What I tell people when they ask me what I do

18 Apr

Like all gentry-class young professionals and grad students, I always get asked what I do. You know, for a living. For the past two years I've been an astrophysics grad student by day and web development shop owner by night, or vice versa, depending on my schedule. When I told people outside of school that I was pretty seriously considering leaving my Ph.D program, they would ask me why I'd give up something as “awesome” as astronomy. When I told people at school that I used to make six figures as a web developer in New York and left to go to grad school, they asked me why I'd ever leave it for this life.

So, I figured it's time to write a blog post explaining why I've done all the things I've done. Maybe I'll get some business cards with the URL to it printed up and hand them out at parties when people ask me these things. So, here is the answer to all your questions about my life decisions.

I don't really know.

Ok, that's both true and not true. But it is true that sometimes you just have to be honest with yourself about what actually seems fun and interesting to you, and what you're just doing out of a sense of obligation. When I decided to move to Los Angeles and enroll at UCLA, I did it pretty much for the wrong reasons. I was experiencing mid-20s ennui about my job as a staff web developer, and I was nostalgic for the carefree (by comparison) time I spent as an astronomy undergrad. I applied for grad school in astronomy once and passed on all my offers; I was afraid I'd always regret it.

The truth is that grad school — at least in astronomy — is really hard. I just don't mean the math (although that is pretty challenging). It requires acceptance of a whole lifestyle where you think about astronomy constantly. I was never as motivated as my classmates. They browsed astro-ph in their spare time and I watched Netflix. They agonized over homework problems in each graduate class and I impatiently futzed with my computer until everyone else figured out the answers. They poured themselves into their research and I just worried about getting enough done not to look stupid on the next group “telecon” (which as it turns out is what academics call what the rest of the world refers to as a conference call).

Thus, it probably didn't surprise anyone (including me) when I received what the department politely calls a “terminal masters pass” on my comprehensive exam. This translates to plain English as being fired, more or less. Except you get a masters degree, which in a Ph.D program is sort of like the trophy that they give to everyone in Little League for showing up to play. Am I an idiot who can't do astronomy when everyone else at school can? Possibly. I'd like to think it was more a question of motivation than ability, but it's probably some of both.

In a few weeks I'll be hanging up my astronomy hat for good. I was probably going to do this anyway, but now the decision's been made for me. And to be honest, I feel more relieved than anything. I also feel a slight twinge of guilt over how I must be disappointing my 8-year-old self by “giving up” on science. But really, you can't force yourself to like something, and it would be stupid to try because of a misplaced sense of loyalty to myself in the past, or to impressing people I meet at parties.

So: that's why I left grad school. When you get down to it, astrophysics isn't really about flying a spaceship or acting like Neil deGrasse Tyson. It's a lot of fighting with old, dysfunctional software, non-uniformly formatted telescope data, and being paid really poorly. There are cool parts too, but if you don't have the burning desire to get ahead in it, it's a real uphill battle. The most important things I learned in grad school weren't about radiative transfer or hydrostatic equilibrium, they were about being honest with myself and about being okay with not being a famous renegade intellectual.

I will miss being around science, and I wish all my former classmates the best of success. In the end though, I just wasn't cut out for it.