I wrote the post below roughly 5 years ago now. I quit my academic job in astrophysics, turned to industry and became a data scientist. I might at some point write something about how I think about all of this now.
I have decided to quit astronomy and start a job in the ‘real world’
I give up on a dream. I thoroughly enjoy doing astronomy. I have time left on my current contract and am even fairly confident that after this and another limited number of temporary jobs, I could have gotten a more permanent job in the field at some time, somewhere. So why quit? The uncertainty in a career in astronomy is enormous. If you don’t belong to the very top, and I don’t, you will have to go with the flow and move to wherever the field wants you. Sometimes that will get you to a very nice place in every respect (as we had in Baltimore), sometimes the place to work is very nice, but the place to live less so (like our current situation) and without a doubt even less desirable combinations are possible. Not the biggest deal for a short term postdoc (though too bad if it really doesn’t work out), but where will this long sought-after tenure-track job take you? And when?
Everybody who has done it for a while knows it: living far away from family and good friends is not easy. You can and will build up a new social life (if you even care about a social life, which you should), but those close at heart will be far. Too far, often. Our daughter deserves to grow up among the love of her grandparents and the rest of her family, just as well as they deserve to witness Amy growing up. It is a choice that everyone has to make for him-/herself, but for me a career in astronomy does not outweigh this aspect of life.
Contrary to (too) many academics, I believe that jobs outside of academia can be equally interesting. In many jobs, the everyday activities are even very similar to those of an astronomer. I think I have landed such a job. I will work in data science and business intelligence at a relatively small scale health insurance provider. An example of a project could be to detect fraud in their databases of claims, doctors, hospitals etc. (automatically). In my opinion, that is intellectually as challenging as the questions I am working on in astronomy, with the additional benefit that more people than just a handful of colleagues care about what you do.
Doing astronomy is fun. Like me, many colleagues often describe it as getting paid for your hobby. I can now go back to doing it purely as a hobby. There are several projects I will try to stay involved in to some extent, and I have a couple of very small projects in mind that I still can do. One doesn’t need to be a professional astronomer to do something fun and remotely useful. As an extronomer, you can easily be an amateur astrophysicist as well.
There are many aspects of working in astronomy that I will miss. The friendly atmosphere, collegiality and informality are a bless. I have met many great friends, with whom I hope to stay in contact. On the other hand, I am very much looking forward to my new profession and old environment. Even though I will leave the field professionally, at heart and in my way of thinking I will always be an astronomer.