Credit: Dr. Rachana Bhatawdekar

Interview

Changing Careers: Rachana Bhatawdekar

Dr Rachana Bhatawdekar changed careers from the IT industry and is now an astronomer and Research Fellow at the European Space Agency.


Who are you and what do you do?

I am Dr Rachana Bhatawdekar, a Research Fellow at the European Space Agency (ESA) working at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. Before I started working at ESA, I did a PhD in astronomy from the University of Nottingham, UK.

What does your role involve?

My research focuses on finding and studying the faintest and most distant galaxies in the Universe using the data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Spitzer Space Telescope, the ground-based Very Large Telescope (VLT) and soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). I am particularly interested in using the magnification effect caused by gravitational lensing to find and study these very first luminous sources in the Universe.

What’s your background and career path?

Originally, I am an Electronics and Telecommunications Engineer from India. After my bachelor’s degree in Engineering, I did a master's in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. After that, I worked in the IT industry as a software developer in the US, India and the UK for around 6 years, but I switched fields to astronomy to pursue my childhood dream of becoming an astronomer. To do this, I pursued a master's by research degree in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Manchester, UK, and then a PhD on distant galaxies from the University of Nottingham, UK.

What did you do to go about changing your career? 

When I decided to change careers, technically it was possible for me to directly enroll into a PhD program as I already had a master's degree. However, I felt that It was necessary for me to take proper modules/courses before I started my PhD as I did not have a formal education in astronomy. In hindsight, this was a good decision as otherwise my PhD probably would have been a lot bumpier than it was. This is why I first did a master's by research in astronomy and astrophysics. Also, since my master's degree had taught modules as well as a research component to it (I also worked on a research project and wrote a thesis), it prepared me well for a research journey I was planning to embark on in my PhD.

What resources, organisations, events, etc. were most useful to you?

I mainly referred to the AAS Job Register where new advertisements for postdoctoral positions and fellowships positions as well as faculty positions in astronomy are posted daily. Networking opportunities at various astronomy conferences were helpful too.

How did you get your first job in the space sector?

When I was in the final year of my PhD, I applied to the research fellowship programme at ESA. It’s a competitive programme which requires you to submit your cover letter, along with your CV and a research proposal. After getting shortlisted, I had to go through several stages such as an initial short video interview, then I was called onsite to ESTEC in Noordwijk for an in-person interview, which included giving a presentation of my research proposal in front of all the science staff and a face-to-face interview to an interview panel of 5 people! About after a month, I got a call from HR saying that I got through. Best day of my life so far! 

Why did you want to move to the space sector? When did you decide to try?

I was interested in astronomy since my childhood. However, everyone in my family is an engineer, so getting into engineering had seemed somewhat like an obvious choice to me at that time. There was a practical aspect to it also, in that whoever I talked to then made me aware of the fact that there are very few jobs in astronomy as compared to say in the IT industry. With this nagging thought in my head, I went to meet the renowned astrophysicist Prof. Jayant Naralikar at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, India (I was living in India at that time) and talked to him about pursuing astronomy or engineering purely from a practical point of view. To address my dilemma, he suggested that if I choose to do engineering, I should probably choose electronics and telecommunications engineering because in this particular stream there would be subjects like digital signal processing, electromagnetism, satellite communications, radar engineering etc, which are important in astronomy too. 

To be on the “safer” side, I chose to do a Bachelor’s in Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering. I also went on to do a Masters in Electrical and Computer Engineering in the US and upon the completion of my master's, I immediately got a job offer in the IT industry in Washington DC. I continued working as a software engineer for about 6 years but always had an agonising “what-if-I-had-become-an-astronomer” thought at the back of my mind. At one point the “what if” thoughts became so overwhelming that I decided to quit the IT industry and switch fields to astronomy. And that’s how my journey in astronomy began.

Did you feel like there was a job for you in the sector?

Yes, with an engineering and software development background, coupled with a PhD in astronomy, I felt confident that were was a job for me in the sector.

Were there any barriers you had to overcome? How did you overcome them?

I think the biggest barrier for me was that I did not come from an astronomy background directly. I did not follow the traditional route of a BSc in Physics, MSc in Physics/Astronomy and then a PhD. Also, there was a long gap between my first master's degree and my PhD, and I was returning to academia after 6 years! Because of this, I had to put in a lot more hard work than my peers. 

Another thing that I struggled with was that because I did not come from an astronomy background, I always felt shy to ask questions, thinking I would sound stupid and everyone would find me dumb. Although I now disagree with my own approach and know that there is no such thing as a silly question and asking for help is not bad. It was hard for me to overcome the mindset I had at that time and I spent more time on things/problems than I probably should have. Looking back, there was a silver lining to this in that because I felt shy, I ended up figuring things out on my own, learning things on my own and this made me an independent researcher. 

Was the style of your job applications in the space sector different from what you were used to? 

Job applications when you are applying for a job in the IT industry and when you are applying for postdoc positions in academia or the space sector are quite different, yes. When I applied for postdoc positions, I had to send in a cover letter explaining my background and research interests, along with a research proposal/statement explaining my past and current research, as well as the proposed research plan, list of paper publications and my CV. For jobs in the IT industry, only a cover letter and my CV was required.

The format of my CV was different too — for IT jobs the CV focussed mainly on the projects I did in my previous and current organisation and my technical skills, whereas for postdoc positions I had to include things like the details of talks I gave in various conferences and in invited seminars, any telescope observing trips I went to, any student supervision experience, teaching experience, telescope proposals, etc. 

Finally, the nature of interviews were different too. Almost every IT job requires you to undergo a coding test, followed by one or more technical interviews by various people and a HR interview. For most postdoc positions there is usually only one interview, which focuses mainly on your research experience. For ESA this process was different as I've previously explained.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I really enjoy the independence and freedom my job brings. This allows me to work and focus on the research that interests me the most. Also, every day is exciting because it is full of new challenges, you are always learning something new, and needless to say, you never know which novel thing you might discover about the Universe!

Do you have any other advice for people wanting to make a similar change?

I think many people don’t change their careers simply because they think that it's too late or because they don’t have the relevant qualifications. It's never too late, especially if the change is for something you are truly passionate about. So my advice would be to go for it. The journey will not necessarily be easy, especially because you will be starting everything afresh and also because you will have to learn a bunch of new things and skills. But soon you will discover that there is no greater joy than pursuing your true passion. 

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