Tuesday, February 5, 2013

AAS and the Job Hunt

A wordle made up of the 250 most common words from the AAS
abstract book. Image credit: Jim Davenport
Being an astronomer is a pretty cool job... I feel rather fortunate to get paid for what I do. But how do you manage to turn astronomy into steady work?

For many astronomers, the path to finding a job includes a stop at the annual American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. The conference provides several dimensions to help recent Ph.D. graduates and postdocs find a job: interviews, workshops, networking, and simply presenting your work in front of a wider audience. As a junior postdoc and recent Ph.D. graduate myself, I fall squarely into the AAS job-hunter category.

With so many astronomers (over 3000 this year) traveling to the AAS, it ends up being a convenient place for many employers to hold interviews for prospective job candidates. This includes both tenure-track faculty jobs and postdoctoral research positions. Like in any career, an interview gives employers a chance to get to know their candidates face to face. Personally, I find these interviews to be exciting opportunities: it gives you a chance to brainstorm new research ideas with experienced senior astronomers.

The AAS also offers several workshops for resume-building, grant writing, and interview tips. I haven't actually attended any of these workshops, but I do have a lot of experience with the networking side of the AAS. Sometimes this means finally meeting a colleague in person when you've only swapped emails before, and sometimes it means trying to spearhead a new observing campaign or data analysis plan. Networking also provides opportunities to meet astronomers who might be offering attractive postdoc jobs in the near future. The AAS is also one of the few meetings where industry and science policy professionals attend: if you are an astronomer seeking a non-academic job, the conference provides a rare outlet to network with potential employers.

With over 3000 astronomers, the AAS is simply the largest astronomy conference of the year. This means your talk or poster presentation will have a much larger audience than at smaller conferences. For this reason, the AAS is one of the few meetings where astronomers are unusually well-dressed. I suppose you never know which future employers might be at your talk, and it doesn't hurt to show that you are serious about your work.

The search for a job as a professional astronomer is not easy: there are many more qualified applicants than there are jobs (both temporary postdoc and permanent faculty). But the AAS provides a rare opportunity for face-to-face time with potential employers. For me, this is the biggest service the meeting provides, and it makes it an important meeting for recent Ph.D. graduates and young postdocs.

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