This is a hard post to write. It’s not technically complex, it doesn’t require some hidden knowledge to get right, but it’s the most human post I’ve written thus far, and because it cuts down to a really vulnerable part it’s difficult to get through. I warn you now: it’s mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff so it’s not particularly well-written. If I name you and misrepresent you, I apologize. I also apologize if I meander a bit here and there. It’s been a long road to get here, and this is going to be a long post. Onward…
On March 24th, 2016 I left Astronomy, and it was by far the most difficult decision that I have ever made for myself to date. This was after 5.5 years at the graduate level, 3 years of undergrad Physics and Math building up to it, 1.5 years of undergrad business administration prior to that, and 1.5 years of fucking up at Binghamton University before that. I found my ambition and general zest for knowledge again through the lives and deaths of stars, and about a month and a half ago I left it behind. More than leaving behind the field, I left behind an identity; a high point of pride for myself and my family, and damn if it isn’t one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made in my entire life. Let’s start at the start.
I first fell in love with the stars during the Spring semester of 2006. I was a Business Administration major at CUNY Queensborough Community College (QCC) intending to transfer onward to Baruch to become an accountant, and I needed to take a science class for some sort of natural science credit. I didn’t want to work too hard at it so I chose Astronomy; it seemed easy enough and wow was it. No doubt my familiarity with Physics from high school helped but it was…yeah it was pretty simple. Even with that, as I learned about the stars and how they lived and died, along with the history of Astronomy and the larger concepts of our Universe, I fell more deeply in love with the Science. My professor at the time was George Tremberger, Jr. and he picked up on my budding interest and asked me if I wanted to do some research over the Summer. One of the other professors had some grant money and could use a student to work with him doing some science. I had been planning to reach out to various accounting firms for an internship, but I was interested enough in the science that I took him up on it. That summer I used Excel (so young…so stupid) to read in some data from the Solar Heliospheric Observatory to try to detect fluctuations in the Sun’s light that could predict solar flares. My advisor was Dr. Tak Cheung and he was nice but…flawed. He wasn’t unique in that; he was the first in a string of flawed advisors that I’d have, but I’ll get there. He funded me but didn’t guide me much. That was tough, as I had done all of one semester of math-less intro-level astronomy. Regardless, I did some work, my results were inconclusive and I got to present them at a local conference in NYC. Heh, I printed out my results on individual 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper and taped them to some poster board, Excel plots and all. Again, so young…
I met a bunch of folks from the local NY astro scene at that conference and that was cool. I learned about an elective astronomy course at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) that was being taught by Charles Liu, friend and colleague to the illustrious Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I was encouraged to enroll so I did. Those classes were on Tuesday nights, so every Tuesday evening in the Fall of 2006 I’d leave the QCC campus after a full day of college classes and work as a math and accounting tutor to commute into the city. For an hour and a half I’d ride the Q27, transfer to the 7 train, then again to the E train, walk through the bottom floor of AMNH to the lecture hall where I got a much better, much more fascinating introduction to stars living and dying. Supernova explosions! The conversion of mass directly into energy that became the light that made stars shine! The Big Bang! Black Holes! Holy shit this stuff was amazing, and I loved every damn minute of it. It was entirely worth the 1.5 hour trip in and the ~2.5 hour trip back out to Long Island every week. It was so interesting that it was a no brainer to sign up for the next semester’s course focusing on light and energy.
Charles put me in touch with Timothy Paglione at CUNY York College, where I applied and got into the Physics and Math undergrad program. I had hoped to take some classes from him in astronomy and work with him to do some research, but alas that wasn’t the case. Didn’t even get to take a Physics class from him. Boo! No matter, I had enrolled and damn if I wasn’t going to come out on top in the Physics program and put my best foot forward toward astro. I started taking my first Physics class since SUNY Binghamton (which was god-awful and part of the reason I’d dropped out in the first place) and it was alright. The professor at the time wasn’t the best at conveying information, so I sought out the other professor teaching the same course across the hall, Gregory Boutis. He was awesome and taught me all my basic Physics. It was a great start and during the Fall semester that followed, pretty much until I left for Columbia’s bridge program I worked in his lab doing not-Astronomy.
The first real internship I got was in the summer of 2008, back at AMNH working with Charles. It was exciting because it would be my first real step into the field, and in many ways it was a great introduction as to what to expect from my career in astronomy. A lot of awesome community amongst the students, very few people of color, and very little guidance from my advisor. I’m not gonna lie, that summer left me pretty pissed. Here I’d busted my ass to get into this program and I’d finally made it only to be left to flounder for half a summer. I had some support from the other students, and even a couple of the other advisors, but I was largely on my own trying to figure out what to do with myself. A huge fountain of support during that summer and onward even to this day was a student who’s been through it before, Amy Colon (now Gonzalez). When my advisor was nowhere to be found, she gave me the hands on guidance I needed. I’d had very little astro training and only a bit more physics training than that at the time, so I was just straight up lost more often than not. I ended up pulling something together and presenting at the end of the summer, but working without a clue left a sour taste in my mouth. The other students did such great work and knew so much more than I did; I really started to question whether I belonged there at all.
This trend continued in my next REU at the University of Wisconsin in 2009 where I looked for X-ray sources in two dwarf galaxies. My advisor was a professor who had part time appointment there and in Italy, and she was somewhat hands off. I did a lot of re-inventing the wheel trying to figure out how to work with data from XMM-Newton, as well as trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be looking for in the first place, how to clean my data, how to interpret my data, what the hell an X-ray spectrum was and how to report hardness ratios, what a nova was, etc. Again, great support from the other students, some help from other faculty, not much guidance, sour taste. Great experience, but yeah a sour taste. If this sort of hands-off structure was the norm for astronomy, did I really belong? Would I really be able to make it in the field? A question for another time, because I was plowing ahead anyway.
I went to a couple American Astronomical Society conferences along the way, presented my work, and met some people. In 2008 I met Marcel Agueros and he really looked out for me, pointing me toward the Columbia Bridge to the Ph.D. program in Astronomy for when I was ready to graduate. In 2009 I met some grad students from the University of Washington and oh my god they were so awesome and laid back and accepting and were 100% of the reason I chose to go there for graduate school. I also won a prize (yay!) for my poster on X-ray sources in the Fornax and Leo dwarf galaxies. Being at those conferences reinforced my feeling of community with the larger population of astronomers in and outside of the United States. The students were all great people doing great work, and everyone seemed willing to assist an up-and-coming student at all times. Still not many POC’s (but they did exist here and there!). Those were experiences I’d encourage any undergrad to go through.
In 2009-2010 I finished my undergrad work at Columbia University as a part of the Bridge to the Ph.D. program, spending a lot of my time feeling extremely out of my depth. At York, all the physics classes beyond Physics 151 and 152 maxed out at like 8 students, so we all got a lot of attention. The profs made a strong effort to make sure that we got the material while still challenging us along the way. I appreciated that then and appreciate it still. This wasn’t the case while I was at Columbia. Now, the Bridge program was great and taught me great things. I met great people and learned a ton. However, Quantum Mechanics destroyed me and was the first time I’d mentally checked out of Physics since 2003. Radiative Processes in Astrophysics was less rough, but still had my eyes glazing over after a bit. It was the first time I’d felt really isolated in Physics/Astro; like I was so out of my depth because I didn’t belong. No matter, grit the teeth and bear it because there was a lot at stake and I couldn’t afford to flounder.
My advisor while I was at Columbia was Jules Halpern (who also taught the Radiative Processes class). He was even more hands off than either of my previous advisors and I spent a lot of time where I should’ve been researching and learning to program just not knowing what the fuck I was doing. Just like…completely lost. I had been hoping to at some point hit that Apprenticeship model that I’d had in my mind, where my advisor would spend a significant amount of time molding and shaping me into the type of researcher that could take on his legacy. I’d been hoping to find it in my past few advisors as well and again came up disappointed. This became a common theme: disappointment at the lack of guidance. Disappointment in myself in not being able to conjure up my own direction and motivation. As a scientist you get trained to look for patterns and one was clearly emerging: my advisors thus far were varying degrees of absent. Maybe that’s just how they were? Maybe I wasn’t a compelling enough student to actually invest significant time in?
When I talk about a lack of guidance and involvement, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t get any career-level guidance. The Bridge program was exceptional in that. Marcel took great care to make sure that we were able to sell ourselves extremely well on paper and through presentations. He stayed on our asses constantly to make sure we moved forward, and in those ways I flourished. However, my science work has never experienced that level of involvement, so it didn’t grow in that same way. Anyway, onward to graduate school.
Because of Marcel’s expert guidance in writing CVs, covers, and personal letters I was able to spin my isolation and mediocre science output due to lack of active mentorship into proof of my ability to self-motivate and figure out my own path as a scientist. I figure that that and the research experiences I’d had up to that point are largely responsible for getting me into graduate schools I’d applied to. Still got some residual impostor syndrome going on there. I don’t know if I’ll ever come to a point where I truly believe that my science skills were actually sufficient for the position that I got.
I arrived in Seattle in late August 2010. It immediately felt different from NY where I’d up to that point spent my entire life. Everyone was so polite but impossible to build friendships with. The public transportation system was laughable. Everything closed at like 10pm. Oh, and there were like no black people. I think a little context is needed here. All through grade school I’d been in predominantly black and latino communities. QCC and York were also mostly black schools. Columbia was…quite free of melanin but it’s embedded in the Upper West Side of Harlem, which is still to some degree heavily melanated. So, moving to Seattle, where the demographics show between 6 and 8% blacks, was a huge culture shock. The University of Washington’s GO-MAP helped me survived, and later on in my grad career I built a community out of the POCs that went to their meetings. Capoeira definitely played a part in keeping my sanity, as it gave me instant community. The other astro grads also helped immensely; despite there being only one other black person in the department (including post-docs, faculty, and staff) I spent the majority of my social time during my first two years with the other astro grads.
If it wasn’t for GO-MAP, capoeira, and the other grads I no doubt would’ve dropped first year. The other grad student I started working with on research was absent more often than not (working on thesis, traveling for stuff, other life things), and I was just drowning in school work. I managed to pull it through in most of my classes and worked my ass off during second year along with the other grads in my cohort to pass the qualifying exam. Getting up to that point I had kept the notion in my mind that if I could just pass this exam it’d validate me being here. If I could just pass this exam, I wouldn’t be able to question whether or not I belonged. I passed the exam, but not the doubt.
Throughout that time I had been doing research on red dwarf stars with Suzanne Hawley’s group. I had actually started with trying to work with Scott Anderson on some Sloan Digital Sky Survey data because he did high-energy astrophysics and at the time I was interested in that, but his style was hands off and he was also the department chair, so interactions were limited and not very fruitful for me. Suzanne on the other hand was (is) a beast. She was on all her undergrads, grad students, and post docs like white on rice. I particularly envied how well she kept up with her students professionally and personally, both past and present. I figured if I was gonna get the guidance I needed, she’d give it whether I wanted it her way or not (which is what I wanted). It worked out too; during second year the work that I’d done on the red dwarf AD Leo was shaped up for publication and pushed out (after many many revisions and much work). I had no idea what I’d do next but I figured if I could just be a part of her group I’d be solid.
Unfortunately when it was time for me to start thinking seriously about what thesis work I’d be doing and with who I’d be doing it with, she fell seriously ill. Then the year after she went on sabbatical, so that didn’t work out. I had however done some interesting work in my Galactic Structure class with the man who would become my advisor for the remainder of my grad school career, Zeljko Ivezic. He had us working on some new infrared data that we could use to map the entire sky much like it’d been done before with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS; and those papers have been cited hundreds of times). He introduced me to Asymptotic Giant Branch stars, which are these red giant stars that are extremely bright and have some interesting internal and external physics. They pulsate, changing brightness by orders of magnitude, and they generate these dust clouds that make them ideal infrared targets. The work was truly interesting and I figured it had enough meat to it and possibility behind it where it could become a good thesis.
Zeljko is a great guy and a fantastic scientist, but a horrible match for me as an advisor. I craved hands on guidance and regular, direct involvement. He’s a big name in the SDSS community, in other communities, and is the lead scientist for the telescope of the future, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which will regularly capture petabytes of data and solve all the world’s problems. His various collaborations and responsibility to the community at large make his time away from his office on par with his time inside of it. Even without those commitments though, he’s not a real hands-on kind of guy (though he does start to turn the screws if progress is moving too slowly). So, when I started working for him, it was pretty much immediately clear that it wouldn’t work out well for me. However I was interested in stars, and aside from Julianne Dalcanton, who already had her own legion of grad students, post-docs, research scientists, and her own international collaboration to manage with Hubble Space Telescope stuff, no one was really working on stars. So, I figured I’d grit my teeth again and just do what I could. After all, I’d have to learn to be an independent scientist eventually, right? This could be seen as just early prep. And so began the next 3.5 years.
There were other mitigating factors that led to my growing melancholy besides poor mentorship. Graduate students everywhere are notoriously poorly-paid. When I started on in 2010 the salary was $18,300 per year, though it was funded through GO-MAP so I at least didn’t have to teach until the Spring quarter of 2011. After the qualifying exam, we got a small bump that amounted to about $100 more per month. I also started working on the planetarium as the technical coordinator, so that gave me 10% more each month (which was quite nice) but still came under $22,000 per year. My third year was…slightly better-funded because I was on Zeljko’s grant, but at the end of that year the grant ran out and neither proposal we sent in afterward got funded. Without research funding, I had to TA the introductory astro classes and that was so emotionally draining. It’s hard to care and push forward when most of the 64 faces you see every other day contain nothing but apathy and contempt for being forced to take some stupid, irrelevant “natural worlds” credit. And then of course on top of having to grade mountains of paperwork every week I still had to try to push forward on research. In addition to that, and this is going to just sound petty, the constant drear of Seattle between the months of October and fucking July just wore on me. Being isolated from my family (including my brand new nephew) and lifelong friends (I visited a few times per year but not often enough), and having to manage a long-distance relationship (and the subsequent breakdown of the relationship when it became local in second year) just brought me down. Compound those with a criminal lack of diversity and the horrific career prospects of an astronomer. In grad school I finally got a clear picture of what lie ahead: a near-decade of post-doc purgatory, the gross undersupply of faculty jobs, the grueling marathon of teaching, administrative, research, and mentoring work that comes with a faculty job, and the constant academic nomad status and work-life imbalance that came with all of that. I was climbing what first appeared to be a small mountain but was actually the path to base camp at Mount Everest. Toward the end of my third year, I started looking for an escape.
One of my co-workers and eventual good friends, Jim Davenport, would come around every so often and show me awesome data visualizations he had either seen or done himself. He inspired me to do my own, first as a means to learn my eventual programming language of choice—glorious Python—, and then just to explore personal projects of interest. I did, and while I was involved in my own projects and blog posts I was, for those moments, free of feeling trapped in academia. Through pursuing my own projects I rediscovered my creativity, my ambition, and my passion for putting out meaningful work. It of course made the grad student experience that much worse, because I’d always have to come back to work that I was caring less and less about. Still, fulfillment lie in pulling on whatever thread my curiosity picked up, and so when I had off time I’d try some new shit. During this time, Data Science as a career seemed to just morph in out of the ether. I’d never heard of it before I’d entered grad school and it just seemed like a promise of a life that was too good to be true. Well compensated for curiosity and producing interesting work that relies heavily on data, analytical skill, creativity, aesthetic sense, and programming ability? What black magic was this? Is it even legal? How does it work? As I learned more about it and dove into more data projects, it increasingly seemed like the yellow-brick road that would take me away from my deepening misery. A couple of the senior grad students chose that path so it seemed more doable. Then my officemate Jake Vanderplas, Python and Statistics Guru, graduated and went on to become the director of UW’s newly-constructed e-Science Institute. I wanted his brain and ability to make sense of damn near anything. I still do. When he ascended to his current throne, I started taking data science seriously.
When I got back from my Eurotrip, I started back up with my brother. Sure, the money was nice to have and was essential at the time. However, aside from the money I flourished with the constant contact and immediate feedback. Doing good work made me feel good about myself, and the response was immediate so there was always a source for boosting my self-esteem after being beaten down by grad school for 4 years. Whether it was because this was his business and direct livelihood, or because I’m his brother, he gave a shit, and the difference was felt and appreciated every day. I’d work with him off and on as time would permit for the next year and a half.
I loved having my work, and by extension myself, matter so much that at the end of my fourth year I began seriously entertaining the idea of dropping out of grad school altogether. He would dissuade me many times; he believed in the power of the paper that says Ph.D. He and my father would convince me that I would be wasting all the time I’d spent up to that point; that I was so close to finishing that it made sense to just keep gritting my teeth and white knuckling it through to the end. Aside from them though, I had to work on a few internal things. For one, I didn’t feel like my skills and credentials would be good enough for either a data science job (where they regularly reject Ph.D’s) or a web developer position (I’d just started learning it, and I was passable at best). Second, I was so close. I was steady working on my thesis proposal and on deck to go through my General Exam, which is the last gateway to the dissertation and those magic three letters. Maybe I should just stick it out? Third, my identity was heavily coupled to astronomy. What would I be without it? Where could I go? What could I do? What use was I to the world if I wasn’t studying space, this thing I’d built myself up into doing over what was now about 8 years of time? Sure I was miserable, but so the fuck what? That was my problem to fix, and if I was a better astronomer I would probably not be so miserable. In order to leave, I’d have to leave my identity behind. I’d have to abandon my astronomy support system, my international community, the bulk of my knowledge base. I’d have to abandon who I’d become up to that point. These points kept me struggling with whether or not to leave for almost another two years.
As I fought myself on leaving, my misery deepened. I was quickly caring less and less about research, about my astro career, about anything that had to do with the science. I became aimless and deeply unproductive, awakening and polishing up my code whenever I knew a meeting with Zeljko was on the horizon. My only joy for my work came when my work was my own. When I was studying hip hop lyrics, or researching personal finance, or building D3 visualizations, or anything else that you see on this here site. February 2015 I fought through my general exam and came out of it triumphant, but just so totally drained. I couldn’t give a first damn about any of it anymore. If I did work it was to satisfy some minimum. If I didn’t care, why press forward?
Through Chanda, I got in touch with John Asher Johnson who was generous enough to take like an hour out of his day to give me some career counseling. We had a very candid conversation, and I came out of it feeling like if I had to white knuckle it all the way to the Ph.D. finish, it may be worth my time to explore other avenues. More than that though was that it was okay to feel that way and do what’s best for me. Getting that sort of permission to do whatever I needed to do to get myself right was groundbreaking for me. A few weeks after talking to him, I started applying for jobs.
From October 2015 through to this March I in some way, shape, or form applied to 35 companies in and out of Seattle. Out of those I landed interviews at 5 places, only one of which I had actually formally applied to. The other four I had gotten to the interview phase by some manner of personal connection, networking, or just sheer luck. I totally bombed my first interview too; I’d never done whiteboard work before. I’d been asked some questions about text manipulation and I’d only done brute force work up to that point. I’d also been asked some pretty advanced MySQL questions that I’d never even though to study, as I’d been using MySQL for years at that point and never needed more than just the basics. At that company I’d gotten two more interviews in a different department that I actually did pretty well at, but management had other ideas. I learned tons from my interviews at that company. I got my live question chops up, beefed up my projects from my Udacity Nanodegree program, and got a few more interviews. My projects sparkled on my resume and whenever I was asked to talk about them their quality came through. I eventually got to my interview at Code Fellows. Through some manner of serendipity I managed to meet the Code Fellows COO at a fundraiser for the TAF Academy here in Seattle. He introduced me to the CEO who I had stupidly not paid much attention to at all (sorry Dave!), as well as the VP of Education who I ended up chatting with for quite a while. He encouraged me to send my info in, and they invited me for an interview. I arrived for that interview a week early because…reasons. It was on a Friday and I didn’t look hard enough at the date. A week after I went through that interview proper I came back to give a guest lecture for their Python dev accelerator class, talking about some of the many ways that we use Python in astronomy. The Monday following that lecture I was given an offer. The Thursday following that Monday I started work as an Assistant Instructor of Python.
Since being at Code Fellows I’ve learned at light speed again. I’ve picked up a framework for building large-scale websites with Python, learned (and taught) about web app security, learned (and assisted students with) data structures, algorithms, workflows, project management mentalities, self-management mentalities, student management mentalities. I’ve learned that you can’t shoot students in the face with data science in a week without sufficient math background or else they’ll rebel. I’ve reacquainted myself with the value of consistent supervisor meetings. I now know what it’s like to feel like everything I do contributes to something greater that extends beyond just what advances my own career. I’m currently revising the Python curriculum for the classes to come, one of which I’ll hopefully be teaching full time, and I’m happy every day. Stressed for sure, and still working on the work-life balance thing, but I’m so damn happy. I have dreams about how I can contribute to the company. I’m optimistic about the future, about the classes I’ll be teaching, about how I can assist the students, and these are easily the best students I’ve ever taught. They’re so invested in the material; it’s refreshing to be around students who give at least as much of a shit as I do. They push themselves, and while they may complain about the deluge of work we’ve given them, they push us to challenge them daily. More than the management, the students motivate me to become the best instructor I can be, and I work on that daily. I look forward to when I’m directly shaping minds again myself (soon!) and can give them all the guidance that I can squeeze out of my brain. Sure, it’s not data science, which was my intended path, but the organization is flexible and growing such that it’s not a far-fetched idea that I (we) could create a curriculum that can train junior data-literate software developers. Here, I see nothing but growth or the potential for growth.
It’s interesting though. I’m so happy that every once in a while I have a hard time believing that it’s real. I still feel like I cheated the system—that someone’s going to find out that I don’t actually belong where I am, doing what I’m doing, and that I’m going to have to go back to a life of inertia (hello again, Impostor Syndrome). It’s not that I don’t love the science of astronomy. I still want to learn about stars and galaxies and shit like that, HOWEVER I’ve been out a month and a half and I have zero desire to go back. Returning to that isn’t about the science for me. It’s about the misery and isolation associated with it. It’s about gritting my teeth again, being isolated again, being poor again, having to negotiate research meetings for a month from now, feeling shitty that I don’t do as much as others, feeling shitty about not being that high on my advisor’s radar, and having to lie to myself and others (friends, family, other grad students, faculty, randoms that can’t help but ask “so when are you going to finish?”) through a forced smile every single day about what I’m doing with my life.
And so I’ve left the stars behind. There’s always going to be some guilt there, though far less than I’d expected. I still have to manage disappointment from family and acquaintances; I know dad really wanted to see me get that Ph.D. I’m sorry dad, but I can’t do that. To other black astronomers both present and future, I’m sorry I can’t join your ranks and decrease the isolation by one. I’m sorry I can’t be a role model for aspiring black Ph.D.’s. I’m sorry I can’t validate being included in Columbia’s Bridge program, or the efforts that every advisor both direct and indirect put forward into getting me as far as I got. I’m sorry other black Ph.D. students at UW that I’ve shared drinks and dark thoughts about the ongoing life-abuse that is grad school. I’m sorry, but I’m happy, and I’m going to take this as far as I can go.