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As I’m reaching what I hope is the end of my PhD I find myself applying for jobs again. I’ve been hitting the obvious places and certain major labs and find myself sometimes relying on keyword searches. More often than not I find myself searching astronomy as keyword.A discussion in pseudo-real life with someone who also recently switched from an astro background to something planetary related has reminded me that I’m not the only one who struggles with the “what am I” question.
I’m first and foremost an astronomer. I go to telescopes and curse at the weather. I look at my queue data and curse the damned theorists that put the notation in the observing log that it was photometric (note to theorists: if the sky levels are all over the place from one frame to the next, it probably wasn’t photometric. When the stars go from being little pinpoints in one image to a big fat blob in the next, it probably isn’t photometric!). My undergrad background was a solid astronomy degree, though that isn’t saying much since the university’s planetary science department didn’t offer undergrad majors. I was uber-involved with astronomical research as an undergrad too, I used to work on a specific class of stellar sources and found myself published multiple times (once even as first author on an article in Astrophysical Journal Letters!). That research experience also netted me a data monkey job starting my junior year that put the high quality food on my table. I may have switched the type of objects I study to asteroids and I may have added in some experience in wrestling with mid-infrared data, but I still feel I’m an astronomer. Sometimes my poster at the AAS seems out of place (in the singular solar system session), but I can converse easily with many many people at those meetings. And yes I do occasionally get the directors of NASA centers who inform me that I can’t be an astrophysicist because I do solar system objects and those are too close to count as astrophysics, but I’ve learned to roll my eyes at that sort of thing.
The DPS on the other hand. . . I have a small handful of friends I talk to because they were either grad students at the planetary department at my undergrad alma matter and some of the folks in my corner of the field a few of whom I’m collaborating with now. I don’t feel like a planetary scientist. I don’t poke my asteroids, I prefer instead to deal with large populations and the greater trends you can see with large samples. I prefer the big picture of how my science fits into planet formation in our solar system and how that relates to planet formation elsewhere. Those two preferences seem to make me stand out to other planetary scientists as “not a real scientist”. Last summer a “real planetary science” grad student informed me that infrared spectroscopy was the biggest piece of shit ever for determining compositions and that using a mass spec was “the only real way to do things”. Rather than roll my eyes the way I do with tools in the astronomy community, all I could think is “you’re right, what I do is total crap and I don’t count as planetary scientist.”
I still haven’t yet figured out where I fit in with respect to the planetary science community, and I’m beginning to suspect I’ll never feel like a planetary scientist after trying to fit in for a good 6 years. But an astronomer. . .that I will always be. But for the sake of jobs and the future I guess I need to think about which direction I should take- the direction towards missions where I can poke my asteroids (ie the planetary scientist direction) or towards other studies of planet formation, especially around other stars (the astronomer direction) and if I’m willing to put up with always feeling like the odd girl out at meetings and other professional events. Thank god postdocs are still for professional development, I may still have time to figure this out.