Farewell to Astronomy

Recently I took the decision to shift my life onto a new track and accepted a job offer outside of astrophysics. Given that leaving academia has long been a frequent source of conversation among the postdocs and PhD students I interact with on a daily basis I thought that — inspired by Marcel Haas’ article titled Leaving the field, becoming an extronomer — I’d write a few words about why I’m leaving, and where I’m going.

Jessica Kirkpatrick has written a lot about the difference between academia and industry (Astronomer to data scientist, Astronomy vs. data science) and I’d encourage anybody who is interested to read those articles. They reflect my feelings about academia more coherently than I can myself. Therefore, I’m only going to cover my personal circumstances and say that as much as I love doing science for a living, I do feel that I’ll be just as fulfilled elsewhere.

Where have I been?

I have been incredibly fortunate throughout my career. During my PhD at Durham University and post-doctoral positions at Leiden and Chicago I have been surrounded by wonderful and caring people who, over the course of each contract, have become close friends. Since moving to Chicago I have married a wonderful woman, we are lucky enough to live close to her family (this is by no means to be expected for those of us on short-term academic contracts!), and I have found a group of friends who make me incredibly happy to be around.

The process of moving institutions every few years is both an up- and down- side of early-career academia. It’s great to meet new people, and to experience new countries. At the same time, it is exhausting. Each time I move, the process of meeting a whole new circle of friends and stocking another apartment with Ikea furniture feels less like fun and more like a horrible chore, especially with the knowledge that my time at the new institution has an expiration date just a few years in the future.

If I try to project my career forwards and objectively place myself next to others who would be competing with me for jobs, I do feel like I would likely be able to find some sort of faculty position. However, it is unlikely that I’d be able to land something at a prestigious research institution, or in a city that I’d love as much as I do Chicago. I’d probably either end up stuck in a holding-cycle where I take more postdoctoral positions in new cities until finally settling, or I would accept a faculty position in a city and department where the things I have grown to love about both the big-city and big-department would be largely unavailable to my family and me. Either way, continuing an astronomy career would, for me, involve more years of uncertainty and big life changes with no obvious path to resolution.

It is a decision that is personal to everybody, but, for me, when I weigh my academic career against my personal happiness I know it’s time for me to make some decisions that prioritize my family and my non-academic life above chasing a tenure track position.

Where am I going?

A while ago I filled out a LinkedIn profile with all of the computer and data-analysis experience that I gained doing astronomy. As a result, I get the occasional call or email from a recruiter asking if I’d be interested in opportunity X or job Y. Up until now I have always politely brushed these offers off because nothing appealed to me more than spending more time doing science, even though I already knew that in the long-term academia would not be for me.

However, a few weeks ago I received one of these emails from a recruiter on behalf of a company called Narrative Science, with the description that Narrative Science was born out of Northwestern University and “Our artificial intelligence platform automatically analyzes data and produces narratives that are contextually relevant, actionable and tailored to any audience.” Basically, they turn tables full of data into stories written in the English language. Narrative Science made a bit of a splash a few years ago with software that takes the play-by-play from a baseball game and turns it into an article in English. Here are various articles about that (written by humans):

They have since widened scope to try and write stories in a huge number of subject domains, and the problems they’re trying to solve in changing ‘data’ into ‘stories’ sounded both challenging and incredibly interesting. I agreed to an interview.

During this interview, in addition to being subjected to a few hours of questioning (including my first ever attempts at writing code on a white board!), I discovered a lively atmosphere full of fun people working hard on really interesting problems. Furthermore their data team are creating something cool that I think I’ll be able to contribute to in a very significant way.

Happily, they liked me too and I’m really excited to say that I’ll be joining the team at Narrative Science on October 30th

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