t come along for years. The options for working in the space sector in a technical capacity were limited to these few private companies or traditional aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc., as an engineer, or becoming an engineer or scientist at a university or with NASA directly (or similar government agency like the USGS or national labs).

Fast forward just a few years though, and the entire landscape was revolutionized. SpaceX and Blue Origin were launching and landing their respective vehicles quite successfully and securing big contracts. New small launcher companies like Rocket Lab joined the ranks of private companies successfully sending satellites into orbit. Commercial Earth observation entered the NewSpace realm with the birth of companies like Planet Labs, Spire, and BlackSky. In the veritable blink of an eye, reaching low Earth orbit (LEO) began to seem almost commonplace. Because of this, the quick proliferation of commercial satellites entering LEO led to the creation of private companies aiming for on-orbit servicing, space debris removal, and object tracking.

Obviously there are plenty of roles at these companies for engineers, but some are recognizing their need for scientists as well. At the time of writing this, I’m heading up applied science programs for the federal arm of Planet Labs based on my background as a scientist who used Planet data in my post-doc research. There is a counterpart to my role on the non-federal side of the company as well, held by someone with a Ph.D. in tropical forest ecology. Blue Origin recently hired Steve Squyres, probably most well known for being the principal investigator behind the long-lived Spirit and Opportunity rovers, as their Chief Scientist – a position for which which he left his long tenure at Cornell University. Not too long ago Ball Aerospace was hiring for a Ph.D.-level Planetary Scientist position. Even at lower rungs within some of these companies, they still need folks for things like mission operations, mission management, and business development – all of which can draw on skills one acquires through their time in science.

There are options out there beyond academia. And none of them are “lesser” options that you should be made to feel bad for taking.

Here I should note that after a few years of working at MSSS, I did end up leaving to go get a Ph.D. for a number of reasons, some of which you can find on my Twitter if you want to hunt for them. Part of it was the desire for career advancement, which at the time felt limited without a Ph.D. – but again, this was before the NewSpace boom. My intention behind going for a Ph.D. was to follow that by either returning to industry or going back into mission operations at JPL directly, rather than through a subcontractor like I’d been through MSSS.

The offer for my current job in the space industry came during my post-doc. This is where the pyramid scheme of academia reared its head.

My boss at the time on the academic side tried to steer me away from taking a job in industry. He’d tried to push me away from even working in mission operations at JPL because I was “too good of a scientist to spend my career toiling away in operations.” Which, I mean, is quite the compliment, especially coming from the person that it did since he is quite well-respected in my field. In his mind I was destined to follow the path he had chosen. However, he was one of the abnormally successful people in the field. He had multiple NASA missions under his belt and an army of students doing research in his lab. He’d made it.

Looking around at the younger generation of planetary scientists though, the story is quite different. Funding is scarce and the competition is strong. Whether or not your proposal gets selected for funding is no longer a matter of how good you are as a scientist – it’s become a crapshoot. NASA publishes the stats of the submitted vs. funded proposals that are selected each year, and the numbers can be as dismal as 11%. Programs with over 25% funded are seemingly rare. If you’re just starting your career, good luck at getting funding at all because your name isn’t known yet, unless you happen to be attached to a bigger name through your network on your proposal. I’m seeing brilliant friends of mine unable to find faculty positions after their second, third, or even fourth post-doc due to lack of funding and lack of open positions. Some say that part of the problem is producing too many Ph.D.s in the field knowing there aren’t enough faculty jobs waiting after graduation for them—but I think a deeper problem exists because this discounts jobs in industry completely.

The people that tell you to stay in academia because it’s the one true path are automatically biased because they are the ones where the system worked out for them. That statement is not meant to hold that against them by any means; they’ve worked ridiculously hard to get where they are and I congratulate everyone that’s made it if that was their desired path. But at the same time, we cannot ignore or invalidate other career options in our field, or classify them as lesser simply because they are in industry.

It is not a “failure” to leave academia.

I don’t even like the term “leave academia” because it implies that academia was the primary option and you chose to bail out. I went into my Ph.D. program knowing full well I did not want to go into academia, so I didn’t “leave.” I made a conscious career decision beforehand and evaluated what I needed to do to attain that goal.

When I made the decision to go back into industry, I was told by one person that if I did I’d never be able to come back to academia. I’d be walking away from everything I’d worked for. That may have been the case a few years ago, but even academia is changing. Some universities, and even scholarship/fellowship programs, are starting to place value on real-world experience when it comes to both students and faculty hires because it brings a fresh perspective. How widespread this will become, only time will tell.

So, to all of the graduate students, post-docs, adjunct faculty, and anyone else out there that needs to hear this right now: There are options out there. If you don’t want to follow the academic route, seek these other options out. Find, or even create, the opportunities you want. Your career choice is for you, and it is not on any external person to invalidate that decision. At the end of the day, what is most important is that you enjoy what you are doing, that you can pay your bills (the future dream of *any* graduate student, right?), and that you feel fulfilled.

Professional Martian. PhD Geoscientist at Planet Labs. Former operations team member for Opportunity, Curiosity, & the Mars Recon. Orbiter. Views = my own.

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