Anyone who’s been in a Ph.D. program knows the term “mastering out”: leaving a Ph.D program and getting a masters as a so-called consolation prize. While there’s no slang to describe someone who leaves academia, in planetary science, the scorn is no less insidious. It’s mostly implicit rather than explicit, in the way your mom doesn’t have to say she dislikes your new tattoo for you to know it’s true.
The message then absorbed by planetary grad students is that if they get an industry job, it means they simply weren’t good enough to make it in academia. This view is myopic. There are plenty of STEM fields where Ph.D.-holders can take the industry path or academic path after graduation, scorn-free(TM). Planetary science is not one of those fields. Typically, either you’re in planetary science as an academic/researcher, or you’re out of planetary science entirely.
When I told colleagues that I was leaving behind research for an asteroid mining start-up, I received the full spectrum of reactions from effusive excitement to baffled support to abject horror. The “cool” factor of asteroid mining lessened the blow, but I did feel judged by some. The implication was that I failed because I didn’t want to be a professor, rely on soft money, or duel for one of the few positions in our field with a guaranteed salary.
I vociferously object to this way of thinking. While I love planetary science, I felt like being a research scientist was a round hole/square peg situation for me. Now, I find my work in industry to more in line with what I want out of my career, and I feel fulfilled in a way I didn’t in academia.
For my colleagues who mentor students, reflect on the tone that you’re setting regarding non-academic jobs. Let them know all their career options, and point them towards resources. If you’re irked by the idea of your students not following a career path like yours, shift your perspective: you trained them well in transferable skills that they will carry with them for the rest of their career. How is that not success?
For those in planetary science considering alternate career paths, remember that you don’t have to justify your motivations to anyone but yourself. Any reason is sufficient as long as it’s yours. And you may not realize it, but to get a Ph.D., you were trained in skills that can bring value to a future employer:
The ability to break down problems into tractable components
Researching a topic and critically reading references
Working both alone and in a collaborative setting
Project-related skills: e.g., programming, lab experience, field work
What the people who judged me failed to see was that I was not satisfied with the opportunities available to me, so I forged my own path. Ignore any negativity, trust your gut, and forge a path that makes you happy.