A passion for planets outside of academia
August 31, 2022

A passion for planets outside of academia

The story of a martian geologist – Dr Tanya Harrison

By Hans Huybrighs, Batiste Rousseau, Nandita Kumar, Prasanna Deshapriya, Ottaviano Ruesch, and the EPEC future research working group. With special thanks to Jatan Mehta.

Academia or industry? A question on the mind of many early career researchers.

We spoke with Dr Tanya Harrison, a PhD Mars geologist, who now works as the Director of Strategic Science Initiatives at the NewSpace company Planet. We learned how we can keep our passion for planetary science and stay involved in the field outside of academia, how in industry your personal values also matter, and how important networking can be.

Tanya_Harrison. Credit_T_Harrison
Dr Tanya Harrison. Credit: T Harrison

The difference between industry and academia: a trade-off in values

A move to industry from academia is often seen as a loss of ‘personal values’. We often think that there won’t be as much freedom to pursue our personal topics of interest in industry. How do you see this?

While I would agree that there is indeed less freedom to pursue one’s path in industry, there could be more space for other values. For example, I really value efficiency in getting things done, which is more important in industry than at universities. Also, in industry there is a much stronger link to your individual performance and career progression. In industry you can get promoted much faster and work your way up the ranks much more quickly. Generally speaking, you can make more money way more quickly.

It’s nice to feel compensated and rewarded for what I am so passionate about. That was not always there on the academic side, where it sometimes just feels like a slog where you’re pouring out your heart just to barely scrape by. You could be the most amazing researcher in the world and still not get grant funding just because there’s not enough funding out there.

So is industry better than academia?

I think it’s totally about your personality. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong decision. Either way it’s about where you personally feel the best. The question is: do you want to throw yourself into research and have a lot of flexibility at the cost of slower career advancement and probably lower pay, or do you want to throw yourself into a career to climb the ladder as quickly as possible in exchange for a potentially more stressful work schedule?

Did you have a “culture shock” when you transitioned to industry?

I think the only surprise was how much of my day would be taken up by Zoom meetings! — Even before the pandemic I spent a lot of time on meetings like sales calls. Meetings about annual contract values and license agreements are so foreign compared to what you’re used to in academia. It’s certainly educational but sometimes you think, “How am I supposed to actually get any work done when I spend my whole day on calls that are about the work I should be doing?!” Otherwise, I did not feel there was a huge culture shock even if I might be biased because I worked in industry before.

How did the work mentality change in industry compared to academia?

The mentality of how the work is approached is very different. I work way more hours in the day in my current job than I did as an academic. Academia was not a consistent level of crazy busy all the time, while I feel in my current job it is crazy busy all the time. Some of that is just being in the startup culture. If you are somebody who wants to throw yourself into your work, startup companies can consume your entire life by doing that. That can happen in academia too but there you are generally representing yourself and your work. Being on the industry side, anything I do has my name on it too but instead I’m representing the company. That adds an extra dimension of stress because if I mess up, it could negatively impact the company. I don’t want to lose my job! [laughs]

Long term networking pays off

How do we get hired by the NewSpace industry?

Networking is extremely important, especially at smaller NewSpace companies. They hire people based not only on what’s on their CV but also on how much they like someone as a person and how much they think they will fit in the team. However, I wouldn’t say this is true for large companies like Boeing, Airbus or equivalents. In the NewSpace companies, your reputation with other people in the community is important. You might get hired because someone knows you and recommends you for a job. These companies are so small and so new that they need good people to get off the ground. So these recommendations come with a lot of weight behind them.

How did you start networking with Planet?

The first connection I ever had with Planet was on Twitter, when one of their engineers asked a question about image processing on Mars. Based on my experience working in mission operations, they brought me to Planet to give a colloquium presentation. Later I got accepted into their science ambassadors program, and gave talks at conferences to demonstrate the potential of Planet data. The more I got to know them, the more interested I became in working for Planet.

Over a period of two years my connection with them developed further. I worked hard to get hired. I think that goes a long way with these companies. It helps to show that you care about the company. That way you won’t be just a faceless name on a resume. A lot of these people start these companies because they’re really passionate about it. They’re not necessarily just in it because they’re trying to make a lot of money, but because they want to change the game when it comes to rocketry or Earth observation.

So networking is essential. Where do we get started?

Going to conferences and any type of networking event is really helpful. The International Astronautical Congress (IAC) is an excellent conference to go to for new space networking.

“Change is possible”. A wide variety of career paths are possible after PhD because skills are transferable.

Do you think you will be able to come back to academia or to a faculty position?

I think so. My old boss tried to convince me that if I left academia I could never come back. Maybe 10-15 years ago that might have been the case. However, now people and universities across various domains are appreciating having a broader set of skills like being a better communicator or knowing how to work with more people. Going back is probably not as easy as staying in academia but I think it’s more beneficial in the long run. At least for me, when I went into industry the first time, it gave me a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do for my PhD. After my Master’s, I had no idea of what I wanted to study other than Mars in general. I came back four years later with a clear idea for a project! Working in industry could give you a perspective about how the world works and what you might want from your career.

Tips for transition

How do you transition to a role in industry as a planetary scientist?

It all ties back to knowing how to market the skills that you’ve gained as a planetary scientist in a way that is beneficial to the companies that you’re looking at. Companies aren’t necessarily going to be interested in your knowledge about ice on the moon or the dynamics of asteroids because it doesn’t directly apply to what they’re doing. In general it’s more about the skills that you learned while you were doing research. When you’re making your resume or your CV, it’s good to explain something you did and its result, so they can tangibly see your skills.

Would you recommend to early career scientists who want to switch from academia to industry that a combination of technical and scientific skills is something important to work towards?

Absolutely. If you have skills like analyzing huge datasets or programming that come along with the research you’ve been doing, you can market those and use them to your advantage when applying. It’s a huge thing if you understand the actual technicalities of the things that you’re working with.

You can still be involved in planetary science, but in a different way

We often hear about skills that are transferable to industry, such as data science, But, which jobs are there for planetary scientists coming from academia that are related to planetary science?

That’s tricky if you still want to actually do planetary science. The options are limited but they are growing. I recommend keeping an eye on opportunities at the companies that are going after contracts for NASA’s Artemis and Commercial Lunar Payload Services program or European equivalents. There is not going to be an explosion of these planetary scientists for now but that might change over the course of the next five to ten years.

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