Advice for an astrophysics PhD student?

This post is an updated version of my last post about my personal PhD career questions: [Advice for an astronomy PhD : Astronomy (](

I am a third-year astrophysics PhD student specializing in star formation and working on observations. To provide some context, during my undergraduate studies, I engaged in purely theoretical work on pulsating variable stars, which involved extensive coding—a task I enjoyed. When applying to graduate schools, my preference was to work with a theorist; I had no interest in observational astronomy.

At the institution where I am pursuing my PhD, I was unable to collaborate with a professor who focused on theoretical work due to funding limitations or a mismatch in research interests (e.g. they do cosmology, and/or astroparticle physics while I prefer something within stellar astrophysics and exoplanets). Consequently, I ended up affiliating with a newly hired assistant professor who specializes in observations within star formation. Despite this, my passion for observations has not developed: I am disinterested in using the campus observatory, engaging with advanced telescopes, or taking advanced observational astronomy courses. I only have an interest in knowing basic observational astronomy so if I were to hang out casually with friends and family during the night or do outreach, I can point out things in the night sky and operate a very basic/amateur telescope. The truth is that I am not comfortable being called an ‘observer’ and I have the heart of an astronomer who wants to work in computational astrophysics.

My research thankfully does not require me to perform observations or travel to an observatory. I do not need to collect new observational data; instead, I analyze existing data. However, I have no interest/enthusiasm/motivation towards the experimental design of my project, pipelines, nor trying to understand the possible astrophysical effects impacting my stellar spectra.

By this point, I had fulfilled my department’s coursework requirements and passed my candidacy exam, but I failed my research proposal presentation. My committee is asking me to present a well-developed paper draft and a second oral presentation late next semester.

Up to this point, I have continued to work with my advisor and stay in my program because of the following:

* I am apprehensive about exiting the program as I have formed significant friendships/social connections during my graduate studies, both within and outside my department.
* I fear that leaving might lead to difficulty in finding employment (I do not have a job lined up so I would have to figure out how to pay my rent/expenses until I move back in with my parents after my lease and continue a job search).
* I get along well with my advisor. They are kind, and patient and offer positive reinforcement, which has been incredibly helpful during my time before candidacy when I was dealing with self-doubt, anxiety, and impostor syndrome. Their enthusiasm for their subfield is also somewhat infectious.

I used to believe that maybe I just needed to learn some more/get up to speed about my subfield and then I would develop an interest in it. I also used to believe my personal issues with self-doubt and anxiety were holding me back (which they were). However, after addressing both of these things (literature review, studying textbooks, and talking to my therapist for several sessions), I now believe I lack enthusiasm/motivation simply because I have been forcing myself to be interested in observational astronomy. That’s not to say I have no interest in my Ph.D. project – I am more interested in the theoretical studies/simulations that I have read in the literature than the observations and I do not care about doing the nitty-gritty of making sense of my observed data. I would also like to learn some ML/AI and incorporate it into my life.

Reflecting on my PhD journey thus far, I have resolved to pursue a career in data science or computer software after graduation, for several professional and personal reasons:

* [The starting salary in the private sector is higher than that of a postdoc](, as indicated by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Financial security is a significant aspiration for me.
* Data science and computer software roles account for a larger share of positions that astrophysics PhD graduates fill, according to the same AIP source.
* I do not relish academic writing, grant applications, or the competitive nature of academia. However, I thoroughly enjoy coding and data interpretation.
* I also desire a job that offers a better work-life balance than academia. I wish to enjoy weekends and vacations without guilt, something I find research impedes.

If I had to rank the interest in my career options, I would go:

* 40%: Data Science
* 30%: Quant
* 16%: Machine Learning Engineering
* 10% Academia (8% Theoretical Astronomy, 2% Observational Astronomy)
* 4% AI/ML Research Scientist

Would it be more advantageous to remain in the program, suck it up and see it as a job, and concurrently develop data science skills, or should I consider leaving the program? What should I discuss with my advisor in future meetings?