Why did you become a scientist?

How I became a scientist and why I am not one anymore

Triggered by a very personal article by Kevin Zelnio, in which he talks about how he came to science, many other people are now also talking about their scientific career. I think that's an extremely good idea! Far too few people have a reasonable idea of ​​what scientists are up to. Far too many people are prejudiced against science and research. One of the reasons for this is that scientists are still often seen in public as something “strange” and not as normal people. If more researchers tell a little about their careers, it can only be positive. So I am happy to answer the call from SciLogs colleague Beatrice Lugger and write a little today about how I became an astronomer. And about why I'm no longer a scientist today.

My story is absolutely atypical. I was never very interested in the stars before. I never owned a telescope as a kid. I've never looked at the sky at night and wondered what fascinating secrets there are waiting to be solved. I was never very good at math and physics at school, and I wasn't particularly interested in those subjects. I was always mediocre in physics and sometimes downright bad in math.

The first halfway concrete career aspiration that I had as a teenager was “Something with tourism” (and please don't ask how I got this idea, I don't remember). That's why I always only chose languages ​​as electives at school. My interest in science came relatively late.

I find it surprisingly difficult to reconstruct the exact reasons for the interest today. My preference for science fiction literature certainly played a role. This is how I came across a book by Isaac Asimov: “The exact secrets of our world”. I still remember exactly how I took it on a school trip to France in 7th grade (corresponds to grade 11 in Germany). I was enthusiastic about the abundance and diversity of knowledge about our world that Asimov demonstrated. We sat in the bus and discussed atoms and elementary particles and in the evening in the hotel over a beer we discussed tachyons and the theory of relativity. Then came another book that was very important to me: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. It got me excited about cosmology and eventually brought me to astronomy. NOW I started reading stacks of books about the universe, the sky and the stars.

But my interest was still mainly in cosmology and not so much in classical astronomy. I still didn't have a telescope either (even if I did look at the sky from time to time; for example to observe a lunar eclipse). Today I know that you have to study mathematics or theoretical physics if you really want to do cosmology. But that wasn't clear to me at the time, and that's why I started studying astronomy after graduating from high school. By the way, my interest in astronomy did not result in my academic performance in math / physics getting better. But I didn't let that deter me and at that time I was the only one in my class who started studying maths like astronomy, although I was basically the worst in maths in my class.

At the university I learned math and physics from the very beginning anyway and I found it much more fascinating than at school! (Our teacher at the time - he taught both subjects - was probably just not very good). I was particularly impressed by the math. It was completely different from what we did in school. At school we basically only calculated, exciting things like mathematical proof never came up. I still failed my first math exam at university (by the way, the only exam during my entire degree that I failed). When I repeated it, I got a 3 and after that, math went smoothly and I passed all the exams with a 1. But somehow I wasn't that enthusiastic about astronomy. Once, because it only appeared sporadically during the first 4 semesters. There were a few introductory lectures, but for the most part I only learned mathematics and physics in the first two years at university. And the little bit of astronomy we heard had nothing to do with cosmology, either. It was about all the optical stuff, telescopes, brightness of stars, etc. So all the things that a “classic” astronomy fan knows from an early age and that had never interested me (I still didn't own a telescope).

Mathematics had impressed me much more at the time. I thought it was great and would have preferred to continue studying math instead of astronomy. Unfortunately, a change was not possible because otherwise I would have lost the study grant and without this state subsidy I would not have been able to afford to study. So it stayed with astronomy. In the fifth semester, however, you had to choose two astronomical specialties in which you wanted to attend a particularly large number of lectures. Then in the list of possible topics I discovered something called “Mathematical Astronomy”. If I can't study mathematics, then I'll specialize in mathematical astronomy !, was my thought. The only lecture in this area that was offered in the current semester was called “Heavenly Mechanics I”. That was very lucky, because without this lecture my astronomical career would probably not have come off. The celestial mechanics had captivated me from the start. It was about the movement of planets and their mathematical description. About chaos theory and all the fascinating effects that can occur in non-linear systems like our solar system. It was about computer simulations, about collisions between celestial bodies and the future fate of planetary systems. The lecture was given by Professor Rudolf Dvorak. That was also very lucky, because Rudi had the habit of involving his students in ongoing research right from the start. So you were right in the middle of the real world of science and not just listen to lectures. So I decided pretty quickly to write my diploma thesis in this area and in Rudolf Dvorak's work group.

That went quite successfully; In June 2000 I was a master of astronomy and firmly believe that being a scientist is my dream job. So it was absolutely clear that I would also be writing a doctoral thesis. The 4 years leading up to her graduation in May 2004 were probably the best years of my entire career as a scientist. I had an exciting topic to work on and I literally fell in love with the whole of academic life. It was great to be able to work and research at a university every day! You could discuss a variety of scientific topics with the nice colleagues from the working group (or just make nonsense 😉). You could walk from office to office and learn new, interesting things everywhere. You could listen to lectures on anything. You could go to conferences in other countries and talk about science with people from all over the world. Every day there was something new to find out and something new to learn. That I didn't really get a lot of money for my work didn't bother me at the time. For the first 2 years of my doctoral studies, I got no money at all and lived on the study grant. But ok, it was enough for my 10 square meter room in the dormitory and a beer in the evening. For the last two years I had half a PhD position and could at least afford a small apartment (and still a couple of beers in the evening). I never wanted to get rich anyway. It only got difficult when I was a finished doctor. As usual, money was tight, the university itself didn't have any and getting third-party funding was as difficult back then as it is today. My boss was able to give me half a PostDoc position until December 2004, but after that there was no more money.

But I was lucky again. At a conference the year before, Rudolf Dvorak met the Potsdam astronomer Alexander Krivov. He had meanwhile become a professor at the Astrophysical Institute at the University of Jena and was in the process of setting up a new working group. To do this, he was also looking for a PostDoc who had some knowledge of celestial mechanics. Rudi suggested me, I went to Jena to give a lecture about my work there and in April 2005 I started my first postdoc position abroad. I had a full job for the first time in my life; only limited to 2.5 years, but you can't be picky.

The time in Jena shaped and changed me enormously. I was a doctor of astronomy, but my interest in classical astronomy was still limited. In the meantime, I had at least looked through a telescope (during the day to after completing my diploma studies), but I still didn't really care about stars, galaxies and all that other stuff. I was interested in celestial mechanics, but I didn't know too much about the rest. One of my tasks in Jena, however, was to hold the exercise courses for the astronomical introductory lecture. This was of course also the place where the students asked all the questions that they did not want to ask the professor in the lecture. So suddenly I had to become an expert in all of astronomy, at least enough to answer the students' questions. Then, when I got into all of these other areas of astronomy, I realized that they were also extremely fascinating! Not only the celestial mechanics are exciting, but also all the star and galaxy stuff! In Jena I also started to deal with public relations. There was a request from the university to give one of the “Saturday lectures”, that is, a popular science lecture and since my boss didn't feel like it, I did it (I think the lecture can still be found somewhere on the net). I showed people around the observatory, looked after students who wanted to learn about astronomy, and also gave public lectures elsewhere. But at some point the 2.5 years came to an end. As usual, the university wanted to save and my position was not extended. Obtaining third-party funding was still difficult and my DFG application was rejected.

Now the first long phase of unemployment followed in my life. I was unemployed for most of 2008. Well - not really true, because I had enough to do. Of course, I continued to write applications and tried to get third-party funding. And I started writing a science blog! I had always enjoyed reading blogs and when I was unemployed I thought I could try to write something myself. Then at least I would have another reason to study astronomy. The blog went surprisingly well, for a few more weeks I was invited to write on ScienceBlogs.de. So I blogged, wrote project proposals and now and then one or the other application. Even if the job market for astronomers is not particularly large and does not really work through classic job advertisements, the employment agency always came up with something new to apply to (mostly jobs in industry for which I was completely unqualified as a theoretical astronomer ). As the year slowly ended, I was still unemployed. But not completely haphazardly. I planned to study laser optics for a few semesters at the Jena University of Applied Sciences. Thanks to a special initiative for unemployed academics, I would have been exempted from tuition fees and I could have received ALG II during my studies. But it turned out differently. According to the Employment Agency, one of the positions I should apply for was at the Astronomical Institute in Heidelberg. It was a position I wasn't really qualified for either. There it was less about physics and astronomy than about software and computers: someone should take care of the virtual observatory. But ok, the employment agency doesn't give you a choice, so I submitted an application. I really didn't expect to be shortlisted - but surprisingly got the job. So in November 2008 I started my job in Heidelberg.

The work there was marginally related to astronomy, but at least it was a job and that's better than no job. I then tried to specialize a little in public relations as part of the project. That went pretty well too. Still, the work in Heidelberg wasn't really what I had imagined. It had nothing to do with real astronomy, it wasn't real research, you could hardly publish anything about it and since I still commute between Jena and Heidelberg every week for private reasons, everything was pretty stressful. This contract was also of course limited in time and in December 2010 things came to an end in Heidelberg and I was back in Jena and unemployed.

In the meantime, the whole thing with the fixed-term contracts and the constant wandering around was getting on my nerves a lot (see also my article from yesterday). I slowly felt like living a “normal” life, without constantly changing location and without the possibility of planning for the future. But apart from astronomy, I hadn't learned anything - so I started writing project proposals again, maybe to get a job at the University of Jena after all. My blog, on the other hand, was going better and better in the meantime. The number of readers has kept increasing since 2008 and I had great fun writing about astronomy and letting the people out there share in the fascination I now felt for all of astronomy. Finally, in autumn 2011, my application for third-party funding was rejected. That was when I realized that my dream of being a scientist was over. It wasn't a dream for a long time either. The euphoria that I felt during my doctoral studies did not survive the everyday academic life of fixed-term contracts, third-party funding and bureaucracy. Sure, I could have continued. Write applications again and live from Hartz-IV in the meantime. Or take a job on another continent and sacrifice the private life that I have built up over the past few years. But as much as I liked academic life in the past, it was no longer that important to me. So I decided to start my own business.

So I haven't been a scientist since October 2011. I'm a “freelance writer” or whatever you want to call it. “Schreiberling” is best. I write my blog, I write articles for other blogs, for other magazines and I write books. I write about science and astronomy. Even though I'm no longer a scientist, I'm still fascinated by science as it used to be. I no longer do research myself, but I hope that my work will allow other people to share in the fascination of research. And I hope to be able to earn enough money to live with this work. So far it still works. Let's see how long it goes ...

Triggered by a very personal article by Kevin Zelnio, in which he talks about how he came to science, many other people are now also talking about their scientific career ...