Ivory Tower In the Rear-View Mirror — Dr. Henry Ngo

We continue with our new column, “Ivory Towers In The Rearview Mirror,” featuring interviews with PhDs who have charted a course unrelated to the tenure track, putting academia squarely in the rearview mirror.

Our hope is that seeing and hearing from a wide range of PhDs who are celebrating their careers rather than settling for them will inspire every grad student, ABD and PhD to add the road OFTEN traveled to their list of options.

Remember, 50-90% of PhDs (depending on the field) end up in work off the tenure track. Putting traditional academia behind you IS the normative path!

We are excited to hear and share your stories. If you have a PhD and are working outside of the academy and would like to share your experience with TPII readers, we’d love to hear from you!

Today we are pleased to feature Dr. Henry Ngo.

Currently, I am doing data science work with my provincial government’s Ministry of Health. 

I got a PhD in Planetary Science from Caltech in 2017.

Before starting the PhD, I had a range of careers that I found interesting, including research and teaching in academia, government and industry, and I realized they all would benefit from the training and research skills that come with obtaining a PhD.

At the start of the PhD, choosing where my spouse and I lived was more important than what we did for our careers. So we were prepared to move a bit for postdocs but planned to eventually end up geographically where we wanted even if it meant leaving academia.

During the PhD, I learned what I really enjoyed about the work. I liked the science aspect but that wasn’t my passion. I also learned that the main product of academia is a paper and most projects are not really done until this happens, which was limiting. What I did like was using techniques and solving problems. Luckily, these skills and problems need solving everywhere, not just in academia!

I got my first postdoc in this geographic area working at a government lab! There I could see that projects have lots of different end goals and purposes. It doesn’t have to be a paper in the end. This is refreshing to me!

I eventually decided that if I was going to stay in astronomy, I wanted to work at the government lab and not at a University, mainly for the work-life balance and my desire to support great science rather than be the PI all the time. The actual workload compared to the pay and work-life balance in Canadian tenure track faculty positions are not the right fit for me at all. It isn’t worth it. Especially compared to the cost of living for most places.

However, new hires at the lab where I did my postdoc are very scarce so I also looked for positions in the same city but outside of astronomy. I found a job posting that  felt like I was reading my CV. So I applied for it, got it and turned down another term position with my postdoc employer.

If you are a PhD considering alternatives to the tenure track, you should do what is right for you! There are a lot more careers out there besides TT and the (stereo-)typical post-academic path for astro/physics PhDs (i.e. data science, finance, etc.). Do informational interviews and find out what you can be doing. Many of us went into PhD programs because we wanted to contribute to the greater good of humanity. There are a lot of ways we can do this outside of academia too!

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