Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Year as a Postdoc Astronomer in Chile

As of October, I have now spent one year as an astronomy postdoctoral researcher straight out of graduate school. It has been a great year, though with plenty of ups and downs. I figure I should write down my thoughts about this experience. I have both good things and bad things to say, but I try to be honest, fair, and positive throughout. This may be of interest to curious grad students, or anyone really, especially if they have wondered about pursuing a postdoc or are just interested in astronomy in Chile. One thing to keep in mind is that this is an individual, personal experience and your own story or circumstances may be quite different. It's obviously difficult to approach this critically and unbiasedly, but here goes nothing...

First of all, what does it mean to be a postdoc?
A postdoc, or postdoctoral researcher/fellow, is a temporary worker that carries out research at a particular institution. Most postdoc positions are for 2-3 years, though subject to your performance in that time. Department love to hire postdocs as they are a source of research publications (which enhance the standing of the university or institute) and are easier to maintain than permanent faculty, who get higher salaries, benefits such as health insurance, and enjoy greater job security. I suppose some postdocs do get health insurance from their employer, but the situation will vary from place to place and it's not necessarily a given.

Being a postdoc feels like a step above being a grad student, though how large is that step is up to individual circumstances. Research-wise this may end up being more of the same. In most cases, you'll have the freedom to work on your own projects and collaborate with who you want. You can choose your own schedule and work from home if you so desire. Some other postdoctoral positions require you to work for a specific person on his/her project. If you're the sort of student that required or appreciated frequent/constant supervision from your advisor, then that later option may be your best bet. In the end, though, the goal is to be an independent researcher and forge your path in life.

What has been my experience?
Though most of my job applications where for positions in the United States, I ended up accepting a postdoctoral position at a university in Chile. It may not have been my first choice (I preferred to stay in the US), but there seemed to be lots of opportunities there. Plus, who knew? Maybe I'd end up enjoying it there.

I had defined a long-term project as part of my fellowship applications, and while I didn't win a prize fellowship, that doesn't mean I couldn't do what I outlined over the next few years. Unfortunately, some of what I wrote was location-dependent and some people I may have wanted to directly interact with were far away. However, one could argue that being in the Southern Hemisphere is advantageous for my work.

My project consists of the study of nearby, young stars, and by chance most of these are in the Southern Hemisphere and thus readily accessible with observatories in Chile. Furthermore, Chile has become one of the best places in the world for astronomy given it's high, isolated, dry mountain sites and existing infrastructure. I had actually traveled several times to Chile as a graduate student in order to observe from Cerro Tololo. With all the telescopes, and the 10% share that astronomers at Chilean institutions get, Chile is a good place to go if you are an observational astronomer. The reality of the situation I experienced, however, was somewhat different.

There are politics and rivalries in the astronomical community that a young grad student might not be aware of. Most of these are in the form of healthy competition as teams carry out the same research. I feel a bit that I've been entering into the fray here as my type of work has become more popular and thus the field is more crowded. However, the most damaging case is when these biases start cropping up in job applications or telescope allocation committees (TAC). This was the great wake-up call in my first year as a postdoc.

There are a variety of TACs that administer the various telescope facilities in Chile, for example those who administer the VLT (Very Large Telescope) do not handle the Magellan telescopes. One particular TAC was brutal in its reviews of my telescope proposals. Though disappointed, I could see the reason behind their comments and worked to address them for the next round. However, that next round the comments seemed unnecessarily picky and verged on the point of an ad hominem attack. I fell into one of the worst depressions of my life and started looking into alternative careers. This was further compounded by the fact that I felt so isolated in Chile: everything and everyone I knew, had grown up with, and liked was in the US, but here I was alone in a foreign country with people who felt I did not have a good understanding on the topic of my doctoral dissertation. The impression I got, unfortunately, was that this particular TAC was less interested about the science than about the people carrying out that science.

I've since recovered from my depression, but I learned an important lesson. Astronomy, like most any aspect of life, is mired in the politics, biases, and prejudices of those in power. It's a hard truth, but one that is unfortunately universal. Go ahead and turn on the news and you'll see this happening all over the world in all walks of life. It is part of the human condition. Nevertheless, as long as you have an open mind, a forward-thinking attitude, and a support structure made of friends, family, and people who believe in you, you can deal with anything. You'll need to keep working hard and it won't be easy, but then again, no one said it would be.

Despite this setback, I've managed to get some good work done and made some great friends. Readers of my blog will perhaps remember my visit to the APEX observatory, from which I got some great data, and my trips to Iguazu Falls and Easter Island. The former as a short vacation, the latter as a public outreach project (and let's be honest: more vacation). I've also attended several conferences and traveled a lot this past year. My research these past few months has picked up and I'm certain I will have an excellent paper to publish later this year and more in the years to come. I even won a fellowship to support myself for the next few years in Chile (coincidentally on the same topic the TACs felt I didn't understand well). So things are certainly looking up.

What it's like living and working in Chile? 
The bureaucracy of living and working in another country is a pain. I spent several stress-filled months in the US as I waited for paperwork from the (US) Federal government to satisfy all the tiny details for the (Chilean) consulate. The consulate also seemed to want to give me a 'work' visa, which is different than the 'residence' visa that the Chilean university required me to get. After that's all done and you travel to your new home, you get to do some extra (but far simpler) bureaucratic tasks as you register yourself and get an identity card. This is probably the one major drawback of going to work in foreign countries, but fortunately people have done this before so it's just a matter of following instructions and waiting patiently.

The one thing that has impacted me most about being in Chile is the very different pace of life. In the US, everything is frantic about getting things done fast or at least on time. It is a society of 24-hour convenience and on-demand service: you can practically go to the bank or shop or whatever at any time, any day. Chile is far, far, far more laid back, so much so that it almost looks lazy. Different locales have different times, but you can encounter shops closed at 9am since it's too early to open and then at 2pm since they've already worked enough. Restaurants may not even open until 8pm, since apparently no one is hungry before then. Weekends are even worse with practically half the city closed. I suppose if the tables were turned, Chileans would be appalled by the constant motion in the US and the vanishingly small time with which to relax, but that's just what I grew up with.

Even our Astronomy department shows signs of this as you sometimes wander the halls, especially in summer/winter, and they are empty of students and faculty. It sometimes seems that only the foreign postdocs are there to hold the fort. However, I've been quite lucky in the department having had my pay checks delivered on time and not having any major problems with my office. I probably have the Best Officemate Ever, given that she (the illustrious Jackie Faherty) works on similar research and has introduced me to all sorts of people in the field. It's actually quite surprising to have ended up with an awesome, super fun, half-Puerto Rican, low-mass star/brown dwarf expert as an officemate. I could easily have ended up with someone dull or obnoxious whose research is far different and completely incomprehensible to me. Nevertheless, these sorts of things will vary for every postdoc and every institution so my experience is likely not universal.

Chile, particularly Santiago, is also a lot more modern, and expensive, than I expected. My salary is naturally higher than a grad student's and it's enough to live in Santiago, but some things like electronic equipment and books (!) are far more expensive here than in the US. The electronics doesn't surprise me, but the books certainly do. I won't be paying 43 US dollars for a trade paperback of House of Chains any time soon. Good thing I have a Kindle...

What about the job market?
Permanent, stable astronomy jobs are not easy to find at the moment, especially if you're looking to stay in academia. This has been true for some time now and even postdoc positions are not as common as they were before, particular in the US. In Chile, on the other hand, there are plenty of postdoctoral opportunities, especially now that ALMA is nearing completion. Those opportunities will not last forever, though, and I sure hope the US economy recovers as my long-term goal is to return to the US after spending these few years abroad. It is not uncommon for astronomers to have 2-3 postdoctoral positions before landing a more permanent job.

A postdoc is inherently a short-term position, so my policy has been to continue to pursue this as I wait and see what sort of opportunities come up or if I decide I'll leave academia. I know some people suggest leaving earlier rather than wasting time, but I like doing independent research and feel I have some good ideas and results to contribute, so I think I'll stay in this race a little longer. Just in case, however, I am trying to keep an open mind about possibilities that may be open to me if I choose to step out of astronomy and I plan to continue to attend career workshops about these sort of topics.

Final Thoughts
I've had both good and bad this year, as is to be expected in the roller coaster of life. Being a postdoc is not that different than being a grad student, though you are a bit more free to set your schedule and relax or work as you see fit. You don't have the stress of having to worry about your thesis, which in turn is replaced with the stress of worrying about telescope proposals and where you'll be in a few years time. It has been an interesting experience to work in a foreign country, again, both good and bad. In the end, though, I'm overall happy for this past year and look forward to the next ones.

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