Monday, September 12, 2011

Lessons Learned

August is the 8th anniversary of my enrollment at the University of Arizona's Planetary Science program. As such, I figured this might be a good time to present some advice for the incoming class of '16 (typical PTYS PhD programs take ~5 years). As always, this is specific to my own experience in my own field and things change rapidly in academia. Your mileage may vary.

10. Work Hard

While much of where you get in planetary science may be more related to who you know than what you know, you need to really put in a strong effort. So while some work-life balance is critical to your sanity, avoid an excess. After all, you want your colleagues to have a good impression of your skills, ability and work ethic. If your work is seen to be good then your name will get spread far and wide and more opportunities will come your way.

9. Publish or Perish

One of the key indicators that prospective employers will be looking for is your publication record. While there may be some truth to the conviction that all you need is one first author Science or Nature paper to cement a good job, those who can point to a long list of publications will have an easier time securing grants and applying. In both situations, the folks on the other end are looking for a proven performer and, as they say, nothing sells like success. So if you have a novel idea or do a class project that extends human knowledge, even by just a little bit, go that extra mile and get it in print. Planetary Science is one of the few remaining fields where this is still possible.

8. Beware of Missions

Space Missions are the lifeblood of Planetary Science, but as a graduate student, you need to be careful. There is the potential here for vast rewards - a successful mission can bring with it a raft of publications (see #9). For instance, my Phoenix work has netted me six publications to date only two of which I needed to helm myself. As well, since the granting system for PTYS in the US runs through NASA (an organization tasked with supporting only research that enhances their exploration goals) space mission experience is valuable.

But be forewarned! You can spend a lot of time and work on a space mission only to have the spacecraft destroyed on the landing pad, missing its insertion maneuver, burning up in the atmosphere or crashing upon landing. If you dedicate yourself for several years only to see this happen, your PhD might be delayed or entirely derailed. A better option is to not set out to do research at the graduate level that requires data from an upcoming mission. Instead, consider doing preparatory science, such as lab work that will enable interpretation of mission results, or develop techniques that can be applied to other missions as well. That way, you still have publishable results even in the absence of actual data return.

This turned out to be a winning scenario for me. I developed techniques to look at stable isotopes within the icy martian regolith and atmosphere. Unfortunately, however, we were unable to get D/H ratios for either of the atmosphere or ice so if I had depended on analyzing this result I would have been in trouble. But because my simulations described a real situation on Mars, I was able to publish my results. Additionally, as a member of the science team, I was able to contribute in other ways, particularly within atmospheric studies.

7. Orbiters over Landers

This is a hard one to write for me, veteran of three landed spacecraft, but it feels right. A friend of mine once admitted to me that once he retires he will have been funded entirely in his career through only two orbital missions.  You can do this because orbiters can last a very, very long time. Consider Cassini: Hardware development started in the early 1990s, launch was in 1997, arrival at Saturn occurred in 2004 and the mission is due to last until at least 2017 if not later. This means that if you were a young researcher lucky enough to get a spot on the project in 1991, you have the potential to work for the project for 26 years. Thus if you were a new 35 year old assistant prof at that time, you would roll off Cassini at 61. Landed missions tend to be much shorter (MER excepted) and come in bursts. This means that you need to find other ways to fund yourself through the lean times between missions. Example: I started on Phoenix the day it was announced in 2003 and the whole project was winding down severely when I graduated in December of '08.

A second reason, therefore, to prefer orbiters over landers comes from one of Curt Neibur's many maxims - a current membership on a space mission is much more valuable than past experience to an employer. This makes a great deal of sense. If you're applying to a faculty post and are on a mission, that institution knows that your name and work has a high probability of being mentioned in the news and in journals and it's appealing to them to add "a researcher at Institution X" to that article. However, past mission experience is stock that has stopped earning dividends. Therefore this is a bit of a gamble that you will be able to get another mission posting. Furthermore, if you were unfortunate enough to be on a failed mission, the attitude could be "why is your publication record so sparse?" So it can actually be a negative.

6. Lend a Hand

As I'll mention later on, networking is an extremely important part of finding employment as a planetary scientist, and nothing will help to impress those who are further along in your field than a willingness to help out. These can range from small to large activies and include such things as organizing conferences and helping to run journal clubs. They also will give you lots of exposure to all the different types of research that are taking place out there, so they can be an important source of research into research.

As someone who gives public lectures, observatory tours and speaks on reasonably frequently, I'm tempted to include E/PO (Education/Public Outreach). Certainly, such activities are very valuable for those who have already achieved an assistant professor designation and need to show a connection with the broader community. There's just one caveat - it's not clear to me that these are of benefit for a graduate student or a postdoc seeking employment. I have reason to suspect that hiring committees may not view this kind of experience as valuable and that some may even worry that you might not be as committed to your research as someone who lives in the laboratory.

However, EPO activities can be very rewarding. For my part it reminds me of why I became a planetary scientist in the first place. Thus, it confers huge motivational benefits which I then roll into my research activities.

5. Pick a Sexy Field

Like Hollywood or the sporting world, Academia is what is called a "Winner-take-all" kind of discipline in which rewards, grants and students accumulate disproportionately to the highest performers. It is the same way with sub disciplines. Consider an example: is there good research to be done on Uranus? Certainly there is! But there are no current planned missions to Uranus and no missions have swung by that planet since 1986. As such, very few grants have been awarded to study Uranus in recent years and the Uranus community is small. That smaller community, in turn, leads to fewer papers written (as an example, to find 200 papers that mention the word "Uranus" on adsabs you need to go back five years. For "Mars" it's just five months) with fewer people reading them. As such, when it comes time to look for a job, fewer opportunities might be available and there might be fewer people to help you. This cyclic effect can cause a sub-discipline community to shrink, something the Venus community is grappling with right now, as reported by Nature.

One quick caveat: as a "Winner-take-all" discipline, there is some value to being the world's expert in something, even if that something is in a cooler field. However, you would likely find more opportunity being the "5th best expert on Mars" than the "5th best expert on Uranus."

4. Specialize

This comment is related to #5, since we all start out as generalists. Many people are attracted to planetary science because they want to study other worlds, or have been stunned by imagery brought back from our exploration of the solar system. Few are the planetary scientists who only know or care about one very specific property of one piece of solar system real-estate and nothing else. Thus, more so than in other fields, planetary scientists have a tendency to want to do work across the solar system. But spreading your intellectual capital too thinly can also detract from your ability to advance. You might find that you are more in demand if you are the world's expert in a very specific thing, like how martian permafrost deforms around rocks. This is a bit of a gamble. If no one needs to collaborate with an expert in martian permafrost deformation, you won't get many calls. However, as soon as that expertise is required, you will find yourself more in demand. Certainly more than someone with just a surface knowledge of the topic.

The reason I throw this one in as number four is that the advice many graduate students receive is to get experience in a wide variety of areas. Often this gets taken too literally. Wide ranging shallow-depth experience has only two major benefits: (1) it is helpful in initially finding a specific area about which you are passionate and feel you can contribute and (2) later in your career you can connect the dots between seemingly unrelated phenomena.

Related to #4 and included herein is a suggestion that the call to Specialize not be restricted to a field, but also to the subject of learning a skill. Whether it be experimental lab work or field work with specific equipment, computer modelling with a particular program or language; you might find more success with just one or two highly developed skills than from being a jack-of-all-trades.

3. Present, Present, Present

Scientists are always wading upstream through a never ending deluge of information. Last week's paper can quickly end up in the same place as last week's news and you can be "put in the back/on the discount rack/like another can of beans" in the words of Billy Joel. How do you counter this? By getting your name and you work out there. And the way to do that is to present, present, present. Do it at lab meetings, journal clubs and conferences. Get yourself invited to give talks and seminars at other universities if you can. Do it as often as possible. Each room to whom you present is another 5 to 500 people whom you can convince you are someone who does good work, has good ideas and deserves a future in Planetary Science.

There's an added fringe benefit to a plentiful regimen of presentations: you get better at presenting. One of the most important skills for a scientist is being able to convey your ideas clearly and succinctly. For most of us, those kinds of communication skills only come with practice.

2.  Network, Network, Network

There are a lot of metrics out there. Total papers, h-value, impact factor. But ultimately your future will always be held in the hands of other people. The more people who know you and can put a face and a history to a name when they evaluate your work, the more likely you are to have your applications be successful. Additionally, it means more folks who can pass along opportunities to you and a greater pool of potential collaborators. This means that your own work can actually be improved by who and how many people you know. Is there a particular variety of person you should be looking for? Not really. You never know where your next opportunity or idea will come from - they often have unexpected sources. So really, anyone in the field from the engaged undergraduate to the grizzled emeritus prof, ranging across academia, related industry and government is a valuable person to get to know.

1. Follow Your Heart

The last and most important piece of advice for success in Planetary Science is a simple one: Follow Your Heart. Those of us in this business are a lucky bunch. Though we are somewhat constrained by our need to fund ourselves, we can study what we want when we want to. But for this work, we are not highly paid and the path may be uncertain. Therefore, before you head off into the world of Planetary Science make sure that this is what you really want to do with your life. If, instead, it is a means to an end, you may find yourself disappointed.

Certainly, I am not advising you against hard work with this last piece of advice. But #1 trumps almost anything else. Even though I've advised against it, I've worked on Landed Spacecraft because I find them fascinating and planetary science just wouldn't be what it is for me if I couldn't do that. Similarly, if Uranus is what you truly love, then by all means go and study that side-spinning ball of gas. But our choices have consequences, and neither of us should expect an easy road.

Extra Credit:

For the US, mainly: research is emphasized and grant getting is key. Teaching is a useful skill, but is of higher value after you get a permanent job rather than in allowing you to acquire that job.

For Canada, mainly: teaching is of key importance with research coming a close second. Tri-council rules prohibit non-permanent academics from applying for grant money (though I am unsure as to whether this is not held against Canadian Grads and Postdocs applying to Canadian Universities)

In general: also consider what is required for non-academic careers. You might find that the most fulfilling work for you is in Government, Non-University Teaching, Academic Management, or Private industry. As an example: several of my colleagues who worked on computer models found that they enjoyed the method more than the result and went to work for software companies.

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