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From Afar
a_scorpii
One of the considerations that has always been at the front of my mind is the dilemma between pursuing a career in astronomy and being able to be permanently back in Singapore.  Having spent more than a year now here in the US, I feel that Singapore is still the better place for starting a family due to the easy access to educational opportunities for the first few years.  However, at the higher levels, opportunities there become much more restricted due to limitations in resources, and astronomy with its lack of clearly tangible economic benefits is very much neglected in Singapore. 

But that is quite a while later, when I have finished my undergraduate degree here and perhaps also have gotten my PhD.  I have always taken for granted that I have to go all the way to that if I want to go into academics and research.  And it just happens that last week was registration for next term's courses, and so I met up with my two (yes two ^^) advisors and talked to them about what lies ahead of me. 

Caltech has often been amazing in that you can throw a stone and perhaps hit someone who is a heavyweight in his field.  When I found out that my Physics advisor was Ed Stone my jaw dropped.  Yes, Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyagers and former director of Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).  My Planetary Science advisor is younger (and as a result not as well-known).  Bethany Elhmann got her PhD and did her postdoc at Brown before coming to Caltech as an assistant professor. 

Ask me a week ago what exactly is meant by that last line I wrote, and I would probably struggle for an answer.  What is a postdoc or an assistant professor?  That was one of the questions I asked both of them. 

So assuming everything goes well, I will get my undergraduate degree.  If I choose not to perhaps go around the world (or to one particular exotic place) for a year or more, I can continue with my graduate degree or go out to some research institute.  For the latter, probably I will be a research scientist in a team.  Going the graduate school track I will probably get my PhD in 3-4 years, after which I can again choose to go out to the research institute or continue as a postdoc.  Should I choose the former, it will almost be the same as only having an undergraduate degree, only that I will have a more senior position and correspondingly higher pay. 

Postdoc is a transitional period, as Bethany put it, and usually lasts 3 years.  It is a time when you learn a new area that is related to what you did for your PhD, and essentially is a waiting period before you take up a more permanent job as a research scientist at a research institute or as an assistant professor at a university.  My time as an assistant professor will also be limited.  After about 5 years there will be a review that will take into account what my colleagues in the field think about my work.  If the review turns out bad, I will have to go elsewhere, otherwise I will be promoted and given tenure as a professor. 

What is the difference between going to a research institute and doing research at a university as a professor?  At the research institute, it is less likely that I will be the one leading a team, and even if I am, my area of research is likely to be determined by external factors such as by contracts or by the direction of the institute.  However, there is perhaps less job security due to a lack of the tenure and your research institute may unfortunately close down if it is private due to funding issues (this would be rare for a university).  At the research institute my life will be more about research, without my attention diverted to other responsibilities such as teaching, being on various administrative committees and, as both my advisors remembered to point out, advising. 

How important is it to be physically around colleagues in your field?  Bethany replied that it is just convenient to walk down the hallway to ask Dave Stevenson a question instead of sending a email and waiting several days for a reply.  However, Caltech is unique in that it is rare to have such a large planetary science department.  In other places, it (or the entire astronomy department) may be much smaller, and you will be the only authority around for your field there.  Wherever you are, you also have to travel to conferences, and being in Singapore perhaps just add 10 hours for each flight to and from.  But technology is improving.  I remember how Rob Phillips conducted one of our Bi1x classes via Skype. 

Research is exploration.  True that exploration is cool that you will find and see things no one has seen before, but it is cooler to be able to share it with others.  Research at research institutes does not have as much of the "cozy scientific community" feeling.  And I like teaching, to light this fire in people and to guide them.  Opportunities in Singapore may not be abundant for astronomy, but definitely at least one person will be needed for variety, and it could be me, that is if I am good enough.  In that position, I will become the bridge to expose my students to opportunities available elsewhere through the colleagues I work with, and being the only one, I am perhaps less "dispensible" than the rest?  I may also end up being well-known, but I am not sure if that is what I want. 

But the pressure will certainly be on.