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An undergraduate asks the big question…

March 15, 2011

LV, an undergraduate, recently posted the following question in the undergrad forum:

Hello everyone! I’m currently an undergraduate who would like to pursue a career in planetary sciences. I was wondering if anyone could provide me with some information about the career in terms of job outlook, salary, projections etc. I cannot seem to find any information on the internet. After you receive a PhD, is it easy to find a job? Are there many jobs available? What “types” of jobs can you find in the planetary sciences and what are their pros/cons? For example, working for a university vs working for NASA, etc. What are the disadvantages to finishing with a Masters as opposed to a PhD. Is it a good career for a woman? And any other information you would like to share! In terms of subject matter, I know planetary sciences would be a great fit because it is my passion. But I don’t know enough about the career to be able to explain to my parents why it could also be a “smart” career decision. They seem to have the idea that there are only about 5 jobs out there and you would be making pennies! Haha. I wish I had something to tell them, but I really am having trouble finding concrete information so any help would be appreciated!

This is a BIG question, but it really is THE question, isn’t it?  LV, there is a treasure trove of interviews with successful women in planetary science linked from the top of this blog that I hope can help you get an idea of the kinds of jobs where planetary scientists work — there’s quite a diversity, including universities, federal laboratories, NASA Centers, non-profit research institutes, teaching colleges, and careers in industry. 

If you’re looking for statistics, you might want to dig into these studies from the AIP, the NSF, and others; if they don’t separate out planetary science, look at the statistics for physics, earth science, and geology – planetary scientists typically fall into one of those categories, although some would self-classify in chemistry or biology. 

And of course there’s a lot to be said for learning by doing.  You just missed the deadline for NASA summer internships, but it may not be too late to apply for NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates  at colleges and universities across the country.  You can also go talk to a professor at your own college or university and ask if there is an opportunity to work on research with him or her this summer … you never know until you ask!

Readers, what about the other questions that LV poses?  What can you tell her and other undergraduates who visit this site?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. mark permalink
    January 21, 2013 7:22 pm

    hi everyone im currently in a community college right now getting a degree for another job so i can pay for my nxt degree that i want to get into which is astronomy. im trying to get into planetary science i really loved science since i was in fifth grade. as from seeing the posts on here there is alot of useful info here but all the schools are sooo expensive. if anyone can provide me information of what i should do please contact me through my email. just post and ask for it thankyou

  2. sutari permalink
    March 16, 2011 1:19 pm

    I would like to suggest that the Masters vs. PhD question is really, really important to get a handle on. It depends so much on where you want to end up. Because in some places, a Masters isn’t enough. In other places, a PhD is viewed as “over qualified” – yes, stupidly employers worry that if you have too much education for the job, you will be bored and/or won’t stick around (so are not worth their trouble investing in – it isn’t cheap to hire someone, you want them to stick around). So while you are in the masters program, think long and hard about where you want to be in the end. If it isn’t teaching or full time research, you might not want to get that PhD. It is a lot of time (and money depending on where you go) to invest in something that might actually end up limiting you.

    • March 18, 2011 7:20 pm

      This is very interesting to me because I have always gotten the impression that in order to do anything astronomy related, you just HAVE to get a PhD. But it seems that everyone here makes it sound that for planetary sciences, many people in fact just stop at the masters level. As you said, it must depend on where you want to end up. If you don’t mind me asking, what sort of jobs are good for those with a masters specifically? Because in fact, teaching really terrifies me and I would most likely try to avoid that if at all possible.

      I was also under the impression that research was also something that you would HAVE to do. But based on the comments to this post, there seems to be a lot of other options. Would anyone mind describing these “other” types of options? For example, the poster said there are “careers in industry.” What exactly are “careers in industry?” I’m sorry if that is a dumb question. 🙂

      See, the one thing that is sort of making me hesitant for going into planetary sciences is that I’m not sure how comfortable I would be with research. And as I said, I figured that was pretty much what it WAS. That being a planetary scientist WAS being a researcher. I am very passionate about the subject, but that is a little different than being passionate about the job itself. I am a little more comfortable with the idea of working in a lab setting, and to generalize, doing busy work! I find busy work very comforting. I really enjoy, for example, my chemistry labs in school. This is very different though than how I imagine the entire process of finding a research topic, then a hypothesis, thesis, conducting research…it’s very much more complicated and rooted in deep thought. Now I am rambling. 🙂

      I am also wondering if Kate Craft could explain her motivation behind getting the PhD in geophysics from a masters in aerospace engineering?

      Thank you everyone for your posts! This is giving me a lot to think about 🙂

      • Tanya Harrison permalink
        March 18, 2011 7:33 pm

        LV: I have a Master’s in geology and work in mission operations for a couple of NASA missions. Almost everyone else on the operations team where I work (Malin Space Science Systems) are people without a Ph.D. as well, with varying backgrounds: geology, astronomy, aerospace engineering, etc. Now, what exactly does “mission operations” mean? We’re the folks that actually control instruments aboard NASA spacecraft, acquiring and processing the data for researchers to use.

        You could also get a position at a laboratory, such as Los Alamos National Labs, or in certain positions at places like JPL, without a Ph.D. I’ve known a few people that have gone that route after getting Master’s degrees in astronomy. I also know a few people that work as techs at various observatories around the world that have “only” Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees. There are definitely options out there if you aren’t looking to go the academic track.

      • Kate permalink
        May 31, 2011 1:41 pm

        Hey LV, I’m so sorry I haven’t responded to you yet. My motivation to study geophysics after working/studying as an engineer came from just plain interest in the science side of the work I was doing. I was designing mechanisms for scientists to go out and collect data for them and I found myself increasingly interested in WHY they needed that data and I had always been fascinated with the idea of discovering new science out in space. So, when I got engaged to my, now husband, who was living in a different state, I decided to take the opportunity to try something new and go back to school to study some sort of planetary science type topic. The best school closest to my fiance’s job only offered geophysics but had a prof who had published work on Europa so I went for that. It was also a good discipline for me as my strong math background was applicable a lot in geophysics so I wasn’t really starting completely over. When I started out I intended to stop with a Masters, but after completing it I felt I wanted to keep going and so have gone on working towards the PhD. I hope this helps some and sorry again for the delay in replying!

  3. Kate Craft permalink
    March 15, 2011 8:52 pm

    Hi LV! I am a 3rd yr PhD student working towards a geophysics degree with a focus on planetary science. I first want to 2nd the comment by Spacemom in that ALL carreers are good ones for women if you’re passionate about them! 🙂 As it will often require passion and determination to get over any roadblocks you encounter along the way. I have a MS in Aerospace Engineering and worked for NASA for 5 yrs before going back to school to study science. There weren’t many of us women engineers then but I really really enjoyed my job and would totally recommend it. So far in my experience as a female planetary scientist I haven’t come across too much adversity due to being a woman, but I know that others have encountered it some.

    I can’t speak too specifically to differences in jobs besides some general facts. There are definitely a lot of different job types out there for planetary scientists. Besides being a professor at a research university you could get a job at a teaching university where you would focus more on teaching and not have the huge pressure of publishing tons and bringing in money. You could also take a job at a research lab. I’m not sure if you’d need a PhD for that or not, but I think it helps to have one. Labs that I know of off hand include the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Southwest Research Institute. Then of course, you could work with NASA. The differences between the labs and NASA will be differences in pay and benefits. At NASA you’d be a federal employee and at the labs you’d be a state or soft money (bring in your own support) employee. I’m aiming to get a job with one of the labs or NASA as they do work with missions and that’s what I’d really like to do.

    Well, hope that helps some! 🙂

  4. julie permalink
    March 15, 2011 8:20 pm

    My personal experience is that being a female scientist is not really the issue (never felt like it), but being young certainly is. Being young means that you have to prove again and again that you know what you are talking about, while older scientists just need to talk in an assertive manner to make their point (good or bad). But in my opinion the most annoying thing is that people’s attitude radically chance when they hear that I am not a postdoc anymore but the lead of this or that project, like having a title adds value to my ideas…
    My point is that with a PhD, you are better harmed when walking in a room filled with senior scientists. It is a bit like having to show an ID to purchase beer. If you do not have the right ID, you can’t get the beer, and you will need to wait a while (“get old”) before being able to get it.

  5. March 15, 2011 2:45 pm

    As someone who stopped at the Master’s level, I was able to find a temporary job (in astronomy) before I even graduated, and a permanent position (in planetary science) within 2 months of graduating. There are jobs out there if you want to stop at that point, you just typically have to look outside of academia. The main disadvantage I’ve found is that when I go to conferences to present my work, some people have a very dismissive attitude when they find out I “only” have a Master’s degree. That only tends to come from younger folks though—Ph.D. candidates and recent graduates. Older people in the field seem to actually judge the work on its quality rather than on my academic background.

    • Eugenie S permalink
      March 19, 2011 5:28 pm

      Your comments in this post really caught my attention!

      I’m a 2nd year grad student in planetary science, recently decided to opt for a masters degree instead of a PhD as I came to realize that I really enjoyed the data/image processing side of the work and wanted to pursue that path further. My undergrad degree was in imaging science/remote sensing, but careers in that track tend to veer towards DoD/military funded work which I’m not particularly thrilled about. Your work in mission operations sounds fascinating – could you tell us more about it?

  6. March 15, 2011 2:24 pm

    I finished with a MS in astronomy/planetary sciences. I have found this to be good for me because I could enter the field without the pressure of the PhD must get a job syndrome.
    I entered the astronomical field as a data aide for one of NASA’s Great Observatories. I moved to software and now I am an operations team scientist. Many of the people who pass through here start by getting a data aide or data analyst position and then apply for a PhD program. Many take graduate courses as job training.

    I work at the CfA. It’s a mix of university and lab…

    To be honest, jobs can be tight, but right now, planets are hot and sexy. When I graduated, AGN were the sexy items to be working on. I tend to see that jobs in astronomy are still tight and probably always will be. Fortunately, women have an advantage in that most institutions want to increase the female factor. Unfortunately, this is not always good in that a better qualified male can be passed over for a female.

    As for “is this a good career for a woman”, I can’t imagine a career that isn’t good for a woman. There are always challenges, stereotypes and roadblocks in any job, so I would suggest you go for what you love.

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